As was mentioned previously, one of the basic characteristics of humanity is the sense of being self-conscious. By this I am not referring to the feeling that some of us get when we speak in front of a group or accidentally call attention to ourselves – what I am referring to is the sense of ‘I’ which most of us seem to have.
In previous posts we have seen that the universe is full of things which we call separate but are really interconnected, and that what we call separate is really arbitrary. The ultimate distinction that most of us make is that between ourselves and everything else. From where does this self-consciousness arise? As far as I know, there is no accepted, definitive answer to this question at the moment, although this has been the subject of speculation for quite a long time.
Julian Jaynes proposed that consciousness comes from the communication between the left and right hemispheres of the human brain (see The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind).
The notion of a separate thinker, of an ‘I’ distinct from the experience, comes from memory and from the rapidity with which thought changes. It is like whirling a burning stick to give the illusion of a continuous circle of fire. If you imagine that memory is a direct knowledge of the past rather than a present experience, you get the illusion of knowing the past and the present at the same time. This suggests that there is something in you distinct from both the past and the present experiences. You reason, ‘I know this present experience, and it is different from that past experience. If I can compare the two, and notice that experience has changed, I must be something constant and apart.’ Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity.
In Buddhism, this is called Anatta — the notion that the “self” is an illusion.
What we call the “self” – the little person who we believe sits in our heads and directs things – is an illusion created by a combination of our memory and our ability to think inductively. We note that this happens, then that happens, etc., and then begin to posit an “I” to which it happens. Children don’t develop a sense of self until they are indoctrinated into it by their caregivers – note the common use of the third person when children first learn to talk (“Colleen wants a banana” instead of “I want a banana.”).
Also, unless we are willing to grant “selfhood” to dogs, parrots, earthworms, slugs, and bacteria, then it is hard to justify why people should have it, since the difference between people and these other life forms is a difference of degree, not of kind. Of course, it’s obvious that we do have this consciousness of selfhood – the issue is whether or not it has objective meaning. If not, this has significant ramifications for us.
If our selves do not exist, then in death nothing is lost except self consciousness – which was an illusion anyway. Death is simply a reorganization, not an end. This thought can free us from the fear of death, but it has no power whatsoever if one is essentially caught in the trap of self absorption. It’s one thing to believe something on an intellectual level, and quite another to feel it.
If we are trapped in the struggle of postponing death we run the risk of never experiencing life. The best doctor in the world can never save a life, but only extend it – what good is it to extend a life so that someone can spend the extended time worrying that the extension won’t be long enough? This consciousness of self is self-promoting and non-productive; in fact, it seems to be what Alan Watts calls “nature’s ingenious mode of self-torture.”
We are struggling to make sure of the permanence, continuity, and safety of this enduring core, this corner and soul of our being which we call “I.” For this we think to be the real man – the thinker of our thoughts, the feeler of our feelings, and the knower of our knowledge. We do not actually understand that there is no security until we realize that this “I” does not exist. Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity
Not until we let go of this illusion will we be truly free to live our lives.
Buddha image by Otgo Otgonbayar Ershuu – Own work http://www.mongolian-art.de/galerie_buddha_goetter/index.htm, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25335461