Book Club: Does The Self Exist? Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Oct 28 2014 @ 2:22pm

A reader flags the long podcast seen above:

I started reading Waking Up after watching Sam Harris on Joe Rogan’s podcast. In it, Harris recounts his case against free will and mentioned that he thought that the self was an illusion. I am sympathetic to that view and in a manner believe it to be true, so I purchased Waking Up primarily to read his case on the question of self.

I can’t say I really came away with the tools to feel I can prove this belief. Harris writes in the mode of a skeptic and does so well. But nowhere does the book move fully beyond skepticism to proactive persuasion. So you ultimately end up with firm evidence that common conceptions of self are false, but then the final leap seems to be that moments of awe and the truth are … just self-evident. Something that just is. But some people aren’t going to interpret these moments in that way. Certainly many Christians will associate with the idea of divine light in these moments, as you do. People of other backgrounds will see it in other ways.

Another is more critical:

bookclub-beagle-trI love both you and Sam. I really do. I’m with him on the dangers and damage wrought by religion. With you on most political issues. But on this question from Waking Up, regarding the nature of the so-called “selfless” state of mind human beings sometimes experience during meditation or prayer, I’m afraid you are both wrong.

Andrew, why do you both seek transcendence so badly? For what you feel, what we all feel in these oceanic moments, is neither an experience of being flooded by God’s love (your view) or a glimpse into the underlying “selflessness” of consciousness (Sam’s view).

It is simply one way – one particularly harmonious and happy way! – that our particular species of primate experiences neuronal/electrical activity in our brains. We may speculate that meditation, prayer and the like probably have the effect of quieting activity in the left hemisphere and facilitating a more direct experience of the intuitive, non-verbal right hemisphere …  something like that …

Whatever it is, it is most certainly NOT anything transcendent, nor showing us a “truth” about the selfless nature of the universe. It is part of what our limited biology, fashioned by millions upon millions of years of adaptation, does.

Why is it so hard for you, and now Sam too, to accept your body and brain for what they are: your ONLY portal to experience, limited as they are, sometimes impulsive and directed, sometimes undifferentiated and peaceful, but always YOURS, beautiful and mortal and precious.

It is always self, and that is okay. Andrew, I say lovingly: go with the love you feel, and you can leave out the “God” part. To Sam I want to say: go with the love you feel, and you can leave out the incoherent idea of some “selflessness” uncannily experienced by the self.

155 years after On the Origin of Species and this is still hard for people to accept. But once you do it is clarifying, and liberating. It’s all natural, all animal – all the way down.

Another reader wonders:

One question I would ask Harris: why do we have a sense of self in the first place? Despite its evanescent nature, it likely evolved over time through natural selection because it provided an evolutionary advantage at some point. It may very well be true that it is no longer useful to thrive in the 21st century, but to dismiss it out of hand and call it an illusion, without placing it in a scientific context, is kind of misleading.

Another reminds me why I am so fortunate to be a part of this blog-community:

For many years now I have had the experience of no-self (it is not my philosophy, it is actually my experience).  This experience is almost impossible to write about, but I will do my best.

To begin with, it is not the case that my self vanished one day. Rather, I stopped identifying with the self.  I realized that the self is a just thought that I am aware of, but the self is not what I am.  The self has continued to exist as a thought that is very useful for survival and I expect it to continue to exist until death.

So if I am not the self, then what am I?  I honestly have no idea.  For many years, I felt like I was nothing.  This sounds terrible, but it was actually very liberating.  I did not feel like a dead, cold nothing, I just felt like I was no thing in particular.  Compared with identifying as a separate person that is perpetually fearful, lonely, and confused, being nothing is wonderful.

Several years ago, I experienced a shift.  I started to feel more and more like I was everything.  The first time the feeling came on very strongly, I was sitting in Newark airport staring out at the Queens skyline. I experienced a unity between what I am and everything I am aware of: the beautiful sunrise, the sad buildings, the bagel I was eating, all my thoughts and feelings, etc.  I felt like there was no inside and outside to what I truly am (even though I was aware of a self as a thought).  For the first time in my life, I truly understood what it meant to love everything unconditionally.  This feeling has never really gone away since then, although it is often more in the background of my experience while the self is in the foreground.

Regarding the apparent conflict between Sam Harris’s writings and Catholicism, I see them as emphasizing different partial truths.  Harris, in line with meditative traditions, emphasizes breaking identification with the self.  This can alleviate suffering, but it overlooks the unity of everything and the possibility of universal love.  Catholicism, and other devotional religions, emphasize allowing the self to be “overcome by divine love” as you aptly put it.  But when Catholicism insists on the existence of an eternal soul, it makes God something separate that exists outside of a person.

My own experience is that there is no separate self, there is only God, but a God does not exist apart from me.  This is what St. Teresa of Avila calls “spiritual marriage” in the seventh mansion, or what Meister Eckhart meant when he said “my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing”.

Here are four other thoughts that seem important.  First, I have no idea why this grace came to me.  I am not a special person in any way.  Second, I have no idea how common this realization is or if it is becoming more common.  Third, it has not impaired my ability to live a normal life with a family and job.  People often remark that I seem really calm, but otherwise I look like an ordinary guy.  Fourth, I have no desire to evangelize about this.  I am only writing about it now because I feel that your readers will benefit by hearing that freedom from self is possible.

Anyway, I don’t know if I did a very good job explaining myself, but this is the best I can manage.  If you would like to push further on this, I would suggest interviewing an American teacher named Adyashanti.  He speaks eloquently about these matters and his realization is very deep. And as always, I appreciate the chance to contribute to the Dish.

That reader also wrote an eloquent email about his experiences with ibogaine, a powerful psychedelic from West Africa. Follow the whole Book Club discussion here. And join in by emailing your thoughts to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com.