By Adam J. Pearson
I want to tell you about the greatest philosophical insight I have ever discovered. If I were to die today, this is the most important thing that I would want to convey to humankind. This insight has to do with who you really are on the greatest possible scale. Before I can reveal it, though, I need to take you there slowly. I need to talk about all of this business of ‘finding yourself’ and ‘knowing yourself’ and what all of these crazy words mean. Along the way, I’ll refer to some people who looked into this matter before me, people like Socrates, the Buddha, David Hume, and the character of Walter White from the television show “Breaking Bad.” If you hang on until the end, I will give you the greatest intellectual gift I could possibly give you: an insight into who I think you (and I) really are.
Let’s start from the beginning, from what we know from daily life. One thing that is very clear to all of us is that we often hear a great deal of talk about the “self.” We are told we live in a highly individualistic society in which everyone is “looking out for number one.” “Take care of yourself,” people say. “Look out for your own self-interest.” “Make yourself successful,” they tell us.
At its most basic level, these sayings express something that we could call ‘self-concern.’ If we take self-concern to mean caring about this particular human organism that we are, then self-concern is perfectly natural. The base of our human being is, after all, an organism that is struggling to survive in an environment that both contains everything it could possibly need and is at the same time indifferent to it. In this basic physical sense, ‘self-concern’ means ‘concern for the life and continued survival of this particular human body.’ This sense of ‘self-preservation’ or ‘bodily preservation’ makes a great deal of sense to us; we act on it every time we eat, sleep, put on clothes, pay our rent, or try to attract someone we find appealing. But there is another meaning to the word ‘self’ that is less concrete than this basic self-concern. And this is our sense of our ‘psychological self,’ our ‘personality,’ or our ‘identity.’ What could be more obvious to me than my own personality? you might ask. You have a point of course, but I would like to suggest that the more we really look for this separate ‘self’ that we are supposed to be, the more mysterious and hard to find it reveals itself to be.
Let’s go back to Ancient Greece for a moment, just to see how long this question of ‘knowing yourself’ has been with us. According to Xenophon, above the entrance to the temple of the Oracle of Delphi in Ancient Greece, two mysterious words were inscribed. The words were ‘gnothi sauton’ or ‘know yourself.’ The first true ‘philosopher’ or ‘lover of wisdom,’ Socrates, took these words deeply to heart. Attempting to follow them sent him on a wild quest for wisdom and ‘self-insight’ that ultimately led to his execution by poisoning after his questions upset one too many powerful people. The idea of ‘knowing myself’ is not so foreign to us today, so many years after Socrates was put to death by his own townspeople. We are constantly told to ‘be yourself,’ to ‘know who you are,’ and ‘find yourself.’ But finding yourself or your ‘identity’ proves to be more difficult than we might initially think it might be.
One of the people who conducted the most thorough search into the nature of the personal self was Siddhartha Gautama, the man who came to be known as ‘the Buddha’ or ‘the awakened one.’ It was thinking about his view of the self that ultimately led me to the great insight that I want to share with you, an insight into who you really are on the deepest possible level. Siddhartha Gautama grew up in a Hindu culture in which everyone was believed to have an eternal personal self called an ‘Atman.’ The understanding of Atman at the time was much like the Christian and Muslim idea of a ‘soul’; this Atman was said to be eternal and unchanging. Siddhartha reasoned that if such an ‘Atman’ were real and as everlasting as it was said to be, then we should be able to locate it if we really looked for it. When he looked for this unchanging ‘self,’ however, Siddhartha was surprised to find that he could not find it at all. His ‘self’ simply was nowhere to be found.
What led the Buddha to this radical idea? What could it mean to be without a ‘self’ altogether? To answer these questions, we need to consider what the Buddha actually found when he looked inward for ‘himself’ The Buddha called what he found the five ‘skandhas.’ In Pali, the Buddha’s native language, ‘skandha’ means something like ‘heap’ or ‘pile.’ The five skandhas are five ‘piles’ of changing contents that, when taken together, make up this human being that we call ‘me.’ If that sounds a little confusing now, don’t worry; it will become clearer as I explain it.
