[I know. I’m sorry. It’s not as long as it sounds.]
This essay proceeds in two parts.
In the first, I’ll try and explain what the self is.
In the second, I’ll draw out a few conclusions about how that would affect our lives.
It might be a little weird at points, but it does not require any technical vocabulary or prior knowledge of anything in particular to follow. There will also be a few jokes.
The Nature of the Self
I’ll begin by distinguishing between two senses of the word “self”.
The first is what I will call the “objective” self, or capital-S “Self”.
As a working definition, I’ll say that it is the sum total of all the physical and mental events that constitute one’s body and one’s mind.
It is us, as seen from the “outside”.
For example — it is in this sense that we speak of historical people.
When I say “Socrates”, that’s the bit of reality which I’m picking out. There is a particular sequence of events in spacetime, and a particular sequence of experiences, that make up Socrates, the human who lived in Athens from about 470 BC to 399 BC.
(Now, I know that there are endless problems with this definition. For one, the question of boundaries.
- Where does Socrates end and his physical environment begin? What about the dead skin cells still sitting on his body in a particular moment, waiting to be rubbed or blown off? What about his clothes?
Can we pin down a precise line in space — the specific Planck length which is the boundary of his body, in any given direction?
- Where does Socrates end and Athens begin? Can we pin down a precise conceptual line between the man and the social unit he was part of?
- Where does Socrates end and his physical environment begin? What about the dead skin cells still sitting on his body in a particular moment, waiting to be rubbed or blown off? What about his clothes?
So I am by no means claiming this is some kind of perfect definition. But let’s just work with it for a bit and see how we get on.)
The second sense in which I’ll use the word is the “subjective” self, or the “ego”, or the lower-case “self”.
And it is largely this second sense of self that I’ll be discussing here.
Before I tell you what I mean by “subjective self”, I’ll build up to it with a few basic premises on how our senses work, and introduce a central analogy.
So, just to make sure we’re all on the same page with how this stuff works.
This is how we see things:
Light comes off the sun. It bounces off some object, into our eyeballs, and onto our retina. That is encoded into electrical signals, which pass through our optical nerves into our brain. Our brain then builds an image of the thing, based off what’s happening in our retina (and about a gazillion other things).
So, for example. As I’m writing this, I’m sitting at a desk with a red cup. It looks like this.
That image of the red cup which we’re seeing is not the cup itself. For example — its redness. That is not a property of the cup; it’s a property of my image of the cup. A person who’s colour-blind wouldn’t see that red. A dog would not see that red (the internet tells me it’s mostly yellows, blues and violets for them).
A bee wouldn’t see that red. They (apparently) mostly see the ultraviolet range of light, which our eyes don’t even register. So they’re getting their information from a different bandwidth of light than us. What that looks like in their consciousness, I haven’t the foggiest.
A fly has these things called compound eyes. Rather than seeing from two fixed points, like us with our two eyeballs, they have lots and lots and lots of individual photoreceptors, so their vision ends up quite blurry, but very wide, and sensitive to movement. So they’d see the cup… like……. I’m not sure.
And, of course, a blind person wouldn’t see the cup at all.
All that to say: our experience of the red cup is different from the red cup “in and of itself”. It’s a mental phenomenon — based on the physical reality of the cup, and referring to the physical reality of the cup. But there is nevertheless a certain gap between those things.
Something to bear in mind for later.
And now for the analogy.
I’m going to say that our consciousness is like a whiteboard.
If we just sit there and experience existing for a while, all kinds of stuff present themselves to our awareness: images, sounds, smells, physical sensations, emotions, words, concepts, etc.
So if our consciousness is a whiteboard, then all that stuff is a variety of squiggles drawn on it.
Every single moment, the contents of the whiteboard are shifting.
Some things stay in your field of awareness, and change. For example: a cloud covers the sun, and the red cup looks darker.
And other things drop out of your field of awareness altogether, and are replaced by other things.
So, just a few seconds later, the whiteboard looks more like this.
Alright. Here we go.
The “subjective self”, or “ego”, is a process which labels certain items in your field of awareness as “you”, and other items as “your environment”, or “the world”.
In terms of the analogy, it’s like a line drawn on the whiteboard, enclosing certain things in a blob which is your idea of “I”, and excluding everything else as part of your environment.
Contemplating the matter in this way, a few things jump out at us immediately.
Firstly: the subjective self is not a thing. It is a process. It is not a specific mental content. It is a set of mental contents; or, more accurately, a selection procedure for mental contents.
So if you try to look for it the way you look for an image or a physical sensation or whatnot, you won’t find it. You’re looking at the wrong thing.
It’s like the guy who visits a university and looks at all the individual buildings — the library, the labs, the dorms — and then wonders where the university is. That… was the university.
And it’s like biological evolution. Evolution is not a bird, or a whale, or a virus. Evolution is a selection process for birds, whales, viruses, etc.
Secondly: just like the contents of our field of awareness, our ego too is constantly shifting.
What’s more: it is extremely flexible. It can shift, expand, and contract around a wide array of different mental objects.
For example. Let’s say I walk into a cafe, sit down at a table, and have a conversation with someone.
Let’s pause as I’m walking in the room. There’s a bunch of stuff going on, but because I’m trying to navigate somewhere in particular, my subjective self acts accordingly.
The stuff that’s labelled “me” is basically my body.
Those vague sensations above my eyes? That’s the top of my head. That’s me.
That patch of pink on the right there? That’s my hand. That’s me.
That bundle of physical sensations on the right there? That’s also my hand. That’s me.
That patch of blue? That’s my coat. That’s me.
That heavy bundle of feelings down below? Those’ll be my feet; that’s me.
And the stuff that’s labelled “environment” are the various obstacles between me and the table I’m walking to.
That low doorframe that’s drawing closer? Definitely not me. I’d better duck under it.
That patch of brown there? That’s a chair; that’s not me.
That patch of ochre on the right? That’s the waitress; that’s not me.
That sensation of hardness down below? That’s the floor; that’s not me.
Let’s fast-forward to when I’m trying to sit down. At this point, “I” am basically my legs and arms and butt and back. The doorframe is long gone now — it’s off the whiteboard entirely. Therefore, the top of my head isn’t really that important anymore — it’s at the edge of the whiteboard, and the red line is already receding from it. And my “environment” is the chair I’m trying to sit on, and the table I’m trying to place my legs under, and the person I came to see. That chair and the waitress from a second ago? Pretty much gone — at the very edges of the whiteboard, on the borders of my peripheral awareness, at best.
Let’s fast-forward, say, twenty minutes. I’ve really settled in now. Gotten comfortable. And the conversation is going very well, flowing very naturally.
So, what’s in my field of awareness now? What’s on the whiteboard?
At this point, it’s mostly a set of thoughts and ideas. Some of those thoughts and ideas, I recognize as “mine”. They get included in the boundary of that red line. That’s me.
And there are other thoughts and ideas, but those are outside the line — those are the thoughts of the person I’m talking to. They’re different from my thoughts. That’s them.
Everything else has pretty much entirely disappeared now. Not just the doorframe and the other tables… my body has mostly disappeared too. My legs are probably not even being registered as existing at all. They are way off the whiteboard. If, for example, I’m speaking with someone without legs, sitting in a wheelchair… when the conversation is over and I stand up to leave, and they wheel themselves back… I might very well feel quite surprised. For many, many minutes in a row there, I had entirely forgotten that I was someone who has legs, and the person I’m speaking to doesn’t.
So. From moment to moment — even in such a commonplace situation as this — my ego is shifting radically. My sense of what is me and what is my environment has changed constantly, without attracting any notice. At no point was there any break in continuity in my perception of self — despite the fact that the contents of the self have pretty much gone from A to Z.
And the thing is, it gets way crazier than that.
Let’s say I’m at a live sports match.
Even if I’ve never seen or heard of these teams before, my mind will almost immediately start identifying with one team over the other.
Then one of the opponents delivers a particularly hard foul to one of the members of my team.
Bam. It’s like I’ve been hit in the chest.
Because that red line is now including that little tiny patch of colours on the field there as part of “me”, and that other tiny patch of the colours as “other”. And so I get hella angry.
The whole crowd roars in protest.
You think I have any idea who the heck is shouting, in that moment? “Oh, that wall of noise is made up of a panoply of different voices. That particular strain of it is from that middle-aged woman three rows back. That other part of it is a seven-year-old child in the front rows. And only this particular set of vibrations is coming from m—”
Of course not. That would be ridiculously difficult to process. When the crowd roars, it’s the First Person roaring (singular or plural, doesn’t really make much difference). It’s all within the squiggly ovoid drawn by that red line. That’s all “me”. And the other side of the crowd, booing and jeering? The opposition supporters? That’s “not-me”.
