The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there.
– Yasutani Roshi
A Study on Identity
The dualistic mindset depends on line-drawing for its existence. Language, the foundation of dualism, draws lines with every word we speak, constantly reinforcing our divisions.
We’d never want to abandon language, of course! If only we could see that language isn’t ‘real’, but is actually an invention of the human mind. Conventional. This truth is rather obvious if we take a moment to see how quickly word meanings change and new words are invented. Words have reality only by mutual agreement.
We attach our words to ‘things’ in the world, and in general, we’ve attached the words to the most obvious representation of that thing, according to our senses. For instance, if you look up the size of our sun, you’ll probably find that it is about 870,000 miles in diameter.
But is it? They are talking about the part we can see – the photosphere. You’ll also notice that the heliosphere of the sun extends out 150 to 300 times the distance from the earth to the sun. Is this a part of the sun? Scientists actually divide the sun into different layers, many of which would make the sun much larger than the stated 870,000 miles. So what really is the sun, and how large is it?
Our eyes only see the tiniest sliver of possible kinds of light. Because we are most dependent on sight, we place the boundary of most ‘things’ at the point where our vision tells us their ‘edge’ is.
Our lines and boundaries can be useful, but we too often confuse them with reality. Here we’ll look at an object common to us all – a car – and see if we really know what a car is. A fun game is to ask any adult if they know what a car is. Most will say ‘yes’. Duh. Then take the car apart, as in the example below.
If anyone finds out what a car actually is, please let me know.
Your Brand New Car
You have just received, as a present, a red corvette convertible. You have named it Rocket, and gotten yourself a personalized license plate with the name ‘Rocket’ in bold letters. She drives like a charm, and you’ve never had a car you like this much. She is beautiful, and she is yours. She is Rocket, and no other car could replace her.
You also are lucky enough to have a friend who owns a junkyard, and he just got an identical make, model, year and color corvette that happens to run perfectly. He got a great deal on it, and since he’s your friend, he’s going to keep it in a special warehouse.
“If you ever need any parts, just tell me,” he says. “This ‘vette in the garage is exactly the same make, model, year, and color, so we can part it out to fix any problems you have.”
Now, I’d like you to consider an important question. Which of these two cars is Rocket? It may seem like a silly question, and most of us will have a clear answer. But as we’ll see, it’s a very important question.
If you park Rocket next to your friend’s car in the warehouse, which one is Rocket?
People would think you were crazy if you didn’t point to your car.
Things Begin to Get Confusing
Good enough. You drive Rocket for a year, and then the starter goes out. Bummer! But you call your friend and he takes the starter from the car in the garage and puts it in Rocket. Rocket starts up fine after that and runs as smoothly as ever.
Now ask yourself. Is Rocket still Rocket? Of course!
As time goes on, the tires lose their tread, and you replace them with the tires from the car in the warehouse. Is Rocket still Rocket? Of course!
Then you get in a minor accident, and a door is banged. You just replace it with a door from the car in the garage! Then you replace the muffler and the tie rods. Is Rocket still Rocket?
What about when you replace the engine and the transmission? The interior seats? And what about when the chassis is so rusted that your friend just takes the nice chassis from the warehouse and replaces that?
At some point in this replacement process, does Rocket become the car in the warehouse? Or does Rocket retain her identity?
Eventually, the entire car in the warehouse is gone. Just an empty warehouse. And every single part of Rocket has been replaced with the parts from the car which is now gone.
Some of us would still consider the car to be Rocket. Especially if we still have the license plate which says ‘Rocket’ in big, bold letters. For some reason, if the car’s parts are swapped out over ten years, we feel that Rocket retains her identity. But in the beginning, we wouldn’t acknowledge that the other car was Rocket. Even though, ten years later, we have that very car from our friend’s warehouse, in all its material components, right before us.
What Does This Tell Us?
