A secular way

A secular way

By Emer Gentway

Can one understand nonduality without naming it?

For millennia, mystical teachings have alluded to the vision of nonduality hidden in plain sight. Though illuminating and poetic, the language expressing their insights reflected historical and cultural contexts of their time. As recent scientific findings have created an opportunity to ground ancient wisdom in modern science, it is no longer necessary for skeptical intellectuals to abandon their secular worldview to understand nonduality in the terms familiar to them. 

In contrast to the holistic insights of mystics and poets, analytical methods are inherently limited. Scientific models may often feel clunky in their effort to decompose living organisms into their independent facets. However, by erecting a solid scaffolding of empirical evidence, rigorous analyses may help us attain a more comprehensive understanding of the invisible forces that confine our mind to the invisible web of its own making.

Akin to a Zen koan, scientific method yanks the solid ground from under our feet while offering no definitive answers or comforting reassurances in return. Though unsettling, it may help expose the illusion of being trapped inside a perishing vehicle traversing a meaningless universe as a tasteless cosmic prank – but not necessarily a gloomy one. And I hope that many of us would find this message eminently satisfying.

Consider hallucinations that accompany some psychiatric and neurological conditions, are produced in labs (such sensory deprivation tanks) or get induced by hallucinogenic drugs and certain mind-altering practices (such as deep absorption and lucid dreaming). According to modern science, perception can be considered a “controlled hallucination” in which our expectations are reined in by the world.  As the mystics have observed for millennia, our “normal” experience is a “simulation” created by our mind and then experienced as real. 

What we see, hear, and feel is nothing more than our brain’s “conjecture” about the causes of our sensations. The outside world continuously corrects our fantasy, but it comes unhinged as soon as the correction fails. Our brain has no magic “feelers” that can reach out and experience the reality directly. From the inside of its confinement, it receives vague clues that are somehow related to its surroundings and has no choice but to fall back on its beliefs about the world to explain their origins.  These beliefs develop while we interact with a variety of complex social and biological systems. Since the brain itself is an incredibly complex system (in fact, the most complex one in the known universe), most of our experience reflects interactions between systems. 

While such “system thinking” reflects the modern scientific worldview, its origins trace back (at least) to the ancient Buddhist doctrine of “dependent arising.” However, it is often hard to put into practice since our simplistic “mental models” of the world are often inaccurate. (For example, we can easily imagine a Pegasus or a King Kong, even though neither one is physically possible.) This is particularly true when it comes to our understanding of complex dynamics systems due to their multiple interconnections that produce numerous feedback loops and counterintuitive time delays. Yet we tend to remain oblivious to our misleading intuitions. And since we are a system that we interact with most often, our most deeply ingrained (and most consequential) misconceptions are about the nature of our selves.

One of Buddha’s “characteristics of existence,” anatta, explicitly denies the reality of any immutable substances within the thoroughgoing flux. Yet our unenlightened intuitions tend to suggest otherwise. To deal with the overwhelming complexity of the world, our mental models of complex systems insert unobservable “essences” that give systems their identities. The essences of simple objects, such as a desk lamp, may rarely come to mind (unless presented by Pixar). The essences of complex systems, however, are fundamental to our thinking. But what do they correspond to?

In the process of adaptation, complex dynamic systems “self-organize” to maintain themselves without having a controller in charge. Complex “emergent” behaviors can be observed in such distinct systems as stable ecologies, bird formations, and crystallized snowflakes. The “wetness” of water emerges from the interaction of water molecules, and the “catness” of cats emerges from the interaction of their organs. “Wetness” and “catness” do not exist apart from their component parts. Yet these seemingly immaterial entities have very material consequences. It may take “catness” to put cat’s legs in motion when its eyes see a mouse. 

In Buddhism, the nature of emergent qualities is often called “emptiness." Thus, water is fundamentally “empty” of wetness, and cats – of “catness.” Similarly, the sense of being an “embodied” self – an intangible sentient being that appears to animate our body and look through our eyes – reflects an experience of being a particular kind of complex system. Just like “catness” cannot be found in the organs of a cat, our embodied self cannot be found in the individual neurons, since it emerges from their interaction. Yet neither cats nor selves exist independently of the parts that give rise to them. In this sense, our embodied experience is empty of self.

If your embodied experience is empty of self, what makes it appear so real and palpable?

Objects are defined by their boundaries. A boundary is just a mental model used to separate the “inside” of a system from the “outside.” Choosing different boundaries leads to different mental models, and it often helps to expand a perceived boundary to better understand the system – or quite literally, “think outside the box.” For example, to preserve a forest ecosystem, we may need to stop seeing each tree as being enclosed within the physical boundaries of the bark and consider its symbiotic relationships with other trees and forest inhabitants. Similarly, considering the gut microbiota to be an integral part of the body may significantly influence the approach we take to our diet and treatment.