And don’t get me started on concerts. I can’t even begin to tell you what’s supposed to be “me” there. Can I track what corresponds to my body and my emotions, as opposed to the rest of the crowd around me? In that mess of arms and torsos jostling against each other, which one exactly is me and which are the others? Is “me” the crowd, and “them” the band? Is “me” my physical sensations, my emotions, the crowd, the band…. and “them” is the music? Is “me” my physical sensations, my emotions, the crowd, the band, the music… and “the other thing” is, what, the concert hall? The walls?
If you could somehow freeze-frame a few, consecutive moments from the signature tune of that concert, and give me an hour to break down what exactly I’m perceiving as me and what I’m perceiving as my environment, I wouldn’t even begin to be able to sort it out.
All that to say: our ego is very stretchy. It’s bending and twisting and expanding and contracting all—the—time. Like a funny little amoeba.
And it can take a remarkable variety of things within its purview. At any given moment, pretty much anything could be included in it.
That is not to say that it’s totally arbitrary — that it just selects things at random. Far from it. It actually moves in very determinate and predictable ways. Most of the path of insight is reflecting on what it was doing over a swathe of different situations, and studying its tendencies.
To take one very obvious but very important point.
If we were to pick out one thing as the top priority for our subjective self, it is our physical preservation. If there’s one kind of mental object which it will always and immediately snap up and gobble within itself, it is pain. I could be having the most interesting conversation in the world… and if I suddenly feel a sharp stinging in my leg… then ciao. That’s me now. Everything else can go get knotted. And what if that pain persists? Then good luck trying to move it out of the circle of “I”, the way my legs just disappeared in that cafe earlier.
It makes sense, though — right? That it would be that way.
And so on and so forth.
But anyway. Here’s the main thing I want to say with all this.
The subjective self is just one small portion of the objective self.
Our objective selves — remember — are every physical and mental event which someone might be referring to when they refer to us.
That includes a lot of shit.
For one thing, it includes countless chemical reactions. It includes our gut bacteria. It includes our literal shit, just hanging out there in our large intestines. It includes electrons, for Chrissakes. Quarks! Maybe 26-dimensional little strings…
But that’s all fairly trivial.
More importantly, it includes everything our mind is doing that we’re not aware of. It includes all the subconscious processes that account for the majority of our mind — that enormous space outside the edges of the whiteboard, from which the objects that make it onto the whiteboard emerge from, and to which they return.
I’ll talk about this a little more later. But this is also quite besides the point.
The main point is this.
Our objective self includes not only all the mental contents currently labelled as “us” by our subjective self.
It includes all the other mental contents as well.
That means that… well… pretty much everything is part of our objective selves. At least, everything we know.
So, let’s make our way back through the examples I gave above.
My objective self includes all the stuff I knew was me. My physical sensations, my limbs, my thoughts, etc.
But it also includes everything else. Everything that’s on that whiteboard — whether or not the red line of the ego encircles it — is part of my field of awareness. Which is part of my objective self.
It includes the music, and the band. It includes the opposition players, and the stadium. It includes the seven-year-old in the front rows and the middle-aged woman in the back. It includes the doorframe, the chairs, the table, the waitress. It includes the legless person I was talking to. It includes every single one of their thoughts and opinions.
And, of course… it includes the red cup.
All of those are mental events, generated by my brain, taking place in my mind.
Now. I’m not denying the underlying reality of the objects which these mental representations refer to. I totally buy the idea that there really is a cup, and that other people are real.
But my experiences of them are also real… and all of my experiences are undeniably part of me.
Looking back, I realize this probably does not sound nearly as revelatory as I thought it would. And, well, that’s probably because it is, really, extremely obvious. But the implications are quite radical.
I’ll go into them more at the end of the piece, in the Conclusions section.
But for now, I’ll just point out a few things.
One of the most common stories you’ll hear from people who have done psychedelic drugs is what I’ll call the “Lol, I got so high, I thought I was my table!” anecdote.
In other words, they’ll experience some degree of ego death, lose all sense of who or what they are. In that state, they take the first object they chance upon — quite often, their living room table — and, in the absence of anything else to identify themselves as, will (for some time) identify as that.
And every time I’ve heard one of these stories, I’ve had to hold myself back from exclaiming, “……….but, dude! You are your table!”
At least, everything you will ever know about the table — how it looks, how it feels, what it does — is all part of you. And, sure, your table also exists outside of you. But I’m not entirely certain you’ve ever thought about that version of your table — as distinct from every single one of your impressions of it, divorced from the entirety of your experience of it. That table has probably never gotten a look-in.
From this angle, the nature of the mystical experience is extremely clear. By which I mean, experiences of blissful union with the universe. When viewed in this way, there is absolutely nothing strange about these experiences whatsoever. There is nothing new going on — no sudden expansion of the possibilities of consciousness. It’s not as if you’re suddenly developing telepathy. Insofar as we have telepathy, we’ve had it all along. For the love of God — our senses are telepathy! They are — literally — perception at a distance!
So it’s not as if anything is being added — it is, in fact, that something is being taken away. Namely, that red line between which mental contents refer to your environment and which refer to “you” begins to be blurred, in ways you had never experienced before — at least with any lucidity. All that’s happened is that you’ve marginally altered the operating procedure of your subjective sense of self — or even partially suspended it.
It’s just that — for one friggin’ moment — you are finally opening yourself up to a slightly larger part of your own experience, rather than shutting yourself off from it. But all of it was there beforehand, and all of it is right there afterwards. It’s just that your subjective self has recovered its normal operating procedure… or you’ve adjusted your underlying expectations, so that the same level of internal openness is no longer surprising enough to generate feelings of wonder.
To go back to the telepathy thing for a second… so our senses are indeed literally telepathic. But they work in a very roundabout (and, when you think about it) extremely funny way.
So, again. Light bounces off table, hits your retina. Putting a plate on the table shakes the air in the room, which vibrates your eardrum. You put your hand on it, and your nerve endings register hardness, smoothness…
In other words, you don’t ever experience the table — you experience how the table affects your body. If it didn’t affect your body in some way, the table (as you know it) would not exist.
And your brain takes all these sense data and creates a certain idea of it. How it does this is also quite funny. This also takes place in your body. It sections off a bit of itself — a certain distributed network of neurons — and dedicates it solely to the task of representing your table.
And THAT is the table that you experience. What you’re experiencing, when you’re experiencing your table, is — very precisely — that part of your brain. That part of your brain is shaped the way it is because a long process of chain reactions which at some point involved the actual table. Put very crudely: that part of your brain is a like a ball of wax, and the table pushed a thing which pushed a thing which pushed a thing which smacked into that ball of wax and left a certain impression, a certain mark.
That impression is what you experience as the table.
But that ball of wax, and the impression left on it, is part of you — not part of the table.
It’s like a Hollywood movie — “inspired by real events”.
And if you move house, and don’t see that table for a long time… that part of your brain will start to atrophy, and the table that lives in your head will start to fade away (whereas the ‘real’ table might not have changed at all… or might have been reduced to ash, who knows).
It’s like one of those trading towns that used to thrive along the old train routes… only for the government to build a highway a few miles away, drawing out all the traffic which was the lifeblood of the town. So it starts to atrophy. Its citizens start to move away. The cells die off, or are repurposed for other, more relevant tasks.
OK. OK. Now hear me out.
From this perspective… the whole idea of what’s going on with “other people” is nothing short of hilarious.
So, obviously, it’s the same thing as with the table. But more complicated, in a number of ridiculous ways.
In terms of that old whiteboard analogy which has kinda been left behind by now, it’s as if your mind does another one of its labelling jobs.
So, there’s still that old, solid red line; everything inside of that is you.
And everything outside of that is your environment.
But in that environment, there’s another red line (a dotted one, this time), which is another thing like you.
But here’s the funny bit. The way I see it… in order to register something as part of someone else, you actually have to feel or think it yourself, on their behalf.
So, like in order to understand that someone’s angry… some part of you has to feel anger… and then another part of you has to section off that anger, and label it as someone else’s anger.
Same thing with their thoughts. In order for me to have a conversation with you, I have to listen to the noises you’re making, and then think your thoughts for you, then think my own, different thoughts, then label the first thoughts as your thoughts, and label the second thoughts as my thoughts, then think about how the first thoughts interact with the second thoughts, and then think a third set of thoughts which is now gonna be my response to your thoughts… and that’s what I end up saying out loud.
Are you getting this?
This is actually very funny.
