And we do not exist. It’s good news but it takes some getting used to.
I’m in our kitchen in Maine washing wooden spoons in hot soapy water in a mixing bowl. I pull one out. The bowl shifts, its narrow bottom slides into the drain hole, it begins to tip, soapy water runs out. “Be like that, then,” enters my consciousness as I grab for the bowl. Where did that come from?
It was the voice of my ten-years-dead father saying what he always said when that kind of thing happened. He always spoke as if it was mischief-making when he had difficulty with an inanimate object. He wasn’t an animist, he didn’t really believe unseen beings were making life difficult for him, he just expected things to go wrong and used humor to protect himself from disappointment. My mother believed there was no problem she could not fix. That’s why my dad married her. I like to think I inherited her attitude. I don’t like to think I inherited his although I’m OK with knowing that his genes led to my defective serotonin uptake and I’m perfectly happy to lay claim to his virtues.
It’s a mistake to have things I like to think and don’t like to think. “Be like that, then” was a powerful reminder that I’m only sometimes in control of what I think. Most of the time I’m not really paying attention, just cruising along on autopilot. Too much of what I do is programmed by stories based on a grab-bag of experiences, only partially recognized in the first place and reshaped by replaying them over and over again.
The “be like that, then” moment seems to be an example of what Buddhists mean by karma. It’s one of my father’s mental habits that still lives even though he’s no longer alive in the way we normally think. That habit now lives in what I think of as “me”. It doesn’t have much power left, partly because my overall genetic material isn’t a good host for it and partly because I’ve trained myself to discard its message. It’s still there, though, along with how my genetic material interpreted everything else I’ve ever experienced, much of which was actually the interpreted experience of others.
The self I seem to have has no fixed nature. I don’t mean it’s not real. Its appearance and its sense of others are perfectly real. The problem is I misinterpret the appearance. There is no aspect of me that is permanent, nothing without which I would cease altogether to exist. I began to suspect this when I read “Three Faces of Eve”, a psychologist’s book about his patient with three entirely different personalities. I was 16 and struggling to figure out who I was. Maybe what seems to be revealing itself as me isn’t real, I thought. Maybe I’m just pretending to be like this. Maybe a whole different personality is quietly getting strong enough to take over? Theater was what I enjoyed most in those days. Maybe I was living everything as improvisational theater?
It was a frightening thought so I pushed it away. It never crossed my mind that if I have no self in the way we imagine, neither does anyone else. Only now I begin to recognize that I’m both a role player – a parent, husband, ex-businessman, and on and on – and at a more fundamental level, a gathering of parts from other people and things. I approach an intellectual understanding, also, that some of what were once parts of “me” are now part of the shape of others. It looks like there are two simultaneous realities, the roles that we play and that there’s nobody playing the roles.
The more I sit with this view the less scary it feels, the more I recognize it’s good news. If what I experience as a self and others is on another level an inseparably intertwined unity, the first implication is to be equally kind to all. The next is to be happy because whatever the situation is at this moment, it won’t stay the same no matter what anyone does, and while I have this healthy body I can work to make the next moments better. It does take getting used to, though, and acting upon.
Martin, I love your post.
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. I don’t think my core has changed for as long as I can remember. It is the part of me that experiences everything that I experience. It doesn’t judge or interpret what I experience it just experiences it. The other parts of me create judgements and beliefs and interprets the experience and wonders about the future and thinks about the past and solves problems. But that core just experiences it all.
If I had grown up in a different location with different friends and teachers I am sure my beliefs and my judgments would be somewhat different, but the way I experience things wouldn’t have changed one iota. Knowing that keeps me sane. It also enables me to change my beliefs and judgements because I don’t see them as being so hard and fast a part of me. That was a tough lesson for me to learn.
There is CD set by Pema Chodron called “Don’t Byte the Hook” that I listened to several times over the past year and found it incredibly meaningful to me, so much so that I would say it enabled me to make perhaps the most profound and fundamental change in my life.