The first skandha is called ‘form or matter’; it’s what we most basically think of as ‘me:’ our body with all of its sense organs that allow us to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the world. The Buddha looked at his body and asked himself: is there any unchanging, separate ‘me’ here? The Buddha’s answer was a resounding ‘nope.’ From one moment to the next, the stream of sensations that are coming into our body is totally different; moreover, our bodies are constantly changing, constantly shifting their cells and undergoing all kinds of rapid processes within our organs. And they do so while being constantly affected and changed by the world—and all of its delicious food, necessary oxygen, and thirst-quenching fluids—that we depend on for our continued survival. Certainly, if we are looking for something unchanging to call ‘me,’ the body can’t be it. It’s a big pile of changing processes, organs, and cells constantly moving through a changing physical world that it calls home.
If the body isn’t the ‘unchanging self,’ then what else could it be? Thinking about this question led the Buddha to the second skandha, which we can translate as ‘sensations;’ by this word, the Buddha meant our basic tendency to sense whether something is pleasurable, painful, or neutral. We do this all of the time. We all say we have favourite foods that we find pleasurable and others that we dislike. We have tastes in people we find attractive and others whom we find repulsive. And we have neutral sensations too; we might see a grey wall and feel neither pain nor pleasure at the sight. Is there anything unchanging in this aspect of our ‘self’? Not at all, said the Buddha. Our tastes change over time. What might be pleasurable at one time can be painful at another. And the stream of sensations of pleasure and pain is constantly changing too. From one moment to the next, it is different. The Buddha thought that this meant that even this most basic tendency to sense whether something was pleasurable, painful, or neutral at a given time cannot be ‘me.’ It’s just a shifting stream.
What else could “I” be? This question takes us to the third skandha, which is often translated as ‘perceptions.’ The ability to ‘perceive’ for the Buddha meant the most basic ability to recognize something as distinct from its environment and from other things around it. We ‘perceive’ something each time we tell one taste from another, one colour from another, the sound of music from the crying of a baby, the scratch of sandpaper from the softness of silk. Like my sensations, my perceptions are always changing. Sometimes I make fine distinctions and at other times, I totally fail to make clear distinctions at all; instead, things seem to kind of blur together. There is no single constant pattern in my perceptions, only many shifting ones. Nowhere in these perceptions do I find anything like a permanent, independent ‘me.’ “I” seem to perceive things to varying degrees, but my so-called unchanging, independent ‘self’ is nowhere to be found in these perceptions.
Where else might “I” be found? The Buddha next turned to some of the more obvious content we experience all of the time, the ‘stuff’ in our minds, which makes up the fourth skandha. The name of the fourth skandha is often translated as ‘formations’ and basically refers to all emotions and thoughts of all kinds as well as all mental contents from prejudices to intentions, attention, interests, appreciations, concentrations, and every other bit of content in our minds. Formations basically include all cognitive and emotional content whatsoever. If I try to find my unchanging ‘self’ in my formations, that is, in my thoughts, feelings, and mental patterns, I don’t have much luck, since there is nothing constant in them whatsoever. My thoughts and feelings even about the same subjects of people are always changing, as are my interests, habits, and all other formations. I witness these things and sometimes I seem to participate in them, like when I am actively thinking about something in a logical way, but “I” am not found in them. They, too, are like flowing, changing streams. There is no solid ‘rock’ of self to be found in them.
When we set aside our body, our sensations, our perceptions, our thoughts, feelings, and all other states of mind, what is left that could possibly be’me’? The last thing that the Buddha considered was what we call ‘consciousness.’ Consciousness, in its most basic definition, is the ability to be aware of things, to register them, to note and notice them. It is consciousness that we use to be aware of all of the other skandhas we’ve talked about so far: our body, sensations, perceptions, and formations. We not only see things, but we are aware of what we see. We not only hear, but we are conscious of hearing sounds. We are conscious of feelings, of thoughts, of our bodies moving around through the world. Consciousness, as contemporary neuroscientists tell us, however, exists in ‘states.’ Sometimes we are acutely aware and at other times we are only barely aware or not aware at all of a given thing. Our state of mind at any one time exists somewhere along a wide continuum between consciousness (being totally aware) and unconsciousness (being totally oblivious). According to the Buddha in the Pali Canon, our consciousness of the world and of the contents of our own body-minds is constantly shifting; it is not constant or unchanging. While the Hindus had thought that awareness was eternal and unchanging, the Buddha suggested that upon closer inspection, it reveals itself to be changing, fluctuating, and unconstant. So, even this most basic aspect of ‘me’ cannot be the unchanging ‘self’ I am looking for. After having considered all of these five ‘skandhas’ and found no permanent, independent self, the Buddha concluded that there is no such thing; we do not have an Atman. Instead we are ‘anatman,’ that is, self-less. For the Buddha, the ‘self’ is a grand illusion; it is based on the false assumption that there is something unchanging in these streams of constantly changing things and that we can have a separate existence from the world on which we depend, which we do not and cannot have.
