Actually not. What happened is I woke up as always in a 5-star hotel with my eyes able to see such beautiful things, my nose sensing such wonderful fragrances and my fingers able to do oh, so many things. But I’d forgotten where I was, and who I was. Also, I had a roommate, Mr. Ego, who was anxious about that and in response had so many ideas for things we could do.
Harold, John and Kristin wrote fascinating comments on “We Are Not Alone”, my post about the sense of self. Harold’s begins: “When I meditate I realize that the thoughts that flow through my head are simply thoughts. Who notices those thoughts? The part of me (I call it my core) that notices those thoughts I feel is the real me.” That reminded me of Anam Thubten’s metaphor above where Mr. Ego keeps distracting “me” from reality. Harold goes on to explain how reflecting on the difference between his core and his thoughts enabled him to: “make perhaps the most profound and fundamental change in my life”. It’s an inspiring example of the benefit of this kind of practice.
What Harold experiences as his core seems to be what Buddhists term cognizant awareness. Its existence can be pointed out with words but it can’t be adequately described or explained. We can recognize the experience, however, because it is our fundamental nature. I’ve met enough extraordinarily happy and kind people who trained themselves to recognize that awareness so I’m sure it’s true. I need to do as they did because my cognizant awareness is still obscured by the relentless activity of my thought-making heap, Mr. Ego.
What I imagine to be “me” feels like an ever-changing heap of habitual responses that in varying combinations keep being re-enacted in response to new experiences. I have a sense of continuity, that there is a “me” at the center, because repetition causes the individual habitual thoughts to gain or lose strength slowly and new habits get added at a relatively low rate. What happens from time to time, though, is like what happens to sand piles. Some habits get aligned, so to say, along fault lines. When an experience that would usually have little effect hits the fault line and triggers an avalanche, “me” does seem to change.
John describes: “a thought experiment where I gradually eliminate all elements of what forms my awareness of “me” […] sight doesn’t exist. No hearing or concept of hearing. […] no memory […] What is left? […] the me that used all my bodily functions to perceive “the world”, still seems to “be”, but in a timeless awareness.”
Maybe, John says: “there is really only one “us”, but many entities animated by the one “us”” and: “if there were a being who created us […] for a purpose, […] these perceived multiple individualities might be to help us to develop a personal awareness of the effects of Evil since we would be experiencing both the performance of evil actions and the effects we perpetrate on our “selves”. Perhaps it’s part of a long term education in how to be a truly rational and compassionate being.”
I do not sense the existence of a causal being but I have come to see our situation as a long term training program in compassion. The existence or not of a Creator feels unimportant for two big reasons. One is that it doesn’t help with the fundamental mystery. If the universe was created by a Supreme Being, what created that Being? Much more importantly, followers of all traditions, including Tibetan Buddhism in which there is no Creator, agree that by training to see things as they really are, we inevitably become more happy and more kind. If all paths lead toward that goal it isn’t important which one we take, only that we take one.
The more I examine it the more it looks like my heap of habitual responses is not separate but part of the heaps of everyone I’ve ever interacted with and those with whom they interacted. We are in separate bodies but we operate as a unity. Like John, I’m concerned that may sound: “strange and mystical and off-putting” because my supreme trust is in logic. The thing is, it’s logical that our suffering results from our awareness being obscured by our habitual thoughts and emotional responses and how they interact among us.
My academic training was in physics and English literature. I was at the time also fascinated by philosophy and theater but pretty much abandoned them soon after because it seemed they could have no practical result. I always retained my interest in how things work physically and how we communicate. What John terms “the oneness or not of us” and Harold is aware of as his “core” will likely remain a mystery to me because they seem beyond the reach of intellect. But not beyond the reach of experience. I’ll keep working on experiencing cognizant awareness.
I don’t know enough to respond to John’s comments about Hinduism or the Abrahamic or other religions. I will at some point write about size, structure and longevity of religious, secular and government organizations. In every case, they have enormous impact on the results organizations achieve.
Kristin recasts my dad’s words, writing: “What if “Be like THAT, then” were a call to be with (or like) whatever we are experiencing in the moment? Be like that bowl slipping down and spilling over, be like that bird in the tree chirping, be like that rock sitting on the beach. A call to “be here now” as opposed to a humorously paranoid “the world’s out to get me.”
That’s a great example of how we can reprogram ourselves. Noticing our habitual thoughts is the first step but what next? Bringing them into the light cuts their power but not instantly. Often-repeated ones build up a lot of power. Mental judo, rethinking them with a positive message, is a good way to wear them down. They will in the end fade away now you notice them but in the meantime their power will be less harmful.
I highly recommend reading Harold, John and Kristin’s comments and ask you to add your own.
