“The game is not about becoming somebody; it’s about becoming nobody.”
— Ram Dass
Well, folks, this is where I restock my wagon with snake oil and hit the ol’ dusty trail. My time as your resident opinion guru and charlatan has come to an end, as this will be my final piece for The Voyager.
In this piece, I would like to extend the discussion further and advocate applying that same agnostic point of view to our observations of ourselves or, more accurately, to the very concept of self.
In the same way that we can never assume our faculties of receiving and processing information will allow us to comprehend the totality of the mystery of the universe, we also cannot assume that our conception of self, as we think we understand it, allows us to comprehend the totality of the mystery of consciousness.
There are many things about the mystery of consciousness that are entirely elusive to understand.
The mystery of senses
Take something as seemingly simple as sensory input. Our material science has elucidated a great deal about the mechanics of the senses, but material science can say absolutely nothing about how consciousness perceives such phenomena within the mind itself.
For example, let’s examine the concept of sound or hearing for a moment.
Material science can explain the mechanics of acoustics: An oscillation of pressure produces vibrations that form a mechanical wave transmitting through a material medium such as a solid, liquid or gas, and if the wave falls within a certain range of frequencies, the eardrum and inner ear will detect and convert the vibrations into neurons via the cochlear nerve and the brain stem can recognize them as electrical signals.
But none of that has anything whatsoever to do with explaining the phenomena of hearing itself. Yes, material science explains the mechanical process of acoustics. But the phenomenon of actually hearing a sound is something that can only be experienced by the mystery of consciousness.
We can literally say nothing about the actual perception of sound. We can only experience it.
So, then what is sound? Ultimately, we have no friggin’ idea.
This goes for all the senses. We can explain the mechanical process, but we can say nothing at all about the phenomena of the perception itself. It can only be experienced by consciousness, as an event for the mind alone.
The mystery of self
The mystery of consciousness is so pervasive that we can’t even explain using words or scientific instruments what it entails to perceive sensory input. However, there is one aspect of consciousness we do know: As we each perceive the universe, we seem to organize the experience into subjective morsels that help solidify the idea of self-awareness.
It is difficult to define exactly what we mean by the concept of “self,” and we will perhaps be charting some murky and dangerous waters just trying to frame this conversation in a way that yields coherent results.
Sometimes, the word “ego” is used synonymously with the concept of self. “Ego” is simply Latin for “I.”
But for most people, our sense of self or ego comes from a series of associations we make from which we derive a strong sense of identity.
These associations usually consist of our past, our emotions and our thoughts. In fact, for most people, the most easily recognizable aspect of their ego is the interior monologue — the incessant thinking we do all day long.
We tend to think that the voice in our head is actually us, when the reality is that the voice in our heads is just a seemingly endless series of words that we as humans invented and has very little to do with the mystery of consciousness.
Form from the formless
This is another area where I feel Alfred Korzybski’s phrase “the map is not the territory” is relevant. Just as Korzybski suggested that language and theories are not the same things as the objects and ideas for which they symbolize, our ego or sense of self with which we identify is not the same thing as the mystery of consciousness.
We as humans have a tendency to over-conceptualize and try to create tangible things out of transient ideas. So, when we think of the concept of self, we unconsciously try to create an actual thing in our minds that we can reach out and touch and say to ourselves, “This is me. Here I am. My name is so-and-so, etc.”
It’s what I like to call “creating form out of the formless.”
It’s difficult to say why we do this. Perhaps it’s the by-product of language or some evolutionary bio-survival mechanism or a myriad of other possibilities.
But we tend to over-conceptualize the idea of self to the point where we identify wholly with some tangible box-like object that contains the idea of who we think we are.
We constantly try to place our life story, past troubles, emotional baggage and habitual thought patterns into this little box and keep writing our names on it and calling it our “self.”
The Russian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff once suggested that our egos ultimately can become prisons for the mind, writing, “What you took as yourself begins to look like a little prison-house far away in the valley beneath you.”
And Buddhism essentially teaches that there is no self or that the self is an illusion. This concept in Buddhism is called “anatta,” a Pali term meaning “no self.”
Dance of the Human Mystery
Ultimately, if you were to ask me who I am, my response would be, “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”
I have zero interest in such an idea because any metric I used for a definition would come up radically short. It would be like attempting to grasp a handful of sand — the grains just run through your fingers.
Buckminster Fuller once said, “I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing — a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process — an integral function of the universe.”
I think Bucky puts it pretty well. It seems to make better sense to think of human consciousness as being much more akin to verbs than nouns — as mysterious bundles of energy functions and processes flowing within time and space as integral aspects of the unfolding universe.
It’s what I like to call the Dance of the Human Mystery.
This is not to say that we do not each have wonderfully unique traits about ourselves, but these traits are just as beautiful and mysterious as consciousness itself. For example, there seems to be a reason that Mozart was able to start composing at age 6 — we just don’t know what that reason is.
We ultimately don’t know who we are, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
And while I might not know who I am, I do know this: Whatever I am, the concept of self is not something that should be taken too seriously.
We’re all dancing through this swirling, mysterious universe together like lotus flowers flowing downstream on a river of uncertainty.
We might not understand where we’re going or from whence we came, but along the journey, considering no one really knows who they are, let us try our level best to cultivate compassion, forgiveness and empathy without any sense of judgment for our fellow travelers — at least that’s what I’ll be telling the next townsfolk when I hitch my wagon and unload my cases of snake oil.
So, fare thee well, folks. The dusty trail beckons me forth.
W. Paul Smith