The Human Dilemma

I celebrate myself, and I sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good as belongs to you.

Walt Whitman, (American poet and humanist.)


In some sense man is a microcosm of the universe; therefore what man is, is a clue to the universe.

David Bohm, (American scientist and quantum physicist.)


The book that made Richard Dawkins famous was titled The Selfish Gene. It was a strange use of nomenclature to call genes “selfish” but it certainly grabbed the public’s attention. But the underlying thesis was that organisms in the natural environment behaved in such a way as to preserve their genes and replicate them as best they could.  As a result the organisms adopted the traits of selfishness. And in this respect humankind is no different from other living organisms.

Every individual strives to preserve its life and the welfare of those genetically close to them. It would seem to me to be a natural manifestation of this evolutionary drive for humans to develop a sense of not only how special our particular “self” is but also that of our offspring. Sometimes this specialness is manifest in our personal pride. But this is surely misguided because we know whatever valuable survival characteristics we have are largely as a result of our biological history and early conditioning over which we had no personal control. Yet it is hard to deny our biology is urging us to feel special, deserving of advantageous treatment particularly with respect to our preservation and our status (which is but a manifestation of the same drive).

Using this particular tool biological evolution wended its magic, organisms struggling to best their rivals, spread their genes and preserve their progeny. We know there are social organisms like ants and bees that have been hugely successful in the evolutionary stakes, and whilst their success has not been driven so much by the success of the individual, their collective capacity to preserve the genes which they share has ensured their long-term survival.

In recent decades scientists have also demonstrated that altruism can assist the survival of social animals.

But despite this, most organisms have prospered by the selfish, competitive activities of individuals. It is hard not to deduce that such individuals, where they have self-awareness as humans do, would feel special.

As Robert  Wright in Why Buddhism is True wrote:

After all, the creation of complex life has involved the premature death of lots of living things – things judged genetically inferior by natural selection – not to mention tons of violence and suffering. That is why the specialness of self is such a strong intuition. For our ancestors it was often them or the other guy, and genes that encouraged them to think the other guy was important as they were wouldn’t have gone anywhere. So the sense of specialness and the attendant baggage of “self” whatever you think of them, were unavoidable features of sentient life so long as life was created by natural selection.

Yet from the point of view of the Universe, it is totally impartial and no individual is seen as more important than any other.

But we are immediately faced with a quandary. It is largely the physical, biological success of the organism that has ensured its survival, but this specialness is subsumed in the psychological construct of “self” and therein lies the dilemma.

Now the self, deriving its justification from evolutionary competition has found a new tool. A short cut to “specialness” is to identify with a “special” group. These groups differentiate themselves by gender, race, religion, nationality, ideology and so on. In fact such people largely allow the group identifying characteristic/s to take over their own sense of identity.

Closely related to our notion of specialness is fear. To begin with, biologically, fear is useful. It helps us avoid being eaten by other creatures, being overwhelmed by our competitors and being deprived of mating opportunities. But the arrival of the self on the scene, and a shift from physical defence to defence of the psyche,  causes many more fear inducing scenarios for example such fears as:

  • Will I make a fool of myself?
  • What if they don’t like me?
  • What if I fail?
  • Can I risk being different to the others?

And so on.

More than this, our obsession with specialness reinforces our notion of separateness. If I want to appear special then it is natural I will exaggerate my differences from others. I will however emphasise those characteristic I share with my identity group because as we saw that is part of my differentiation strategy.

In pursuing this course of individuation I see myself as an isolated individual. Consequently I place the demands of ego ahead of other people and focus on my own perceived needs ahead of everything else.

This unsettling trend seems to have been first commented on by the great French sociologist, Emile Durkheim. The tendency for an individual to disassociate from society he termed “individuation”. As a result individual emotions attained a new prominence. With that arose a sense of victimhood which seems to have reached a peak in today’s society. Whereas once upon a time our ancestors eschewed emotional responses and were determinedly stoic (inheriting no doubt the British tendency to keep “a stiff upper lip”) many of us today whine about the smallest inconvenience and often rush off in our victim costume to demand compensation.

This pervasive individualism is shaping our culture and our politics. Rules and norms must be modified to meet the latest claims for individual rights and self-realisation. The cult of individualism is reflected in a surge in human rights and as Paul Kelly, Editor at Large for The Australian has written, “….  a constantly expanding agenda of progressive politics.”

There is immediate tension once the self enters the equation because the interests of the self extend far beyond the issues of biological survival. The self dominates and manipulates our concept of “I”, who in fact we are. I have written many times about our concept of I. Who we appear to be is essentially the stream of consciousness we experience. But we identify so closely with that stream of consciousness most of us overlook we are “the observer and not the observed”.

