Home > Chimp > Don’t be so shellfish

Don’t be so shellfish

Thirdly, the self that we think we know is an illusion. Its memories, its opinions, its needs and wants are nothing more than products of the mind. They are not real; they are not reliable; they are not me. 

The bedrock of suffering and frustration is the idea that there is a me to which all of this suffering and pain happens. It follows that if we actually remove the me from the equation, the bedrock disappears and the whole edifice of struggle falls apart. So, that’s easy…

This isn’t some sort of navel-gazing angst that I should have come through by the time of my 18th birthday. This, I am reassured to say, is what is currently being held up as hard science in the labs of the neuroscientists. They point to the findings that have emerged since fMRI came along. fMRI is an abbreviation of functional magnetic resonance imaging. Basically, it is the relatively recent technologoy that allows us to study the flow of blood to certain areas of a living brain. We don’t need to kill people off in order to study their brains anymore. We can see how brains work as they are working.

Scientists who study the sense of self study where the blood flows to when people are conscious of their body (regarded as being part of the Self that we invent); they look at where the blood goes when we are having our autiobiographical memories; where it pools when we are facing moral puzzles. They look at what happens to people who have some sort of injury or anomaly in these parts of the brain and they begin to put two and two together.

The conclusion that they are reaching towards now is the same conclusion that an Indian chap by the name of Sid Gautama came to some three millennia ago. Sid hadn’t really heard of fMRI and his approach to the whole situation was to sit under a tree and really give it a good old ponder. He got up and proclaimed, “Got it! We’re just a bunch of things coming together and creating the sense that there’s a singular us that is different to everything else in the cosmos! Doh!”

The things that Sid thought made us us are: the sense of embodiment, the physical senses, the sense of volitional thought that we appear to have, the external world which is perceived by us and our awareness. These things themselves were not absolutes: we can take the body and start breaking it down into parts, into cells, into atoms, into nuclei, etc. We can take the sense of sight and break it down into what is required: eyes, brain, neural pathways, object, words, concepts etc etc etc.

We are a by-product of the interplay between these things; similarly, these things are a by-product of the things that make them; it goes on like this at all levels. If we were to plug away resolutely, the buddhists tell us, we come upon emptiness.

As far as Truth #3 goes, this simply means that all of the things that I know are true about me are not true about me. They are just sluices of biochemical compounds whizzing around my head. Similarly, everything that everyone else thinks is true about me are also not true. Everything is just a big ol’ fictional narrative that is based on real events.

Just as I don’t get too riled up when finding out that the Gingerbread Man is being put through a lot of pain in the dungeons of Lord Farquaad, neither should I get too disturbed when I discover that some of the people I work with think that I am an utter tosspot. None of it is real. When the DoS comes in and observes a lesson that is sheer pants, I don’t need to contemplate the glass of hemlock: it’s just a plot twist. When Student X loudly informs the class that they find more educational worth in a steaming pile of horse dung than they do in my lessons, I don’t need to visit the wrath of my righteous gods upon the little turd’s head. What they are saying is not about me, or my teaching or anything other than themselves. For me, it is like water off a duck’s back. It’s all just mental.

What I think I remember is not what really happened. I don’t need to get too het up when people contradict me.

The opinions I have are not my own, nor do they constitute Reality. I don’t need to defend them tooth and nail from the onslaught of the Cognitively Illiterate.

What I think I need or want is just that…what I think I need or want. If I want to ground this in some sort of reality, I should probably seek out a range of opinions and go with the most common prescription.

Ultimately, I need to remember at all times that there is no me to offend or to be offended. Just as there are no them. The student who says that they are poor at language learning is building a fictional character who exhibits fictional characteristics. It’s not real. The teacher who says that Teachers shouldn’t have to… is not telling a truth: teachers don’t actually exist.
Our suffering starts when we start forgetting these things and start clinging to the idea that we exist and are readily identifiable from all the other things that constitute our cosmos. Put this way, the more conventional belief seems absurd in the extreme. But it is a powerful illusion and one that I have to make a conscious effort to remind myself of every time that something affronts me and my sense of decorum!

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