The cat has already been let out of the bag. The inside information is that yourself as “just little me” who “came into this world” and lives temporarily in a bag of skin is a hoax and a fake. The fact is that because no one thing or feature of this universe is separable from the whole, the only real You, or Self, is the whole. The rest of this book will attempt to make this so clear that you will not only understand the words but feel the fact. The first step is to understand, as vividly as possible, how the hoax begins.
We must first look at the form and behavior of the hoax itself. I have long been interested in trying to find out how people experience, or sense, their own existence—for what specific sensations do they use the word “I“?
Few people seem to use the word for their whole physical organism. “I have a body” is more common than “I am a body.” We speak of “my” legs as we speak of “my” clothes, and “I” seems to remain intact even if the legs are amputated. We say, “I speak, I walk, I think, and (even) I breathe.” But we do not say, “I shape my bones, I grow my nails, and I circulate my blood.” We seem to use “I” for something in the body but not really of the body, for much of what goes on in the body seems to happen to “I” in the same way as external events. “I” is used as the center of voluntary behavior and conscious attention, but not consistently. Breathing is only partially voluntary, and we say “I was sick” or “I dreamed” or “I fell asleep” as if the verbs were not passive but active.
Nevertheless, “I” usually refers to a center in the body, but different persons feel it in different places. For some cultures, it is in the region of the solar plexus. The Chinese hsin, the heart-mind or soul, is found in the center of the chest. But most Westerners locate the ego in the head, from which center the rest of us dangles. The ego is somewhere behind the eyes and between the ears. It is as if there sat beneath the dome of the skull a controlling officer who wears earphones wired to the ears, and watches a television screen wired to the eyes. Before him stands a great panel of dials and switches connected with all other parts of the body that yield conscious information or respond to the officer’s will.
This controlling officer “sees” sight, “hears” sounds, “feels” feelings, and “has” experiences. These are common but redundant ways of talking, for seeing a sight is just seeing, hearing a sound is just hearing, feeling a feeling is just feeling, and having an experience is just experiencing. But that these redundant phrases are so commonly used shows that most people think of themselves as separate from their thoughts and experiences. All this can get marvelously complicated when we begin to wonder whether our officer has another officer inside his head, and so ad infinitum!
There was a young man who said, “though it seems that I know that I know, what I would like to see is the ‘I’ that knows ‘me’ when I know that I know that I know.“
One of the most important items in our officer’s equipment is his recording and filing system—the memory which he constantly “consults” so as to know how to interpret and respond to his sensory input. Without this equipment, he could have no sensation of constancy—of being the same officer as he was seconds ago.
Although memory records are much more fluid and elusive than photographic film or magnetic tape, the accumulation of memories is an essential part of the ego-sensation. It gives the impression of oneself, the officer, as something that remains while life goes by—as if the conscious self were a stable mirror reflecting a passing procession. This further exaggerates the feeling of separateness, of oneself changing at a pace so much slower than outside events and inside thoughts that you seem to stand aside from them as an independent observer. But memories persist as the whirlpool persists.
Conscious attention seems to scan them as computers scan their ever-cycling tapes or other storage mechanisms. Memory is an enduring pattern of motion, like the whirlpool, rather than an enduring substance, like a mirror, a wax tablet, or a sheet of paper. If memories are stored in neurons, there is no standing aside from the stream of events, for neurons flow along in the same stream as events outside the skull. After all, your neurons are part of my external world, and mine of yours! All our insides are outside, there in the physical world. But, conversely, the outside world has no color, shape, weight, heat, or motion without “inside” brains. It has these qualities only in relation to brains, which are, in turn, members of itself.
Wherever people may feel that the ego is located, and however much, or little, of the physical body is identified with it, almost all agree that “I” am not anything outside my skin. As Shakespeare‘s King John says to Hubert, “Within this wall of flesh there is a soul counts thee her creditor.”
The skin is always considered as a wall, barrier, or boundary which definitively separates oneself from the world—despite the fact that it is covered with pores breathing air and with nerve-ends relaying information. The skin informs us just as much as it outforms; it is as much a bridge as a barrier.
Nevertheless, it is our firm conviction that beyond this “wall of flesh” lies an alien world only slightly concerned with us, so that much energy is required to command or attract its attention, or to change its behavior. It was there before we were born, and it will continue after we die. We live in it temporarily as rather unimportant fragments, disconnected and alone.
This whole illusion has its history in ways of thinking—in the images, models, myths, and language systems which we have used for thousands of years to make sense of the world. These have had an effect on our perceptions which seems to be strictly hypnotic. It is largely by talking that a hypnotist produces illusions and strange behavioral changes in his subjects—talking coupled with relaxed fixation of the subject’s conscious attention. The stage magician, too, performs most of his illusions by patter and misdirection of attention. Hypnotic illusions can be vividly sensuous and real to the subject, even after he has come out of the so-called “hypnotic trance.”
It is, then, as if the human race had hypnotized or talked itself into the hoax of egocentricity. There is no one to blame but ourselves. We are not victims of a conspiracy arranged by an external God or some secret society of manipulators. If there is any biological foundation for the hoax it lies only in the brain’s capacity for narrowed, attentive consciousness hand-in-hand with its power of recognition—of knowing about knowing and thinking about thinking with the use of images and languages.
The world, they are saying, is a mirage. Everything is forever falling apart and there’s no way of fixing it, and the more strenuously you grasp this airy nothingness, the more swiftly it collapses in your hands. Western, technological civilization is, thus far, man’s most desperate effort to beat the game—to understand, control, and fix this will-o’-the wisp called life, and it may be that its very strength and skill will all the more rapidly dissolve its dreams. But if this is not to be so, technical power must be in the hands of a new kind of man.
In times past, recognition of the impermanence of the world usually led to withdrawal. On the one hand, ascetics, monks, and hermits tried to exorcise their desires so as to regard the world with benign resignation, or to draw back and back into the depths of consciousness to become one with the Self in its unmanifest state of eternal serenity.
On the other hand, others felt that the world was a state of probation where material goods were to be used in a spirit of stewardship, as loans from the Almighty, and where the main work of life is loving devotion to God and to man.
Yet both these responses are based on the initial supposition that the individual is the separate ego, and because this supposition is the work of a double-bind any task undertaken on this basis—including religion—will be self-defeating. Just because it is a hoax from the beginning, the personal ego can make only a phony response to life. For the world is an ever-elusive and ever-disappointing mirage only from the standpoint of someone standing aside from it—as if it were quite other than himself—and then trying to grasp it. Without birth and death, and without the perpetual transmutation of all forms of life, the world would be static, rhythmless, undancing, mummified.
But a third response is possible. Not withdrawal, not stewardship on the hypothesis of a future reward, but the fullest collaboration with the world as a harmonious system of contained conflicts—based on the realization that the only real “I” is the whole endless process. This realization is already in us in the sense that our bodies know it, our bones and nerves and sense-organs. We do not know it only in the sense that the thin ray of conscious attention has been taught to ignore it, and taught so thoroughly that we are very genuine fakes indeed.