We are a process enmeshed within regions or modules in the brain. We do not choose what arises, or, which module “speaks up”. That decision is concealed – a decision we can never see or control. Instead, we “experience” the process of responding to what arises. We are the feeling-and-reasoning process itself. Consciousness. Science suggests the evolutionary purpose of consciousness is social and cultural integration – an ability to experience a cohesive story across disparate subconscious impulses, and interface them with complex rules of the outer world. Bolstering this idea, science separately demonstrates confabulation – a capacity of the brain to construct plausible-yet-sometimes-distorted reasons for apparent circumstances. Similarly here, we can never see this confabulation process or control it. We merely experience the story as yet another sensation.
- The brain is made of discrete components that constantly feed consciousness: thoughts, feelings, stories, memories, urges, sights, sounds, touches. We do not control what shows up.
- Confabulation is the capacity to create plausible stories around these sensations, which are potentially inconsistent with objective reality. We do not control this process.
So – who are “we”, truly, within this absurd context? It’s tempting to believe we are a perfectly coherent human with clear awareness and total control over everything happening. It’s tempting to take credit, or blame, for all that happens in our orbit, and cling or flee accordingly. It’s tempting to imagine future versions of life that would be more wonderful, and devote extraordinary energy getting there. If this way of life is not true, what alternative is there? Why the hell would any person want be curious about this?
We Are Consciousness
“Recognize that consciousness is where all sensations appear – and they appear quite spontaneously. You do not bring them into existence, and you can’t suppress them. You’re not aware OF consciousness. You’re aware AS consciousness. Sounds and sensations and thoughts and emotions, are a play upon the condition that is aware.”
– Sam Harris
If there is such a thing as a “base-level identity” – a raw material from which all other illusory identities are formed – consciousness surely feels like “it”. In other words, what can I possibly be, that simultaneously always feels like “me”, yet adequately accounts for perpetually changing and infinitely different perspectives? I am not the body, I am not the human named Frank, I am not my job title, I am not an American, I am not the pain in my neck, I am not my hunger, I am not my dream of becoming a fighter pilot, I am not the memory I regret from childhood, I am not the overwhelming emotion from seeing the sunrise hit the ocean. I must be something that is capable of feeling like any of those things, but at the same time, not them specifically.
I am this raw process, that attaches-to and identifies-with those things as they arise, and feels fully synonymous with them, but always, essentially, I am this process – consciousness – absent of story and agenda and judgement. I am fed from a mountain of intelligence that is entirely mysterious to me, an intelligence that beats a heart and heals bones and moves lungs and reacts to the world in ways that are unknown, and reveals only what it does, which may or may not be consistent with objective reality, which may or may not have a hidden cause. I am a rider on an elephant, with whom my partnership begs respect and careful understanding, and by extension, respect and understanding for all other riders and elephants. I am not separate from this elephant – we are inextricably bound – not just to each other – but with every living and psychological entity in the universe. This is not a mystical statement – rather an empirical observation with roots in science and philosophy – that anyone can verify for themselves.
Two Ways of Being
“In life, we can be engaged in the drama, or we can step back and be a witness to this amazing play of life unfolding before us.”
– Peter Russell
So far as I can tell, there are two ways of being consciousness:
The default – the way we know since birth. To fully-identify with each arising sensation and thought, thereby letting the feeling-tone dominate and entirely dictate subsequent brain signaling and behavior. The costume of each sensation or identity is fully worn and believed in. One sensation transitions imperceptibly into the next.
I am hungry! I’d better eat.
I am bored! I’d better distract myself.
I am lonely! I’d better find a partner.
I am unfulfilled! I’d better conquer the world.
To notice and study each sensation in a nonattached, indifferent, identity-less manner, thereby suspending and exposing, even if only temporarily, our life-narrative. The narrative from which all further action and expectation seem justified – “seem” being the 50-megaton word at the center of this essay.
Hunger! This is what it’s like to feel hungry. I am not this.
Boredom! This is what it’s like to feel bored. I am not this.
Loneliness! This is what it’s like to feel lonely. I am not this.
Unfulfillment! This is what it’s like to feel unfulfilled. I am not this.
