Got to be fair. Can't play favorites. A few days ago I talked about the best reason why God doesn't exist. Now, here's the flip side: why you, and I, don't exist.
This is a central Buddhist notion, anatta, no-self. But my big fat ego has resisted the notion, despite the many times I've read about it. Somehow I just seem so…I don't know…me.
Last night, though, I heard myself talking as if I believed that there's no enduring central core to me. Laurel and I went out to dinner with some visiting relatives and two of their old college friends, who drove up from Eugene.
The conversation turned philosophical near the end of the evening. There wasn't a religious soul in the bunch, so we were all on the same churchless wavelength.
I shared my "don't know" rap, which segued into mentions of Douglas Hofstadter's notion that humans are a strange loop. We're simultaneously aware, and aware of our awareness. [See "You're a strange loop (and that's OK)" and "If I'm not an 'I', what am I?"]
I talked about how Hofstadter considers that his wife lives on in his memories, and other traces that she has left behind. But not otherwise.
And that, if all of our memories and other experiences could be transferred into a sophisticated computer, wouldn't that device be indistinguishable from who we feel ourselves to be now, in a non-bodily sense?
So where am "I" in all this? Well, in the past I've enjoyed believing that it could be possible to enter a state of pure consciousness where you're just a blissful bubble of being, or something equally (and indescribably) ethereal.
After all, if I could simply exist, not as anything outside of myself but as existence plain and simple, then seemingly this would be a really real me – separate from everything else.
I've never been able to do this, though.
And the more I've pondered the possibility, the less likely it seems. How would I know that I existed if there wasn't anything to be aware of except my own awareness? What's the difference between being dead and not knowing that you're alive?
This morning I picked up a constant companion in my meditation enclave, Alan Watts' "The Wisdom of Insecurity." Thumbing though a few pages, these thoughts hit me with a fresh anatta'ish force.
In each present experience you were only aware of that experience. You were never able to separate the thinker from the thought, the knower from the known. All you ever found was a new thought, a new experience.
To be aware, then, is to be aware of thoughts, feelings, sensations, desires, and all other forms of experience. Never at any time are you aware of anything which is not experience, not a thought or feeling, but instead an experience, thinker, or feeler. If this is so, what makes us think that any such thing exists?
Watts then talks about how memory enables us to recollect what we've experienced previously. This allows us to fashion a self out of the bits and pieces of prior experiences – not the whole shebang, obviously, because our memories are so incomplete and selective.
But, as a matter of fact, you cannot compare this present experience with a past experience. You can only compare it with a memory of the past, which is a part of the present experience. When you see clearly that memory is a form of present experience, it will be obvious that trying to separate yourself form this experience is as impossible as trying to make your teeth bite themselves.
There is simply experience. There is not someone or something experiencing experience! You do not feel feelings, think thoughts, or sense sensations any more than you hear hearing, see sight, or smell smelling.
…No one ever found an "I" apart from some present experience, or some experience apart from an "I" – which is only to say that the two are the same thing.
Pretty persuasive. I still feel like me, but the foundation on which I'm standing is beginning to seem more like quicksand rather than concrete.
I could slip away at any moment. Which, for Watts, is the wisest thing to do.
The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger. The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the "I" out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two.
Sanity, wholeness, and integration lie in the realization that we are not divided, that man and his present experience are one, and that no separate "I" or mind can be found.