The Buddha’s view of the body-mind as a bunch of ‘piles’ of changing stuff only loosely linked together is fascinating. What is even more interesting is that thousands of years later, a Scottish philosopher named David Hume independently came to a very similar conclusion. Like the Buddha, Hume took a deep look at what he took to be ‘himself,’ or his ‘identity’ and found no permanent, unchanging ‘me’ at all. Instead, what he found were a bunch of ‘bundles’ of sensations or experiences that were connected only by causation (cause and effect) and resemblance (similarity to one another). According to Hume, there is no constant, unchanging rock of selfhood in me, but only a bundle of constantly shifting sensations and experiences that I loosely group together and call ‘me’ for the sake of convenience.
These insights from the Buddha and from David Hume are very helpful; they lead us in the direction of the great philosophical insight that I want to share with you, a vital insight into who I think you and I really are in the grand scheme of things. Let’s look again at this ‘bundle’ of things that I take myself to be for a moment. What is crucially important to realize about this ‘bundle of stuff’ is that it is embedded in its environment. Everything, absolutely everything that I take myself to be—my body, mind, sensations, perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and consciousness—is dependent on something other than itself for its being. This dependence does not only go in one direction, however, because the things I depend on for my being themselves depend on still other things for their own existence. Thus, scientists tell us today as the Buddha told us thousands of years ago, that everything in some sense has an ‘interdependent’ existence; nothing stands alone in this universe; everything is linked to and affected by everything else in infinite ways that are collectively more subtle and complex than we can ever hope to fully understand.
We get a concrete sense of this notion of interdependence in daily life when we talk about ‘influences.’ We sometimes say that a person is a ‘good influence’ on us if they inspire us to be better in some way, to be virtuous, or to develop habits we consider to be positive, for example. In other cases, we say that a person is exerting a ‘bad influence’ on us if they lead us into bad habits, or reinforce our worst and cruelest tendencies. But influences are not only limited to people. No; everything I take myself to be is constantly being influenced by everything I encounter in daily life. My body is constantly being influenced by everything I eat, breathe, smell, sea, taste, and hear. My thoughts and feelings are always being influenced by other people, by my environment, and by my own experiences.
In the fifth season of the fantastically suspenseful television show Breaking Bad, the show’s antiheroic main character, Walter White, comments that “everything you have done is a part of you.” He says this after he has been shaped by a long career as a chemistry teacher followed by a sudden mid-life crisis decision to begin to cook crystal meth and become involved in the shady world of large-scale drug dealing. He is at this time acutely aware of how he and his family have been affected by his choices, by the things he has done. So he says that everything he has done is a part of him. In other words, Walt is saying here that we, as human beings, are influenced by our own actions; that they shape us in powerful ways. Our actions shape our mental formations, our feelings about ourselves, about other people, and about our world as a whole, and we carry the causal consequences of our actions with us in our bodies and minds.
This is a powerful idea; what it means is that all of my ‘bundles’ or ‘skandhas’ are constantly being shaped by everything I encounter, both within my body-mind and outside it, in the universe beyond ‘me’ as a human being. In a very real sense, who “I am” at a given moment is out of my control; there is no way I can hope to manage every form of influence that is exerting itself to shape and twist the bundles of my being for even a single second. Certainly, I can deal with some bad habits, I can change the way I think, I can develop new emotional reactions, but I cannot manage everything. Indeed, the vast majority of influences that affect me are totally outside of ‘my power’ altogether. There are simply too many of them and they affect me in too many complex and subtle ways for me to handle them all. What this truly means is that “who’ or ‘what’ ‘I am” at a given moment is ultimately outside of my control. The ‘self,’ this loose bundle of body parts, sensations, perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and consciousness, is ever at the mercy of everything it encounters, everything that shapes and influences it.
