Last night I had an all-too-familiar experience:
Sitting back and listening to a discussion, pondering the deeper meaning of what was being said, jumping in with some comments that were So Absolutely Correct they deserve to be capitalized -- and then seeing looks of what the #$%! is Brian talking about?, after which the conversation went on its merry way, barely missing a step notwithstanding that my brilliant remarks should have made people pause to digest their awesomeness.
Oh, well, often a prophet is recognized only inside his own head.
But if he has a blog, this allows him to have a second chance at pursuing the So Absolutely Correct acclaim that eluded him the first time. And to find some quotes from a respected authority that express in a different way what he was trying to say.
In brief: Brains R Us.
The monthly Salon discussion group that my wife and I founded quite a few years ago had started to talk about memories. Why do we remember certain things and forget other things? How is it possible to pay more attention to what's happening? Like when you're introduced to someone and instantly "forget" her name -- because you never really heard it.
Listening to the conversation, I began to focus as much on the grammar of what was being said as on the content. "We can help the brain..." "I'd like to know how my brain..." "When my brain does..."
Eventually there was a brief break in the back and forth. (We're a talkative group.)
I said, "Yes, it's amazing how the brain works. But there's something even more amazing that we've been missing. Each of us is our brain. I've been hearing people talk as if they were some sort of disembodied self who is separate and distinct from the brain. Neuroscience, though, says that we are the brain; there's no difference between the brain and us."
To me, this is an earthshaking realization, something I've been trying to come to grips with for quite a while. For the other members of the discussion group, though, I could tell that what I'd said was a minimal mental tremor.
Nobody had much of a reaction. My comments were shrugged off. Talk turned in a different direction.
Well, I still find the notion of Brains R Us to be deeply fascinating. It gets to the core of who we are. If we don't understand our own nature, how confident can we be in making pronouncements and rendering opinions about the outside world?
Religions say that we are an immaterial soul. Nobody in our discussion group is very religious, yet from the way people were speaking I could tell that everyone intuited that the brain was something different from the "self."
I ended my observations about Brains R Us with a brief description of the article about free will in New Scientist that I talked about in a previous post.
"Even if sometime in the future scientists can prove that what we do is totally determined by physical brain processes, people will still believe they're free to do what they want. This shows how powerful the illusion of a immaterial self is."
Here's what Alan Watts has to say about this stuff in his "The Way of Zen." Maybe if Watts had been by my side last night, chiming in with his unique way of looking upon reality, my fellow conversers would have been more impressed with my own comments.
To put it less poetically -- human experience is determined as much by the nature of the mind and the structure of its senses as by the external objects whose presence the mind reveals.
Men feel themselves to be victims or puppets of their experience because they separate "themselves" from their minds, thinking that the nature of the mind-body is something involuntarily thrust upon "them."
...Thence it appears that the entire sense of subjective isolation, of being the one who was "given" a mind and to whom experience happens, is an illusion of bad semantics -- the hypnotic suggestion of repeated wrong thinking. For there is no "myself" apart from the mind-body which gives structure to my experience.
It is likewise ridiculous to talk of this mind-body as something which was passively and involuntarily "given" a certain structure. It is that structure, and before the structure arose there was no mind-body.
Our problem is that the power of thought enables us to construct symbols of things apart from the things themselves. This includes the ability to make a symbol, an idea of ourselves apart from ourselves. Because the idea is so much more comprehensible than the reality, the symbol so much more stable than the fact, we learn to identify ourselves with our idea of ourselves.
Hence, the subjective feeling of a "self" which "has" a mind, of an inwardly isolated subject to whom experiences involuntarily happen.