An attempt to make the subject of radical non-duality a little more accessible, and a little less annoying.
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
— TS Eliot, East Coker
There’s a very sad first-person story in this week’s New Yorker written by John Matthias, an 80-year-old poet in the midwest. John lived for 50 years with his artist wife Diana, who suffered from increasingly severe Parkinson’s-related dementia, living in a world of hallucinations she came to believe were more real than reality. Infirmity and CoVid-19 made their situation impossibly worse this year, and she was put in a home, while he was in and out of a psychiatric ward for exhaustion. Diana died of CoVid-19 in November.
My father suffered from hallucinations, first in the ’70s when he was going through withdrawal from demerol, and at the end of his life under the influence of Alzheimer’s. We learned that it was best to neither encourage nor argue about the reality he saw.
The story and the memories got me thinking again about the nature of reality. I have never had hallucinations, but I have frequently had, and indulged, and even written about, fantasies. These are more socially acceptable than hallucinations because there is supposedly little risk of harm to the fantasizer or those that the fantasies are about or otherwise impact — and of course, because the fantasies are recognized, usually, as not being ‘real’.
But I have come to believe that most of what we imagine about other people to be true is no more real than are hallucinations. We believe what we want to believe, not the truth. We can never even begin to perceive who another person really is, or what they feel. The person we project and imagine another to be is a complete invention, a fiction created in our own minds. That delusion can be enormously harmful to everyone involved, including — when “they” let “us” down — ourselves.
There have been moments, throughout my life, from a very young age, when suddenly the world was seen for what it really is — an indescribable wonder, nothing appearing as everything, weightless, outside of space and time, with nothing separate, no ‘one’ in it. These were not experiences, as there was no experiencer. ‘I’ was simply not present at all, nor was ‘I’ needed for everything to be just as it was. It was simply obvious that this was the ‘real’ reality, effortless, eternal, perfect.
This was almost the opposite of a hallucination. What was obvious was that ‘I’ as a person, something separate from everything else, moving in space and time, was an illusion, a kind of hallucination. Except that there was no ‘me’, no one, having that hallucination. Rather, ‘I’ was, and am, the hallucination.
As ‘I’ apparently returned, after each of these glimpses, it has become more and more clear that we human individuals, all of us, afflicted with this hallucinatory sense that we are separate and apart from everything else and in control of ‘our’ bodies, are no more real than the monsters John’s wife, and my father, imagined and cruelly suffered from.
So now, it seems, our whole species is suffering from the effects of our brains having conjured up, with the best of intentions to make sense of the world and keep us safe and thriving in it, this complete fiction of separate selves with free will and choice (which neuroscience says don’t actually exist), in a world of space and time and separate things (which astrophysics now says don’t actually exist).
‘We’ are ‘our’ brains’ inventions, nothing more, reinforced by ‘our’ bodies’ felt sense that yes, there does seem to be a ‘separate’ presence here, and further reinforced by the language and culture of all other human selves, desperately confirming that yes, we are real and separate and in control, and that time and space and life and death are real. It seems that all of us in early childhood contract a hallucination-causing disease that, because we are able to convince each other that our hallucinations are real, cause us all to act as if the hallucination of our “separate selfness” is actually real and actually interacting with others’ hallucinations. It is a form of collective madness, created by brains that, it seems, are too smart for our own good.
Imagine that you are wearing 3D headgear that shows the constant presence of monsters and portrays you successfully vanquishing them. Now imagine that after a while you ‘forget’ that you are wearing the headgear, and that the visions you see and hear reinforce, by what they say and do, the sense that there is no headgear — that this vanquishing is all absolutely real. Imagine that the voices you hear and the creatures you see (projections of others wearing 3D headgear that they have also forgotten they’re wearing) keep telling you that if you stop playing the game you will die, that there is only the game, and it is the ‘game of life’. So you begin to live in an endlessly harrowing simulation of reality that you increasingly confuse with actual reality.