Here is where more grandiose concepts enter the scene, which allude to enlightenment, or spirituality, or nonduality. We can avoid these entirely (while also not dismissing them), and still make an extremely simple, powerful assertion:
This second, nonattached experience is akin to ego death. Regardless of whether one considers this for a split second, or, manages to experience it in some durable way, is irrelevant to the following point:
Experiencing this, even if only for a flash, immediately reveals the profundity and lightness of it all. It’s like pausing a movie and re-remembering you are in a theater. It is all just happening, and it’s largely out of your control. The narrative is a fluid construction. Urges for this or that are not ones you authored, and further, after close inspection, may not be worthwhile urges – from the standpoint of fundamental wellbeing. Your full emotional identification with every twist and turn and desire go silent. And here, you realize your essential power. You are the space between sensation and action. Everything is ok already, NOW! Nothing needed. Everything is fine. This epiphany becomes ballast in your ship. All that arises can now be investigated through this lens. You are the intelligence that can assert calmness, precisely here. You are the receiver of raw sensation, and while you cannot control what you receive, you can interpret and respond appropriately, even if that response means doing exactly nothing.
We do not HAVE a body, a brain, a mind, a soul – nor ARE we any of those things individually. Rather, we are this feeling-and-reasoning process, enmeshed within a biological and psychological system, and further, inextricably enmeshed with all other biological and psychological systems.
That’s Really It.
It seems there are two inescapable and vexing, yet extraordinarily crucial, milestones in adult human life. First, admitting your relationship with reality is chronically unhelpful, and second, adopting a new understanding that is. Neither of these is easy. The first might take decades of frustration to even consider. The second may leave one vulnerable to drastic and unhelpful measures. But if you’re reading this, I have to believe you are extremely close to nailing the bullseye. Please consider this optimism, too. Here’s why:
The beauty of self-enquiry – as alleviation – is that it’s something one can undertake on their own. The fruit it bears is a new way of existing. Simply consider, again and again, you are not synonymous with sensations – and behave as a wise and curious space between sensation and action. Once you kindle this little fire, articles like this, or any other concept – podcast, book, spiritual tradition, teacher, retreat – seems less import than your own honest minute-to-minute investigation of experience. Gradually, long-held assumptions and beliefs about the nature of life begin to unravel.
In other words, feel free to stop reading this, right here 🙂 If you are curious about a method to ignite this process in your life, here is a starting place.
“The contemplative witnessing state leads us to discover what we are not. We become aware of our body and thought-patterns, the reasons that motivate our actions of which we were previously scarcely conscious.”
– Jean Klein
Consider the remainder of this article pure bonus – “non essential food for thought”.
Deeper Inquiry: Desire
Consider desire. Each time you observe a desire for something, it could be as simple as food or as lofty as becoming a billionaire. Rather than acting upon it, make an effort to take it apart. As you do so, observations such as this may arise:
First of all, weird, right? If consciousness is a receiver of ideas, such as, “I want ice cream!” what exactly is coming up with ideas that challenge these ideas? It’s as if consciousness is witnessing the brain take itself apart.
Leaving this puzzle aside, it does FEEL very real, and simple. Again, it feels as if, as consciousness, we can be very wise and studious about cause, and intention, and value, of everything that arises, and behave accordingly. If a desire seems completely silly and empty, we can choose to abstain. I see no limit to how radically this can change a person’s life.
While this is a cute example about ice cream – it is a dead-serious process that be aimed at ANY wish, desire, craving, dream, expectation, hunger, career goal, infatuation with fantasy. For instance, do we seriously believe, that acquiring that thing, whatever it is, is going to bring us lasting happiness? Why aren’t we happy right now?
While it may seem like a bad thing, to expose desire for the sneaky little devil it is, it could not be more positive. When the true nature of desire is exposed for how empty and unfulfilling it potentially-but-not-always is, you realize you have already won life. Game over! Just be. Be cool now. Just be. Enjoy. You do not need to fulfill anymore desires in order to be happy. Of course desires will arise, and you can oblige what you like as bonus. But your default is a baseline of bliss, that becomes harder and harder to not see.
Deeper Inquiry: Root Cause
As mentioned, we have no control over what arises, but we can be curious and reason through it’s cause, and in doing so, remove our emotional investment. For that matter, we can look at every aspect of our lives and consider how it came to be. How much credit or blame do you take? How much do you attribute to a previous chain of events over which you had no control whatsoever? If the answer to the second question is anything other than 100%, it may be worthwhile to reflect further.