The thrust of the seminar that she gave was exploring why we get annoyed. By examining that I was able to see a part of me that I was mostly blind to. What I thought was normal behavior in certain situations was something that I now realize is totally unnecessary, that is, to get annoyed with anything. See if you can find the CDs, I am sure you would find them very interesting.
Martin and Harold, your musings have elicited some of my thinking on the more or less related subject of what constitutes consciousness and what is the nature of the self. I know this will sound strange and mystical and off-putting, but what if the multitude of “selfs”, our self plus all the other beings that perceive themselves as individual selfs, is really just one?
I’ve tried a thought experiment where I gradually eliminate all elements of what forms my awareness of “me”. What if I couldn’t see? Not just blackness, but no ability to visualize at all. Concept of sight doesn’t exist. No hearing or concept of hearing. No sense of touch or taste or smell, no language, no internal vocalization, no awareness of internal/external bodily parts/functions, no memory of what went before or what might follow … What is left? Somehow, I, the me that used all my bodily functions to perceive “the world”, still seems to “be”, but in a timeless awareness.
If this is true of “me” it must be true of all of “us”. What then differentiates “us”? Is there a multitude of “us” with no differentiation? Are we all really just “ONE” peering out from many beings? Each physical being has its own perceptions and memories that gives each the perception of individuality, but …
The Abrahamic scriptures for Jewish, Islamic and Christian religions say God created us in “his” image. Is it in this way that we are like this God? Christianity proclaims the seeming paradox that there is only one God, but three “persons”. Why not more? God supposedly appeared as a voice out of a fire to Moses and as a dove above the baptism of Jesus by John and in other ways to other people. Would this be any different from my speculation that there is really only one “us”, but many entities animated by the one “us”?
True, that would imply that we were simultaneously Joseph Stalin and Mother Theresa, that we would be both Adolph Hitler and his victims in the concentration camps, but that brings up the question of what is the purpose or is there a purpose to all this.
I suppose if there were a being who created us and that being created us for a purpose, the purpose for 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.
If this speculation is real, where might this creator being and our own self exist? String theory and its various analogues postulate multiple dimensions beyond the three and time that we are able to perceive. Some theories imagine that gravity exists in one of these dimensions and is only perceived weakly in the dimensions we are familiar with. Perhaps “we” and the creator being exist within the confines of one of these “extra” dimensions and only perceive and act on “the world” through the senses of the bodies we animate.
On the other hand, all this wild speculation of mine might have nothing to do with reality.
Actually, as I understand it, my idea is similar to Hinduism where three fundamental forces are symbolized by three gods: Brahma – the creator, Vishnu – the sustainer, and Shiva – the destroyer. These gods are manifestations, or aspects, of Brahman who is the one ultimate reality. In Hindu philosophy, all of the universe is Brahman including our “self” (atmen), and our concept of self is an illusion since we are Brahman. Where my ideas seem to differ from Hindu philosophy is, for personal esthetic reasons, I regard the “God” being and the “Human” being as separate entities.
Martin, this is lovely. One thought that popped into my head as I was reading, is that there’s perhaps a different way to read (or intone?) your dad’s words–one I’m sure he didn’t intend. What if “Be like THAT, then” were 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.”
If we take the idea of selflessness far enough, then as you point out, there isn’t a Martin washing dishes. There is just dish washing, bowl slipping, water sloshing–all happening within an open, cognizant wakefulness. Be like THAT, then. Be that moment. That’s all.
Of course much easier said than done, but luckily we have each other to keep reminding ourselves to just be. You certainly do for me!
Another wonderful post. This one really moved me, and I thought you might be interested to know that I’m going to read this to my yoga classes this evening. I think they’d get a kick out of it! Hope that’s ok.
Hi Dave – I’m delighted you like the post enough to share it. I plan to post on a pretty regular basis at least for the next few months so if anyone else likes the post, please give them the link. All the best — Martin