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I Am, Therefore, I Think
Although I have raised a multitude of topics and themes in this series of essays, one point that I return to over and over is the need to understand our own thinking. We need to take a careful look at the perceptual basis on which our thinking is based, the memes that shape it, and the way that just a few words and assumptions can alter the entire course of a discussion. Whether you want to call this an examination of “the mind” or an analysis of the Soul, the upshot is the same: you cant fix or fine-tune something until you understand how it works.
Great thinkers, philosophers and teachers have been looking inward for millennia, so there is plenty of source material if you want to know what OTHER people saw when they examined their own Soul. But until you perceive these internal workings for yourself, the lessons usually do not stick. This is one of the frustrating features of the Soul. No matter how real the perception or how powerful the message, internal truth is an oddly evasive, slippery thing that can be very difficult to put into words. You needn’t turn to Lao-tsu to encounter this message that “the way that can be described is not The Way”. . . . The same observation can be found in virtually every religious fellowship or philosophical fraternity. And yet, the insights people have brought back from their internal journeys, over the centuries, have a remarkably high degree of consistency. Even when the “Truth” is expressed in metaphor or parable, anyone who has experienced the same insight will nod vigorously and understand EXACTLY what is being described.
There are, however, some key disagreements about the nature of the Soul, particularly when you contrast the systems of thought which served mankind in the distant past, and those that emerged over the past one or two centuries. For example, few aphorisms in modern philosophy are as well-known as Rene Descartes' "I think, therefore I am". Descartes arrived at this statement as a solution to questions about what “Reality” means. As detailed in previous essays, my senses are not always reliable. They have a habit of tricking me, from time to time. So how do I know when something is “real”. For that matter, how do I know that *I* am real. How do I know that I exist? Descartes turned his focus within, heard his own mind asking the question, and declared his solution: “Cogito ergo Sum”. I think, therefore I am.
Sadly, most people today (especially in the West) have so thoroughly imbibed this concept that they no longer see any separation between their thoughts and their selves. Instead of "I think, therefore I am", it has become: "I am what I think". When people are asked to reflect on the question “who am I?” most seem to identify with the little voice that is constantly describing the world, commenting on its characteristics and pointing out the interesting bits, both good and bad.
But this view of the Self was rejected repeatedly and vehemently by prophets and philosophers down the centuries. The Chinese sage Chuang-tsu illustrated this with a story about a king who fell asleep in his garden and dreamed that he was a butterfly. It was such a vivid dream, and the sense of “butterfly-self” was so powerful that upon awakening, he called his sagest advisors and demanded to know which reality was the “REAL” one. Descartes could not have given him an answer. After all, if you dream that you are a butterfly, then Cogito ergo Sum only proves that a butterfly exists. Or does it mean that you exist as a butterfly? And when you awaken, does the butterfly no longer exist, or has it merely stopped thinking as a butterfly
You dont have to read Chuang-tsu to find philosophers who refutate this Cartesian view of reality. Plato and Socrates also understood that existence and contemplation were two VERY different things. You can almost picture the Athenian dialectician putting Decartes under the knife with one of his dialectic dissections: "When you are asleep, do you think? When you are unconscious do you think? If thinking is the proof of your existence, then does your existence terminate each time you go to bed?
Nowadays, few people can even be bothered to think about questions like: “Who/what am I?” and "how do I know what I know?" And yet, the pedantic certainty they express when talking about what they believe to be “Reality” can almost be amusing. The truth is that our Cartesian view of reality is based on a logical structure that began disintegrating almost 100 years ago. By the time guys like Einstein and Heisenberg came along, it was already obvious that "certainty" has no place in the universe. Even simple questions such as "what" and "where" can only be answered with probabilities and likelihoods. Or to put it in Einstein's own words: "As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality."
