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August 23, 2023


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Ah, we can return to looking at free will for what it is purported to be – the illusion of agency that is somehow separate from the natural world – which includes our cognitive faculties. Most people feel and view themselves as separate from the natural world, in that we somehow possess some essence which doesn't belong to nature. They call this mysterious essence our divine nature, soul, spirit, self, etc.

As Paul Breer points out here: - “It is not even appropriate to say that we are subjects having the experience. We are the experience. We are that which is happening here in these bodies.” And: - “Because the idea [non-agency] is so central, taking it in deeply has the potential for transforming the way we feel about almost everything we do.”

‘Transformation resulting from the realisation that there is no controlling agency’; quite different from the customary definition of free will which apparently can make choices that are unimpeded and undetermined by past events. All choices derive from past experience and knowledge. Where one reads and studies Zen for example (as Beer did) his understanding of non-agency emerged from that – his past info and experience. And also, the inclination to even begin to read and study something, arises from previous exposure and influences.

It is quite likely that the realisation of there being no separate agency (no self) enables one to feel more connected to the world, other people and to one’s own store of particular conditioning derived from the time, place and people born into. No free will needed to expose and act upon this, just introspection - awareness, contemplation or meditation if you prefer.

“The book is both an argument and a strategy for replacing the illusion of agency with a view of ourselves as constellations of experience and behavior arising spontaneously out of circumstance.”

While both of those are of interesting; but, as you say, the former isn’t new, at least in these parts. The latter, though, is something I find …intriguing. Like you, I’m curious what you’ll find in there as far as the details of this "strategy".

That’s something I personally do struggle with sometimes. Even with a very approximate understanding of these things, and even with the completely sketchy and now-here-next-moment-gone experiential understanding of this idea, I myself sometimes do struggle to find meaning in and motivation for continuing to engage with the otherwise completely fulfilling complexity that the world pushes oneself into. This whole web of complex interactions, and engagements, and busy-ness, that our lives are all about, that success (so-called) is all about, that “fulfillment” is supposed to be about --- it is all predicated on precisely this, this separate agency, and the actualization of this separate agency. Take that away --- well, it is in fact away always, it’s never actually really here, but take away the illusion of it --- and what then is left, but to simply sit back and passively observe the world, like the Buddha himself spent his life doing, getting off of your haunches only to draw enough water to quench your thirst and chop enough wood to warm you at night? For someone whose experientation of these things is more …solid, and more established, than my own cursory and tentative realization and understanding of these matters, I can see this becoming a very real issue.

It’s not that complexity is impossible without separate agency. Ants, for instance, busily going about their business within their colonies, and fighting their wars, they show us that. But still, I hope I’m not engaging in exceptionalism when I imagine that our own complexity, us humans I mean, is of a very different order than ants, and bees, as well as other primates, and other creatures in whom we see complex social structures.

Heh, I can see this amounting to a terrific sci-fi plot, that an Ursuala Le Guin, for instance, or maybe for a somewhat different treatment a Neal Stephenson, might produce an absolute masterpiece from, this idea of a society of humans who’ve organically evolved without the illusion of a separate self and free will. I’d myself picture such a world as one without the wars and the endless strife that characterizes our own; but then let’s not forget the wars that ants fight, ants who I guess don’t have a sense of self at all; so who knows?

I’m looking forward to seeing, in your further posts, Brian, how Paul Breer discusses his “strategies” for living with the realization of the absence of a separate agency, the details of life lived on those terms, both at a personal level, and at the level of a whole society organized along those lines.

"..Straining, blaming, craving, defending and protesting are all implicated in the agency syndrome. Their emotional counterparts -- anxiety, guilt, despair, pride, and anger -- can be expected to change as behavior itself changes. For anyone patient enough to see the process through, the end result is a transformation of personality. The more thorough the uprooting of agency, the more radical will be that transformation."

If this guy's theory is true, it would follow that the Amish, the Mormons, and the Mennonites are the most miserable, angry, guilt-ridden, stressed-out, and prideful people in the world.

I can understand dumping one's religion because one feels it doesn't work. But I don't understand this love affair with Wattsian notions of killing the ego as a way to solve all life's problems. That clearly doesn't work. Or at least, no one has been able to demonstrate that it works anything more than a superficial way.

If a radical acceptance of dependent origination *really* resulted in a bliss that outshines all the typical attractions of human affairs, wouldn't out society be chock full of monks contentedly vipassaning themselves through the days? Since it clearly doesn't, then...isn't it time to draw conclusions instead of pounding this no-self square peg into the round hole of truly real life?

