Let’s try a thought experiment. I am here and you are there. As it happens, I am in the UK and you, perhaps, are in the USA or in India, or anywhere else in the world (but probably not in outer space). I am separate to you, and you are separate from me, although we are linked in some way when we communicate.
Except we, sophisticated inhabitants of the twenty-first century, know that this is not really the case. For one thing we are both composed of physical materials that are remarkably similar, carbon and water for the most part. For another, we are both dependent for our continuing existence on a biosphere in which we are both encased, wrapped, and cocooned. We now know that unless we jointly work hard to preserve that biosphere we, or our children or their children, will most likely inherit a world in which they cannot survive. For a third, we both have experiences such as joy, sadness, hope, and the occasional bout of disillusionment. For a fourth, we will both one day grow old and die.
We now know enough about our physical inheritance to be aware of how we came to be here, or in your case, ‘there’. Some 13.8 billion years ago all the matter and energy in the universe, including the bits of it that eventually came to make up your body and my body, were contained within a volume of space the size of a soccer ball (no wonder football is the ‘beautiful game’- it was written in, or before, the stars!). Then there was a period of hyper-inflation in which the universe kept a fine line between expansion and collapse. Eventually things slowed down, plasma turned to matter, and the stars were created. Still later, some of these stars exploded to create planets that were captured by other stars. Still later, at least on one of those planets, the earth, complex life forms began to emerge. Later still, our ancestors, ones common to me and to you, emerged, lived, reproduced and died.
So why do we pretend to ourselves that we are so different, so separate? Why do we cling to the concept of separateness? The answer, unsurprisingly, lies in our physical evolution. What one might call ‘separation-consciousness’, or self-consciousness, proved to be an adaptive trait that helped its most adept practitioners to survive long enough to reproduce and raise their progeny. Of course, initially there was probably no awareness of self- it was simply that creatures that acted selfishly were more likely to prosper. Such creatures formed membranes that separated a tiny parcel of organic life from the world around it. Even then it was not entirely isolated. It allowed life-preserving things such as oxygen and nutrients to cross that membrane and kept life-threatening ones out. Eventually within some of those membranes there emerged creatures with minds, sensations and thoughts. In such creatures what was ‘inside’ was found to be good, and where ‘good’ things were available on the outside those things were allowed to pass through the membrane. Otherwise, what lay ‘outside’ was either of no interest or even occasionally hostile.
We humans alive today have inherited these adaptive characteristics which we now know to be carried within our genome. At the same time, we are also beginning to suspect that this primitive technology is no longer quite fit for purpose, certainly not a human purpose. Specifically, as manifested in its human hosts, it has come to contain two fundamental weaknesses.
Firstly, it renders almost eight billion human subjects less likely to co-operate to achieve common human ends, in particular the preservation of the integrity of the planet, and the survival of humanity and the other diverse species of life that the planet supports. We are already at the point where otherwise durable lives (and species) have been lost, and unless we act quickly many more lives and species will be sacrificed to our ‘separation-consciousness’. In this sense our physical inheritance makes our survival problematical.
Secondly, our inheritance turns us into selves that suffer. Instead of simply experiencing what I find in the world around me, including the other human beings that occupy it, I relate everything that I find ‘out there’ to something ‘in here’, to me, to myself. I am much more important to me than you are. And it is likely that you are more important to you than I am (apologies if I do you an injustice). This is what almost all of us feel to be the case, even though it is patently ridiculous (or at least, irrational).
But the problem goes much deeper than that. The real problem is that by constantly referring back to myself, of making this self the measure of everything, I fail to experience the world (and the other persons it contains) as it really is or they really are. Instead of living transparently and openly in a universe full of wonder and astonishing beauty I crush my experience into a tiny ball (smaller than a soccer ball, a squash ball?) and fail to experience the full potential that a world faced selflessly has to offer.
That this is true, and can be recognized to be so, is both as old (at least) as Buddhism and as up-to-date as contemporary experimental psychology. From the former we have the notion of ‘anatta’, or no-self. From the latter we have, within the last few years, the discovery of the ‘Default Mode Network’, those brain processes which serve to bring us back continually to thoughts of self. In one experimental study a majority of men and around 40% of women preferred to be given mild, but painful, electric shocks rather than remain in a room with nothing to do. The researchers rationalised that to be completely idle led to the activation of those self-obsessing default brain networks that were typically characterised by fears, fantasies and frustrations. As a result, mild physical pain was to be preferred.
In both of these perspectives the self is no more than a coming together of various physical and psychological processes which underpin it. But in claiming this Buddhism, at least, makes a second claim, which is that everything that arises in the universe is no more (and no less) than a combination of conditions that come together for a while and then disperse. Moreover, in this perspective all human experience is simply a product of conditions which arise and fall away.
The problem is that we are conditioned by nature to find a self (when we look inwards) and essences, good, bad, or indifferent (when we look out at the world). In so doing we make a fundamental error in perceiving continuing selves and essences when there are really no such things. Whilst this ‘error’ is conducive to survival and replication, it is damaging to our experience and to our efforts to take collective action to solve our most pressing problems. It causes the perceived self to crave, to cling and to suffer. It causes the perceived self to value its own interests above those of other perceived selves.
What would experience or consciousness be like if it were not always referred back to a self or subject? For one thing, much of our suffering is psychological rather than physical, and in psychological suffering it is the self or the self-image that is in pain. ‘I’ do not get what ‘I’ think is deserved or merited. Fortune is cruel. I cling to the hope that things will change and entertain fantasies where at last those ‘just rewards’ are meted out to me. Yet even if they are sometimes received, they don’t seem to bring the lasting enjoyment that had been my core expectation. Why? Because nothing lasts.
In truth, it is not that this self is ‘false’ or ‘unreal’. It is as true or real as everything else. In its case it is a series of behaviours dependent on our physical composition and evolutionary history. It is as real as our bodies or our immune systems. It is just that it, like everything else, is impermanent and constantly changing. It, like everything else, depends on a series of conditions that come together for a while and then disperse or mutate. One of the most instructive things about the self is that if we watch ourselves closely we can actually see the self mutating moment by moment. What we wanted yesterday we no longer want to today; or what we gain today will no longer satisfy us tomorrow. This is perhaps what the Buddha meant when he said, ‘From moment to moment you are born, decay and die’.
Yet the fact that all of us are to some degree in a continuing relationship with this ‘I’ is ironically a proof that we are not just isolated islands of flesh and blood. On the contrary, each of these ‘islands’ (we might provisionally call them ‘persons’) has a common evolutionary heritage. At the pinnacle of these inherited traits is the self, the self that causes us to suffer and (all too often) inflict suffering on others. So, we cannot really be islands, at least not ones which are irrevocably isolated from each other. Rather, we are connected (amongst other things) by the sense we have of being selves and by the impetus to awaken from the sleep, dream or fantasy of the self as a continuing, stable entity. This is exactly the same impetus that will enable us to solve those critical global, environmental and inter-personal problems that threaten our physical survival. One might even describe the inner and outer aspects of this project as a ‘culture of awakening’, of which more in the next post.