Subjectively speaking, the only thing that actually exists is consciousness and its contents. And, as Sam Harris in Waking Up wrote:

…the only thing relevant to personal identity is psychological continuity from one moment to the next.

But for completeness let me restate some of the things I have come to know. The self is an illusion. The feeling I have of I-ness is a product of thought. It comes from a tendency to identify with our thoughts. Let me state emphatically, the essential you is not your thoughts. Our thoughts come and go but as Harris implies the essential I is forever present.

In my book, Froth and Goblets, I used a metaphor to better explain this situation.

The Buddhist Master, Augustus who is trying to help alleviate the Princess Naomi’s depression is in the garden with her.

Augustus says to Naomi, “Look up and tell me what you see.”

“Why, I see a blue sky with some clouds scurrying across it.”

“Consider that lovely blue sky as a metaphor for your true self. See how sometimes the clouds partly obscure it. Those clouds are your thoughts and your emotions. But we know from our vantage point that the clouds are not the sky. From the awareness of meditation you will be able to see that neither your thoughts nor your emotions are your true self. Because we are detached from the clouds, when we look up we can say, ‘Look, there is a cloud beginning to impinge on the sky.’ When we come to learn detachment from our thoughts and our emotions, we can look inwards and say, ‘Look here comes some despair which is impinging on my true self.’ We know, just as with the clouds, we can patiently observe its passage, not identifying with it, and that soon enough it will be gone.”

The essential I is therefore not the stream of consciousness but what is observing the stream of consciousness.

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 the French geneticist and Buddhist monk  Matthieu Ricard points out:

…  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.

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, the realisation that fundamentally we All are as One.

We saw earlier that the essential I is not my body or my mind but that which observes my body and mind. But if I am not my body, what part does my body (including my brain) play in the process of constructing my reality? It acts as a filter. My sensory perception is restricted by my biology. I can only see the visible spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. I can’t “see” infra-red for example, although many organisms can. I can’t hear the high frequency sound waves that are audible to bats. And I suppose it is just as well that my sensors are restricted because otherwise I would be overwhelmed with information.

We can deduce from this however that every perceived reality is unique – not only is a human’s reality different from that of an elephant, dolphin, wombat or mole, even the perceived reality of each every individual human is different to that of every other human. But this is just affirming that every stream of consciousness is unique and as we saw previously the essential I is not lodged in the stream of consciousness but in that which observes it. It is for this reason the Eastern sages called such underlying essence the “Witness”.

I have often asserted that because of our consciousness we have to deal with not only a “world out there” (supposedly an objective picture of the physical universe) but also a world “in here” (our psychological world of thoughts and emotions). But our perception of the physical universe isn’t real at all but a picture built up by our sensory perceptions in our minds and just like everything else in our stream of consciousness only available to us via the medium of the Witness but mediated by physical and psychological processes. Paradoxically all that we know of our outer world is the perception we have of it in our inner world. And it is certainly not objective. It is coloured by the particular biases of our worldview. (I have written about this previously so I won’t go into it again here. But as the good Dr Phil asserts {and indeed consistent with the view of Einstein} there are essentially only two word views – a world view of Fear or a worldview of Love.)

David Bohm, one of the architects of quantum theory articulated the problem of our biased sense of reality thus:

Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based on our perceptions. What we perceive depends on what we look for. What we look for depends on what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality.

Objective reality, it seems can never be known directly. Physicists Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner from the University of California contend an observer must conclude that:

Reality was somehow created by the observation itself, that the observed reality is created solely by the observer’s acquisition of knowledge. If so the observer is inseparably involved with the observed system. That would challenge his view of a physical real world existing independently of his senses perceiving it.

Now at the level of the Witness we have risen above the physical level (involving body and brain) and the psychological level (involving our concept of local, individual self) to the metaphysical (involving spirituality). The act of “Witnessing” in fact cleaves the Universe.

Or to look at it another way, in order for there to be consciousness, the Universe must create the most fundamental dualism, between that which observes and that which is observed.

The philosopher/mathematician, G. Spencer Brown wrote:

..we cannot escape the fact that the world we know is constructed in order to see itself. But in order to do so, evidently it must first cut itself into at least one state which sees, and at least another which is seen.

Or as Ken Wilbur, the American writer on transpersonal psychology states:

In other words, when the universe is severed into a subject vs. an object, into one state which sees vs. one state which is seen, something always gets left out. In this condition, the universe will always partially elude itself. No observing system can observe itself observing. The seer cannot see itself seeing. Every eye has a blind spot. And it is for precisely this reason that at the basis of all such dualistic attempts we find only: Uncertainty, Incompleteness!

So physics suggests that one outcome of this primary dualism is that the observer (in our case the “Witness”) cannot perceive what it is observing without introducing some bias.  Let us consider now those two principal classes of bias (or worldviews) that we seem to impose on our concept of reality.

