Many religious and philosophical traditions assert that the “self” as a thing separate from everything else is an illusion.
The Buddhist doctrine of no-mind, derived from the experience of enlightenment, is a way of saying that when the floodgates of perception are opened, the illusion of a separate self vanishes. When we have that experience, it’s as if the mind – the mind we think ourselves to be – disappears. We experience a field of consciousness that is self-luminous, unabstracted, boundless. We see the illusory self as an emergent reality. During that experience, there is no consciousness of time or space, and yet … the next moment, we are back in our minds, within the world of here and now, creating of the experience a symbolic artifact that the mind can manipulate, which is exactly what I am doing now when I write these words.
I frequently invoke the movie Bladerunner because it captured so well the madness that was Phillip K. Dick’s particular gift, a madness that was really a kind of sanity. Dick wrote the story, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” on which the film was based. The world he imagined is here, now. Genetic engineering, ubiquitous electronic connectivity, and the outward migration of human beings into the cosmos is a single reality.
Like all organisms and organizations, we humans are systems of energy and information. We can manipulate that information at various levels to alter the particular forms in which energy and information coalesces at other levels. How we define ourselves is determined by the level at which we choose to view the system. The system is a system of systems, all nested and connected, fractal-like.
Like the bladerunner Deckard, we too are coming to question whether we are replicant or human, born or made. Deckard learned that the “cushion of memories” serving as the field of subjectivity that calls itself a self can be manufactured, as our societal system at a higher level manufactures illusory collective memories through mass media. It is a question of degree, not kind. When a woman makes a trip to the sperm bank and requests, as a friend did, some “intelligent brunette doctor sperm,” she is making a more primitive use of technology than the person who will make that choice in the lab before the sperm is produced.
The subjectivity we take for granted as our field of identity is more than fragile. It can be shaped like clay, like earth itself. We catch ourselves watching ourselves watching ourselves watching ourselves in an infinite regression of reflexive self-conscious selves trying to grasp their origin or source. Did life spontaneously manifest itself on our planet in this particular form? Did alien races seed the process of evolution as we manipulate seed corn, something the corn itself will never know? Or was everything created by that which we call “God,” which some think is the projection of a collective Self unable to bear the anxiety of being without knowing?
Many twentieth century Christians speak of “God” as a Being with which an “individual” can have a “personal relationship.” That way of thinking is culturally relative and very recent. The collective Self of humanity used to be taken for granted. People derived their identity from the community in and through which they related to God and everything else. Hebrews did not think of themselves as “individuals.” The notion of an “individual” with “rights,” like the notion of intellectual property as “works” that exist independently, emerged after the invention of the printing press. Electronic connectivity is mediating the deconstruction of the notion of an “individual.” Paradoxically, the liberation of individual energies by electronic connectivity changes how individuals define themselves as their experience of themselves changes.
Throughout the business world, for example, work space is becoming communal space, as if every business is a skunkworks in which no one works more than fifteen feet from the project. Organizations that are not virtual are virtualized. At a higher level, the Internet is a geodesic in which infinite strands of cross talk shrink the world to the size of a space station. The boundaries between individuals, like those between nation states, are increasingly permeable. Yet the necessity of the illusion of separate individuals is more critical than ever to the social order, as is the momentary necessity for “believing in” nation states. Commerce still depends on that illusion, and that is changing and will change – as Hemingway said of the way a person goes bankrupt – gradually, then suddenly.
The metaphor of humankind as a body consisting of interdependent cells is not new, but the realities of our world – from Y2K to the consequences of global pollution to the spread of nuclear weapons – make the truth of it unavoidable. Human beings are slow learners. Insights can emerge in our collective awareness thousands of years before they become operative in our lives.
The exploration of telepathy, clairvoyance, and other modes of spontaneous knowing leads to an interesting paradox. Those modalities of knowing, as they are discovered to be real, erase the names we gave them as useful distinctions. When information and energy can be exchanged among all the cells of a body, what does it mean for one cell to say, “I know that?” The body knows it, not the cell. The Self knows it, not the self. Reincarnation begs the question of what to call the Self that persists when someone claims that “I” lived before. Who lived before? Whoever answers that question is not the Self that persists.
Consciousness is a field of possibility, a way the wrinkles in a diaphanous fabric invite self-definition. When we know how to shape the way self-consciousness emerges as a field, grasping the origins of our collective Self even as we radiate in all directions from our home planet, then we will see that to limit our thinking to what we saw through the cultural lenses of a dying time is to cling to broken toys.
The fabric is torn. We see through the tear more than we know how to say. It is time, as Rilke wrote, to leave our little room, every corner of which we know, and venture forth into eternity.