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.