Desire, and the self
I read a lot. I won’t do this too often, but I wanted to write about the way I have come to think about the self. I think it might help as a lens to help people overcome their habits, in some way.
It starts with desire.
I think that by definition, to desire is to make the mistake in thinking that the current self will ever get to enjoy what the future self always steals. The other common mistake is to forget that the future self will have to pay in certain ways for what the decision-making self chooses today, even if the decision-making self is a greedy little bastard who generally wants to eat pizza.
This happens because in reality, there is no such thing as the self – the self, to us, is a continuous evolution of what it feels like to experience the present moment, perceived by our nervous system in its continuous clash with reality, and stranger: if we think about thinking, or are mindful of our thoughts, aren’t we somehow watching ourselves?
One truth about the self is that our self, the agency that is reading this right now, is not some location, is not our body, is not even our brain, but instead the self is sort of a process. The self is what happens when we continue to exist with a memory moment to moment, when we are processing, reporting, and interpreting information, when we have a workspace. The self is also whatever comes to mind when we think about ourselves, about who this thing right here is. Some of us think more about this self than others. You are not your 7-year-old self unless you happen to think of yourself as 7.
Am I saying there’s no such thing as the self? Well, what do we have? There is our body, which has certain tendencies in its actions, including making certain noises and whatnot. There is our brain, which contains a wealth of knowledge about the world, that can dodge a ball and make a pun and walk up hills, but it is also part of our body. Our brain is also not our self.
Put our brain in a different body, and we would not have the same connections to the same hands, the connections would be different, and we would move and at least feel different, because it seems reasonable that if connections in the brain are somehow tied in with feeling, then changed connections = changed feeling.
At the basest level, just statistically based on the number of cells in our bodies and the ways each one can be, we each are – every human on earth – a unique configuration of atoms – even identical twins! We all have unique histories, if only necessarily from being unable to have two people perceive from the same exact place at the same time. We all certainly have a unique moment-to-moment experience. But we are also all built on the same basic code.
The code can go awry, sure, but we’re good at fixing awry things, we humans.
But it gets more complicated, the self. Lots of things matter to the self. Things like weather and movement and dancing and sex and water all interact with that nervous system in ways we can’t count, all change things up in their little way, inject chaos into our inputs and god knows what kind of output comes out. We may never know what happens in that three-dimensional processing unit that is our central nervous system and all its connections.
But strangely, somehow our chaos has found a way to center itself, which is what Buddhism teaches, in my opinion. And all the other religions, pretty much. Prayer, chanting, solitude, reflection, discipline, resilience, all different kinds of spiritual kung-fu to manage our social, emotional, and intellectual lives better.
Meditation in the Buddhist tradition is a way to be centered.
If I had to put meditation in one sentence, it would be this: Sit until you settle; then, you can develop the power to step beyond yourself.
Philosophers discovered many of the same ideas – and shared them around with Hindus and other people in trade around the 4th century BC, and called parts of it Stoicism, though it’s basically the same thing all around – wherever you find solitude or reflection, you also find a centering practice. Who knows where it came from? The Hindus have been practicing some of it for millenia. Buddhists have been around since 2600 years ago. Some Hindus recognize Christ as a god within Hinduism because of his philosophical contributions.
I guess what I mean to say is, many of you seem to believe the same stuff, generally self-improvement and development and compassion, but some believe stupid, power-mad, or plain old controlling versions of it. These corrupt versions happen in part because someone realized at some point that if you make beliefs impenetrable to outside communication or reason, it was a very effective way to get the religion to stick throughout the generations. This impenetrability of doctrine to argument also tends to cause problems for people who live in a society with differing beliefs.
Some people take that impenetrability so seriously they think they’ll go to Hell without it. Then their lives turn permanently miserable as all their spiritual expectations are dashed over and over again. They are almost certainly going to encounter people from all over the world whose beliefs differ from their own. To be in their own version of Hell.
We all have to learn that there is no other anymore, no nations are meaningful, no class structures valid. You can always just move somewhere with a different set of rules. We are all citizens of the world. I know a lot of people just shut the world out, but people really are getting better. It’s slow, but I think it might start to speed up as more and more people get connected to the vast expanse of human knowledge online.
So please, open up to the experience. One of the cool things about being a human on this planet is the breadth of experience we can have, and even better, the breadth of experience we can share with each other. Breathe. Notice colors; and the sheer, seemingly infinitely detailed, nature of the universe around us, a fabric made of no fewer than 17 senses’ data and countless other processes, all interweaved with the interactions of our universe we can’t perceive.
Our universe is infinitely detailed to us, who with our ape minds, have barely figured out how to ook at each other, and some of us haven’t yet mastered the art of ooking at more than six or so people at a time. To probably mis-paraphrase, Leibniz said – we are the universe resonating against other parts of the universe, happily localized – how bizarre would it be to be non-localized? People can be localized in different fashions: the Greeks (and other cultures) considered the belly to be the location of the self, not the head, and our belly is admittedly smart. It has a group of neurons the size of a cat brain. So it’s about as smart as a cat, give or take. What does that even mean?
Well, it probably means our belly can process about as much information as a whole cat can.
So we have a whole cat in there helping us digest our food. Awesome.
The funny thing is, I’m not even mad at all our tribal behavior. I’ve been an anthropologist the whole time I’ve been here, and no one has ever been, just, like, pure evil because of tribal behavior unless something else was going on – unless they had a physical impairment (brain not built correctly for empathy – it’s an area). So yeah, we all act like decent people anyway, to me. That’s not to say monsters don’t exist, but there’s usually an explanation for it if a human is hurting other humans. Wounds are transmitted down the family line, no?
Regardless of our religion, we all do our best for each other when we’re face to face and help is needed.
I believe that people mostly just want to be recognized as valid selves for whoever they are, in whatever position, because people tend to forget themselves in the blur of daily living. They want their toil to be recognized, their successes shared, their attributes praised and their work to have meaning. They want to be interdependent. Fierce individuality and introversion can be crippling in today’s working world – of course folks want to be recognized by their community in some way, even just in material support.
So just be nice to each other, and try to walk a mile in some people’s shoes without stealing them. Unless they have, like, a shitload of shoes. You all believe the same junk. It’s not even junk, it’s pretty good stuff. Respect.
Happy New Year
If you want citations for any statement made in this article, please let me know. I will be going through and citing it in the next few days.