Just as true humor is laughter at oneself, true humanity is knowledge of oneself. Other creatures may love and laugh, talk and think, but it seems to be the special peculiarity of human beings that they reflect: they think about thinking and know that they know. This, like other feedback systems, may lead to vicious circles and confusions if improperly managed, but self-awareness makes human experience resonant. It imparts that simultaneous “echo” to all that we think and feel as the box of a violin reverberates with the sound of the strings. It gives depth and volume to what would otherwise be shallow and flat.
Self-knowledge leads to wonder, and wonder to curiosity and investigation, so that nothing interests people more than people, even if only one’s own person. Every intelligent individual wants to know what makes him tick, and yet is at once fascinated and frustrated by the fact that oneself is the most difficult of all things to know. For the human organism is, apparently, the most complex of all organisms, and while one has the advantage of knowing one’s own organism so intimately— from the inside—there is also the disadvantage of being so close to it that one can never quite get at it. Nothing so eludes conscious inspection as consciousness itself. This is why the root of consciousness has been called, paradoxically, the unconscious.
Man is intuitively certain that the entire multitude of things and events is “on” or “in” something as reflections are on a mirror, sounds on a diaphragm, lights and colors in a diamond, or the words and music of a song in the singer. This is perhaps because man is himself a unified organism, and that if things and events are “on” anything at all, they are on his nervous system. Yet there is obviously more than one nervous system, and what are all nervous systems on? Each other?
This mysterious something has been called God, the Absolute, Nature, Substance, Energy, Space, Ether, Mind, Being, the Void, the Infinite —names and ideas which shift in popularity and respectability with the winds of intellectual fashion, of considering the universe intelligent or stupid, superhuman or subhuman, specific or vague.
All of them might be dismissed as nonsense-noises if the notion of an underlying Ground of Being were no more than a product of intellectual speculation. But these names are often used to designate the content of a vivid and almost sensorily concrete experience—the “unitive” experience of the mystic, which, with secondary variations, is found in almost all cultures at all times. This experience is the transformed sense of self , purified of all hocus-pocus about mind, soul, spirit, and other intellectually gaseous words.
If, self and other, subject and object, organism and environment are the poles of a single process, THAT is my true existence. As the Upanishads say, “That is the Self. That is the real. That art thou!” But I cannot think or say anything about THAT, or, as I shall now call it, IT, unless I resort to the convention of using dualistic language as the lines of perspective are used to show depth on a flat surface. What lies beyond opposites must be discussed, if at all, in terms of opposites, and this means using the language of analogy, metaphor, and myth.
The difficulty is not only that language is dualistic, insofar as words are labels for mutually exclusive classes. The problem is that IT is so much more myself than I thought I was, so central and so basic to my existence, that I cannot make it an object. There is no way to stand outside IT, and, in fact, no need to do so. For so long as I am trying to grasp IT, I am implying that IT is not really myself. If it were possible, I am losing the sense of it by attempting to find it. This is why those who really know that they are IT invariably say they do not understand it, for IT understands understanding—not the other way about. One cannot, and need not, go deeper than deep!
But the fact that IT eludes every description must not, as happens so often, be mistaken for the description of IT as the airiest of abstractions, as a literal transparent continuum or undifferentiated cosmic jelly.
Yet Western students of Eastern philosophies and religions persistently accuse Hindus and Buddhists of believing in a featureless and gelatinous God, just because the latter insist that every conception or objective image of IT is void. But the term “void” applies to all such conceptions, not to IT.
Yet in speaking and thinking of IT, there is no alternative to the use of conceptions and images, and no harm in it so long as we realize what we are doing. Idolatry is not the use of images, but confusing them with what they represent, and in this respect mental images and lofty abstractions can be more insidious than bronze idols.
In the words of a Chinese Zen master, “Nothing is left to you at this moment but to have a good laugh!” As James Broughton put it:
“This is It and I am It and You are It and so is That and He is It and She is It and It is It and That is That.“
True humor is, indeed, laughter at one’s Self—at the Divine Comedy, the fabulous deception, whereby one comes. to imagine that a creature in existence is not also of existence, that what man is is not also what everything is. All the time we “know it in our bones” but conscious attention, distracted by details and differences, cannot see the whole for the parts.
Now you know—even if it takes you some time to do a double-take and get the full impact. It may not be easy to recover from the many generations through which the fathers have knocked down the children, like dominoes, saying “Don’t you dare think that thought! You’re just a little upstart, just a creature, and you had better learn your place.” On the contrary, you’re IT. But perhaps the fathers were unwittingly trying to tell the children that IT plays IT cool. You don’t come on (that is, on stage) like IT because you really are IT, and the point of the stage is to show on, not to show off.
To come on like IT is to play the Self as a role, which is just what it isn’t. When IT plays, it plays at being everything else.