yet another article on Radical Non-Duality
image of human cortical neurons and glia from Zeiss Microscopy on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
So here’s what I think happens:
When a baby is born, there is no separate ‘self’ there. It is just part of everything. There are things autonomically happening inside and outside the baby’s body. Everything is just atoms and molecules and cells doing what they do. This ‘way of things happening’ has evolved over billions of years, following an apparent set of rules we call ‘evolution’.
Part of this ‘way of things happening’ is the evolution of an autonomic capacity for preservation. The tree and its mitochondria seemingly work to protect them both from being harmed by pests, and the tree’s evolved capacities include the ability to capture the water and energy and nutrients it needs to survive and grow, and to propagate additional trees. The seeds it uses to propagate are used by other creatures for their preservation in turn. Everything is connected, and follows an apparent set of rules for the preservation of an interconnected diversity of life-forms and environments, that in the theory of the same name is called ‘Gaia’.
Although we can argue about definitions, there is no requirement in the theory of evolution or in Gaia theory for there to be ‘consciousness’ or ‘self-consciousness’. Evolution and Gaia have worked for billions of years without any need for them. There does not need to be a reason or purpose or meaning for evolution or Gaia, or for anything to happen or exist, any more than there needs to be a reason or meaning for the stunningly-beautiful, complex fractal growth of ice-crystals on a rock’s surface in freezing weather. Or for the motions of the planets and stars.
Let’s go back and look at this preservation in action. Imagine you’re looking at an aphid or a silverfish dashing to avoid a predator. Why is ‘it’ doing this? It’s a moot question — there is no reason to believe or require that there’s an ‘it’ there, somehow separate from ‘everything else’, with ‘volition’ to preserve ‘itself’. What we call an aphid or silverfish is just an evolved assemblage of atoms and molecules and cells. This complicity of atoms and molecules and cells has been conditioned — by their collective genetics and experience — to run and hide in certain circumstances. Because of that evolved conditioning, there are still aphids and silverfish on earth; without this conditioning, there would be none — they would be extinct. There is no ‘reason why’ they exhibit this behaviour. It is just the rules being played out.
Similarly, there is actually no aphid or silverfish ‘separate’ from everything. Atoms and molecules and cells have tried out trillions of possible combinations with trillions of random variations over billions of years, and the complicities that endured, as the rules played out, have remained, and those complicities that did not, went extinct. That does not mean there is any significance to the ‘skin’ or ‘bark’ or other set of atoms, molecules and cells that seem to ‘bound’ or ‘contain’ some atoms, molecules and cells and exclude all others. In fact, that ‘container’ is a mirage — other atoms, molecules and cells are continually passing through the ‘boundaries’ of this container, coming in or out, their success depending on random and conditioned events and on the rules being played out. And there is an entire additional, invisible environment enveloping each aphid and silverfish and tree, just outside its ‘skin’ or ‘bark’, containing yet other atoms, molecules and cells essential to the aphid’s or silverfish’s or tree’s survival and evolutionary success.
So there is not really anything ‘separate’. There is not really any such thing as an aphid or silverfish or tree, and that’s not just semantics or sophistry. There is just this ever-changing ebb and flow and evolution of atoms, molecules and cells, in accordance with an apparent set of rules. This is the case not just for what we call ‘living’ forms, but for rocks and planets and stars and galaxies as well. Everything in the universe, just playing out in accordance with apparent sets of rules.
This universe is not, however, deterministic. There are an infinite number of variables at play, and every part of the chaos is affecting other parts in unpredictable ways. A bird eats the tree’s seedling just as it was starting to germinate, and soon after eats a fruit that contains a fungus that sickens the bird. But while it’s not deterministic, it’s not ‘progressing’ or ‘purposeful’ or ‘intentional’ or ‘meaningful’ either. Things can be wondrous, and can be staggeringly, breathtakingly beautiful without any reason or purpose.