But as compelling and as cleverly reinforced as this illusion is, when the game ends, when one of the monsters slays ‘you’, you don’t actually die, because the ‘you’ that is seen and heard with the headgear is just an illusion, just a clever projection. In the simulation, there is no ‘real you’. You fall back with enormous relief with the knowledge that that very compelling deathly 3D experience was not real. Yet just a moment ago you had the sense that that experience was terribly real. The chemistry in your body was exactly as it would be if the experience was real. But now you’re sure it wasn’t, because now you’ve taken off the headgear, awoken from the nightmare, and yes, this is the real reality.
But it is not. Unknowingly, ‘we’ are still wearing headgear, it’s just that we cannot see it, and cannot take it off. We’ve been wearing it since we were infants, when it was first ‘tried on’. What we think of as reality is just another mental projection, another dream, another hallucination of having a separate self immersed in space and time with things seemingly happening and appearing unquestionably real. Just as when wearing the 3D headgear, we now live in an endlessly harrowing self-created simulation of reality that we have utterly confused with actual reality. We have ‘forgotten’ what is actually real.
And so the game goes on, until, one way or another, the hallucination ends. And then it is seen that there never was a game, never were players, never was a ‘you’. But that is not seen by ‘you’ — because there was never a ‘you’ to see it in the first place. When this hallucination ends, so does the hallucinator.
There is no ‘cure’ for dementia, though there is considerable evidence that the current global epidemic of it is due primarily to nutritional deficiencies and excesses in our modern ‘western’ diet, so prevention and treatment is likely possible.
It should not be surprising, then, that there is no cure, either, for the ghastly, traumatizing illusion of the separate self, the illusion, since early childhood, we’ve come to believe essential to our survival and functioning, something that must be embraced and nurtured and never questioned. How can there be a cure for ‘us’, when ‘we’ are the disease? How can there be a means of taking off the ghastly, hallucinatory headgear when ‘we’ are the headgear, when we are the hallucination it creates?
Those few who seem unencumbered, or no longer encumbered, by this illusion of being separate, real selves, seem to function perfectly well without recourse to it. In fact, they seem in many ways healthier creatures, much less prone to the many negative emotions (anxiety, hatred, shame etc) that seem to need a sense of self and separation and control to sustain them. My sense is that they are like almost all wild creatures, and their functioning is completely unaffected by the presence or absence of the illusion of self. Their instinctive, conditioned responses, honed over a million years or more of evolution to optimize health and performance, are unimpeded by the confusing veil of self and separation that is inevitably conflicted over what it believes it controls but actually does not, and hence over what it ‘should’ do.
There is evidence that the human brain’s capacity to even conceive of a separate self and then believe that conception to be real, only dates back a few thousand years, which suggests that, prior to that, we, like all the other species unafflicted by this misperception/ misconception, thrived for most of our million years on earth without any need for selves.
This illusion of self and separation would seem to be a disease that cannot be healed. So for most people, its recognition is useless. But, as someone who has, all my life, been convinced that there’s something very wrong, something missing, in my understanding of how the world is the way it is, the simple appreciation that what is ‘wrong’ is not in what is perceived to be real, but rather in the illusion that the perceiver is real, is absolutely electric. Everything immediately makes sense (but of course in a way that is completely useless to the self, since there is no place for the self in it).
It’s now obvious (at least here) what those ‘glimpses’ were, in those strange timeless moments when the ‘me’ that perceived and conceived of things was suddenly absent. It’s now obvious why wild creatures, even those with brains as large and complex as ours, are not afflicted with the dreadful, debilitating mental illnesses that create such massive human misery, suffering, and world-destroying behaviours in our species. It’s now obvious that this intuitive sense that has always been here, that life shouldn’t be, and shouldn’t have to be, so hard and so complicated and so demanding and so cruel, was a correct one.
But though the diagnosis may be obvious, that does not mean there is a treatment, a therapy, a cure. The recognition that a hallucination is just that does not make it go away.