What is ‘my point’ in talking about all of these things? My point is that ‘knowing myself’ may very well be an impossible task because there may very well be no ‘self’ for me to find at all. All I experience as being ‘me’ are the changing bundles, the fluctuating skandhas, which are always interconnected and interdependent with my environment, with the universe and all it contains. “I” cannot be separated from the world I live in or the people and animals that live around “me.” Everything that arises in my body-mind does so shaped by infinite other things that are out of my power, and every little changing facet that I may take myself to be cannot be cut off from the world as if it were separate. A deep understanding of interdependence and interconnection leads to a surprising idea; there is, in fact, nothing ‘separate’ in me at all. Separation is a perceptual illusion, the result of mistaking the distinctions of the mind for physical realities. These dictions are by their very nature as mental representations, limited and simply ways of making it easier to think about and deal with particular things for physical realities. Ultimately, these considerations lead me to conclude that there is no separate ‘self’ for me to find at all. Everything I take myself to be is connected and dependent upon everything I do not take myself to be. There is no firm boundary between ‘me’ and ‘not me.’ Every bundle of my being is like a changing stream, a small current in the greater ocean that is the universe.
What does this mean for ‘me’? The answer to this question will lead us to the great philosophical insight that I want to share with you. All of this means that even though I can relatively and conventionally speak of ‘my’ existence on the local level, of this particular body-mind that my parents named “Adam Pearson,” ultimately, there is no separate, independent ‘me’ at all. My body is not separate from the rest of the universe; what is ‘in’ my mind is not separate from what is ‘outside’ of it. The entire universe is an ever-changing bundle of bundles and the loose group of bundles that make up this little guy called Adam are simply a small part of that huge and complexly shifting whole.
In daily life, I have to make decisions for this little human being, about what he will say, and spend the short moments of his life on Earth doing. But what “I really must be”—and here is the philosophical punchline that you have been waiting for—when I take into account all of the interconnections, interdependencies, and inter-influences, I cannot be other than the universe as a whole. If there are no hard boundaries separating this little human being here from the vast universe around him, then ‘he’ and the ‘universe’ are really one and the same.
Yes, we have our little human bodies that we are closely concerned about, but our ultimate body, our most complete sense of self, is the universe as a whole (the manifest) and the formless awareness in which it is experienced (the unmanifest). From this point of view, everything you see, taste, touch, hear, and smell, everyone you meet and interact with, everywhere you go is ‘you,’ is ‘me.’ You are the universe. All of it. You are “One without a second,” as the Upanishads put it. This vast ‘youness’ has nothing to do with my little human ego, which wants to make money or get laid or impress other humans. All of humanity, Adam Pearson included, is only a small part of my total being, the universe. Compared with my universal body, the singular human body of Adam Pearson is terribly insignificant.
Of course, this little guy called Adam Pearson means a great deal to ‘me.’ The universe experiences itself here through Adam’s eyes, Adam’s nose, Adam’s unique brain and body and mind, as it does for you, Jane, Bobby, Muhammad, or Hui. Of course, I must take care of my human being, must keep him alive and healthy; that is my most basic task on this Earth, to live as well and as long as I, as a human being, possibly can to get the most out of this life that I can, and possibly leave behind some children (or articles, my blog children) before I die. But the result of these philosophical considerations about selfhood is the relaxing realization that when I try to find myself I find that both there is no separate ‘me’ to find at all and that everything in the universe IS in some sense ‘me’ on a grand scale.
Or, as the sage Nisargadatta Maharaj wisely put the point:
‘Love says ‘I am everything.’ Wisdom says ‘I am nothing.’ Between the two, my life flows.’
The same is true for you, dear reader and this insight is what I really, really want to share with you. The entire vast universe is your ultimate body, who you are on the grandest possible scale. And the formless awareness in which the universe appears is also you.
These words on your screen, your computer, and this little guy, Adam Pearson, are all parts of you as you fully are. Nothing can be separated from you, nothing whatsoever, no matter how unpleasant you may take it to be. Everything you fear is a part of you, as is everything you hate, reject, despise, everything and everyone that has ever hurt you or irritated you or given you any other kind of reaction whatsoever.
When you fully realize that nothing in your body or mind exists separately from the rest of the universe, then you will also begin to see that you exclude nothing. You leave nothing out. Not a single robber or serial killer is left out of you, nor is a single beautiful landscape or inspiring saint. Everything you judge in others, you are judging in yourself. Everything you hate in others you are hating in yourself. It’s all in you. All of it. Every last particle in the universe is part of you and cannot be separated from you. When you see this, human hatreds, biases, self-centeredness, egotism, greed, envy, and all of these other factors that affect the ‘little guy’ are revealed to be totally insubstantial. Indeed, when you see yourself on the ultimate scale, these things don’t actually make much sense, because they all rely on the false assumption that there is something other than, totally apart from, or separate from ‘you.’ But there is no such thing.