I’ve ghostwritten literally everything anyone’s ever said to me.
Like… they’ve thought it. And then they’ve moved their throats in this really weird way. And then the air, etc. And then I’ve interpreted the noises. And then I’ve generated all the ideas and meanings which I have naively ascribed entirely to them.
No wonder we sometimes fail to understand each other…
It’s as if each of us were a country. Let’s say… Australia. And in order to communicate with other countries, we have to carve out a piece of our territory, and then officially hand it over to the other country, as an Embassy. And then we say “OK, that’s now part of your country”. Even though is still remains exactly where it was on the Australian landmass! It hasn’t budged an inch! The actual country who supposedly owns it is friggin’ miles away. If the Australian government wanted to, it could send people right in there — what’s gonna stop them, the fence? What — Carl XVI Gustaf is gonna totter off his throne, swim over to Australia, get up on the ladder, and be like “Excuse me! Go away! This is Sweden!”
So yeah. You’re renting out real estate — physical sections of your actual, physical body — to everyone you’ve ever known, heard of, or even just imagined.
Actually, rather than embassies, it’s even more like one of those faces you can draw on your hands.
What you’re doing there is taking a part of your flesh, carving symbols on it, and then pretending to yourself it’s someone else.
Me, to my left hand, acting as a pretty girl:
“Why hello there, gorgeous!”
Me, to my right hand, acting as some douche:
“Go away, you stupid fathead — I saw her first! She’s mine!”
And that’s, basically, what we’re doing when we’re experiencing other people.
And when they’re there, physically in front of us, it kinda works. We take the information from our sense organs, take a bit of our brain matter and give it the job of being this person, and then we talk with that person in our heads, and then we make noises, and then the real person hears those.
But as soon as the other person leaves the room… my God. The confusion we get ourselves into. Cus while they may have left — the bit of our brain that’s simulating them is still there! And we still keep interacting with it!
It’s wild, man. It’s actually wild.
And it gets so, so much wilder. Those of you who have asked me what I’ve been thinking about recently, over the past 2 years, might have heard the words “Zhiyi” or “Tiantai Buddhism” at some point. I don’t think I’ve ever elaborated much on it. But someday, I’m going to pick up where I’m leaving off here, and talk about the seminal “3000 worlds in one thought” passage from his titanic masterwork, the comprehensive meditation manual Mohe Zhiguan (The Great Calming and Insight).
But I know that these digressions are my bad habit, so I’ll keep it simple and within bounds for now, and just make a quick point about the subconscious before proceeding to the Conclusions.
So, obviously, I’ve been simplifying things quite a lot here. But in all honesty, I reckon this is pretty much what’s going on.
The only major thing I feel I’ve left out is the role of the subconscious.
See, the thing is, the vast majority of what our mind is doing lies outside our field of awareness. It’s off the side of the whiteboard, projected onto walls which stretch for miles in each direction.
And in any given moment, our subjective selves include some of those contents within their remit.
There. That’s my (fairly flattering) portrait of an ego.
What this essentially means for us is that the process of self-understanding becomes a bit more tedious.
In practice, what this boils down to is keeping an eye out for that very particular feeling of your ego being pricked. Every time there is fear, anger, or even just this light sense of tension or resistance… something which we have labelled as our environment has contradicted something that we have labelled as part of us.
And some of the time it’s very obvious. I walk into the sharp edge of my living room table. And my table is saying “I exist in this space”. And my leg is saying “No, I exist in this space.” And I take the side of my leg. The table is now just “the table”; it’s not “my” table. It’s the other. It’s bad. It can piss right off, is what it can do.
But then sometimes, you surprise yourself. “OK, so I’m clearly feeling threatened… but why?”
And then you notice. “Oh. Wow. I wasn’t even aware of that thought, opinion, stance, idea. But not only does it exist, my subjective self had labelled it as corresponding to ‘me’ — so anything which contradicts it is interpreted like the sharp end of the table digging into my leg. Go figure.”
And if now, under the light of lucid awareness (now that you’ve brought it into the centre of the whiteboard), the idea isn’t all that important to you… then your subjective sense of self reacts accordingly.
“OK boss. That one’s not that big a deal? Alright boss. I’ll dock it down the list. Where was it again? Way below leg pain… below the thoughts about circumcision… aha. Just above ‘opinions about romcoms’. Alright, I’ll make some space next to ‘favourite soft-serve ice cream flavours’ for it, boss.”
Of course, sometimes it takes a bit more work than that. There’ll be something on your peripheral awareness, and you’ll realize something else is rubbing it the wrong way… but still… it doesn’t quite make sense.
And so you basically just have to make like one of those annoying children and be like “why?…….why?………why?……….why?”
Each time you ask that, the mental object comes towards the centre of the whiteboard, leaving a bit more room around the edge… and pulling in the more fundamental thing that your subjective self is identifying with. And sometimes that’s enough… but sometimes, you have to keep going… pulling that into the centre of awareness… and allowing the even more fundamental notion to arise… until, finally, with a great sense of revelation and relief, you pluck out the root cause.
Formal meditation can be useful in this respect — in two different ways, but for one essential reason.
Firstly, it just kind of forcibly lowers the barriers of awareness, like the psychedelics I mentioned above. It expands the edges of the whiteboard… or pulls all its contents into the middle, like a miniature black hole, leaving more room for sub-surface level thoughts to manifest themselves. Basically, through consistent sense deprivation, you can filter out all the usual loud, large objects of awareness that take up your attention and crowd out the less immediately relevant contents of your mind.
And secondly, it can help to keep you calm. Just sitting there and breathing deeply, in a quiet place, with absolutely nothing to do, is a less threatening scenario to confront deeply hidden things than when you’re out doing your grocery shopping. Plus, it’s like what they say about only ever being in your bed when you’re going to sleep; it helps create a strong association. If you’ve sat in a particular meditative posture for many months, just working on calming down, then you’ll automatically start to do that out of habit.
The essential reason both of these things are useful is that it helps to prevent us getting overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed about this process.
But fundamentally, it’s not any different from what’s going on in ordinary introspection.
More than anything else, though, it’s just a question of time. So long as you’re paying at least a little bit of attention, over the months and years, all kinds of stuff will pop into your field of awareness. And if every day or two, you stop and notice “…oh… I never realized I thought that before…”……then, eventually, you’ll get a sense for the subterranean cave systems underlying your usual vistas.
Of course, there will be moments of dramatic breakthrough. And you’ll never entirely stop discovering things. But as you age, you get more time under your belt to build up experiences. And before too long, it seems one gets the basic picture.
Anyway. I feel I’m straying again. So on to the major take-aways.
I. Don’t shoot the messenger
One last analogy.
Let’s say there’s an emperor in a grand throne room.
You can picture them as some bloated, red-faced tyrant, but for reasons which will quickly become obvious, I prefer to think of them as a crippled child-king.
Since she is unable to leave the inner palace, the child-king instead sends out her retainers to go out into the world, gather information, and report back.
When they return, in order to better transmit what they have seen to the child-king, these retainers do everything they can to faithfully mimic the things which they encountered. This is a much better way to get the point across than simply telling her about it. So instead, they re-enact it.
The messenger who went North and was warmly received by the Queen of the Elves will sprinkle on perfume, don fine robes, and speak to the child-king in a soothing, melodious voice.
The messenger who went West and stumbled into a wild forest full of boars and bears will cover himself with mud, bug out his eyes, and grunt, growl, and howl.
The messenger whose unfortunate mission it was to go South, into the undead domain of the Dreaded Lich King, will report back looking awful scary.
Now. What do you think happens next?
The child-king gets confused. The first messenger, she promotes to a high ranking position of the court, so she can always enjoy the delightful company of the Elven Queen. The second messenger makes her angry, and so she banishes them from the palace, or locks them in the dungeon. And the third messenger… oh no. The poor child-king sustains an terrible fright. And so, straight to the torture chamber with them!
Imagine the plight everyone is thrown into: the loyal messenger of the West does everything he can to return from exile and re-enter to the throne room, to warn the child-king of the still-extant external threat, which she has ignored in favour of punishing her own forces. And think of how badly it goes with the messenger to the South — how ghoulish they would appear to the child-king as they stumble into the throne room emaciated, deathly pale beneath the smeared, pus-like face-paint, voice cracking with the pain they have endured.
That crippled child-king is us.
And those messengers are Other People……… as they exist in our heads.
And what have we been doing with them the whole time?
The number one, classic mistake of every cartoon villain.
We have been shooting the messenger.
We have been punishing our own forces for doing the job we told them to do. We sent them to find out what happened. They found out that what happened was potentially bad. They reported back. And we blamed them for it.