A more detailed discussion of modern quantum physics can help to clarify this point further, but that discussion can fascinate the imagination for hours, and deserves a separate essay of its own. For now, our interest lies with two propositions from “the new physics” that relate directly to Descartes’ dilemma. First, quantum physics tells us that there is no such thing as a fixed “reality”, but rather, a range of “likelihoods.” If this surprises you, then you really need to catch up on the current state of scientific knowledge. Physicists now declare with firm conviction that it isn’t even possible to determine whether our universe (= matter) is made up of particles, or waves. When you do experiments, sometimes you can produce results consistent with waves, and sometimes you can produce results consistent with particles. But REALITY is neither-nor. Or rather . . . both . . . but never at the same time.
The second principle of physics that concerns us is the so-called “Observer Effect”. According to current quantum theory, reality only becomes reality when “someone” observes it, and having been observed, that reality is altered permanently. Most people have heard of the “Schroedinger’s Cat” paradox, even if they haven’t quite managed to wrap their heads around it. This is the classic way of illustrating the Observer Effect. But experiments dealing with the dual nature of matter offer an even better illustration. When you perform an experiment on matter which produces results consistent with waves, physicists would say that your observations “collapsed reality” into a wave form. The amazing thing about this change is that – once made – it is PERMANENT and IRREVERSABLE. That is to say, if you conduct a second experiment with the exact same matter, it will remain in wave form and stubbornly REFUSE to act like a particle! An experiment that used to deliver results which were consistent with particles, if conducted sequentially after the wave result, suddenly starts delivering results consistent with waves.
At the risk of oversimplification, this means that we are not so much observing reality, but rather, creating a reality to observe. Or to put it another way, observation IS reality. We have turned Descartes’ aphorism on its head. I am . . . therefore I think.
A more detailed examination of modern physics and quantum theory offers an even firmer logical basis from which to begin, but at the end of the day, all the theory and all the logical considerations in the world will not get us anywhere unless we gird up our loins and take the first step. Fortunately, we HAVE been provided with some basic instructions, and signposts that can help us find our way. The first and most important of these relates directly to the Big Question that Descartes was trying to answer: “Who am I?” . . . as well as a logical follow-up question: “How can I tell?”
Each of the countless spiritual traditions developed by humans over the course of the millennia have their own terminology to describe the things we encounter along the road, as we begin our internal journey, and there isnt room to list all of them (particularly since the vast majority of traditions differ only in language and terminology, not in fundamental details). Based on my own experience, I think Hindu tradition lays out the basics in the most concise and “scientific” terms, so I will use these as a base, tossing in cross-references when appropriate, while looking for more “modern” terminology to replace the phraseology of ancient traditions.
First off, the word Hindus use to identify the “Soul” or “Self” is Atman. This corresponds very closely to the Greek word Psyche, in that it points to something we might describe as “our REAL Self” while specifically distinguishing it from something else, which we could disparage as an “illusory self” or treat a bit more generously by calling a “secondary (sub-)self”. In Greek, this secondary entity is called the Ego – a word that English continues to use with more-or-less the same meaning. Sanskrit, however, identifies this secondary self not as a thing or a “being”, but rather, identifies it based on its qualities. The term that most closely corresponds to the Greek Ego is called Chitta (masculine) or Chitti (feminine).
A complete, comprehensive definition of these terms would require a separate essay of its own, but the general idea can be grasped with just a few examples. Translators often render both words as “Consciousness”, which can be a bit misleading. However, when distinguishing between them, many translate Chitti as “thoughts” and Chitta as “mind-stuff” (that is to say, the substance or essence which creates thought). These definitions are much more useful, since the difference between Atman and Chitta – Psyche and Ego – can be recognised quickly by anyone who takes a careful look inside their own thought-apparatus. Most forms of meditation are designed to help the individual notice this distinction at an early stage, even though few meditators grasp the full significance until much, much later.
Since we are conducting this discussion in English, not ancient Sanskrit or Greek, it helps to have terms that we can use a bit more confidently when discussing these aspects of the Soul. While it is difficult to find English terminology that matches up precisely, I do think that readers can grasp the most important differences if we identify Chitta with Thought, and Atman with Consciousness. Though the two words are very similar, Thought and Consciousness are obviously not the same thing. As soon as one begins to look internally and examine the way that their own mind/Soul operates, these differences are thrown into stark relief.