For me, this realization is comforting. It brings peace, relaxation, consolation, and even joy and helps this little guy relax into his life a little more. Everything this little guy, Adam, hopes to become or achieve is already a part of who I really am, that is, the universe as a whole, with all of its past, present, and future states, including all and leaving nothing out. Everything I resist is me. Everything I love is me. Everything I consider annoying or repulsive is me. Everything I judge is me. Not me as an ego or a single human man, of course, but me as my ultimate body, my big Self, the universe.
Somehow, knowing these things helps me to ease up a little, to not take this little guy’s personal stuff quite so seriously, so weightily. Somehow, this realization opens up this little guy’s closed mind and closed heart in wonderfully powerful ways. It makes the kind of mystical love that Rumi, the Sufi saint and poet, talked about, possible. If everything is you, then you can either choose to be in conflict with yourself or to meet yourself with something totally different: love. In other words, when you meet everything and everyone as your Self, perhaps you can allow yourself to love them a little. If you’re going to be selfish, then be selfish on the grandest possible scale; love not only this little guy and what gets him some money or a few pats on the back, but the entire universe of which he is only a small part. Love your whole self, not just this little guy (or girl) who is doing the best he (or she) can with the little he (or she) has and knows, but yourself as the whole universe. It is insight and understanding that gives rise to this powerful force that can potentially encompass all and leave nothing out.
Being mindful of our ‘universe self’ and embracing the vast whole of all-as-One is something we can practice gently by continuing to remind ourselves of our true nature beyond the nature of this little guy, of our universe body beyond our little human body. Of course, we will forget. We will sometimes get caught up in the whims and prejudices and grudges of the little guy or girl. That’s just part of what we have to deal with as human beings, part and parcel of the human condition. I have been told by Zen masters–the most mindful people I’ve ever met–that even they have lapses in diligence from time to time. However, we can practice reminding ourselves of the truth: that everything in the universe is who and what we really are. The universe is really the you-niverse. And knowing that everything is you entails a totally different way of relating to the world. This is the greatest philosophical insight that I have ever discovered. I hope it opens you up to wonder and nourishes your little guy or girl, that is, the person you take yourself to be, as it has nourished mine.
Follow-up: A philosopher friend asked me for a summary of my argument in this paper. In short form, the logic of the argument is that distinct things are only thought of as separate due to their distinct chemical properties or qualitative characteristics. However, the apparent separateness (isolated existence) of things is a conceptual illusion that is negated in reality by several factors, which lead us to conclude that things to do not exist separately from one another as if in a vacuum.
Six of these factors are:
(1) the interdependent nature of apparently distinct objects,
(2) the mutual influences that they constantly exert on one another,
(3) the way they serve as necessary and sufficient conditions for other things that they cause or sustain,
(4) their involvement in constant chemical, electromagnetic, physiological, and quantum mechanical interactions with things that appear to be ‘outside their boundaries’ on the small scale,
(5) the way that individual things are parts of larger systems, even in the case of apparently isolated objects like lone asteroids in space which are involved in astronomical systems with other celestial objects, and
(6) the fact that conceptual distinctions do not entail hard and fast ontological divisions; phenomenological distinctness is a fact, but ontological separateness is not. In other words, it is convenient to think of things as distinct because it makes them easier to process, but this way of thinking does not mean that they exist in total isolation.
All of these considerations undermine the idea that things exist in perfect separation from one another. Taken together, they lead us to conclude that all things exist together rather than in isolation. Things that exist as parts connected to other parts are said to form a larger whole. The largest whole is what we call ‘the universe,’ which can be thought of as a single interdependent, interconnected whole. To state the matter differently, we can think of the apparent ‘all’ (the set of all distinct objects) as being ‘one’ (united in a larger whole).
This result plays into the notion of identity because if every part of this collective unity exists nonseparately from the other parts, then any part of that one can identify with the whole. We can define a thing’s ‘body’ as including all of the physical parts that are nonseparate from it. From this definition and the above considerations, we can use the word ‘body’ on at least two levels: (1) the local level: your personal human body and (2) the universal level: the universe as your body on the larger scale. One way of phrasing this conclusion somewhat poetically is to say that we human beings are just cells in the body of the universe. Our eyes, ears, noses, touch receptors, and tongues are the perceptual organs of the universe as a whole. Through our particular human bodies, the larger universe is able to be aware of itself and experience itself. As the Norwegian philosopher, Jostein Gaarder, put it, “we are the bearers of the universe’s consciousness of itself.”