For a long time I wanted to find my "true self." Then I got all enthused about calling off the search.
The Buddhist notion of neither-this-nor-that fascinates me. Something else. None of the above. Think outside the box. Even more, blow the fucking box to smithereens.
Searching. Finding. Real self. False self. God. Devil. Masters. Disciples. Wisdom. Ignorance. Good. Bad. Right. Wrong.
More and more, I have the sense that It is something else entirely. By “It” I mean the root, the core, the kernel, the center that we’re all spinning around and never finding.
Now, though, I'm beginning to suspect that there's no root, no core, no kernel, no center to me. I've never been able to locate one. And neuroscience has come to a pretty firm conclusion that such couldn't exist.
Here's what Kevin Nelson, M.D., has to say in his book, "The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist's Search for the God Experience."
Through localizing brain function, the behavioral neurologists had shown that who we think we are is a complicated and rather fragile synthetic process orchestrated by our brains. When something interferes with that process our reality and sense of self quickly and dramatically fragment.
While most of us view our "self" as concrete and coherent, akin to, say, Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of the Mona Lisa, to a neurologist the self is more like Picasso's cubist portrait of Dora Maar, his lover and muse: a fragmented amalgam of fractured planes.
Or, if you prefer Impressionism, our view of the self is a little like a water lily by Monet: at a glance it appears coherent, but up close you realize its harmonious appearance is an illusion, that the object you saw at a distance is actually a bundle of discrete and unconnected parts.
This conception of self is both disturbing and exhilarating.
I don't particularly like the idea that I don't exist -- at least, not in the way that I've become accustomed to thinking was true. Meaning, the entity that I feel myself to be, "Brian," isn't as distinctly solid and real as my sensing of myself from the inside of me.
But there's a positive side to being a shape-shifting, insubstantial, ever-changing conglomeration: like Janis Joplin sang, freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. If self is an illusion, I've got no self that'll be lost when I die, or any reason to worry that my self might have an unpleasant afterlife if I don't embrace some form of religiosity now.
I watched the first 10:30, most of which featured Thomas Metzinger -- who wrote "The Ego Tunnel," a book I gave 5 stars to (that link contains pointers to five other posts I wrote about The Ego Tunnel).
Metzinger says that the brain/mind is not an entity, but a process. He responds to the moderator's introductory comment about the self being an illusion in an interesting fashion. The big question, he says, is "who has all these states of consciousness?"
In other words (so far as I understand Metzinger), there is no one at home inside our heads to realize the self is an illusion.
At about the 8:30 mark, Metzinger speaks about our ancestors' primal urge that can be expressed as You Must Not Die! Of course, that powerful emotion would have been felt wordlessly by virtually all of the species which preceded the evolution of Homo sapiens.
Now, though, the cerebral cortex enables us to anticipate and articulate the prospect of our death even when we're not in mortal danger. This, says Metzinger, creates a chasm between we feel should not happen, our dying, and what we know will happen, our dying. We humans are the first animal to understand that we will die.
And thus springs one of the roots of religion. A tap root, in my opinion, because it supports and nourishes a central tenet of virtually every faith: continued existence of the self, or soul, in an afterlife.
This is a comforting belief.
However, comfort isn't a reliable guide to reality. Such is the quandary of the human condition -- when it is fitting to embrace what makes us feel good, even if it isn't true, and when truth should be faced head-on no matter the emotional consequences.