It is amazing how special we think we are in the face of evidence to the contrary. Surveys show that most people feel they are above average on most criteria ranging from attractiveness, driving skills, physical fitness and generosity.
Of course our opinion of ourselves is jaundiced by a subtle conspiracy between our eyes and our brain. Our brain tends only to believe what our eyes see, but the brain is cunning enough to ensure our eyes only look for the evidence that supports what it wants to believe! (The self-help author Dr Wayne Dyer appropriately titled one of his early books You’ll See It When You Believe It!) It is fair to say we see the world through the lenses of our beliefs.
As we have discussed in previous essays, it seems that what makes us human is our consciousness – our ability to be aware of an internal theatre of mind. How we think about ourselves is a function of this faculty. Our ego ensures we are often duped by this. Our consciousness creates for us a rich inner world. It is a world that only we can access, so in this way it is indeed an unique experience insofar as it is ours alone.
Despite this, the evidence abounds that the experience of consciousness is similar in most human beings. Whilst I can’t access your internal world and know this for sure the evidence of the experience of millions of humans would suggest that our similarities outweigh our differences. Mind you, as you would know from my previous writings, I believe that some of those differences can be very impactful on our lives. The American psychologist Ed Diener attests, “It appears that the way people perceive the world is much more important to happiness than objective circumstances.”
But in general terms the fact that you like salami on your pizza whilst I prefer mortadella or you swoon at the sound of a Hawaiian guitar whilst I need a cello to get the same effect are but small differences compared to what we have in common. Whilst I can’t conclusively prove this, all the evidence suggests that – when you suffer loss, you grieve, (as I do); when you have a significant achievement, you feel some elation, (as I do); when you go to the dentist you feel some trepidation, (as I do); and when you are at a party and you forget the hostess’s name, you feel embarrassed, (as I do). Of course there are exceptions. If you are a psychopath you probably don’t share these common experiences!
Our desire to be special and different from our fellows is a function of our ego. The ego is an artificial construct of the mind designed to give us a sense of permanence in an ephemeral world. At every moment between birth and death, the body undergoes ceaseless transformation. As well, the mind is the ongoing theatre of countless emotional and conceptual experiences. And yet we obstinately cling to a perception that somehow, via our ego, we need to have a sense of permanence, uniqueness and autonomy.
But this vulnerable sense of self constructed by the ego must be protected. As Matthieu Ricard writes because of this, “ …..aversion and attraction come into play – aversion for anything that threatens the self, attraction to all that pleases it, comforts it, boosts its confidence, or puts it at ease. These two basic feelings, attraction and repulsion, are the fonts of a whole sea of conflicting emotions.”
Or as the Buddhist philosopher Han de Wit explains, “[The ego ] is also an affective reaction to our field of experience, a mental withdrawal based on fear.”
This withdrawal, in effect, creates the need for separation. Out of our fear of impermanence and inconsequence we retreat to hiding ourselves within the protective bubble that we imagine the ego provides. We create the illusion of being separate from the world hoping thereby to avert suffering. Unfortunately this has the opposite outcome. Our conflated sense of ego and self-importance indeed makes us more vulnerable to suffering. We must now fend off any threats to our perceived specialness. And these are bound to come because all those under the same illusion are striving to demonstrate their specialness and often at our expense!
Our response to such threats is generally to coat our protective bubble with more layers. We add more attributes to define our separateness and specialness. This will include such things as my race, my nationality, my religion, my gender, my profession, right down to the trivialness of my name, my possessions, my friends and so on.
And while this protective cocoon might provide some façade of defence it inevitably isolates me from the rest of humanity. Each layer provides a barrier of separation. It becomes more difficult to identify with those who are not of my nationality, my religion, my gender etc.
These artifices of separateness of course make relationship s difficult. Robert Draper wrote, “The reality of finding harmony in relationships is that, unless we begin to set aside our drives to be the star of the show or the critics of the same, we are certain to remain fearful in our isolation, angry in our outlook, and incapable of perceiving those who are essentially the same as us as anything but different.”
And this, of course, is the source of much of what is wrong in the world. We become so identified with these markers of our separateness that even if we can broaden our concerns beyond our own selfishness we find it hard to escape the strictures of race, nationality, religion and so forth. Because our sense of self is so caught up in these arbitrary categories we need not only to highlight but to accentuate our differences between being Labour or Liberal, Christian or Muslim, indigenous or non-indigenous, male or female, or whatever label our separation depends on most. We vigorously protect the belief that these differences are more consequential than they actually are to preserve our sense of specialness. We need to accentuate our specialness and rationalise our separateness to assuage the ego. It is from such a background that we come to believe such irrational tripe as “My country, right or wrong!”
It is instructful to remember that when people behave in a way that we find abhorrent it is mainly as a result of the underlying fear that they feel – a fear that their sense of specialness which is essential to the foundation of their ego is under threat.
The healing and harmony that we require for a fulfilled life does not come from fear but from love. And love is essentially the dissolution of separateness. Hence it is time to set aside our differences and rejoice in the universality of our humanity.