So back to the baby. It’s born, and atoms and molecules and cells inside and outside it do what they do, and there is no border, no essence, nothing of consequence between what is inside and what is outside. Even before it’s born, those atoms and molecules and cells have already been genetically, evolutionarily conditioned to autonomically respond in ways that enhance the preservation of the entire collective (the fetus-within-Mom-within-Gaia) — it ‘knows’ not to bend its arms to the extent of dislocating its shoulder, and not to kick so hard it damages the womb.
The baby has genetically evolved to cry and to appeal to its mother immediately after birth, just as a baby of any other species does. It doesn’t ‘recognize’ its mother; there is no reason why it should have to (‘recognition’ is way too complicated a process to depend on in a newborn). Immediately the complicity of atoms, molecules and cells of the baby and those of the mother begin to condition each other, to complement the genetic conditioning that has already primed the mother to feed and care for the baby. Nothing special here.
The baby’s brain, a part of its complicity of atoms, molecules and cells that evolved to serve the needs of the rest of the complicity, as one of its pattern-detectors, feature-detectors, and sense-makers, grows quickly and starts to do its job (or it doesn’t, and the complicity ‘dies’ and its elements are reabsorbed into other complicities). It ‘learns’ how to condition its mother to provide for it, autonomically (this is not, at least at this stage, an intellectual process; it doesn’t ‘recognize’ its mother, or anything else, including itself, as separate from anything else). Similarly its mother conditions it, usually with positive reinforcement, but sometimes with negative reinforcement or punishment. The complicity has evolved to respond accordingly. Still, there is no need for the baby to perceive of anything as separate, including itself.
So the baby’s brain hums along with its bewilderingly difficult task of trying to make sense of everything. There are of course no such things as colours, sounds, smells or tastes — these are all the brain’s imaginings, recreations, its way of making sense of the signals reaching it from the sensory organs. It remembers what colours, sounds, smells and tastes signify pleasurable rewards, which signify the threat of pain, and which signify neither. This brain creates a complex mental model of the world, just as the brain of any other baby creature does. But this still does not require it to give up the wondrous perception that it is just part of, and one with, everything.
But then, prompted and encouraged by the mother and then by other humans, the baby’s capacious brain adds another element to this complex mental model — itself. This is an astonishing addition to the model, but one which immediately seems to make sense. And the instant it invents the concept of itself, the brain must immediately and necessarily invent the concept of other, of everything else. Apart. If its self is separate, everything else must be separate, too. And as soon as this happens, positive reinforcement from others conditions it to accept that this new addition to the model is correct, that this perception of separateness is real. “Look!,” says the mother, “she’s recognizing her hand as her hand; she’s recognizing herself in the mirror; she called me her mama!”
Now the mutual conditioning of mother and baby moves to a new level. When babies laugh, or cry, it’s to condition the mother and other caregivers to tell them this was a pleasant, or an unpleasant, surprise, and to encourage its repetition or discontinuance accordingly — just like a kitten’s purr or hiss, or a puppy’s wagging tail or growl. And of course adults, convinced their selves are real, condition the baby, or the pet, in return. This mutual conditioning is a successful evolution, and has no need of consciousness of separateness or identity to “work”. But once the construct of separateness and identity has been created, and reinforced (as it will be for the rest of the baby’s life), it shifts the entire nature of our conditioned behaviour.
Or more precisely, it shifts what we believe to be the entire nature of our conditioned behaviour. Suddenly, we begin to perceive (and to be told) that our separate selves somehow have control and agency over, and responsibility for, the bodies they seemingly inhabit. This is both exciting (“Look what I’ve discovered — my self!“) and terrifying (“Ooh, not sure I like this responsibility, and I don’t trust these others — can’t we go back to just being part of everything?”) But there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.
