Saturday, May 16, 2020

The Great Illusion of the Self

Four years ago New Scientist has published a series of very interesting articles about self sense. The articles were written by Jan Westerhoff and Richard Fisher. I checked today, some of the articles are still on their website, some not, but in order to read you have to subscribe and pay. Four years ago the reading was free and I was surprised that something like that can be found, I mean, scientific investigation in our sense of the self.

I have made my notes about these articles, removing scientific experiments which have so boring details. I am writing today's post based on my notes. It seems to me that by scientific experiments they are trying to re-invent the wheel. The illusion of the self is explained in teachings of Siddharameshwar, Nisargadatta, Ranjit  Maharaj, Ramana Maharshi and many others. So I have compared the conclusion of these scientific investigations and the spiritual teachings.

It is a long read but worthy one. Enjoy...

What are you?

As you wake up each morning, hazy and disoriented, you gradually become aware of the rustling of the sheets, sense their texture and squint at the light. One aspect of your self has reassembled: the first-person observer of reality, inhabiting a human body.

As wakefulness grows, so does your sense of having a past, a personality and motivations. Your self is complete, as both witness of the world and bearer of your consciousness and identity. You.

This intuitive sense of self is an effortless and fundamental human experience. But it is nothing more than an elaborate illusion. Under scrutiny, many common-sense beliefs about selfhood begin to unravel. Some thinkers even go as far as claiming that there is no such thing as the self.

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj:

You give no attention to your Self. Your mind is always occupied with things, people and ideas, never with your Self. Bring your Self into focus, become aware of your own existence. See how you function. Watch the motives and the results of your actions. By knowing what you are not you come to know your Self. The way back to your Self is through refusal and rejection. One thing is certain, the real is not imaginary, it is not a product of the mind.

If you are seeking truth, reality, God or whatever you like to call it, I suggest that you start with the only reality you are absolutely certain of-that is the fact of your own being. There is no one sitting here who can say 'I am not'. Each one of us knows 'I am'. But that thought 'I am' is not the reality. It is the closest you will ever get to it with the mind.

That 'I am' is just a translation by the mind of that sense of presence, the awareness of presence or the presence of that awareness. That is the only reality we are absolutely certain of. Nobody under any circumstances can say 'I am not'. That knowing is constantly and ever with us. And that is why we say that what you are seeking you already are.

Even the sense "I am" is not continuous, though it is a useful pointer, it shows where to seek but not what to seek. All you need is to get rid of is the tendency to define your Self. All definitions apply to your body only and to its expressions. Once this obsession with the body goes, you will revert to your natural state spontaneously and effortlessly. You discover it by being earnest, by searching, enquiring, questioning daily and hourly, by giving your life to discovery.


The one and only you

Three beliefs about the self are absolutely fundamental for our belief of who we are. First, we regard ourselves as unchanging and continuous. This is not to say that we remain forever the same, but that among all this change there is something that remains constant and that makes the "me" today the same person I was five years ago and will be five years in the future.

Second, we see our self as the unifier that brings it all together. The world presents itself to us as a mixture of sights, sounds, smells, mental images, recollections and so forth. In the self, these are all integrated and an image of a single, unified world emerges.

Finally, the self is an agent. It is the thinker of our thoughts and the doer of our deeds. It is where the representation of the world, unified into one coherent whole, is used so we can act on this world.

All of these beliefs appear to be blindingly obvious and as certain as can be. But as we look at them more closely, they become less and less self-evident.

It would seem obvious that we exist continuously from our first moments in our mother's womb up to our death. Yet during the time that our self exists, it undergoes substantial changes in beliefs, abilities, desires and moods. The happy self of yesterday cannot be exactly the same as the grief-stricken self of today, for example. But we surely still have the same self today that we had yesterday.

Yet our whole way of living relies on the notion that we are unchanging, coherent and autonomous individuals. The self is not only a useful illusion, it may also be a necessary one.

Think back to your earliest memory. Now project forward to the day of your death. It is impossible to know when this will come, but it will. What you have just surveyed might be called your "self-span", or the time when this entity you call your self exists.

What is it about a mere arrangement of matter and energy that gives rise to a subjective sense of self? It must be a collective property of the neurons in your brain, which have mostly stayed with you throughout life, and which will cease to exist after you die. But why a given bundle of neurons can give rise to a given sense of selfhood, and whether that subjective sense can ever reside in a different bundle of neurons, may forever remain a mystery.

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj:

The world of your perceptions is a very small world indeed. And it is entirely private. Take it to be a dream and be done with it. A dream does not last, neither does your own little world. Is not the idea of a total world a part of your personal world? The universe does not come to tell you that you are a part of it. It is you who have invented a totality to contain you as a part. In fact, all you know is your own private world, however well you have furnished it with your imaginations and expectations.

Give up all questions except one: ‘Who am I?’ After all, the only fact you are sure of is that you are. The ‘I am’ is certain. The ‘I am this’ is not. Struggle to find out what you are in reality. Discover all that you are not - body, feelings thoughts, time, space, this or that -- nothing, concrete or abstract, which you perceive can be you. The very act of perceiving shows that you are not what you perceive.

