If there's one thing I know after 62 years of living, it's I don't know who or what I am.
(Of course, I could be wrong about that also -- but I'd still be right about not knowing whether I was or wasn't.)
Now, this isn't so different from what I used to believe in my religious days. When I embraced a mystical meditation system known as Sant Mat, I assumed that some sort of maya/illusion stood between me and reality.
So I couldn't know myself or the cosmos as it really is until the veils were removed. However, the Sant Mat gurus assured their students that ultimate truth was out there to be caught. It was just a matter of finding the correct hunting procedure.
Over the years and decades my admiration for science kept bumping into my devotion to this supposedly "spiritual" practice. Eventually I realized that I had to make a choice: hard truth or comfortable belief?
Since my goal all along had been truth, this wasn't a tough decision. I traded in dogma for facts, blind faith for demonstrable experience, imagination for reality.
I've never regretted making this trade. Interestingly, what I used to look upon as "hard" truth has become a lot softer. More and more I'm able to cozy up to scientific findings which I used to push away.
Such as the pretty damn firm neuroscientific conclusion that our feeling of being a "self," a separate and distinct "I," a discrete conscious entity ("soul") inhabiting a physical body -- this is the central illusion which prevents us from knowing reality more fully.
I'll say it differently: believing that it's possible to know reality as it truly is keeps us from realizing that this isn't true.
Tonight my wife and I are going to host a get-together with some friends where we'll talk about recent advances in neuroscience. I didn't have to do much to prepare, since I've both read and written a lot on this subject.
I looked over my bookshelf and chose two favorites to talk about: "I Am a Strange Loop" by Douglas Hofstadter and "The Ego Tunnel" by Thomas Metzinger. My one sentence summary of what neuroscience says we are: a strange loop in an ego tunnel.
If that sounds disorienting, weird, and more than a little crazy -- it is! Our everyday sensation that a dependable "I" is in touch with objective reality is misguided, because evolution didn't care if we humans understood how our mind/brain works behind the scenes.
(Of course, evolution doesn't "care" about anything, just as gravity and other laws of nature don't; it's just a manner of speaking.)
Primeval humans who could see a tiger stalking them and take action to escape survived, passing on their genes. Daydreamers didn't. Being aware of the complex neurological processing that culminates in a wordless "Holy fuck! TIGER!" actually impedes one's ability to get away.
So the ego tunnel Metzinger describes is, in his words, transparent. Meaning, we have no sense that we view reality from within the confines of our brain, neurological processes, past experiences/conditioning, and such.
The world simply seems... as it should, from the perspective of Me. (Of course, other people have their own ego tunnels, from which mine often will appear amazingly deluded.)
Echoing Buddhist notions, Metzinger says there is nobody in the ego tunnel. So there's no need to get rid of the ego, because such doesn't exist. All we need to do is realize the neuroscientific reality: the self is an epiphenomenon -- something illusory that appears in the presence of something else that is real.
Douglas Hofstadter talks about this in his "I Am a Strange Loop" book. He wondered how a marble could be stuck inside a stack of envelopes, then discovered how the "marble" (like the self or soul) was an appearance, not reality.
Strange loops. Ego tunnels. That's what we are. Here's how Hofstadter ends his fascinating book:
In the end, we self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in mirages are little miracles of self-reference. We believe in marbles that disintegrate when we search for them but that are as real as any genuine marble when we're not looking for them. Our very nature is such as to prevent us from fully understanding its very nature.
Poised midway between the unvisualizable cosmic vastness of curved spacetime and the dubious, shadowy flickerings of charged quanta, we human beings, more like rainbows and mirages than like raindrops or boulders, are unpredictable self-writing poems -- vague, metaphorical, ambiguous, and sometimes exceedingly beautiful.
To see ourselves in this way is probably not as comforting as believing in ineffable other-worldly wisps endowed with eternal existence, but it has its compensations. What one gives up is a childlike sense that things are exactly as they appear, and that our solid-seeming marble-like "I" is the realest thing in the world; what one acquires is an appreciation of how tenuous we are at our cores, and how wildly different we are from what we seem to be.
As Kurt Godel with his unexpected strange loops gave us a deeper and subtler vision of what mathematics is all about, so the strange-loop characterization of our essences gives us a deeper and subtler vision of what it is to be human. And to my mind, the loss is worth the gain.
(If you want to know more about ego tunnels and strange loops, check out my previous posts on these subjects here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)
Sant mat gives the disciple 'hope' and a goal to reach - namely to 'get rid of' the ego and thereby reach the fictional place called Sach Khand. In order to do this - the disciple spends hundreds or thousands of hours of his life sitting and 'meditating' - hoping to get somewhere. When he doesn't he blames himself - because his mind is not pure enough or he is doesnt have enough love etc.
It never occurs to the disciple that perhaps - like you say here - the 'ego' is just made up - an illusion - and therefore there is nothing to get rid of. As long as he is 'trying' to get rid of the ego - that effort will keep him deluded because he is pre-supposing that it is real.
The disciple is trying to 'save his soul' and take it to Sach Khand - so cannot see the possibility that there is no separate soul and nobody to save. The effort to 'get somewhere' goes on until the day he dies.
Posted by: Osho Robbins | April 10, 2011 at 03:08 AM
Santa Claus is at the door !
How many people here got up
and just ran to the door ?
No one ? Why ?
Because the thought is neutral.
You can only act on thought if
IT IS BELIEVED TRUE.
In just the same way, the 'selfless'
cannot be moved to action to wax
a self they know doesn't exist.
No matter how fast the thought appears.
Therefore, stilling the mind is a stupid
idea created by the Saints to only
suspend the mind (self belief).
Vanity causes a great deal of movement
in human beings. Vanity to sit at the
right hand of God causes the greatest
The selfless may have minds that continually
twirl around at dazzling speed. But, the self belief cannot create action.
The mind is not the enemy. Thoughts cannot
hurt one unless the belief is falacious.
Belief hurts people. Belief in a self,
belief in a God, belief in a religion,
belief in a politcal party.
The self waxes itself with beliefs.
Without beliefs, the self cannot exist.
Without a self, beliefs cannot exist.
Beliefs cannot move the selfless to action.
Therefore, the selfless are harmless.
Religion is not the solution.
Religion is the problem.
Posted by: Mike Williams | April 10, 2011 at 08:09 AM
"what I used to look upon as 'hard' truth has become a lot softer." - Now there's the gist of it - even for scientists.
Posted by: Trish Wareing | April 10, 2011 at 11:06 AM
Love your name, if I may be so
subversive to say so.
Isn't it great when these people
talk Zen ? Doesn't it make you
feel young again ?
At championship fight was held
at Madison Square Garden.
The jnani against the Zen master.
The referee said shake hands and come
The jnani immediately punched the
Zen Master on the nose and knocked
him to the mat.
The Zen Master looked up perplexed
at the jnani and said, "why did you do that ?"
The jnani replied, "You hesitated".
Posted by: Mike Williams | April 10, 2011 at 01:26 PM
How did the event go Brian ? any RSSB believers in attendance ?
Posted by: Dogribb | April 11, 2011 at 12:29 PM
Dogribb, this was just a small gathering six people (basically a book discussion group) in our home. I'm planning to share some of the themes that came up in our interesting neuroscience discussion in tonight's blog post.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | April 11, 2011 at 12:35 PM