So this self-that-believes-itself-separate then spends the rest of ‘its’ life (generally, the life of the body it believes it resides within) trying to “get back to where it once belonged”. It senses that life shouldn’t be this difficult, and it ‘remembers’ when it wasn’t. But now, conditioned to a fault, it wakes up each morning and immediately reassembles its self, reconstructs the separateness and continuity of itself, and prepares to assume control and responsibility. The self is, entirely and solely, a continuous reassemblage of model, meaning and reality. An invention not just of the brain but of the whole complicity of the body. A psychosomatic experience; a constant, self-created hallucination invented in the interest of making sense of everything. The hallucination only endures because it seems to make sense. Just as it seems to make sense that the sun rises and sets and revolves around the earth — until we learn that this is just an illusion.
Let’s imagine that these oversized human brains were not quite smart enough to conceive of separate selves. Would anything be any different?
I have met and befriended quite a few who no longer have a sense of separation or selfhood (they had no choice in the matter; for no reason, their sense of self and separation just suddenly ceased). Friends and family members who knew them back when they still had this sense of being separate selves say there has been no significant change in their behaviours or beliefs since the ‘loss’. That resonates with ‘glimpses’ that have happened here, where there was suddenly no ‘me’, nothing separate, just a wondrous sense of everything, ‘perfect’ and obvious and eternal and already everything emerging out of nothing, for no reason. Most of these glimpses happened ‘before’ I had ever heard of non-duality; I just didn’t know what to make of them back then, once the separate ‘me’ had come back. So ‘I’ just wrote them off as vivid, pleasant dreams.
So it seems we don’t need to have this sense of everything being separate, in order to function perfectly well in the world. And the reason is not because our characters’ operant conditioning continues whether we have the perception of having separate selves or not. It’s even more outrageous than that — our sense of self was never real to begin with; we, our ‘selves’ have never done anything. Our ‘selves’ are ghosts conjured up in overactive brains. (You might say that we have just not yet discovered that the world doesn’t revolve around our selves.)
The loss of this sense of self and separation is, I’m told, in many cases agonizing, and seemingly takes considerable time, even when the one involved claims to have been longing to be free from their selves for a long time. I’ve never been able to understand how the loss of a hallucination, a completely unreal invention, could be difficult, so difficult that those going through it felt they were going mad or dying (and I suppose in a way they were). By contrast, glimpses, or the experience of loss of self while under the influence of some psychedelics, seems for most very simple and pleasant. What’s the difference, besides the seeming ‘impermanence’ of glimpses and acid trips?
As Gabor Maté has explained, one of the fundamental human drives is for authenticity — to be connected with and aware of ‘who we are’, including what we believe and value and our sense of identity. Even if one is, like Kafka’s Metamorphosis creature, deeply dissatisfied with one’s life and its apparent drudgery and meaninglessness, what must it be like to suddenly face the realization that everything one believed, everything one valued, and one’s entire sense of identity, was a lie, completely untrue?
The sense of “free fall” that is sometimes described when the self seemingly disintegrates and an unimaginably different reality emerges would understandably be terrifying, and unwanted. But none of this terror would be particularly visible to friends or family of those going through this. It’s not something one can describe or talk about with others, or ‘work through’ with the help of others who’ve been through it. Because it’s obvious no ‘one’ has been through it.
Perhaps it’s more like (and this is just a metaphor) waking up and finding oneself falling through space, with no parachute or other control mechanism, except one isn’t ‘oneself’ and there isn’t any real time or space to fall through — there was only ever falling, of no one, and there never was any control, and there is no thing to fall ‘to’, so there is no thing to fear. But that must be terrifying at first, and must take some getting used to!
So if (perhaps like Neanderthal humans) the brains of our species were incapable of imagining separateness, absolutely nothing would change. If your self were not to awaken when the body you presume to inhabit awoke tomorrow morning, not only would no one notice any difference, but you (or rather your ‘character’, that complicity of atoms and molecules and cells that has always been and will always be conditioned to do the only thing it could possibly do every moment) would not notice any difference, because there would be no ‘you’ to notice. There might be troubling memories of seeming past anxieties, but since it would then be seen that nothing is separate, and that nothing has substance or meaning, they would soon dissipate, like old, bad dreams. Unreal.
