I remember I once said to my friend: ‘We’re all the same’. He disagreed, stating we obviously had different tastes, different characters, different preferences etc.
To an outside observer, saying we’re all the same, sounds false. Of course we are not. But maybe if we shift our perspective, we can see differently.
I think the most important question one can ask themselves is : what exactly am I? We’ll try explore in this rambling piece.
Let’s bake : you.
Step 1 : Raw ingredients
We all have different body’s on the surface. But reality is more mysterious than that.
What are we composed of?
Starting at the macro perspective. Skin, organs, fascia, nerves, a brain, which is animated via electrochemical energy. (Everything sexy in the universe is thanks to electrochemical energy)
Moving slightly deeper. We are composed of cells. Composed of proteins, and other chemical structures. Which are composed of atoms. These atoms by the deeply awe inspiring process of evolution conglomerated into proteins that formed the instructions for life : DNA. A way to encapsulate large amounts of data. All this arose from nuclear fusion in the birth of stars. If you spend sometime truly understanding this, you will experience how ‘small’ you are, but also how interconnected you are.
Now we share 99% of our DNA. Another human has 99% of the same instructions for building life as you do. We are made of the same raw materials. Look under the hood of personality and circumstances and we are mostly alike.
The point is we are literally all made of the same stuff. Stardust in a poetic sense. If someone had your exact genetic code, you would be the same. Not just physically, but even in the way you react to your environment.
We are all made of the same primordial dough. You may say that the cookies that come out can be decorated differently, but at the fundamental level, we are made of the same ‘dough’.
Step 2 : Installing Memes
So you have this raw genetic material. The dough. Time to decorate.
A meme is an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation, or other non genetic means. Examples : religion, tool use, basically all education, nursery rhymes, jokes, fashion trends, money. It is passed horizontally rather than vertically in populations i.e. it is taught.
Think of memes like downloaded apps onto your base level operating system.
Humans are story telling monkeys : meme machines. We essentially create stories out of thin air and superimpose them upon reality. Examples : Money, Religion, Corporations, Nations. They exist only in the shared imagination of primates. They don’t exist in ‘reality’. They exist in the mind.
They are collective fictions that we believe in. If suddenly everyone stopped believing in money, it wouldn’t exist (it already doesn’t in a ‘physical’ sense, it is a shared concept).
But memes are broader than that obviously. They encompass instructions of driving a plane, or how to assemble a fire, or skin a deer. It’s essentially ‘learned’ knowledge or belief (rather than innate). Language is a meme for example.
It’s like we have the same base operating system. iOS on your iPhone. But installed on their are different apps. Some apps are incredibly useful and allow mass cooperation (Money, Language, arguably religion in the past). Those apps can significantly alter your world view of course. Some apps promote introspection, peace, compassion. Others promote violence, sectarianism and separation.
But they can be changed. This is the realm of creating good stories. By good stories, I mean those that collectively reduce human suffering, and promote flourishing.
Bad Memes cause suffering
Believing in the ‘wrong’ memes causes real suffering of real entities.
Take religion. It’s a meme. It doesn’t actually ‘exist’ physically. It is a concept. But the concept if taken onboard can impact the real world causing entities to suffer. ‘God’ doesn’t suffer, but the humans killing each other in the name of God do suffer.
The best test is to see whether it is a fiction or real is to ask ‘can it suffer?’. Corporations cannot suffer. Individuals within can. Bangladesh cannot suffer. Individuals within it can.
A lot of human misery is generated by fictions and the tribalism they cause. It can separate humans who are alike in every other way.
Thought Experiments :
We are biological entities (made of the same dough), onto which different memes (belief systems) are installed.
We are born with genetic predispositions. Through interacting with the environment and others, we form belief structures and ways of modelling the world. Stories.
Let’s experiment with the above by asking questions.
What are you when you drop the stories?
Drop the Story : Returning to base level reality
Suppose in the analogy above, you close all the ‘apps’ installed on your operating system. You suspend judgement, belief, you ‘drop’ any stories.
What do you see?
Is there a space where everything is arising? Visual perception, tactile perception, thoughts, sensation. Call this ‘awareness’. The space into which phenomena just arises, and passes away.
One has to experience this for themselves, driven by curiosity.
You can see that we are all experiencing this base level reality. It’s the exact same ‘nature of awareness’. It’s devoid of any ‘identity’.
In the Buddhist tradition, they call this ‘awareness’.
Everyone has this awareness. It’s just that we don’t see it. They call this ‘delusion’. Ignorance. It’s obscured. We go around thinking of ourselves as independent agents, as unchanging selves. When in reality, we are deeply interconnected, and in fact at base level- perfect.
This can be experienced. Furthermore, you can start to ask some good questions.
Are you constant, unchanging?
We like to think of ourselves are independent agents. There is in some traditions an idea of a soul. That each human is individual, unique and imbued with an unchanging core ‘identity’. A soul that exists beyond the ‘material plane’ that will exist beyond death. A dualistic notion. A story right? Look for yourself.
Let’s look at an alternative story, and then maybe drop the story altogether.
