A few nights ago my wife traumatized me.
She shook the foundation of my existence, which in no small part rests on a weekly filling up of our bathtub with steaming hot water, pouring a glass of red wine, and having a pleasant soak while reading the latest issue of People magazine. (How else am I going to keep up on celebrity weddings?)
"Where's the People magazine?" I asked Laurel, wine in hand. "I left it at the athletic club," she told me. "I thought you'd read it."
Instantly the bottom dropped out of my envisioned future. I couldn't believe that People had been discarded. Our rule -- an ironclad rule! -- was that if I hadn't marked an "X" across the magazine's address label, this meant that People was unread by me.
I moped around for a while, trying to generate as much pity from my wife as possible. Eventually, though, I realized that the bathtub water was steadily growing cooler, so I was shooting my own high temp soaking in the foot.
I then grabbed a thin book from a living room shelf that struck me as philosophically appropriate for this hugely distressing moment, Julian Baggini's "What's It All About?." I flipped through the pages and decided to re-read his Lose your self chapter, figuring that this might offer some perspective on my deliciously irritated sense of self-pity.
Since I wasn't feeling particularly Buddha-like at the moment, being still pissed off at having my People magazine thrown to the athletic club winds, where I envisioned someone -- but definitely not me -- catching up on the latest frothy news, I was reassured to read that:
Permanently losing a sense of self is known as death.
A few years ago I'd written about this very chapter in Baggini's book, blogging "Losing your self is so egotistical." Reading the chapter again, I found Baggini's argument just as persuasive the second time around.
The reason I am being a little brutal here is that I think there is a terrible dishonesty among some of those who claim that what they are trying to achieve is a lessening of attachment to ego. The clear truth is that people who find this path satisfying are living contented lives.
In other words, they like their "spiritual practices" because they make them feel more content, at peace, or whatever, than alternatives they have tried. So despite all the fine words about losing their egos, they are in fact simply engaging in another form of self-gratification. This isn't materialistic or harmful to others, so we tend to look upon it quite kindly. But it is not in any sense a way of life which shows disregard for self-interest.
I have no idea what a self-willed (meaning, voluntary) selfless act would consist of. A soldier throws himself on a live grenade in order to save the lives of his comrades -- an undeniably admirable courageous act.
Yet he gives up his own life in a selflessly selfish fashion.
The soldier's impulse to do what he does may derive from many complex (and ultimately impossible to discern) psychological factors. Their root, however, is simple: doing this is preferable to that.
Death is preferable to shame. Death is preferable to letting down one's fellow soldiers. Death is preferable to shirking a warrior's duty.
This is an extreme example of selfless selfishness, with an emphasis on selfless. However, there still is selfishness present, using that term as synonymous with Baggini's self-gratification. Similarly, a martyr derives gratification from his or her sacrifice, as does a masochist from his or her pain.
In my true believing days, when I aspired to an unreachable spiritual ideal, I'd chastise myself for not being as egoless as I considered I could be. Now, I realize that everyone is swimming in the same waters of Self; all that differs is the depth to which we're immersed in self-centeredness.
Baggini ends his "Lose your self" chapter by concluding that this neither is possible, nor the route to a meaningful life.
To return to the main theme of this chapter, freeing your mind by losing your self does not seem a fruitful path to finding meaning in life. Even if it is true that in one sense the self is an illusion, this gives us no reason to try and dismantle the apparatus that makes the existence of the self possible.
Temporarily losing a sense of self also seems to be, ultimately, a way of satisfying the self, and so any technique that delivers this loss of ego has to be judged on whether its effects are a desirable part of a meaningful life. Permanently losing a sense of self is otherwise known as death.
Lessening our attachment to self can help free us from a narcissistic concern for our own well-being and this would be a good thing. But it is at best a means of removing an obstacle to fulfilment, rather than a source of meaning in itself. Certain meditative techniques may help us feel attached to the wider universe, but this doesn't mean we are so attached or that all things are one.