This is not wise.
Think of someone you hate. Someone you really despise.
For the sake of this example, I’m going to talk about Hitler. Because just like Socrates is the stock human you use for a general philosophical argument, just so, Hitler has become the stock villain. And precisely because of that, I urge you to also pick somebody that’s more personally relevant, and keep them in mind — because precisely by virtue of being so universally reviled, Hitler no longer inspires such direct, strong negative feelings.
So. Think of Hitler.
Stupid moustache. Weird uniform. And responsible for the Shoah — the extermination of millions of Jews — and the death of millions more through war.
That thing that just came to mind was not Hitler. It was your idea of Hitler.
It was a part of your brain that is dedicated to representing a German dictator of the first half of the 20th Century.
When you hate Hitler, what you’re doing is hating that part of your brain. You are punishing it. You are exiling it. You are trying to build a barbed wire fence around it, so that this part of your brain never gets activated again. And all you’re doing is forcing your mind to drag itself across barbed wire the next time you need to think of Hitler.
And as with Hitler, just so with the other person you despise.
The thing you brought to mind is not who you think it is. It is not the Objective Self of the person it refers to. It is your internal representation of that person. And you should not be at war with yourself. Civil war is a disaster for a country. You must make peace with your internal representation of the person you hate, in order to be able to begin doing anything to counter-act the actual object of your ire.
Our mind is like a camera pointed at our own bodies. The only thing it can have knowledge of is our own body. As a result, if we want to have any knowledge of the world outside our bodies, we have to use parts of our bodies as a sort of mirror, to reflect and represent these external things.
We are constantly losing sight of this, and as a result, aiming thunderous blows at the mirror, in the mistaken idea that we are somehow inflicting damage on the object it is reflecting.
It is like the famous metaphor of pointing at the moon with your finger. Those who understand look at the moon. Those who do not understand just stare at the finger.
So, by all means hate the moon. Just please stop biting your finger.
Or it is like Australia hating Hitler so much that they nuke the German embassy in their own capital of Canberra.
This is a very bad idea.
This is the reason why you should, ideally, never hate anyone. Anyone. Anyone. Ever. At all. With no exceptions. Even Hitler.
This is also why we should never be jealous of anyone. Ever look down on anyone. Ever take any negative attitude towards anyone.
This is not a moralistic argument.
This is a purely pragmatic point.
It’s because you’ve got the wrong guy.
Unless you’ve been very careful about this (and how many of us have been very careful about this?), you’ve been shooting the messenger straight in the face.
And that is entirely pointless. The person we really dislike cannot feel our pain. The pain we mistakenly think we are directing at them is merely being directed at ourselves. This is madness. This is sheer and utter madness. You know those guys I keep talking about — the schizophrenics wandering the streets, muttering at the people in their own head? That’s us, man. That’s all of us.
Most of the world is under some form of lockdown at the moment. So if you’re reading this as it is released, chances are you’ve largely been in isolation in the recent past.
What does that mean?
It means that every single person you’ve gotten mad at, who doesn’t live in your house — wasn’t actually there when you were mad at them. You were getting angry at your television, getting angry at your phone, getting angry at the voices in your head. 100% of the arguments you’ve had during lockdown, that haven’t been about your flatmates’ failure to do the dishes, have happened because you have momentarily lost touch with reality, thought you were in the presence of some asshole, and flung a bunch of shit at yourself as a result.
At first glance, the implications of this are terrifying. Utterly terrifying. Because this extends to the people who have hurt us the most. The people who have caused us genuine, honest-to-God trauma. Do we really have to stop hating them?
On some level… yeah. For our own good, we have to stop hating the version of them that lives in our heads. That’s just a part of us. It’s like a hand we’ve drawn a scary face on and have been bashing with a rock ever since.
And so, we have to stop. Or, more accurately, we have to start learning how to stop.
Being too results-orientated is once again looking at the wrong end of the stick. Maybe it’s possible to stop doing it entirely, after years of diligent self-cultivation. Maybe it isn’t.
The point is: this is your way out of an endless loop of self-loathing — a downwards spiral of negative emotion. You’ll inevitably fall into it for a while… but the thought that stands the best chance of cutting off this vicious cycle is the one I’ve been explaining.
Don’t shoot the messenger.
Pause for one second, and make a distinction between your mental representation and the external object of your displeasure. Just notice that they are different things. Notice that the thing that you’ve been shouting at — and which, as a result, has been shouting back louder (cus these messengers are really, really good at their job of imitation…) is a part of your own mind that is doing you the great favour of simulating this unpleasant external reality in a “safe” way — in a way that won’t get you killed because you’ve gone over to their house and started shouting at the real person. It’s giving you a practice run. It’s giving you… a lot of practice runs.
And if at this point, having made that distinction, you reckon you were gaining insights through this pantomime, then by all means, continue in a slightly more chilled vein.
But if not… well, just keep looking at that mental representation of the person you hate. Keep looking at it — in the knowledge that it’s part of you, and not part of them. And hopefully, over repeated attempts, it’ll stop looking as scary as it did before.
If possible, at that point, you could even try hugging the messenger. Thanking them for their diligent and dedicated service. (A tad too diligent and dedicated, I’d wager.) Instead of banishing them or torturing them, give them a pat on the head. A word of praise. Go ahead and see how they react to that.
And if at all possible… the best case scenario is stepping back to admire the wondrous apparatus of state which your child-king reigns over. You have this whole array of body parts, able to investigate and understand the world. That’s magic.
And, most fundamentally of all… your mind is amazing. Forget about what its images are a representation of. Forget how accurate of a picture it’s painting. Just marvel at the fact that it can paint at all! Your mind can generate a world! A universe! An endless array of characters and settings and props! There’s nothing you’ve yet encountered that it was unable to somehow generate an idea of! It is able to set up your field of awareness, and fill it with effectively infinite contents.
And potentially, up until this moment, you have never stopped to appreciate this specific aspect of your reality — that every single thing you’ve ever experienced (whether good or bad, beautiful or ugly, splendid or horrific) all shares one thing in common.
It was all generated by your mind.
Your mind is actually inconceivably powerful. Inconceivably amazing. It is actually impossible to imagine what it would be like if it wasn’t capable of this. Its simple ability to be conscious, to be aware, and then to also generate all these infinite things to be conscious and aware of… is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Nothing short of divine.
So please — please — try to be a little kinder to it.
But far more importantly, just try and understand it. There’s no need for guilt or self-recrimination for any of this. You see why we’ve been doing this; you see how it’s such an easy mistake to make. You see why it’s actually inevitable. How it results from the very nature of the mind. How it is the result of the very structure of our consciousness.
Understanding this, you cannot hate yourself for how you have hated yourself, and will continue to hate yourself in the future.
To understand this is to feel no hate for this, and to (eventually) feel no regret.
There is no basis for hatred of yourself in any form.
There is only enlightenment.
II. Suspend the Subjective Self
So. Maybe best to take a break. But when you’ve got a moment — the second take-away.
In light of all I’ve said above, what else can one do?
Two things. One less important, and one much more important. We’ll start with the former.
We can suspend the operating process of the subjective self.
In other words, we can arrange things so that the mind halts this process for a time.
Why would we want to do that?
Because it’s the most effective way to drive home the points we’ve discussed above. Having witnessed how it works — personally and directly — you will find it much easier to pop the bubble of the delusion that the person you’re ranting to in your head is real.
It’s like avoiding fire because you’ve touched it before, rather than because someone told you not to. It’s about taking something off the conscious mind and establishing it firmly in the subconscious — in the “muscle memory”. That way you don’t have to bother to keep thinking about it.
The ways to go about doing this are all the usual suspects.
- Serious drug-taking.I’ll write about this in more detail somewhere else, but just a quick word so we don’t get confused.It’s not really about the dosage. It’s about the purity of the experience.By which I mean — you take the drug… to see what it does.
You do not take the drug to do anything else in particular. To make the music sound nicer, to make the movie more exciting, to enjoy each other’s company more. That’s recreational drug taking, which is neither here nor there.
And you don’t take the drug to make yourself feel better. That’s medicinal/dependent drug taking. Which is perfectly understandable. But it’s not what I’m talking about.
What I’m talking about is taking the drug to see what it does to your mind. You just sit there, see what’s in front of you, hear what’s around you… and think your thoughts. Only, a bit differently than usual.
And then it wears off.
And now you know.
- Periods of intense and prolonged, direct or indirect, sense deprivation.That is:
- either give yourself a simple task to focus on until everything else drops away (e.g. hours of moving through yoga postures; hours of hitting a tennis ball against a wall; manipulating or observing your breath),
- or just stop doing anything and wait.