Your self can sometimes escape its boundary. The vivid feeling of being transported outside of the physical body is called the “out-of-body experience” (OBE), a disembodied sensation described as seeing the world from a perspective other than your physical location. Applying an electric current to a particular brain area can reliably trigger an OBE experience. It can also be induced using clever combinations of cameras and 3D goggles.

The integrity of your boundary can also be disrupted. Despite the moment-to-moment sensory flux, our body usually feels like a single whole – yet scientific facts defy this intuition. To anchor the embodied self to the body, your brain must combine numerous internal and external sensations. Your seamless experience of being-in-the-body is sustained by the real-time proprioceptive feedback from the host of receptors in your skin, muscles, joints, and tendons. Together, they give you the sense of owning your body, providing the foundation of the embodied self.

A vivid demonstration of breaching the seemingly solid experience of the embodied self is the “rubber hand illusion." Your hand is put out of sight, a look-alike rubber hand is placed in front of you, and you are asked to stare at it while both “hands” are simultaneously stroked with a brush. Eventually, you may start experiencing the rubber hand is “yours.” The sense of embodiment may be so vivid that if the fake hand were suddenly stabbed with a knife, you would have retracted your (real) hand with a start. Conversely, those afflicted with “the alien hand syndrome” (popularized by the “Dr. Strangelove” character) experience their real hand as not belonging to them. 

In short, your boundary is not a place but an experience. Your embodied self is just a bandage wrapped around an “invisible man” that separates “you” (the experiencer) from the experience itself. But we can only discover this fact first-hand when the bandage is removed.

If your embodied self is so nebulous and fleeting, who is this endlessly tenacious ghost traveling through your life? 

Please go back to a very early memory of yourself. What do you have in common with the toddler whose supposed experience has just appeared in your awareness as an “early memory”? Do you really believe that you see the world just as you did when you were a two-year-old? Do you feel that the flashback accurately re-creates the toddler’s state of mind?

It may feel as if deep inside, “you” have remained unchanged since you were a child. This intuition is tempting but misleading. How do you know that your memories were experienced by you? Is it possible that your feeling of being present in them is simply a hallucination? What if you inadvertently sneak your present experience into your brain’s simulation of the past?

Although the physical history of your brain has been imprinted into it, the remnants of your old selves are nowhere to be found. It is your present self that is peeking out of every memory like a party crasher bent on appearing in every picture. It comes out of nowhere, animating your brain’s impersonal recollections, stepping into the spotlight to take the lead role in your reenacted life story, and then – ignoring the obvious circularity – embraces its own creation as a record of its continuity.

The illusion of continuity is not unique to the experience of self. Our perception creates enduring entities by integrating the stream of sensory impressions extended over time. We usually see objects moving across a screen (rather than a collection of individual pixels turning on and off in a rapid succession) and hear complete sentences rather than meaningless streams of sound (as when we listen to an unfamiliar foreign language). 

Next time you are standing at an ocean shore, notice how waves appear to “move” water toward the shore and “drop” it on the sand. However, as you know, the ocean does not go anywhere. A wave is mostly an up-and-down motion of the ocean surface. You may suspend the illusion by noticing that a floating object (such as a resting seagull) is not getting any closer to the shore.

Similarly, we do not normally see the enduring self as successive waves of impersonal awareness rising and falling away. Instead, we experience it as a stable entity moving through time. Our brain creates this seamless illusion just as it makes us perceive a wave traveling across the ocean toward its sandy grave.

If we recognize our persistence as illusory, can we wake up from the story of our life as being lived by a particular person? Can we flip the intuition of our self as having a “stream of consciousness” to a consciousness having a “stream of self”? 

At this point, you may be wondering whether you have to go through all this trouble to expose the illusion of the enduring self. Don't we already know the truth in our hearts? Maybe so. But consider how few of us have wandered onto the path of nonduality while remaining committed to scientific inquiry. Yet nonduality does not have to be an esoteric faith based on a direct mystical experience. It can and should be freely available to anyone willing to question the "obvious," regardless of their interest in “spirituality.”

As we all know, the stakes are high. The bloated ghost of the enduring self lurks behind the shiniest rooms of the White House and the darkest corners of the web. While the occupants of those quarters would hardly respond to science and reason, the rest of us may benefit from tracing the modern problems to their ancient root. We cannot wish the illusion away. And waking up doesn't have to be a prerogative of the fortunate few.

Emer Gentway is the author of The Uncharted Present: On Softening the Edges of the Self.

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