I look at the human world and I see endless unhappiness: Inexhaustible shame, trauma, sorrow, anger, hatred and grief over what apparently happened in the past, and anxiety and dread about might happen in the future. Blame of others and ourselves. Discontent and disappointment, feeling let down. Hopelessness, a sense of being trapped with no escape. Helplessness, a sense that everything is out of control in a dangerous, destructive, immiserating way. Dissatisfaction: Life should be better than this, ‘I’ should be better than this. Everything should be improving. Exhaustion: ‘I’ am tired of trying, of having to deal, of nothing ever being enough, or good enough. Dashed expectations. Criticisms. Ridicule. Shocks and unpleasant surprises. Endless regret for personal failures. Feelings of constant precarity, the threat of danger and loss. Living with disease and the threat of disease, physical and mental, acute and chronic, and of accidents and their consequences. Fear of death.
All of this is in ‘our’ heads. It is all invention, stories we have made up or others have convincingly told us. Fiction. None of it is true. But it is such a persuasive, powerful, culturally indoctrinating and endlessly-reinforced (by other voices, and our own) narrative that we cannot help believing it. ‘We’ cannot acknowledge, let alone remove, the headgear that projects these fictions, because ‘we’ are the headgear. We cannot ‘get over’ the illusion of our selves because we are that illusion.
The last time there was a glimpse, I wrote afterwards “There was no temptation to grasp onto it lest it be quickly lost again. It was clearly always here, everywhere, not ‘going’ anywhere, accessible always. My self would have been anxious not to lose it, but my self was, in that moment, not present. The glimpse was completely impersonal, not happening to anyone… It felt completely ordinary and obvious. Oh, that! Of course; how could I not have noticed?”
So tantalizing, to somehow ‘know’ that all these conceptions of misery and suffering are just inventions, with no basis in reality, and that ‘seeing through’ the illusion is seemingly so close, and always, in a way, there ‘waiting’. But not for ‘us’!
Tony Parsons often used to talk about “making the prison of the self more comfortable”. He said that’s what religions (including our worship of technology, money, pleasure, sex and fame) are about, and what meditation, spirituality, escapism (and fantasy!), addiction, and therapy are all about. We can never be free of the affliction of our selves, but through these pursuits we can, for a little while, feel less oppressed by them.
So here we are, apparently. Trying, impossibly, to heal ourselves from ourselves. Some therapists have actually come to grips with this, and now, in a kind of palliative way, do what they can to make “the prison of each patient’s self” more comfortable. The key to this, perhaps, is to appreciate that what is comforting is not the same for all, and that what may be of comfort for some, when indulged, can be very harmful to others, and to the planet.
“The whole world is our hospital”, Eliot wrote, in East Coker, the second of his Four Quartets, though it is not clear whether by “Adam’s curse” he meant mortality or the human thirst to know more than was good for us. Perhaps they are the same: Without the brain’s insatiable attempt to make sense of everything, it is unlikely the sense of a separate self, useless and afflicting as it seemingly has turned out to be, would ever have evolved, so neither the illusion of the self’s mortality nor the illusion of its capacity to ‘know’ anything, would ever have arisen.
Maybe, if we were humbler and more compassionate in the way we — foolish separate human selves — attempt to make the world a better place, we might see that world not as a hospital, but as a hospice. Not as a place for fixing that which, for the most part, cannot be fixed and does not need fixing, but, rather, striving to reduce, as much as possible, the collective pain and suffering of all creatures in the world, without judgement or blame or prioritization or expectation. That, however, does not seem to be in our conditioning.
There is no healing ourselves from the tragedy of ourselves, but it’s OK — It’s not real, it’s just a hallucination. While there is no actual time or space or anything separate or ‘real’ in this wondrous, timeless, deafening silence, ‘we’, trapped in this perilous time and space of our own invention, can never see that.
But it doesn’t matter. It’ll be over soon, anyway. No more hallucinations, no more struggle, no more prison, no more disease. Gone, the headgear that cannot be seen, or removed. Vanished, as if it never had been.