Choosing a direction usually feels important. What goals to pursue? What values to honor? We often feel like these decisions are made by thought, by our thinking self. But how much do we really run our lives?
Not long ago I mentioned feeling disconnected from WillSpirit, uncertain of its purpose and unclear on where it should go next. When this blog began back in 2009 I simply wrote about my immediate concerns: depression, medication and side-effects, childhood trauma, therapy, career problems and disability, etc. After awhile my emotional life settled down, and I started covering metaphysical topics. A worldview that included a deeper sense of spirituality felt necessary to my continued growth. In time, that exploration led to my foray into acupuncture, Chinese medicine, and Eastern philosophy. Then my reentry into work as a healer ended after my big illness earlier this year, which I wrote about at length. After my health recovered, and having been rather close to death for a time, concepts no longer felt meaningful to me. They appeared too easily contradicted to seem reliable, and too intellectual to seem comforting. Hence, I resolved to focus on poetry. None of these decisions came as the result of deliberate thought; they arose out of necessity.
So, out of necessity, my recent posts have mostly consisted of verse rather than essays. As was predictable (and predicted) this has led to a slow decline in readership. That’s OK. I’m writing in a way consistent with my calling; whether my words appeal to others is not the central issue as long as I’m true to my values. Poetry still feels like the right direction, though I’m not sure how it got chosen.
After my retreats (mentioned in the last post), I feel tempted to shift emphasis back to exposition. The insights that resonate after my powerful experiences are begging to be described. I know that this new clarity cannot be adequately expressed with words, or at least not prose (which means that poetry may still be the answer), but something in me wants to discuss it anyway.
So here goes:
Probably the biggest realization is my new appreciation for the Buddhist concept of anatta or not-self. This idea challenges Westerners, since we’ve been raised to deify individualism and self-determination. How could a person function if the self were not real? I’ve grappled with this for a long time. Not because I place extra faith in Buddhism rather than Christianity or Hinduism or any other path I’ve explored, but because the Buddha seems to have looked deeply into the mind. If he found the self nonexistent, I feel obligated to determine its presence or absence through my own efforts. In the past I’ve occasionally glimpsed the meaning of anatta, but usually on an intellectual plane. On the recent meditation retreat I finally tasted “no-self’ directly, and I’m finding that it leads to feelings of transcendence that feel more stable and enduring than my usual ‘awakenings.’
The transformation grew out of something one of the retreat leaders said almost offhandedly. She pointed out that when we open our eyes a visual scene fills our awareness effortlessly. This comment was enough to trigger a long chain of cognitive reasoning followed by a deeper realization. I thought about how we don’t need to do anything to make our visual system work. You may recall that I was trained as an ophthalmologist and before that pursued graduate studies in a retinal research laboratory. Back in the day I knew a great deal about vision and how it works mechanistically. One thing is obvious: it all happens on its own. We don’t consciously manipulate our lens to focus light on our retina; that happens automatically. We don’t micromanage the photoreceptors in the retina or the early stages of signal flow that happen there. We don’t struggle to make the relays stations, occipital cortex, and visual association areas do their jobs. Everything happens according to its own intelligence, and vision simply shows up for us.
Following that line of reasoning, one can recognize how most living unfolds free of verbal, conscious involvement. When we walk we don’t need to adjust every muscle independently to keep moving forward without falling. Our hearts beat, our lungs breathe, and our blood chemistry adjusts under control of neural centers over which we exert little or no control. Even our life choices about partner, career, and so on depend on hidden influences that have less to do with thought than we like to believe. For instance, we might fall in love because a partner shares qualities with one of our parents; consciously we cite the person’s smile, good looks, earning capacity, and so on, but these are all explanations arrived at long after the inner mind has already determined to seek pairing.
So what role does the conscious, verbal, ego play? Mostly it’s a commentator that judges, categorizes, explains, and predicts. Sometimes its a designer or innovator, but in truth the most remarkable insights usually arise from realms outside deliberate, lexical analysis.
What can we conclude from all this? To me, it seems obvious that about 99% of human life can be explained by nonverbal process. There is the biochemical work that never enters awareness; there is sensory and motor activity over which thought exerts some supervisory influence but that mostly happens on its own; and there are the creative actions that may be devised lexically but depend on buried strata for authentic inspired artistry.
So if the ego is only the privileged 1% riding on the backs of the hardworking but less lofty 99%, it is hard to see it as an important, central aspect of any person. It is an accretion on top of dynamically evolved biology that’s been in process for billions of years. It may be little more than an epiphenomenon: something that seems important but is really a minor spin off from more vital activity.
And the ego itself is fragmentary. The part that wants a harmonious marriage may be at odds with the part that lusts after new acquaintances. The part that wants to eat a healthy diet disagrees with the part that likes ice cream. And so on. The ego is in no way a single, cohesive personality. It is a hodgepodge of desires, dislikes, memories, and fantasies. There is regret. There is pride. There is hope. There is fear. All these factors emerge in the conscious thinking mind from time to time, and then give way to whatever comes next.
So the egoic, verbal, narrative self is far from in control of the organism. It is also far from unitary. It is easy to conclude, therefore, that a single self is nothing but an illusion created by the ego itself. It serves to enthrone the role of thought, but it is not the centralized, controlling authority it pretends to be.
Why is this important? Mainly, because it is so freeing. If the self is an illusion, it doesn’t need to be defended. We can accept that we feel fragmented and out of control because, in fact, we are. We don’t need to judge our bad habits so harshly because we aren’t choosing them in the ordinary sense of the word. They arise from prior conditioning, often extending back into childhood or even further into family history, both social and genetic. All we are called to do is to encourage the healthier aspects of the organism and limit the destruction caused by the less noble pieces. There is a vast feeling of lightness that pertains once one genuinely experiences no-self.
Self-judgment, self-criticism, self-esteem, self-justification, self-actualization, self-determination, and so on all become rather irrelevant with this new outlook and understanding. One becomes far more willing to “self-sacrifice” for the good of others when the self is understood as an unnecessary illusion.
Well, that was just one of several realizations that rose from the level of intellectual knowledge to the plane of immediate experience during my recent retreats. I’m not sure whether I’ll go on to describe more, or just leave the subject alone after this essay. Apparently, despite my resolve to define my ‘self’ as a poet, the essayist is still alive and well.
No self. Many directions. One being.