If I am to ponder about what I know, which is a very questionable domain, there are few things that I am certain about. But after all these years of life, and contemplating things spiritual, there is one truth of which I am sure. This truth is that the feeling we have that we call “I” is an illusion.
Most of us believe that the ubiquitous sense of “I” is somehow located somewhere behind our eyes and that this artefact is looking at a world that is separate from this sense of self.
Many mystics, and even more people who would never even consider themselves mystics, report transcendental experiences where a sense of having a separate “self” wanes and they are overtaken by an overwhelming sense that they are no longer a distinct entity but are merely merged with the landscape. Primary dualism vanishes and in its place is a sense of peace and completeness.
In the past I have defined love as “the dissolution of separateness”. It is not surprising then that many who have had this experience talk of being immersed in love.
The religious people who experience this phenomenon invariably attribute it to some religious manifestation such as “being one with God”. It is easy to understand how someone overwhelmed by such an experience might believe they had been especially blessed by their particular deity. But the experience is not confined to the religious and has been reported by many non-believers, atheists and sceptics.
In a previous blog Spiritual Experiences I gave a number of examples of how people had recounted such experiences. I repeat one of these below to exemplify the phenomenon.
“Vauxhall station on a murky Saturday evening is not the setting one would choose for a revelation of God! The third class compartment was full. I cannot remember any particular thought processes which might have led up to the great moment. For a few seconds only (I suppose) the whole compartment was filled with light. I felt caught up in some tremendous being with a loving, triumphant and shining purpose. In a few moments the glory had departed – all but one curious lingering feeling. I loved everybody in that compartment. It sounds silly now, and indeed I blush to write it, but at that moment I think I would have died for any one of the people in that compartment. I seemed to sense the golden worth in them all.” (Quoted by neuroscientist, Guy Claxton, in his book Voices from the Dark Room.)
And interestingly it seems that we can learn techniques which allow us to more easily access this experience. Those who are very adept at meditation report that they on occasion have this experience. This state is called by Ken Wilber in some of his books, “unity consciousness”.
The mystics tell us that it is not so important to try to understand it intellectually but to experience it. Language can’t possibly describe it because in this state we are one with everything, yet a language possesses utility only insofar as it can construct conventional boundaries.
As Wilber writes, “So the mystics must be content with pointing and showing a Way whereby we may all experience unity consciousness for ourselves. In this sense, the mystic path is a purely experimental one. The mystics ask you not to believe anything on blind faith, to accept no authority but that of your own understanding and experience.”
So why is it that we are somehow so wedded to a notion of “I”? We are convinced, and perhaps more than that, hopeful, that we somehow are connected to a separate self that sets us apart from everyone else.
The mystics who would have us eschew duality point out that our awareness is clouded with avoidance. We do not want to embrace the present. We want to run away from it or change it or deny it. Whereas we should know that the present is all we’ve got! We reconstruct memories in our minds that contrive to separate us by virtue our personal history. We project into the future and imagine our separate good fortunes and disasters that serve to mark us out as special and different. But despite our efforts the only reality we have to contend with is the present. Buddhism encourages us to practice mindfulness which embeds us in the “eternal now”. If we can but for a moment be present in the “now”, without thoughts and concerns about past and future we might get an inkling of our true essence, rather than the pervading sense of “I” that seeks to conflate our specialness and separateness.
What is it that gives us our ongoing notion of specialness and separation?
Ever since we were conscious we looked out at the world and always in our foreground there was a body, our body. That body seemed to be different to all the others we saw. It is therefore natural that that body seemed to embody my sense of “I” and consequently that my “I” was separate from and different to all other “I”s. It seldom occurs to us later in life that the body that my “I” calls home is a substantially different body from that it seemed to occupy when I was young. A little thought suggests that it is contradictory to believe “I” am different from other “I”s just because they seem to inhabit different bodies because in reality my “I” has also inhabited different bodies but nevertheless it seems to have had a continuing and enduring sense of existence.
Well if I should put aside the gross assumption that my “I” should be identified with my body where else should I look? Well the next obvious source is probably the mind.
