We’re not an illusion, yet the idea we have of ourselves is
How can our sense of self as a separate entity be illusory? My selfhood is what I am as the collective mind and body. As such, it clearly occupies a fixed amount of space which is separate from everything else in the world. This is what we think isn’t it? This is simple common sense; surely? On closer examination though, we discover that the certainty of this assumption is hard to support with reason. What this more rigorous analysis reveals is that we’re juggling with concepts, and mistaking these for actuality. We forget that when we think, or form assumptions, we inhabit a land of language and symbols. We absorb into a certain ‘otherness’, the process as a whole being an imperceptible transition.
We think we’re separate from the world, yet this is only a thought
This ‘otherness’ becomes a virtual world. Within it, we form imagery and ideas of and about the real world. This is how, along with other creatures of sentience, the sensory system of our particular species of Great Ape makes sense of the world. That statement can be taken literally; it’s how we ‘make sense(s)’ so that our physical being may understand both itself and the world. That which is ‘made sense’ in imagery and ideas however, is always conjoined with what is outside of the sensory formation; it’s neither made nor exists in a vacuum. So, the otherness of thought is always to an extent bound up within a this-ness of what is. It’s not ‘what is’, yet at the same time is not separate to it.
We cannot know ourselves as a thought, belief or assumption
Let’s get back to the assertion that we’re juggling with concepts when we think about selfhood, body and mind. These are the things that we feel certain comprise ‘what I am’. Taken as a whole, this collective also feels to us as if it’s separate from everything else. We feel that our ‘self’ is some constant agent of doer-ship which acts upon and experiences a world outside of itself – a guiding agent that lends a sense of centrality in any situation. Our body’s regarded as an ever-changing, bounded materiality constituting what’s ‘mine’. And our mind’s a vast flux of ephemera with nothing fixedly enduring beyond the patterns it ingrains via conditioning; all of which is considered possessed and internalised.
Left unchecked, the mind will endorse its own false assumptions
If we broadly agree with these brief descriptions of selfhood, the body and mind, then we accept that when we think of these phenomena, we’re juggling concepts. We’re using the words ‘body’, ‘mind’ and ‘self’ as symbols of incredibly complex and ever-changing phenomena. In casually using these concepts, we believe and assume that as a collective, they stand for ‘what I am’ as a separate, autonomous entity within the world. This analysis very much accords with the world of appearances, and embeds into our assumptions and beliefs with the aid of feelings. I both feel like, and appear to be, a discrete individual that’s separated out from the world. What’s more, my entire cognitive system endorses this.
Our physical body itself is a host to vast numbers of alien life forms
So let’s tease things apart, beginning with the body. Our physical being hosts countless thousands of microorganisms which participate in sustaining its health. They reside in the skin, saliva, mucous, gastrointestinal tracts, eyelids and elsewhere. Are these necessary organisms separate to us or do they partly constitute what I am? It’s valid to say they’re both. Do the newly amputated limb, or freshly cut toenail clipping, become in essence different due to their partition from our body, and is our selfhood diminished by their separation? To both we must answer ‘no’; so why were they previously thought constituents of our ‘self’? Can our ‘self’ be reduced to body parts; if so, then which?
Every second of our life 700,000 of our body’s cells die away
Our body comprises only cells, almost all of which die in a cycle lasting a few short years. This occurs naturally in order that the body may develop as it must – a process known as ‘apoptosis’, meaning programmed cell death. In an adult, 50-70 billion cells die in this way each day. So we’re separated from our own cells at an astonishing rate. One minute they constitute what I am as an alive being and the next they’re dead, decaying within us and awaiting to be scavenged by white blood cells which smell their death. Am I separate from the dead ones yet identical with the live ones? No, they’re both part of what I am, which is neither entirely alive nor dead, not inside or outside any ‘self’.
A great mystery of humankind is how matter comes to know of itself
And what of our mind; how does our mind constitute a part of us, the ‘me’ that’s a separate, autonomous entity within the world? And how do we prove that any mind even exists, such that it could be considered separate from, or contained within, ‘me’? Mind and awareness aren’t the brain and nervous system itself; they’re terms we use to indicate knowing of various kinds. It’s impossible to put our finger on mind and awareness beyond the appearances of this knowing. Never in history has anyone explained how matter comes to know itself as an apparent subject of experience. If we can’t even explain what these things are, or even prove they exist, why do we consider them inseparable from us?
It’s impossible to be alive and aware as a separate entity
Still, we may say it’s the mind and awareness that give rise to our sense of selfhood. We have to put it down to something, even if we can’t prove that ‘something’ exists or explain what it is. We regard these mercurial phenomena as ‘mine’ – possessions and attributes of a ‘self’. And yet in the experience of them, there’s always something attributable to what is considered external to the mind and awareness themselves. We can never think of anything that’s not referencing externality in some way or another. If we try to imagine something that’s not referencing the past, past ideas, or what is outside of our body, we can’t. So in what sense is the aware mind exclusively an aspect of an autonomous, separate ‘self’?
Our separation is nothing more than a story we repeat to ourselves
How then, can we be certain that the apparent separation of selfhood is not an illusion? We can’t take a measure to the ‘self’, confirming its presence within the boundaries of the body. And even if we could, we’ve already seen that the body itself can’t rightly be considered an enduring and entirely contained, isolated repository of selfhood. Our sense of selfhood is undeniable, and yet we can’t identify what or where it is. We can talk about its characteristics, yet we can never pin it down in concrete terms; it’s always some abstraction we concoct from other qualities, or phenomena. What this means is that it only exists in a narrative form, a series of ideas concerning about-ness but never what is.
In otherness, we unwittingly fictionalise ourselves
We come back then to a certain otherness, a virtual world into which our being slips imperceptibly and with an unquestioning certainty. It’s not that we evade our participation in the world; it’s merely that our knowledge of it, and of our own being too, is mediated by this narrative. We inhabit what is in effect a fictionalised version of events and our being. We’re always one step removed from the reality of the world and our being. We’re always mistaking our concepts and ideas for the things they represent. It’s within this narrative of selfhood that we create the illusion of separation. This must mean that if we deconstruct the narrative, we in the process dissolve the illusion and become the actual.
Ending the illusion reveals our ordinary, authentic state
What happens following this process is that the mind and awareness operate exactly as before. This means there’s a quality of ordinariness lent to the state of affairs that’s entirely familiar, and yet things are no longer the same. All that’s happened is that the otherness has evaporated and so the sense of separation no longer obtains. We no longer feel that awareness is somehow channelling between what’s outside of us and what we now know was merely an idea of what we are – a separate body, mind and ‘self’. So naturally, things feel more authentic as a result of this. The world and our being can’t change – hence the familiarity – it’s just the ordinariness of them is perfectly so.