Self-tethered: On the Impossibility of Letting Go


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When I came to the conclusion that there is no such thing as free will, it changed my perspective on many of the human practices that presume we do have free will — religions, cognitive behavioural therapy, ‘mindfulness’ practices, the brutal 12-step programs, the lefty spiritual programs that focus on ‘self-improvement’, and all of the quasi-religious programs that advocate ‘surrender’, cracking open ‘so that the light gets in’, redemption, rebirth, ‘liberation’ and ‘enlightenment’.

This was a big mindset change for me — it has barely been a decade since, on this blog, I was writing about what I called ‘let-self-change’ practices, which were earnestly laid out to enable me (and anyone who cared to follow) to evolve myself into a better, happier, healthier, more useful person. Like much of my early blog writing, I now see this as ridiculous, but I’m not embarrassed by it. This blog is a chronicle, a diary, and I’ve learned much from looking back and seeing where I’ve come from. But it’s not a path, and not anything I had or could have had any control over.

If there has been any evolution of this ‘self’, this illusory Dave-person, it has not been ‘my’ doing, but rather, as I’m sure you are tired of hearing me say, the inevitable result of my biological and cultural conditioning, given the circumstances of each moment. In many respects, my ideas, beliefs, and worldview make more sense to me now than ever before, but of course they would, since all this ruminating has been towards the very intentional end of making sense of things. Their evolution, or at least my story about it, would suggest that this self has at least become more self-aware than it seemingly used to be. It catches itself in a lie, or in an over-reaction, more quickly than it used to. And it is more tolerant of not knowing, and of cognitive dissonance, than it seemingly used to be.

One of the hardest lessons in all of this has been the realization that there is no ‘letting go’, no conscious process or action that will unburden this self of its sorrows, its anguish and anxiety, its fears and fury and shame and guilt and grief.

It is not that my self is holding on stubbornly to things it should best let go of. It is rather that the self is the holding on. The self is not tethered by delusions and unhealthy feelings — it is the tether, the construct that inexhaustibly pulls all these things together, tossing one out and replacing it with another from time to time, or not.

The self is the holding on, is the tether, is the ‘story of me’, is all this accumulated gunk that is stuck to us, is the glue that holds our absurd beliefs and ghastly traumas and terrible and wonderful feelings and thoughts in this messy bundle called ‘me’. When we long to ‘let go’ of it all, we are really longing for the end of our selves, while still of course hoping to keep an imagined ‘pure essence’ of self (a ‘higher self’) that we can, at last, be happy with. We want to jettison all the baggage but still have all the stuff ‘we’ think is important waiting for us at our destination — that is, when we arrive at salvation, enlightenment, or whatever other word we might use for that more perfect place.

What I believe now is that (almost) all humans are afflicted with a physical and mental illness that seemingly arises in early childhood. That affliction is the inescapable sense that there is a separate self that is ‘us’, and that there is everyone and everything else apart from it, moving through time and space. And there is no cure.

Here, it has occasionally been seen that this is an illusion, a whole-body misunderstanding of the signals that reach our senses, and that there is actually no one, no self, no separation, no space or time, merely appearances. And that there need not be any of these things for each conditioned apparent body to function perfectly well, exactly as it does without the pretence of a ‘self’ in control.

We can lament this horrific, endemic, but uniquely human disease if we want, but doing so is as useless and pointless as raging that suddenly being afflicted with unending, incurable, horrific hallucinations is somehow unfair, a curse, a kind of cosmic injustice that needs rectification or redemption. This is who ‘we’ are, and our severely damaged species has wrought enormous destruction on the world in acting out its outrage at the suffering this malaise creates in us all.

At least in our story, a story that reverberates across many cultures and belief systems (eg eating the forbidden fruit of knowledge), this tragedy was an accident, the unavoidable consequence of a brain that just got too large for its own good — an horrific evolutionary misstep. But that’s just a story, an attempt to make sense of what makes no sense. There is no one, and hence no one to blame. The play of life — and it is only a play — will go on, a wondrous unfolding outside of time and space, always and already and everywhere and inevitably nothing appearing as everything, with no meaning or purpose.

And in a tiny part of that play, on what appears a lonely little blue planet, one strange species of apes suddenly appeared to develop an accursed affliction that had all of its members asserting to each other that its hallucinations were real and meaningful, and its resulting ghastly suffering in need of some divine or other cure.

Not a very good story, by our human standards — no hero, no plot, no redemption, no resolution. But no matter. It’s only a play, an invention. Just an appearance. No improvement needed. It had its entertaining moments, and in any case it will never be repeated. Fade to black. Exeunt omnes.

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1 Response to Self-tethered: On the Impossibility of Letting Go

  1. Ray says:

    Most humans will never understand this critical aspect of the human condition.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if “Denial of the Self -Illusion” will still largely be the norm when the last hominids die out on this strange planet.
    Species, cursed with too much consciousness, such as the hominids (we’re just the last survivors in this tragic crowd) should never have evolved. We don’t belong here.

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