- And then, I guess there are the usual avenues of ecstasy.In other words: sensory overload.You know — the rock concerts and the football finals and the religious ceremonies.
Only problem with these things is that they’re just too bloody noisy. Too much going on to learn much from it. People almost never actually clock on to it in these scenarios; 99.999% of the time, they’ll make the usual, fundamental error and think it was something special about the music or the sport that made them feel the way they feel, rather than seeing these things as convoluted, specialized tools to unlock this elusive mental process. Hence the whole range of human hang-ups — gotta listen to this band; watch this team; dance these steps in this order under the burning effigy of this schmuck — etc.
So if you want to do it this way, it’s probably best to just go off and enjoy it, and then reflect back later on, to try and tease out what was happening to the ego.
But, I mean, unless you’ve pinned it down before, in a more precise, controlled environment, I reckon this will be very difficult.
So I tend to save music for when I want to listen to music, and sport for when I want to watch sport, and religious ceremonies for when I want to feel lonely in a crowd, rather than using them as any kind of means to self-transcendence.
- So really, the most important way is just dropping everything and going off somewhere else. Removing yourself from the place where your worldly ties and concerns lie — your house, your office, and anywhere you might usually spend time in.
So: going on a long walk. Going travelling. Going hiking. Possibly finding a cave and chilling there for a while.
Having removed yourself from your usual habits and behavioural triggers, the mind will reset.
That reset can have varying degrees of intensity. When it’s very intense, the perceptual subject-object distinction will drop off.Secluded from any predators, and also secluded from all the usual dangers of our lives, the mind will just kind of bottom out. Absent any threats, there will be no need to distinguish between self and environment, and so the mind will finally take the chance to reboot, take a rest, finally install those system updates, and come back with a more refined operating system.
And from there, a whole world of new experiences opens itself up to you. Burning bushes, heavenly ladders, chariots of fire — you know the drill.
That being said — like everything else, it’s all so obvious once you’ve gotten a handle on it, but until then, you’re going to be groping around and feeling rather foolish.
Most particularly, the problems arise if you have a very high baseline level of threat perception — of fear and anxiety. (I mean, who doesn’t these days, but you know — even higher baseline than normal.) Or, of course, if you are subject to a delusions — solitude will probably just intensify them. Then taking yourself off in this way could very well just leave your fears and fixations to rebound in an echo chamber, until their clamour grows so loud you totally freak yourself out. This can, of course, be cathartic — but I get why you might be apprehensive of it.
At this point, the solution is very simple in theory, and extremely tricky in practice.
Go do what you have to do. Do the therapy thing; de-stress your life; scrabble your way out of the rock bottom of the pit. But then go off and grope around and feel rather foolish.
So that’s the less important of the two things you can do to the subjective self.
The reason it’s less important is really kind of sad.
And it’s that, if you’re the kind of person who is likely to go through with these things and have these experiences… then you probably didn’t really need them in the first place. You just needed a bit more confidence in your own thinking.
And if you’re the kind of person who really needs to be smacked in the face by the full scale of these experiences in order to get some sense knocked into them… then you probably won’t be very likely to go in the direction needed to experience them in the first place.
So it really only ever makes a marginal difference.
The only times it makes a radical difference is when you’re living your life on totally the wrong course. When the reason you’re doing what you’re doing is because the voices in your head are telling you to do things you don’t want to do. Because the ghosts of your parents and schoolteachers and TV ideologues and all the rest have been echoing in your mind so deeply — without ever being recognized for what they are — that they’ve made you live a life contrary to your actual desires.
It’s only then that there will be any kind of major shift after a system reboot.
It’s only if you seriously lack self-awareness that a crash course demonstration of the nature of the self will radically change your idea of yourself. It’s practically tautological.
And even then, you have to be capable of learning from it. There has to be a part of you, deep in the bedrock of your subconscious mind, that is able to understand what’s going on — if only after the fact — and adjust your stream of conscious thoughts accordingly. If that isn’t there, you can blast yourself into oblivion again and again, and nothing will fundamentally change.
That being said… none of us just pop out of the womb as sages. Still fewer of us pass through the cycles of childhood indoctrination perfectly wise either. So we could all use a little push now and again. Thus, don’t get me wrong — these things can definitely be useful.
It’s just that your primary motivation to do them should probably come from simple curiosity, rather than the desire to seriously improve your life. Which, now that I think of it, is the only reason to do most things.
And obviously, if you really don’t enjoy hitting a tennis ball against a wall for hours and hours and hours… then don’t do that. Especially not because some deeply confused monkey told you it was the way to enlightenment.
III. Expand the subjective self
So. The other thing you can do does not require any radical changes to your brain chemistry. It’s just a question of slowly by surely evolving the course of your thoughts.
You can — over time, with occasional breakthroughs — adjust the selection criteria of your subjective self. You can alter what the red line will automatically snap around. In the simplest terms, you can “stretch it out” to include more things. This is preferable in every way to the attempt to exclude certain unpleasant things. Much better by far to simply smother them with lovely company and watch them settle down accordingly.
I’m going to say that there are three ways to do this:
- Participation in collective ventures
- Putting a pause on your current self-narratives
- And then replacing them with a simple but spacious alternative
III.1. Participation in collectives
This is the classic choice. It will be perfectly clear from what I explained earlier.
The subjective self is hard-wired to expand itself to human groups.
Because… of course it is. Come on. Like, imagine if it didn’t. Imagine this group of proto-humans. The big, strong, nice male has a couple girlfriends and kids. The old, weird male with the gammy leg doesn’t. If that old male didn’t self-identify with the strong, nice male, and the girlfriends, and especially the kids… and if some predator came and attacked them and he thought “great; he’ll kill the big fella off then I can make off with the chicks and kill the kids”….. they’d all be dead and we wouldn’t be here today.
Humans are groups of primates. They are groups of primates. It is no mystery that the individual parts of the group function accordingly.
So all you have to do is allow that process to unfold. Ride it for all it’s worth.
Start a family. Find a tribe.
And then, if possible, align your tribe with humanity in general, and not against any other sub-tribe of the great Tribe. By which I mean, be a communist. Or take your pick of historical role model if that label doesn’t sit right with you — Jesus, Mazdak, whomever, it’s all gravy.
And I wish to be quite precise here. I’m not saying you should think of yourself as part of a group. (I’ll make my suggestion about self-image in the third section.) I’m saying you should do things (as far as possible) as part of a group, for the benefit of the whole group, in ways decided by the group.
Actively doing things with other people, hanging out with other people, will have the effect of triggering the subjective self’s natural underlying tendency to expand itself to include the mental representations of other people in addition to the mental representations of your own body and its self-preserving desires.
In other words, doing things with people will make you automatically identify with (and, indeed, as) these other people. (Heck, if it’s possible to think you’re a friggin’ table, it’s way easier for your subjective self to encircle things that much more closely resemble the usual mental objects it works with.)
The more you identify yourself with a larger group, the less the bad things in your personal life will bother you.
Things which before were like losing an arm will now be like losing a hand.
Things which before were like losing a hand will now be like losing a finger.
Things which before were like losing a finger will now be like clipping a nail.
Things which before were like clipping a nail will no longer even register on the radar.
And losing your life will be a bit more like losing your limbs, ears, and/or eyes.
You see why, right? The subjective self is now including a wider array of the mental objects which the objective self is generating. It’s getting richer. It can afford to lose a few bucks here and there.
And you see why it has to at least start with concrete, actual humans in your local area? It’s very difficult for your mind to generate consistent mental objects representing people you’ve never met or even heard of, on the other side of the world. Like, think of the difference between your idea of your uncle (or the closest equivalent) and your idea of José Moya — my uncle, who lives in New York. Not much there in the second one, right? And if the mental object is minute and wispy, the red line will find it a lot harder to automatically snap itself around it.
I’ve only really bothered to point this out because we live in a such an atomised and mutually alienated time. Of course, there have been specific times and places where this was carried out, piecemeal — the various campaigns of ethnocide, slavery, and colonialism across the ages. But in terms of the entirety of the human species being inexorably torn apart, every community being pulled threadbare, each individual becoming more and more isolated — this seems to be historically unique.
And so, this extreme cliche requires special and specific emphasis today. We must make concerted, repeated efforts to allow this natural process of expansion to unfold itself. Because the current of society is pulling us the other way, for now.
III.2. Put your pre-existing self-narratives on hold
Again — you see how this one functions, right?
If you believe something about yourself, then you are setting the parameters for what the subjective self will automatically include and exclude. And so, if you want it to expand it past its current point, then you’ll have to jettison the underlying directives which are informing its current pattern of operation.