Of course you can reach Reality, provided you are really fed up with everything, including your spiritual practice. When you demand nothing of the world, nor of God, when you want nothing, seek nothing, expect nothing then the Supreme State will come to you uninvited and unexpected!


You think you live in the present?

Our brains create our own version of reality to help us make sense of things. But this means we're living outside time.

It seems obvious that we exist in the present. The past is gone and the future has not yet happened, so where else could we be? But perhaps we should not be so certain.

Sensory information reaches us at different speeds, yet appears unified as one moment. Nerve signals need time to be transmitted and time to be processed by the brain. And there are events – such as a light flashing, or someone snapping their fingers – that take less time to occur than our system needs to process them. By the time we become aware of the flash or the finger-snap, it is already history.

Our experience of the world resembles a television broadcast with a time lag; conscious perception is not "live". This on its own might not be too much cause for concern, but in the same way the TV time lag makes last-minute censorship possible, our brain, rather than showing us what happened a moment ago, sometimes constructs a present that has never actually happened.

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj:

Between the body and the self there lies a cloud of thoughts and feelings, which neither serve the body nor the self. These thoughts and feelings are flimsy, transient and meaningless, mere mental dust that blinds and chokes, yet they are there, obscuring and destroying.

Surely, the memory of an event cannot pass for the event itself. Nor can the anticipation. There is something exceptional, unique, about the present event, which the previous, or the coming do not have. There is a livingness about it, an actuality; it stands out as if illuminated. There is the ‘stamp of reality’ on the actual, which the past and the future do not have.

What gives the present that 'stamp of reality’?

There is nothing peculiar in the present event to make it different from the past and future. For a moment the past was actual and the future will become so.

What makes the present so different?

Obviously, my presence. I am real for I am always now, in the present, and what is with me now shares in my reality. The past is in memory, the future - in imagination.

There is nothing in the present event itself that makes it stand out as real. It may be some simple, periodical occurrence, like the striking of the clock. In spite of our knowing that the successive strokes are identical, the present stroke is quite different from the previous one and the next - as remembered, or expected.

A thing focused in the now is with me, for I am ever present; it is my own reality that I impart to the present event.

But we deal with things remembered as if they were real?

We consider memories, only when they come into the present The forgotten is not counted until one is reminded - which implies, bringing into the now.

Things and thoughts have been changing all the time. But the feeling that what is now is real has never changed, even in dream.


What are we to do?

"Let yourself go" now has a whole new meaning, but there are fewer things harder to let go of. Our concept of ourselves as individuals in control of our destinies underpins much of our existence, from how we live our lives to the laws of the land. The way we treat others, too, hinges largely on the assumption that they have a sense of self similar to our own.

So it is a shock to discover that our deeply felt truths are in fact smoke and mirrors of the highest order. What are we – whatever it is we are – to do?

First of all, keep it in perspective. Much of what we take for granted about our inner lives, from visual perception to memories, is little more than an elaborate construct of the mind. The self is just another part of this illusion.

And it seems to serve us well. In that respect, the self is similar to free will, another fundamental feature of the human experience now regarded by many as an illusion. Even as the objective possibility of free will erodes, our subjective experience of it remains unchanged: we continue to feel and act as though we have it.

The same will surely be true about the self. The illusion is so entrenched, and so useful, that it is impossible to shake off. But knowing the truth will help you understand yourself – and those around you – better.

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj:

All waiting is futile. To depend on time to solve our problems is self-delusion. The future, left to itself merely repeats the past. Change can only happen now, never in the future. With crystal clarity see the need of change. This is all.

All experience is illusory, limited and temporal. Expect nothing from experience. Self-Realization by itself is not an experience, though it may lead to a new dimension of experiences. Yet the new experiences, however interesting, are not more real than the old.

Definitely self-realization is not a new experience. It is the discovery of the timeless factor in every experience. It is awareness, which makes experience possible. Just like in all the colors light is the colorless factor, so in every experience awareness is present, yet it is not an experience.

Awareness is not limited to consciousness. It is of all that is. Consciousness is of duality. There is no duality in awareness. It is one single block of pure cognition. In the same way one can talk of the pure being and pure creation - nameless, formless, silent and yet absolutely real, powerful, effective. Their being indescribable does not affect them in the least. While they are unconscious, they are essential.

The conscious cannot change fundamentally, it can only modify. Any thing, to change, must pass through death, through obscuration and dissolution. Gold jewellery must be melted down before it is cast into another shape. What refuses to die cannot be reborn.

Withdrawal, aloofness, letting go is death. To live fully, death is essential; every ending makes a new beginning. On the other hand, do understand, that only the dead can die, not the living. That which is alive in you, is immortal.

The source is neither right nor wrong. Nor is desire by itself right or wrong. It is nothing but striving for happiness. Having identified yourself with a speck of a body you feel lost and search desperately for the sense of fullness and completeness you call happiness.



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