Although the enduring illusion of self and separation isn’t real, it can still, like the hallucinations of one going through a bad drug reaction, or the paranoid fears of a conspiracy theorist, evoke terror and trauma in the character. When the illusion ends, there is nothing left to sustain the fear or the reaction, so the anxiety and trauma slowly ebb and cease.
Then there is no longer the continuous reassemblage of model, meaning and reality. The exhausting work of connecting what the ‘self’ believes and does and imagines and expects in every tiny moment, with what it believes and does and imagines and expects in every other moment, is done, over, no longer needed.
Because the self believes it is real, as John Gray writes, in describing what he calls The Deception, “We labour under an error. We act in the belief that we are all of one piece, but we are able to cope with things only because we are a succession of fragments. We cannot shake off the sense that we are enduring selves, and yet we know we are not.” The self cannot bring about the liberation from the illusion of itself.
I suspect there are probably many walking around among us who have no sense of self or separation, and whose conditioned characters are unaffected by its absence. Characters who aren’t noticeably different from anyone else, and who aren’t inclined to talk or proselytize about it. After all, why make anything of it when it’s obvious?
Unless, perhaps, the character that remains when the sense of self is gone is, by its conditioned nature, intrigued by science and insatiably curious and mystified by the paradox of why when there was seemingly a self everything seemed much harder than it should be. And that character hears others talking about the tragedy of having selves that futilely seek for their own undoing and the end of the impossible burden of grief and responsibility that comes with having selves. And there’s a remembering, that just might be fun to talk about (though not for any important reason).
And if and when they do talk about it, there’s a sudden resonance among those who can vaguely remember glimpses that were exactly like that — completely free and empty and wondrous and without responsibility or shame or grief or fear. And a resonance among those who’ve loved science all their lives but are dissatisfied with what science can’t make sense of, who’ve just intuitively sensed that there’s something wrong with the way their selves perceive and conceive of the world, that surely with all the creatures in the world navigating it so effortlessly it must be easier than their selves make it out to be.
Then who knows what might happen? Imagine the impossible — a world of humans still doing the same apparent things, but liberated, unburdened from the horrible responsibility of utterly impotent, useless, endlessly dissatisfying separate selves.
Over time, though nothing would apparently seem different (if it were even possible to have an ‘outside’ observer to notice), but, I think, humans would gradually become less anxious, less neurotic, less driven to do things to “make things better”. Dare I say, humans might become much like every other animal on this apparent planet — mostly at peace, accepting, adapting, connected, just being a part of the meta-complicity of Gaia, rather than fighting to control it, to know it, to conquer and diminish it.
This is of course only a dream — our species’ selves long ago achieved herd immunity from the truth of our inseparability and a-part-hood with everything. We cannot undo the playing out of the set of rules that, without intention, seem destined to intensify and accelerate the sixth great extinction.
But had a few minor differences in variables played into what is apparently happening — a cosmic accident, an innocuous error in the replication or mutation of a strand of RNA — this play, which is eternal, already over, just nothing appearing wondrously as everything, might have followed a very different plot line. This play, in which the atoms and the molecules and the cells and the stars are all unwitting players, getting their lines a second before they are spoken, might have been a comedy instead of a tragedy, at least in this retelling.
Fortunately, this playing out, this appearance, is only a story, outside of space and time, for no one. Without meaning. The play never starts and never ends, and the plot doesn’t matter.
One day, perhaps, like the ghastly Copernican truth of our planet’s cosmic insignificance in the music of the spheres, this, too, will be seen. It won’t change anything, but it would be a delicious plot twist. Exeunt omnes. Curtain!