But what a mistake that would be! Our minds are the theatres of our consciousness and are lit up with our thoughts, our emotions and sensory responses to the world. But even more so than our bodies they are ever changing minute by minute.
And of course what the Eastern wisdom traditions discovered long ago is that what gives us this sense of continuity is neither the body nor the mind but that which watches the mind, often called the Witness.
This is very liberating because it removes the distortion of ego. Ego arises when the “I” identifies with the mind and body which are both vulnerable. This causes fear. This fear is the driving force to maintain our separateness and specialness which is the role of the ego.
We are often distracted by the demands of ego. At every moment during life the body and the mind are engaged by ceaseless flux. But as Matthieu Ricard points out:
“… and yet we obstinately assign qualities of permanence, uniqueness and autonomy to the self. Furthermore as we begin to feel that this self is highly vulnerable and must be protected and satisfied, aversion and attraction soon 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.
We create the illusion of being separate from the world, hoping thereby to avert suffering. In fact what happens is just the opposite, since ego-grasping and self-importance are the best magnets to attract suffering. ”
It well may be that our egos are a natural development of our evolutionary survival instincts. An ego might aid physical survival but often at the expense of others and always manifests in psychological dysfunction.
The Buddhist philosopher, Han De Wit writes:
“[The ego] is an affective reaction to our field of experience, a mental withdrawal based on fear.”
The real “I” (let us for convenience call it the Self) is one with the Witness. When sages try to describe it they use a technique similar to the Via Negativa used by Christian mystics to describe God. The Self is “not this, not that” which in Sanskrit is “neti, neti”. The Self is not this, not that, precisely because it is the pure Witness of this or that, and thus in all cases transcends any this or that.
We come closest to experiencing the Self when we can empty the mind as we do in meditation. Our mind is constantly filled with thoughts. If I gave you the challenge of stopping thinking for even sixty seconds, I know very few of you, without meditation training, can do so.
Mind you this is not to say that somehow our thoughts are not useful. Thinking is indispensable for us. As Sam Harris points out:
“It is essential for belief formation, planning, explicit learning, moral reasoning and many other capabilities that make us human. Thinking is the basis of every social relationship and cultural institution we have. It is also the foundation of science.”
No the problem is not with thoughts themselves but with the fact we identify with them. The notion that my sense of Self is derived from my thoughts is not only a prime source of human suffering but results in a concept of “I” as something separate living inside my head.
So what is this Self which is not my body and not my mind? The Hindu guru, Sri Ramana Maharshi had this to say:
“There are neither good nor bad qualities in the Self. The Self is free from all qualities. Qualities pertain to the mind only. It is beyond quality. If there is unity there will also be duality. The numerical one gives rise to other numbers. The truth is neither one nor two. It is as it is.
People want to see the Self as something. They desire to see it as a blazing light, etc. How could that be? The Self is not light, not darkness, nor any observed thing. The Self is ever the Witness. It is eternal and remains the same all along.
The individual is miserable because he confounds the mind and body with the Self. It is the nature of the mind to wander. But you are not the mind. The mind springs up and sinks down. It is impermanent, transitory wheras you are eternal. There is nothing but the Self. To abide as the Self is the thing. Never mind the mind. If the mind’s source is sought, the mind will vanish leaving the Self unaffected.”
Consciousness is the prior condition of every experience. But for most of us, instead of just experiencing things as they are, we mediate our experience through our sense of “I” in order to assuage the fear of the ego to make us appear special and separate from each other. This subterfuge prevents us from attaining unity consciousness.
Many of us have nonetheless experienced the world beyond the constraints that our sense of “I” might impose on us. Hinduism, Vedanta and Buddhism have established formal processes over the millennia to help us get beyond our sense of “I”. Christian and Sufi mystics have also experienced this phenomenon.
When we cultivate this understanding and eschew the “I”, the sages tell us we can live lives of greater clarity and equanimity. In any case it is easy to understand why notions of ego and separateness that attend our pervading notion of “I”, are inimical to our personal and collective well-being.