Thought almost invariably involves words, or at least images, which seem to be based on experience. When you “think about” something, your mind tosses out sequences of words based on things you have heard other people say, things you have read, or conclusions that your “Thinker” (Ego) has drawn on the pasis of past internal dialogues. Consciousness, on the other hand, is wordless. If you pay close attention to the way that your own mind works, it will become apparent that there are two “entities” participating in the activity. Thought searches through a vast database of past experience and pulls out words, phrases and ideas. Sometimes these thoughts are carefully selected to support whatever train of thought your mind is pursuing; other times the thoughts that occur seem random or even bizarre. Regardless of how useful, erudite, pointless or insane these words might be, they are lined up and presented as if by a lawyer/advocate addressing someone in authority.
Meanwhile, Consciousness is registering all the information that Thought presents, skipping over things that seem irrelevant and steering in the direction of those that seem interesting or useful. When it discovers something of real value, or recognizes truth in the words that Thought is presenting, Consciousness hits the proverbial “Star Search” golden buzzer, setting off a wave of euphoric recognition: That’s It! Truth! Victory!
If you examine the relationship between Consciousness and Thought, in your own Soul, it should immediately be apparent which one is the “senior partner”, and which one is the “servant”. Thought has an important job to do, and at times it is capable of performing that job with skill and brilliance. But it should be clear to anyone who considers the matter that Consciousness runs the show, and that Thought needs to be kept under close scrutiny, because it is frequently mistaken, misguided, or just plain uncooperative.
And yet . . . in our modern age . . . how many of us have become a slave to our own thoughts? Indeed, how many people have turned their backs on the senior partner altogether, and concluded that Thought is their real Self.
One of the best pop-culture allegories for our current condition, as a society, can be found in the Guy Richie movie Revolver. As the movie nears its climax the protagonist, Jake Green (Jason Statham) finds himself trapped in a conflict that his own ambition and desire for retribution (Thought) have created. His two closest friends and advisors (who the movie is already suggesting might be figments of Jake Green’s imagination) take him up to a rooftop driving range and try to point out the solution, as well as the original source of his problems. It is his own Ego that keeps putting him in jeopardy, and the only way out is to pursue a course of action that will benefit Everyone Involved, while ignoring and even disobeying the suggestions that Thought/Ego keeps proposing.
“You’ve been hearing that voice in your head for so long, you believe it to be you…
It’s all up here . . . .”
“The greatest con he ever pulled was when he convinced you that he . . . is YOU.”
. . . . . . .
The lesson of that movie – and the lesson we need to learn if we hope to reverse the world’s toilet-bowl spiral towards oblivion – is that our "REAL" Self is not Thought, but Consciousness. And Consciousness is not something we can control, or own, or possess. It is our shared foundation. The foundation of existence for every human, every living being, every blade of grass and every grain of sand.
So long as we identify with Thought, and dance to its frequently-chaotic melody, we are seven billion self-serving antagonists, each trying to play their own con and hoping to come out on top. But no matter how clever or how hard-working one might be, the mathematics of the situation simply don’t allow for optimism. If we allow our world to operate on the basis of individualism and self-interest, then you have one person acting, working, scheming and fighting for YOUR benefit, and six billion, nine hundred and ninety nine million, nine hundred and ninety nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine opponents who will do everything in their power to PREVENT you from coming out on top. Nobody can cope with those odds. Nobody.
On the other hand, if we identify with Consciousness, and accept that every single individual’s happiness, prosperity and joy contributes to the gross happiness, prosperity and joy of the planet, then you have one person (yourself) who is willing to forego their own selfish interests if it can benefit others, and six billion, nine hundred and ninety nine million, nine hundred and ninety nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine who are willing to forego their own selfish interests in order to help YOU.
I don’t know about you . . . . but I like those odds a lot better.
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