Now. What do I mean by your current self-narratives?
Well, ideally, pretty much everything.
But I’ll give you a couple of examples.
Let’s take the idea of being a “man”, for instance.
Your objective self might very well be biologically male. Your objective self might very well be in a society with explicit gender norms, identifying males with a vague conceptual construct known as a “man”.
But why exactly do you have to buy into this “man” idea yourself?
Of course, by all means, play along if it’s convenient to you.
What is it I’m expected to wear? Jeans and a bow tie? If I wear that, then people will leave me in peace? Then that’s what I’ll buy at the bargain store. Right; that’s out of the way. Now, to get on to the good stuff…
But for the love of God, why would you actually believe it?
I can’t speak to the experience of being a “woman”, but I presume it’s broadly the same thing. Sure, there are other things to bear in mind with that one. The female anatomy results in complexities which males don’t have to deal with. And societal gender norms mean you’re going to be treated in certain ways by people, some of which are rather strange. You will most definitely have to build all that into your working model of who you are so you can move through the world with minimal disturbance.
But these practicalities aside… what exactly do you gain by defining yourself as a woman because you were born female? What exactly is a woman? Beyond the biological factors and the way people treat you — what else does the concept entail, that makes it distinct from a “man”?
Again — this is not a question I’m faced with, so it’s not one I can answer, but it is probably useful to at least ask it.
OK. What’s next? Nationality? You’re a Brit? An American?
Sure. I will grant that there is such a thing as “America”. It includes way more different species of mushroom than I will ever know. And there is a whole heck of a lot of a rock involved. But then, you see, “America” mostly takes place on planes historical, sociological, psychological, economic, and cultural than it does at the level of the mycological and geologic. And I’ve got even less of a handle on that than I do on the mushrooms and the rocks. So as far as we’re concerned, we know roughly as much about this actual America as we do about Cthulhu. America itself is so extremely far beyond the reach of our imagination that I struggle to understand what you think you’re identifying with when you identify as American… but hey, you know what? Forget it. Let’s move on to the really crunchy stuff.
What exactly is a human?
A featherless biped?
You mean one of these?
Oo, nice Latin.
So… what’s a homo sapiens?
Huh? You’re not too sure? Yeah, me neither. I’ve been working on this one for a while now, and all I’m certain of is that I’m farther away now than I was when I started.
Don’t get me wrong — on a practical level, I basically get how these weird monkey things work by this point. But in terms of setting up a specific narrative that I believe, and could explain to other people? Haha. Good one.
You may be many, many things. But what you are certainly not is your idea of what a “human” is. Probably, your idea of a human is mostly a placeholder, a blank. And if it isn’t, then it’s almost certainly bullshit. If you’re a veteran biological anthropologist who reads a lot of poetry, then sure, you’re likely onto something there — but it is still very, very rudimentary. We’ve barely figured out the main functions of the spleen, man.
This is why Humanism is, has been, and always will be super fucking lame. Cus any idea of humanity specific enough to try and build an ideology around is a fairly sad joke. Especially if you’re explicitly trying to oppose it to God. But more on that in a second.
So, sure. If you ask me what I am, I will probably say human. In case you thought I was a gorilla, or a rock. But it doesn’t go a hair’s breadth past simple nominative convenience.
So yeah. Them’s a few self-narratives I reckon you can pretty much just toss off board. Or, at least, like I said, put on hold for a moment — ease up on explicitly validating them, on actively telling yourself that they define you, that they constitute who you are. Up to you what to do with the rest.
This is, again, a very classic injunction. What I want to emphasize here is the logic behind it.
Your self-narrative is just one mental phenomenon which the elastic band of your subjective self has gotten snagged around. It is just one small portion of your subjective self — it is nowhere close to being your Objective Self. Chances are, it’s not even a particularly good representation of your objective self. Good synecdoches are hard to write.
So yes. You have a rich variety of different stories which you employ skilfully in different scenarios to help you navigate your life, moment by moment, day by day. But I would implore you not to get hung up on any one of them.
III.3. Identify your subjective self with your objective self
So then what do we replace these stories with, in terms of our core sense of self?
This is my two cents.
Every now and again, when you have the opportunity, try to think of yourself as the entire sequence of physical and mental events that make up, well.. you. From beginning to end (whenever either of these may be). All of those events at once.
If you wanna get real fancy, you can posit some kind of quasi-algebraic function, whereby f(x) will generate that sequence of events for any moment x — and then identify yourself with that. It’s the same thing, but viewed from a perspective of unity rather than multiplicity — and unity is usually easier to hold in mind.
But if you want to keep it simple… just think of yourself the way you think of Socrates (or any historical figure). If and when you think of Socrates, you think of his whole life, as broadly understood as possible.
When you are forced to come up with an idea of what you are, just do the same. Think of yourself as the expression of your whole life, in this given moment. The same as any other version of you was the expression of that sequence in that given moment.
There are several advantages that come from this.
III.3.1. It’s something.
The temptation might be to have no self-narrative, no self-image at all.
If you can manage that 24/7, then hats off to you.
But in practice, this is a constant and — in my view — essential part of the operation of the mind. When the mental urge to identify yourself pops up, I find it’s best to give it something. Just to shut it up, if nothing else. And if you’re going to feed it something, might as well make it something healthy — otherwise it’s gonna vomit all over you later. Which brings me to my next point.
So if we’re gonna talk about self-narratives…….. then it’s difficult to think of another specific one that is more true than this one. One single notion that will cover the widest variety of cases without grossly misrepresenting what’s going on. For one thing, pretty much anything else you might put forward is just a more limited version of this. For another, pretty much anything else will introduce more distortions, will misrepresent things more. (With one exception, which we will conclude this conclusion with.)
For another, it’s much less of a dick move than the usual alternatives.
Most strategies for self-transcendence are self-abnegating — self-denying. They involve you telling yourself that you are less than you thought, rather than more. That you should be more humble, and sit back down. I would go so far as to to say that they involve, to greater or lesser degrees, some form of psychological self-harm. This is cruel. It can, used with extreme judiciousness, be useful. But if there is a kinder alternative, then it will always be preferable.
It is my opinion that these alternatives are best explained as a manifestation of two things.
The first is simple ignorance, confusion, and thus superstition. The people putting them forward just don’t understand what they’re talking about, and so their ideas come out skewed.
The second is that it is an expression of an atavistic (ancient and outdated) mechanism of social control.
Humanity, like all primates, is a species of small groups. The species has to balance individual initiative with group cohesion. What is good for the individual is good for the individual. But left to run unchecked, the individual advantage will go against the collective advantage, to the point that the entire collective dies off. In order to offset that, the species evolved basic self-policing mechanisms. These are things they do to hold each other in check — e.g. noises they make to push each other into collective compliance. In an unrefined form, this mostly involves guilt and shame. This is much simpler to do than explain verbally: “Please don’t do this, or else we’re all fucked, and this is why.” …especially before we evolved language.
So, if you look at a group of humans, you will see them taking turns to admonish the others. This is like an auto-immune response of this tribal meta-organism.
But this got especially weird when we grew past these small groups (and especially when you consider the weird internal passion play we act out in our minds, as described at the beginning of the post).
So now what you get is one young human being policed by other humans.
They internalize this.
They go somewhere else.
They see another humans doing the same thing.
They say the same thing they were told.
This process repeats.
The things that are most successful at spreading in this way have the quality of best exploiting our ancient, powerful mechanisms of shame and guilt.
The things that don’t exploit these ancient neural pathways do not spread nearly as quickly.
Which is why you get the initially paradoxical result that a painful thing remains even after there is a less painful alternative.
It is really quite tricky to try and do this in a more advanced way than our instincts push us towards. Just as it is tricky to get infants to poo in a toilet instead of in their pants, it is difficult for us to tell each other “get over yourself” without shitting all over the place.
It’s like trying to roll a ball to point A when there’s a huge rut leading to point B, right next to it. The precision it takes to keep the ball heading to point A, and not fall into point B, is very difficult to attain. The discipline it takes to prevent yourself from criticizing someone, and instead heal them and lift them up, is… my God, man. It’s driving me up the wall.
This is what, I think, explains the monumental incompetence with which our elders, teachers, and leaders have handled our moral education.
In light of this — and in light of the other fruits of my understanding of the mind — it is my opinion that the major alternatives to the view I am presenting arise from the factors I have explained above.
III.3.4. Purity and Breadth
A fourth thing:
What I’m proposing stands the best chance of remaining free of the self-limiting force of the narratives I discussed previously, by the very nature of the mental process necessary to even begin conceiving it.
