Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Why I am both Nothing and Everything

I've always been very upset that there is separateness in the world. I thought, "Why is it that one person gets one experience, but I get another? Why can't I experience it all, even the things that my individuality, my species, and my gender preclude from me?" I thought it was extremely unjust that I was separate from other people at all; I wanted a chance to be anyone and everyone.

Naturally, this perspective doesn't mesh with the world very well. I'm stuck with my body and its limitations for the rest of my life--I simply can't peer into someone else's mind or trade identities with another person. As I put in another post, I am doomed to forever wander the corridors of my mind alone.

And yet, that last assertion isn't quite true. It certainly is true that I can't see the the mind of another person perfectly, but, in truth, neither can they. You see, people assume that we know ourselves completely, that we are an expert on what goes on in our heads. But that's simply not the case. How many times have you forgotten something, only to remember it again sometime in the future? Was that information gone? No; it was a part of your mind, but you just didn't realize it.

That goes for many things: do you consciously know how to beat your heart? Do you have any deliberate notions of how the mechanics of your muscles work? What about dreams? That's a part of you, but they can surprise you as much as anything in the external world. The same is true for any sudden intrusion into the mind, whether it be a fleeting thought or a sudden mood. 

It's true that, at least in one sense, I'm a stranger in the world. But it is also true that, in the same sense, I'm a stranger in my own head. I might not know what's going on in another's mind; however, it can sometimes take great effort to know what's going on in my mind! When I realized this, I suddenly began to see that I'm only as separate from other people as I am from myself. Or rather, I began to realize that what I had thought of as "my self" didn't really exist at all.

When most people use the word "self" in a philosophical context, they tend to mean something that belongs to you. Even I thought this, though I didn't realize it. Though I may have professed to believing that the self was an immaterial light of consciousness, I actually thought of it as identical with the contents of my consciousness (i.e. my thoughts, sensations, and emotions). But that is a mistake.

If you, like I did, define your self as the impersonal witness of the contents of your consciousness, that's fine. However, as soon as you start identifying yourself with any of these contents, you immediately open up the door to misery and anxiety. To see this, let's say you get a disfiguring illness they leaves your body looking hideous. If you identify yourself with that body, then you are hideous. If you identify yourself with your thoughts and have an evil thought, then suddenly you are evil. Moreover, if you identify yourself with your sensations (as have many philosophers) and you suffer endless, miserable pain, then you become that endless, miserable pain.

I repeat the meditative recitation of many Dharmic practitioners: I am not my body, I am not my mind, I am not my feelings, I am not my thoughts. Identification with these things only brings misery--anxiety over maintaining them, and despair over being limited to them.

But there is an even deeper layer here. To express it, let's turn to a quotation from Ludwig Wittgenstein's notebooks:

"As I can infer my spirit from my physiognomy, so I can infer the spirit of each thing from its physiognomy. [...] Only remember that the spirit of the snake, of the lion, is your spirit. For it is only from yourself that you are acquainted with spirit at all."

I am separate from myself--I know my character by observing how I act in certain situations and learning about the way I think, feel, and behave. Exactly the same is true of how I know anyone else. I learn about my behavior; I learn about their behavior. I see myself getting angry; I see another person getting angry. There is no essential difference here.

In one sense, I am nothing--I can't point to anything in the world and undeniably say "that's me". For precisely the same reasons, I am able to say to anything that "I'm just as much you as I am anything else!" Nothing in the world belongs to me; I am its transcendental witness, its Wittgensteinian limit. But because I have shrunk myself to a mere nothing, other people and their emotions belong to me just as much as the stuff going on in my head. There is no essential boundary--only a single continuum that includes me, you, and everything else.

One of my favorite songs has a lyric that I profoundly resonate with: "I can be anything that I see" (link). And it's true. I am not just Christian Swenson. In the same way that I am him, I am also my friends, my family, my neighbors, and my pets. I am man, woman, girl, and boy. I am the stars and the ocean and the mountains. But so are you! And in the end, that's the greatest news I could have asked for: that we are each other, and that together we share the totality of our being, our world, and our selves.

That's that. You may have found this post odd or unnecessary--indeed, this seems to be a complicated way of solving an unbelievably simple problem (like Adam S. Miller's Rube Goldberg Machines). But it has brought my peace, and I post it here that it might do the same for one of you.

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