It gives us an interesting perspective of how much importance time plays in our sense of identity. And it shows us that we are a bit confused about just what makes up ‘Rocket’. ‘Rocket’, we find, doesn’t really have anything to do with material components. It has a lot more to do with a label that we fix on an apparent, solid object. Taking that object apart and replacing it with another therefore confuses us, leaving us with no choice but to make an arbitrary decision. What specific parts contain the ‘essence’ of Rocket? Is there a percentage of replacement – say 50% or 70%, where Rocket ceases to be Rocket and becomes the car from the warehouse? Or will we posit a ‘soul’ – a mysterious essence which is the true ‘Rocket’, and isn’t dependent on how many replacement parts are used? Whatever we choose, we’ve made an arbitrary decision, no more right or wrong than any other. Indeed, if we think back to the first time we parked Rocket side-by-side next to the car in the warehouse, we might find it a bit more difficult to support our conviction that the car in the warehouse was not Rocket.
Our Rocket, Our Selves
This gets even more interesting when we apply it to our ‘Selves’. It has been determined that we replace nearly every atom in our bodies within a seven to twelve year cycle. Every part replaced. But we don’t think we’re our bodies, do we? We think we’re something more – that we have a soul, or an inner beingness.
What if you lost an arm and had it replaced with a cybernetic one? No one would think you weren’t ‘you’ any more. What if your whole body was replaced, except your head? Still, most people would still consider you to be human. Still consider you to be ‘you’. What if your face was replaced with a robotic face? For some people, this gets more difficult, but after some thought it’s probably not actually that important to keep your face. Our brain? Surely the essence of self lies here! But then we must go deeper. What, within the brain, constitutes ‘you’? What if the area of the brain that controls memories is gone? Are you still you? Most would probably say yes. You with amnesia. What if the portion that controls emotions is gone? Thought?
To step back to viewing a regular person (who hasn’t had any cybernetic replacements yet), what if that person loses their memory? What if they lose their sight? How about all their other senses? How about the brain’s ability to regulate the beating of the heart and breathing? How about emotions? Rational thought?
We could have long discussions here. It is interesting to note that a person can get into a terrible car accident and have their brain damaged beyond repair so that their heart and breathing is only kept going via life-support machines. And some people will still think that the person is alive, that the person still retains their Self. Only when the ‘plug is pulled’ and the heart and oxygenation cease do we finally feel the person is ‘gone’. What is it that left when the plug was pulled?
Probably only hope. Hope that somehow, the person could be returned to us. But what is it we want returned?
What Are We, Really?
Most of us can become helplessly confused when we try to peg down just what it is that makes up a person. Again, we can create our own arbitrary answer, but there is no ‘true’ or ‘correct’ answer apart from our own opinions. In the end, the best most of us can do is to say that we have a ‘soul’, ‘higher self’, or ‘universal being’ who is truly ourselves. We’ve created an undefined symbol, and since we have this vague feeling that there is something ‘more’ to ourselves, this gives us a sense of relief, as long as we don’t think about the concept too much and begin to discover how weak its foundations are.
Non-dualism encourages us to look at things just as they are, and if we can’t find a ‘Self’, to simply acknowledge that as far as we can discover, this is no enduring Self. If we look clearly, we can find perceptions, emotions, memories, and thoughts. And that’s all. But how terrifying to think that we have no Self! That’s, well . . . that’s like we don’t even exist!
But if we observe, even when we’ve become convinced that we don’t exist, we somehow notice that here we are anyway. How about that?
What we fail to see is that it is our creation of the imaginary Self in the first place that causes all our problems! Once we create the imaginary Self, we can fear losing it (which is why the non-dualistic perspective seems so frightening to the dualistic mind). And since we fear that our Self will be affected by negative changes, we battle our entire lives to keep the Self preserved. (This, for example, is why people can get so angry when others disagree with them – your Self, which doesn’t have any true identity, must forge its identity out of things like opinions. If your opinion is cut down, a part of you is cut down.)
Then it is finally time to die – what a horror! The Self we have battled to upkeep all our lives – the meaning of our lives – is about to be swept away.
What an emancipation it is to simply die right now – to see the Self as it really is. Not a real thing, not an unreal thing. Just as it is, at this very moment. Then we can get down to the business of actually enjoying life and inspiring others to enjoy theirs.
Seeing the Self for what it is is probably the most difficult of the realizations. We want so desperately to cling to our notion of beingness that we will find all sorts of subtle ways to hold onto a sense of Self. But letting go of Self is letting go of the fear, of the stress and irritation and all the other burdens of life.
And that, some might say, is the definition of Joy.