All this no-self, ego-death, radical determinist stuff is just another entertaining theory, like raw food veganism. No doubt it does have a tiny utility as a way to inventory one's mind and emotions. But if it were a truly comprehensively valid plan of living I think we'd know that by now, given we're 3000 years past the days of the Buddha and the West's grand experiment with Eastern religion of the past few decades.

The knowledge that we are not these frail and failing, imperfect bodies is a great relief...

The knowledge that all our skills and intellect, positions in life, in business and relationships and their burdens and maintenance has very little to do with our happiness is a great relief....

The joy of just being in our own self, a self transcending opinions and attitudes and social conventions, beings beyond male / female/rich/poor /abled/disabled, and every possible variation and political party or geographic region frees us entirely, and in this state, our true self, our whole purpose, to be who we are free of conventions, labels, judgments, is the source of unlimited bliss. And makes us all, however different we appear, brothers and sisters of the same family, the same indescribable father.

And when we realize this is the noble birthright of every human being, war ends. All disagreements are understood as seeing things from our limited body brain conditioning, geography and time. And these limitations are each just forms of ignorance of our greater birthright, our true selves, as we are, without need for any other purpose but to enjoy the Love that pours forth within us when we are free. And which we have only the duty to share with our brothers and sisters, and that is every living being.

We have consciousness, we have identity and awareness. Every waking moment is proof this is not an illusion and that we exist.

That the seat of consciousness cannot be found in the physical brain is simply the evidence that the seat of consciousness isn't in the physical brain.

The brain and body is just the car, with all that driver assist software, cameras and mechanisms. But it isn't the driver. All this serves the driver.

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula LeGuin might just do. George's dreams become reality, each effort to improve the world results in unintended disaster. And when his therapist sees that unreality for himself, he goes mad. George finally exists in a reality made of random pieces of the others, blissfully no longer in control. It builds on themes Philip K Dick introduced earlier where thoughts alter reality.

It’s not difficult to see what the self (ego or agency) is and how it originates and operates. The self is our identity, what we refer to as ‘me’ or my’self’ and the fact that it is comprised of all the knowledge, experiences and information that we have accrued from birth. Without such information there is no ‘me’, as sadly becomes the case of altzimers and other brain illnesses.

One of the fallacies regarding the self is that it is possible to lose it through various practices, but just as we are always aware of ourselves physically and mentally, so we are always aware of being ‘me’. The difference being, that it is not the aim to lose the self (impossible) but to understand or realise what it is and how it functions.

As well as comprising the knowledge and info that tells me who I am (my total identity), the brain created self has amassed a wealth of concept and opinions that also feels to be me. Concepts are great and necessary for planning and organising but regularly, concepts are employed as a means to justify our existence. This is where the self becomes ego centred and places ‘me’ as the centre of the universe!

As well as the natural instinct to physically protect ourselves, the self with all its concepts of who and what I am tends to become more important than the physical organism. All its ideas, beliefs, views and opinions of itself need constantly to be guarded and maintained. All the ‘emotional counterparts’ that Breer mentions derive from the drive to maintain and protect the ‘self’ from criticism and opposing opinions.

In Buddhist terms, such is the cause of suffering, suffering caused by confusing the constructed self with all its self-justified opinions and thinking, with who I am. Buddhist practice is to help one to see this aspect of the self in action, not to lose or destroy it but to understand that its ideas, concepts etc., are not who I am.

Hahaha, fellow admirer of Le Guin, are you, Spence? That’s good to know, that’s VERY good to know!

It’s been a long while since I read her Lathe of Heaven, and while I do remember the overall theme of it, but all of the details in it, that’s all kind of hazy in my mind. But as far as I can recall, I don’t think it’s anything like what I spoke of here? Like, not even remotely?! (Likewise Philip K. Dick? I’ve read most of his stuff, and I don’t think anything he’s written comes remotely close to the kind of plot I was speaking of here, not even close!)

Maybe you misremember, Spence? ...But if there’s actually any sci-fi already out there that deals with something akin to what I spoke of here, then I’d like to know about it, and get my hands on it!

As far as writing style, and since you’re a fellow sci-fi enthusiast: Of all the (sci-fi) authors I’ve read, I do think Le Guin is the one who might have been best able to do justice to this kind of a plot. Think not her Lathe of God, that actually (in my subjective opinion!) was not quite her style, and not all that good really; think…, well, think her Left Hand of Darkness instead. Either she, maybe someone like Neal Stephenson, maybe (nah, not quite, on second thoughts) …or maybe China Mieville perhaps? NOT Philip K. Dick though! Excellent with ideas, ab-so-lute genius with ideas, but terrible at plot and …completely lacking in that sheer lyricism of prose that is Ursuala Le Guin at her best. (Heh, all of that, in my own personal subjective opinion, naturally. Others may or may not agree!)