Do you exist independently from the world? Or are you a part of it? Surely you live in an interconnected system? The world is tied together by loose invisible strings of cause and effect. The proverbial flap of a butterfly’s wings causing hurricanes elsewhere. Everything is interconnected. You could not exist without all the previous generations before you. You could not exist without others, without an environment, without sun, without stars, without space, the universe.
Scientifically there is more evidence to support this view. We are all like the proverbial Ship of Theseus. Our entire body including cells, connective tissue, endothelial linings are renewed completely. The cells are constantly changing, dying, dividing. We are more bacteria than man.
You are you, because of a series of interlinked events since the dawn of time. There is just change, all within a deeply interconnected system.
This is an alternative story. You are a node in a vast interconnected universe. A conscious part of the universe itself in a poetic way. You don’t exist apart from the universe, but you are a segment of it. Perhaps this is a more useful story too, than the self -centric story of the soul.
Now that’s still a story right? Be honest.
But what if we sit and look experientially.
Is there free will?
There is objectively no room for free will with our scientific understanding. There are three processes in the universe : Deterministic (cause and effect), Random and Probabilistic (mix of the two). No where in here, is there a free will or agent.
But subjectively, one can experience this lack of free will.
Do you choose to think what you think? Or does thought just arise?
Sit and look closely. Do you choose to any sensation in the body, or does it just arise? Do ‘you’ choose to feel sadness, or does it just arise? Listen to your environment. Do you choose to hear what you hear?
Is it not just ever changing phenomena. A river of experience? What happens when we resist the stream? Suffering? Pushing against reality as it is, is a cause of psychological suffering. Look for yourself.
At least from the subjective view, the concept of free will is actually illusory. Not what we think it is. Of course we have a will.
But we don’t choose the prior causes and conditions that lead to it.
Illusory Nature of Self
Let’s go a step further. I state that the self is not what it appears. It is illusory.
Illusion does not mean the self doesn’t exist. What it means is that it is not what it seems it is.
We all experience a form of self, but it is a deception generated by the brain. Evidenced by the fact, that you can drop your sense of self with certain training. You can see through the illusion.
Our brain creates the experience of the self as a model. Think of it as an avatar in a game.
Anil Seth tackles it from the neuroscientific perspective in his TED talk.
The self is a model generated in the brain and this is not a controversial viewpoint.
The analogy I enjoy using is that of a VR headset. You are hallucinating reality. The brain is the headset and you are born into VR. A VR experience you technically cannot ‘escape’ from.
Maybe this is more profound than this. At the base level, I state there is only awareness. The self arises into this constantly. It is projected and one can see the mechanics behind it if paying close enough attention.
How do you pay close enough attention?
This is the realm of meditative training. Using attention in certain ways as to strengthen the capacity.
It’s akin to physical training. It is obvious to us that we can achieve certain levels of fitness and physique. Take the olympics. It’s feasible that there are humans who can run at ridiculous speeds (Usain Bolt). We can see it.
But the fact that there are analogous ‘internal’ mental states is all but invisible to us.
You can train your attention in ways that you cannot imagine. Take the example of a Theravadan monk spending 40 years sitting in a cave, just paying attention.
That’s 40 years of training = that is invisible externally- but produces profound internal ways of seeing.
So to ‘hack’ your attentional system : you need to play around with ‘meditation’. And you can take the whole endeavour quite seriously, much like a professional athlete takes training seriously.
Why the hell is it important to see this anyways?
I’ve got a job, kids. I work 13 hour shifts (me too) Why is seeing this important at all?
“Know thyself” advice as old as time. You want to see yourself in all layers.
On the more surface level, you want a stable identity. A healthy adaptive identity that contributes in a positive way to the world and those around you.
Then going slightly deeper, you want to understand your habitual tendencies. Do you tend to anger easily? Do you avoid your problems or do you excessively problem solve?
Then going even beyond that. What do you implicitly believe in? Vocalise it. What are the premises of that belief system? Are they falsifiable. Is this belief harming me or others?
Then with some training. You can look and see the stories arising and passing away. And observe the process of attention itself. So that there is just awareness. Phenomena arising and passing away. This is a form of self knowledge at the grass-roots level of attention. How the nervous system interacts with the environment. Is there a driver to this? Who is controlling this? What am I exactly?
Conclusion : What the hell did you just say?
I abhor metaphysics. I don’t like the word spirituality either anymore since it comes with preconceived notions of what it means. In the sense that it is not falsifiable.
But finding out what you are can be done through looking. It’s empirical in a sense.
Looking on the surface : examining the identity you have created for yourself. And then looking deeper.
I probably lost 99% of readers, but that is ok. It’s a process of self discovery (or lack there of), mainly guided experientially via meditation
Going back to the original question : I think that humans are fundamentally the same. We are made of the same stuff. Our attentional systems work largely in the same way. Once glimpse awareness, you realise that reality is perfect underneath it all. It’s only in our minds that problems arise.
reality is perfect underneath it all. It’s only in our minds that problems arise.
Lastly self knowledge is not a destination. It’s a process.