We did not “cause” the broad experience, called our lives. That would be like placing our hands in a river, and taking ownership of all the reasons the water molecules formed and traveled to our hand over billions of years. Life doesn’t belong to us. We are a function within it, that woke up while it while the river was already flowing. We observe it, consider it, and reflect on how to react, if at all. Life does not start or stop at boundaries our skin. I am one branch of a branch of a branch of a tree that binds me with everything else, including you.
As Sam Harris says:
“I didn’t make myself, I didn’t make my genes, I didn’t make my brain, I didn’t make the environmental influences that impinged upon this system for the last 54 years.”
– Sam Harris
A fatalistic view might take hold here. In other words, if one starts to grasp that prior causes, beyond their control, led to this exact experience, what reason is there to DO anything, other than let life wash over you? While we did not cause the water molecules (sensations) to find our hand (consciousness), we do influence where the water flows next. In other words, simply comprehending that sensations spontaneously arise – and behaving accordingly – informs our influence on the world.
Who ARE We? Three Leaps.
Ultimately, we are not a little humans inside a box. We are the box itself! Perception of legs, arms, body appears – are merely sensations. This is not denying that we actually are involved with legs, arms, and a body! Simply that consciousness, at bottom, is not those things.
Sense of Self 1.0
Sense of Self 2.0
Sense of Self 3.0
In Sum, Be Cool
Experiencing life in this way has enormous implications. The nonattached output from “us” – this feeling-and-reasoning process, then feeds back into the deeper mind – the one we will never know or understand experientially – the collective of all brain regions or modules – the feeder of our sensations. Our deeper feelings begin to calm and become less intense. In other words, when we, the consciousness process, begin to mindfully engage the contents of our pipeline, the deeper mind begins to react and behave accordingly, thus diminishing the intensity of future contents. Both the rider and the elephant become attuned to their true circumstance, which is much less maddening than that of the illusory, gripping, shapeshifting, default narrative. A deep relief and contentedness seem to spring from here. An empathetic attitude toward every human who is also yearning to make sense of this. A feeling of gratitude for how ok everything already is.
“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”
– Arthur Schopenhauer, 1860
“Schopenhauer’s words accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper.”
– Albert Einstein, 1932
“We conclude that most or all of human behavior is likely a product of conscious and unconscious processes working together. The private daydreams, fantasies, and counterfactual thoughts that pervade everyday life are far from being a feckless epiphenomenon. We see these processes as the place where the unconscious mind assembles ideas so as to reach new conclusions about how best to behave, or what outcomes to pursue or avoid. Rather than directly controlling action, conscious thought provides the input from these kinds of mental simulations to the executive. Conscious thought offers insights about the past and future, socially shared information, and cultural rules. Without it, the complex forms of social and cultural coordination that define human life would not be possible.”
– E. J. Masicampo and Roy F. Baumeister
Finding the Self
“People who have delved into the nature of the actual experience of self have discovered that the closer they examine this sense of ‘I’ , the more it seems to dissolve. Time and again they find there is no independent self. There are thoughts of ‘I’, but no ‘I’ that is thinking them. They find that what we take to be a sense of an omnipresent ‘I’ is simply consciousness itself. There is no separate experiencer; there is simply a quality of being, a sense of presence, an awareness that is always there whatever our experience.”
– Peter Russell
“Pay attention to what we are not. Pay attention, and don’t replace it with something else. Pay attention to what we innately and instinctively take ourselves to be, and then reconstruct what we actually are in a way that allows us to refute that innate misconception.”
– Jay Garfield
“We are shockingly ignorant of the causes of our own behavior. The explanations that we provide are sometimes wholly fabricated, and certainly never complete. Yet, that is not how it feels. Instead it feels like we know exactly what we’re doing and why. This is confabulation: Guessing at plausible explanations for our behavior, and then regarding those guesses as introspective certainties.”
– Fiery Cushman, Psychology, Harvard
“It’s a matter of choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of the natural, hard-wired default setting – which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being ‘well-adjusted’, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term. […] Learning how to think means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”
– David Foster Wallace
“Most of the time we live in reaction and double reaction, for example, when we react in anger we may also try to remain calm and collected. We try many different escape routes. By such means we constantly limit our possibilities and turn in a vicious circle. The only way out is to simply observe.”
– Jean Klein
“You can describe much of mindfulness meditation this way—as depriving modules of the positive reinforcement that has given them power. Because often when you mindfully observe feelings, you’re keeping the module that generated them from getting some sort of reward.”
– Robert Wright