“One of the fallacies regarding the self is that it is possible to lose it through various practices”

Yes, and no, Ron!

Should anyone claim that it’s actually possible to lose the sense of self --- and many do! --- well then, absolutely, the skeptic in me would be up in arms, demanding evidence, absolutely! So at one level, given that as far as I know no such objective evidence is available, I agree 100% with you, that it’s all about UNDERSTANDING the nature of the self, and not an experiential matter.

On the other hand, one’s personal experience does bear out that there’s something akin to a …well, loosening of one’s sense of self, that is sometimes arrived at incrementally through practice, usually hardcore spells of it; or else, at times, spontaneously. Fleeting enough, difficult to hold on to --- and in any case, who knows whether it actually amounts to anything more than a Bullshido-ish “reflection” and inadvertent-mimicry within, simply self-delusion maybe, or maybe even some kind of (mild) psychosis? While I wouldn’t know what, if anything, that might amount to, but it is a fact that one’s ego does sometimes …drop off, a bit, and that cumulatively it does tend to become less …emphatic, less compulsive, over time. Or at least, that is what it feels, subjectively --- but then again, subjective feelings are hardly the best guide to factuality, so who knows!

And also, there’s this: I do wonder about how on earth the ancients might have come to such a completely emphatic and completely detailed understanding of the no-self idea. They had no neuroscience to guide their thinking, after all, all they had is their own experience, is all. As well as a great deal of cogitation around that experience, a great deal of philosophizing, sure: but all of that firmly based off of the core (allegedly) experiential bit of it, in Buddhistic literature at any rate, including the very earliest, that (allegedly) source back to the Buddha himself. How on earth would those ancients have been able to formulate this idea, not as a random throwaway but with such fixity, and in such exquisite detail, unless it is the case that there is indeed some route within that allows for such realization directly?

(Just thinking aloud, as far as the previous paragraph. Not actually claiming that’s so, just wondering, is all. And in any case, lots of things are airy-fairy empty-philosophized, it is their having been validated by science that makes the difference between their being true and their being dismissed as fantasy and fiction. Still, all of that said, I do wonder. I don’t think I’m quite as sure as you seem to be, that it is no more than fallacy, that one can lose one’s sense of self through practice. I’m not saying that’s actually so, I’m not even fence-sitting, …but I’m afraid I do find myself sneaking out a tentative foot to lightly touch the fence!)

Agency can be uprooted through belief in God. A belief in a high power that we can personally talk to and that loves and cares for us. A higher power that when humbly surrendered to, will immediately order our self-centered will to feelings, thoughts, and acts of greater harmony.

I supposed agency can also be uprooted through a project of meditative deconstruction of our thoughts, with the goal of arriving at some kind of "no-self" enlightenment. Or so we're told. From my 40 plus years of observations of both the God and the "no-self" camps, the God camp has the far better track record of actually transforming lives.

AR: - I quite like the term you use “. . . loosening of one’s sense of self” – as applied to practice and: - “. . . that one’s ego does sometimes …drop off, a bit, and that cumulatively it does tend to become less …emphatic, less compulsive, over time.”
Yes, I’d say that one’s ego does ‘drop off a bit’ which Breer describes as ‘the uprooting of agency.’

Incidentally, I partly agree, there are cases of people losing their selves, or rather, loosing their sense of identity. It generally is though to do with mental health reasons or dramatically as I mentioned – altzimers disease. With mental health issues I understand it is to do with trauma, either from the past or current stress. Either way, there is still the sense of self, of a me, a recognition of still being me, a self though confused and unclear.

The sense being referred to here is to do with practice. I understand that some people interested in meditation practice are concerned about how they’d function without a self. I could only add that I see it is more about experiencing without the overriding effects of conditioned thinking – or at least, less impactful.

I would add – for clarification – that the Buddhist doctrine of no-self is not the denial of personhood part to do with seeing ourselves for what we really are — bundles of ever-changing processes. In fact,

Hi SantMat64
You wrote:
"From my 40 plus years of observations of both the God and the "no-self" camps, the God camp has the far better track record of actually transforming lives."

There is a lot of evidence that active practitioners in formal religion and religious practices live 5-7 years longer than those who are not active in formal religion. All other conditions randomized, including participation in other social activity, athletics, level of health, etc.. Hence, there is something unique to Religion and Religious practices that extends life. I suggest it is along the lines you state, that an affirmative, clear and functional pathway to inner happiness through belief in that higher happiness as a tangible, existing, real and conscious force is a much more powerful assist than empty space and the philosophy of Nihilism that leads us there.

Nothing wrong with empty space, but at some point it must be filled with something positive to engage us, help us coordinate our lives around it.

With nothing to cling to, nothing compelling to engage us, there is no basis for roots and growth.

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