It seems to me that my core hasn’t changed during my entire life. In a fundamental way I experience events in my life in the same way I have since I can remember. It is also a part of me that doesn’t seem to age. My core is the part of me that experiences the events and hears my thoughts. It interacts with my senses and with the outside world. And as I acquire experiences and form my beliefs from those experiences, my core interacts with those as well.
If I was born in one place and my parents moved to a different place and I would have had different friends and different teachers and I would have had different experiences and very likely would have had formed different beliefs. But my core would have remained the same throughout.
About a year ago I listened to workshop on CD called “Don’t Bite the Hook” given by Pema Chodron, which had a very powerful effect on me. Using the ancient text written by Shanti Davi, it explored the topic of why we get annoyed and why we believe that our annoyance is so justified. It then goes on to a argue that our annoyance is not justified and certainly does not do us any good and often hurts our relationships. It goes on to say that if we understood everything surrounding a situation then we would understand why the event is unfolding as it is (something I had believed since I was a young adult).
For me, that our annoyance is not justified was an eye opener. Once I understood this, I started examining every situation in which I got annoyed and started to realize that getting annoyed was totally unnecessary. After several months of “biting the hook” I began to catch myself more and more quickly until getting annoyed became a less frequent happening. I am still working on it with the aim of eliminating it from my life.
Regarding Martin’s comment: “If the universe was created by a Supreme Being, what created that Being?” This line of reasoning is often used as a refutation of the existence or necessity for such a causal being, but the same problem exists with understanding what came before our universe. Despite having heard many “proofs” for the existence of God, I have always found flaws in the basic assumptions or in “leaps of faith” that have led me to believe that human intelligence is unable to prove either the existence of such a self-aware puissant being or disprove its existence. However, this is not surprising since there are many absolutes that we humans are able to name and define, but are unable to truly envision such as absolute nothing, eternity, infinity, bottomlessness, timelessness …
Take the example of our universe. Our cosmological gurus theorize that our universe “inflated” out of an ultra-miniscule super-dense bit of nothing (is that any less hard to believe than the concept of a god?) But what came before that creation event? One theory says the kernel that started the universe was the result of a previous universe that had collapsed into that ultra-dense dimensionless object. But what then came before that earlier universe? Bertrand Russell was said to be expounding on cosmology to an audience when a woman in the back said “That’s all nonsense. In reality, the world is flat and is balanced on an elephant which in turn is standing on the back of a turtle”. Russell humored her and said “but what is the turtle standing on?” “It’s turtles all the way down” the woman triumphantly proclaimed.
Our problem with the “what came before” argument is that our minds are intrinsically entwined with time. We must always ask “what came before” or “what comes after?” God is said to exist “outside of time” but what does that mean? Can we really wrap our minds around Einstein’s concept that time dilation truly exists? Can we envision what it means if time ceases to exist? Other absolutes boggle my mind. Is the universe finite? Then what is beyond? Empty space? But that in itself is something that exists into which a human in a spaceship might venture. Did the universe just pop out of nothing? But what is this “nothing”? We can’t envision true nothing. We always think there is something, even if it is only empty space. Science postulates matter popping out of “nothing”, but even their “nothing” is something quixotically named “vacuum energy”.
“Why is there something?” is a question that has bedeviled philosophers throughout history. Since I can’t truly conceive of “nothing”, my answer is there always was and will be “something”. But “always?” Unfortunately, my mind has trouble with infinities and absolutes. We can use noughts and infinities in mathematics, but naming a thing, or defining it, doesn’t give it existence. We can hypothesize about irrational numbers like Pi, e, and √2 going on to infinity, but sometimes, like subtracting 100 apples from a box of 80 apples leaving minus 20 apples, the proposition can be stated, but doesn’t quite make sense. Then there’s the idea of eleven dimensions in M-theory. I’ve tried imagining peering around the corner of our four (time included) dimensions to a fifth dimension – it took me a week to get my eyes uncrossed. The use of “octonians” (see Scientific American, May 2011) provides a fascinating mathematical insight into why 11 dimensions may be “real” but contemplating them leaves me with a headache.
I intended this as a short riff on Martin’s comment, but it has grown exponentially like the kernel that inflated into our universe. I suppose my point is we can name a concept “God” but as with all other absolutes, we really can’t wrap our minds around what it all means. Not being able to comprehend this concept doesn’t refute or endorse the reality of the existence of such a being. The concept of self is another one of those bottomless inquiries that lead to absolutes: What am I – a single contiguous being throughout my life or am I a constantly morphing amalgam of the events that comprise my life? What will happen to this seemingly inextinguishable “me” after my body dies? Did this “me” exist before I entered into the world and into my body? Does my perceived existence have meaning or am I just an accidental by-product of a universe that itself has no intrinsic meaning and purpose?
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