In other words: in order to identify as your objective self, you have to momentarily distinguish it from the subjective sense of self you had been granted by your subconscious a moment earlier.
In the moment you register the gap between these two things, there will be a necessary element of mystery, of wonder, of expansion. That element of mystery and wonder will be the mark that prevents this new idea from falling prey to the self-constricting force of all the previous narratives.
I’ll try and give an example of what I mean.
Narratives usually work as a psychological mechanism of reduction.
Let’s say you want to play a board game.
Someone who doesn’t want to play it says “Ah, do we have to? All you do is roll some dice and move some plastic around a piece of cardboard; that’s no fun.”
And, every time someone says that, there is a sense of “Sure… but that’s not all it is.”
Narratives largely work like this in general. We use it to collapse a complex reality into something more easily graspable by the mind. When the reality is too complex for us, we tend to prefer our narratives about it. When our narratives are too simple and reductive for us, we tend to look back at reality. (Then the cycle usually repeats.) This is why TV shows, movies, and novels are initially so much more appealing, and ultimately so unsatisfying.
Now. The distinct advantage of the idea I’m proposing is that it is a kind of narrative which, by its nature, circumvents the usual neural pathways which make narratives constrict the spotlight of your mind rather than expand it.
You already had a narrow, reductive view of yourself. It is generated — anew and automatically — every single moment. So in order to think of the notion of your objective self — you have to suspend the process of self-narrowing and self-reducing. It is impossible to conceive of the idea of your objective self without suspending that process. Because if you don’t suspend that process, then you’ll just remain where you were, with your previous self-identity — with your usual subjective self. The idea of the objective self is little more than the simple denial of the (usual) subjective self. It is for this reason that it works differently than any of the endless variations of the usual operating patterns of the ego.
So, yes — your idea of your objective self is still just an idea.
But it’s an idea you will not automatically try to fill in with bullshit.
Every time you bring it to mind, you will wipe it of any specific limitations.
To bring it to mind is precisely the process of wiping off any specific limitations.
This is why it is the best bang for your buck.
It is the one specific thing you can specifically think of which will stand the best chance of staying general, staying broad, staying pure.
I’d like to press this point further, but I’ve already presented the basic notion, and the more drawn-out explanations would take another mega-essay.
III.3.5. Long-term good
Finally, a more purely practical point.
This conception stands the best chance — in the long run, of course; it’s not a silver bullet — of getting past that constant hurdle of preferring short-term good to long-term good.
Sure, it would be better if I went for a walk or read a book or pursued my passion project… but Netflix and Youtube are just so appealing right now, and so accessible……..
Embedding this broader self-conception as a mental habit will do the most possible to circumvent this, I think.
Obviously, when you first try this out, you’ll just be overwhelmed with “ugggghhhh do i have to???? stop telling me what to do and just let me live my best life and watch more Netflix!”
But over time, bit by bit, this will change your underlying, subconscious calculus, which will make your conscious decision-making much easier.
Once again — you see why that is, right?
When you’re making a decision, you’re trying to figure out what’s best for you, so you can do that thing.
Usually, we think the key word there is “best”.
What is best? How can we ever know? Surely ‘best’ is different for different people! How do I know which one I am? Why don’t we get all stressed about it and go in circles forever?
This, friends, is anxiety. This is depression, or will soon become it. This is, above all, massive confusion.
The mind contemplates something; fear of making a mistake arises; the mind spooks itself out, and then continues contemplating the thing while also trying to run away from it. Which means it just goes in circles. Cus that’s the only way you can both face something and run away. Until even that becomes too strenuous, and you just run away for good and watch some Netflix.
The key word there is not “best”. What’s best for you is bloody obvious. It is:
- What makes you feel good.
- And what makes you better able to feel good later.
If it was just the first and not the second, we would literally all just sit there rubbing our genitals until we die. There is always that balance to strike between the first and second. And the problems arise when the first directive overrides the second. (Or the second is not sufficiently clear to us that we can act on it.)
That’s basically it. Come on, folks — I beg you to stop wasting your time on this.
So the real key word there is not “best”. It is “you”. “What’s best for you”.
That’s the fucking question, isn’t it?
Remember the one observation I made about the subjective self’s tendencies? I said that it moves in predictable ways. And I mentioned one way.
The process of self-identification and distinguishing this from the mental representations of the environment came about to keep you alive.
So, when push comes to shove, that’s what it will do.
It will shrink to include the most basic functions.
You’re asking me a complex question. It’s scaring you. Fear means you may be in danger. Being in danger means I have to shrink.
Am I about to lose my stuff? OK, I can shrink myself so that I don’t include the objects that lie around me as part of ‘me’. No problem. So long as the body’s safe. We can always get more stuff later.
What, the body’s under threat? OK… fine. I can lose a toenail. I can lose a finger. I can lose a limb. Just don’t touch the torso or the head, OK? I’m not gonna be compromising on that, you hear? What, you’re not listening? You want more?
Cue anger. Cue back-against-the-wall, do-or-die all-out aggression.
That’s what it does.
So what does it do when you’re trying to decide whether to do that long-term good thing or the more comfortable alternative?
It does exactly the same thing.
It assumes you’re in mortal danger (why else would you be so scared?) and prioritizes the most vital functions.
In other words: it makes you curl up somewhere dark and quiet, and consume whatever’s there while it’s still there. Before the big bad monster comes inside and you have to abandon that.
It is shrinking to include your most sensitive feelings of pain only.
It is shrinking to prioritise your immediate survival, by shrinking into a cave and consuming everything that’s there.
And the thing is: unless you’re destitute, no one’s going to come into your den and take your stuff away from you. And so your mind goes “Fear worked! The den is safe! Don’t leave it!” etc.
It has jettisoned all your higher goals. None of those thoughts and intentions are being fundamentally identified as essentially “you” anymore. The aspects of yourself which are not basic are dying. They’re being cast off.
What does it matter, in cases of life or death, whether you write a novel or get a degree or read a book or whatever?
And so the trick is to go in the opposite direction. To get your notion of “self” to expand back out — to include all your higher goals for what you want to be in the universe.
And if it’s not doing that automatically and subconsciously (as it would if, for example, you spent your time around someone like Jesus or Confucius or the Buddha), then you’re going to start having to do it deliberately and consciously.
And the easiest way I can think of to go in that opposite direction — to expand the ego rather than contract it — is the device I’m explaining now. Consciously identify as your objective self.
One quick example on this point.
Socrates died at the age of 71 by drinking the poison hemlock. He had been sentenced by a jury of his peers for preaching novel doctrines about the gods and corrupting the youth.
He told them they could fuck off.
They reflected on that, and decided he was guilty.
Then they asked if he had anything to say before they decided what his punishment would be.
His friends were like “Socrates… back down. Say you’re sorry. OK, even if you don’t say you’re sorry, please just don’t tell them to fuck off. In fact, actually… don’t say anything at all. Just stand there and twiddle your thumbs or something. We’ll pay you. Please.”
He thanked his friends, got back in front of the jury………
…and told them to fuck off.
Because that’s what Socrates does. That is his whole shtick. He hangs around the streets chatting with people. And if you come round claiming you know something, he’ll ask you questions until he can understand it. And if the questions reveal you don’t know what you’re talking about, he tells you to fuck off.
That’s who Socrates is.
So the huge jury of all his fellow citizens reflected on the merits of his argument that they should fuck off, and decided the punishment would be death.
And he was like “OK”, and drank the hemlock.
Because, put it this way. Let’s say you’re Socrates.
Now. If by Socrates, we just mean “Socrates in that moment, with his current body and his current feelings”. If you’re that Socrates… would you want to die?
Don’t be daft. Of course not.
But let’s put it differently. Let’s say you had the choice between deciding between two options.
- Push the button on the left, and Socrates becomes “a guy who was born in Athens in 470BC and died in 395BC, of natural causes, but who compromised on his principles.”
- Push the button the right, and Socrates becomes “a guy who was born in Athens in 470BC and died in 399BC, of hemlock poisoning, and stayed true to his principles”.
If that was the choice you were faced with…… then which would you choose?
It’s up to you.
But you see that, in that second phrasing, you might be more inclined to choose death.
And — most crucially — you see that those were just two ways of looking at exactly the same choice.
The situation remains entirely identical.
The only difference lies in how you view the self. When you look at it from the second perspective, you are much more likely to find yourself able to choose an option which goes against your short-term interest. You are, in fact, able to choose death. The one thing — above all else — that the subjective self was created to avoid.