The first of these two alternative biases is Fear. Fear is driven by our evolutionary biology which urges us to emphasise our individuality, our specialness and our separateness. In many ways, as we saw earlier, this is the engine of evolution. But it drives us to competitiveness, self-interest and anxiety. It is fear which compels us to construct our notion of “self”.

So many of the wisdom traditions, however, urge us to put aside self and separateness. Buddhism, for example eschews the notion of self. Self, according to the Buddhist masters is an artificial construct. As an alternative they promote the notion of Love or indeed as they term it, loving-kindness.

Many years ago when working with the good Dr Phil, I offered the notion that Love is the dissolution of separateness. Whilst fear emphasises our differences, Love reminds us that at a fundamental level we All are as One.

How might this be?

Many mystics, and even 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.

Listen to the words of Erwin Schroedinger. (Schroedinger was not a philosopher in the traditional sense, not a mystic – but the founder of quantum mechanics!)

Inconceivable as it seems to ordinary reason, you – and all other conscious beings as such – are all in all. Hence this life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence but is in a certain sense the whole.

The mystics have always taught us that our well-being is not determined by the “world out there” but by the “world in here” – the theatre of mind. Our external circumstances are not the prime determinants of our well-being – that is determined by our state of mind, how we choose to view the world.

In simple terms our picture of the world is determined by firstly, all our sensory inputs and then secondly how those inputs are filtered, interpreted and modulated. As the good Dr Phil says, “Nothing comes to us with its meaning attached.” We in fact manufacture that meaning through the filter of our assumptions and beliefs. So when we live in Fear, succumb to envy, trip over our pride and our desire to be special, seek power and material wealth or whatever that stands between us and contentment, know that this is not a problem of the world but our interpretation of it. Once we learn this lesson we know that our greatest benefits will be accrued not by changing the world but by changing our mind!

Mysticism might be defined as a belief that at the very centre of all of us there is a common Spirit which we all share so that essentially we “All are as One”. What’s more that Oneness is the ultimate reality, but not wanting to recognise this this, our agent of separation, our egos, create a shared illusion which we identify as the physical world. As we saw each individual’s concept of reality is unique but there is enough commonality to construct a generally accepted picture.

If this sounds implausible to you, here is what Nobel prize winning, Quantum Physicist, Erwin Schrodinger had to say:

It is not possible that this unity of knowledge, feeling, and choice that you call your own should have sprung into being from nothingness at a given moment not so long ago; rather this knowledge, feeling and choice are essentially eternal and unchangeable and numerically one in all men, nay in all sensitive beings.

Inconceivable as it seems to ordinary reason, you – and all other conscious beings as such – are all in all. Hence this life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence but it is, in a certain sense the whole. This is the sacred, mystic formula which is so clear: ‘I am in the east and in the west, I am above and below, I am this whole world.’(Emphasis added.)

In the mystic traditions, when we go beyond or transcend the self (indeed the separateness) that the ego creates, we discover a universal Spirit, and which is as Wilber asserts “infinite and all-pervading, eternal and unchanging”.

According to this philosophy, we live our lives in a delusion created by our egoic selves. It is by any description a truncated life where we are mainly unaware of our inherently divine nature.

As Einstein explained:

A human being is part of the whole, called by us the ‘Universe’; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison.

One of the most influential of the Quantum Physicists was the American, David Bohm. Bohm decried the reductionist approach which was to try and understand the physical world by dividing it into smaller and smaller segments.

He asserted:

Indeed, the attempt to live according to the notion that the fragments are really separate is, in essence, what has led to the growing series of extremely urgent crises that is confronting us today.

So let me restate this human dilemma that I have tried to outline. Humanity is caught between two major influences. The first which stems from our biology and evolutionary processes is to emphasise our specialness and consequently our separation. The second, which seems the underpinning of all our spiritual traditions, is that essentially, at some fundamental level we All are as One.

Whilst we must acknowledge our concept of separation has served us well as an evolutionary strategy, it inevitably drives us towards a worldview of Fear. Such a worldview brings to its adherents only misery, discontent, anxiety and dissatisfaction. Once having been subsumed by the ego this worldview can only result in discontent and psychological dysfunction.

A worldview of Love, on the other hand, dissolves the notion of separateness and specialness. It would lead us to conclude that at a fundamental level we share the Oneness of the Universe. There can be no Fear when we come to the realisation there is neither a separation with the Universe nor the collective consciousness which has in fact created the Universe.

In my mind we would do well to remember the thoughts of Dogen Zenji, the medieval Japanese Zen master.


To study the Way is to study the Self.

To study the Self is to forget the Self.

To forget the Self is to be enlightened by all things.

To be enlightened by all things is to forget the barrier between Self and Other.


In this way we overcome dualism and realise transcendence.