And not because you believe in any nonsense about life after death or whatnot. It’s just because you’re thinking clearly for a second. You’re seeing things from the bigger picture.
You are looking at yourself from the perspective of eternity. Seeing yourself as you really are. Seeing yourself as you appear to the eyes of God.
And from that vantage point, the right choice becomes a lot easier to make.
(Quick pre-emption of criticism: none of the above need contradict your mantras to stay mindful and live in the present moment. The present is the only time you can contemplate the eternal, after all. [Key word: “only time you can…”] Hence the way you see this New Age-y self-help stuff moving to the phrase “Eternal Present”, “Eternal Now”.)
III.3.6. It leaves us just one move away from checkmate — from final victory.
This is my very last point.
Let’s say someone tells you to identify less as yourself, and instead as something broader. A group. A species. Or, indeed, as the biological process itself. As one part of Life on Earth — one big, composite organism stretching from the first proto-bacteria, 4.28 billion years ago, to now.
Maybe it’ll work. Maybe. For a bit. If you’re not feeling tired or lonely.
Take-away: it is difficult to force your subjective self-selection process to expand to that. Directly. Raw. With no lube. And then ask it to stay there.
It’s just not gonna happen. The moment the thought slips, it’s almost as if it were never there at all; and asking yourself to define yourself that way the next time feels just as hard as the last.
But it’s different if what you’re expanding out to is your objective self.
So that’s the first part of this point. The notion I’m proposing is a good one because it is relatively close to what you had before. You’re not asking your ego to make that much of a leap. It is now encircling an object which, though broader, is still quite close to home. So the ego is quite happy to adjust.
It’s like asking a hen to get off her chicken egg and sit on a goose egg, versus asking it to sit on a flatscreen TV.
You see why the first is easier, right?
And I’m saying your objective self is like a goose egg. Or maybe like an ostrich egg. Whatever. You get the point.
The second part of my point is this.
Once you have lured your subjective self out of its little hide-y hole and gotten it to expand out to your Objective Self…. you are just a hair’s breadth away from getting it to identify the all the rest of the universe anyway. In other words, identify with, and as, God.
You’ve pulled a perfect bait-n-switch. You’ve given it an object which is nice and familiar and practical and doesn’t ask it to compromise very much. But this new object, though it’s easy to swallow up, will then expand inside it until it reaches infinity.
It’s like a drunkard who goes and visits the pub “for one cheeky half-pint”. Once he’s there, it’s just so easy to keep going til he passes out or drinks the bar dry.
All you have to do is get your ego out of the house. The moment it steps out of the house… it will go off and try to gobble up everything. Everything. Everything. EVERYTHING!
The trick lies in taking that first step. The rest basically takes care of itself from that point. Like a ball rolling downhill.
Or, in mathematician lingo: all you need to do is get the first result (self = Self), and then you get the second result “for free” — with only a tiny couple of simple additional steps.
You see, the gap between the your subjective self (before you subject it to inquiry and self-reflection) and God is massive.
In other words, your idea of yourself, indeed, doesn’t really have much to do with the wider universe. Because the whole bloody point of it is to try and distinguish yourself from the rest of the universe, so that your feet don’t end up walking off a cliff onto jagged rocks. That is its very essence. It’s like saying writing a blog post involves words… yes. Yes indeed it does.
However. The gap between your objective self and (the rest of) God is infinitesimal.
Rewind alllll the way back to where we started. With the introduction of the notion of the objective self.
What’s the first thing I did after I gave it an initial, working definition?
You don’t have to scroll up — I’ll quote it for you.
(Now, I know that there are endless problems with this definition. For one, the question of boundaries.
- Where does Socrates end and his physical environment begin? What about the dead skin cells still sitting on his body in a particular moment, waiting to be rubbed or blown off? What about his clothes?
Can we pin down a precise line in space — the specific Planck length which is the boundary of his body, in any given direction?
- Where does Socrates end and Athens begin? Can we bin down a precise conceptual line between the man and the social unit he was part of?
So I am by no means claiming this is some kind of perfect definition. But let’s just work with it for a bit and see how we get on.)
What was a devilish difficulty in terms of getting this essay started is now a divine opportunity to end it.
When did I begin? At my birth? Surely not. Not much changed from the day before it. So, at my conception? At my parents meeting? At the last common ancestor between us and chimpanzees? At the origins of life on Earth? At the Big Bang?
Where does it end? Is it my last breath? Is it when my body’s eaten? Is it when my consciousness fades away? My consciousness fades away every single night. Am I dead then?
OK — but then, let’s expand out from the temporal to the conceptual. Where do I end in that direction? You see, my objective self is clearly a composite being. Part of my objective self is “the idea of a circle.” But other people also have the idea of a circle. So, insofar as we both have the same idea of a circle, is my objective self the same as someone else’s objective self? When I feel leg pain, am I the same as someone else who feels leg pain? When I send an embarrassing message to a lover who spurned me, am I the same as someone else who sent the exact same message to someone who spurned them? If we keep going down this path… how much of me isn’t replicated in some fairly close form by countless others?
And so on. And so on. And so on. Forever.
Once you really start thinking about it, you will soon find that you cannot pin any of this down.
And that’s because Atman is Brahman.
Your Self is the Divine Self. It is the Absolute.
It’s actually easier to arrive at this from the other direction: in what way is it not? In what way could it possibly be anything but that?
Your objective self is in no possible way conceivable as anything except part of the entirety of Nature. With no hard line of distinction anywhere. Including what came before the Big Bang and lies beyond the edge of the observable universe — …and if you don’t think so, then how exactly are you going to draw the borders between this and that? Where? When? What does the edge of space even mean? Of what things is it the edge between? I more or less get the idea of an edge between two things in space, but the edge of space and non-space? How can that be a definite thing? Wouldn’t that make non-space another space? What happened the moment before there were moments? What are you even talking about? How can you possibly attempt to assert a fundamental difference — not just posit a provisional difference for the purpose of building a mental model?
There’s just no way. There’s just no way. To be able to think of yourself as what you clearly already are — as all the physical and mental things you have been, are, and will be — is just the tiniest fraction of a step away from going the whole hog and seeing yourself as one and the same thing as Everything.
So what I’m proposing is, I reckon, the most sustainable way to lead you into the heights of mysticism. It’s something you can do every day, at any moment, even when you’re not feeling particularly mystical. The notion of the objective self doesn’t always and immediately explode out to infinity. If there are any practical matters to take care of, it stays quite compact. Its borders are a little vague, but it’s still quite easy to grasp, very easy to work with.
But if you think about yourself in this way when there are practical matters at hand….. then on those occasions when you’re free to relax and roam about for a bit, you’ll be so much more ready to just drift off into infinity. You won’t even have to make any kind of effort. Just think of yourself as you usually do, and watch as your sense of self drifts inexorably outward. Until it includes the whole of your field of awareness — the bits that refer to your environment as well as to your own body. And then, eventually, beyond that — until it includes all of the reality outside your field of awareness as well, which you are inextricably a part of.
And what’s the practical benefit of all this? (……………hah.)
It means that you won’t have any of the usual drawbacks of asking yourself to act altruistically. But also none of the drawbacks of acting selfishly. Because when you’re thinking about things from this broad a point of view, it’s just so easy to expand it a smidgen further.
OK, so I am everything I’ve ever been or experienced. That includes this current experience of you, the person I’m talking to right now. So I’m going to try to do the best I can for this thing I’m talking to right now. And now that I’m gonna do the best I can for the version of you that I experience………. hell, I guess I might as well do the best I can for the version of you I don’t experience. For your objective self. Cus, really, at the end of the day… what exactly is the difference? Chump change, at this point. In for a penny, in for a pound.
OK. All done. Do re-read it at your leisure. Don’t be afraid to take it apart and take your own notes; that’s how I got to writing it in the first place, after all.
First off, a thank you to Izzy. She’s the first person to ever ask me for my thoughts on this question, and so it’s entirely down to her that I wrote out the email which served as the rough draft of this essay. She also made an uncredited cameo appearance in this blog post too, so it seems she’s on a roll.
And once again, shout-out to Spinoza. To my great frustration, I soon realized everything I was saying was just filtering the Buddhist doctrine of anatta through Book II of the Ethics (and then fast-forwarding to the scholium of Book V, Proposition 20). Oh, and the undermining of self-narratives and the ecstatic questions at the end have to be attributed to Zhuangzi.
But it’s all just thoughts, man. Each of us thinks them for ourselves, in our own space and time; the universe just happened to dip those bits of our Self into the historical record ahead of these bits of us now.
So them’s my citations out of the way. Thanks for sticking it out until the footnotes. God bless.