Some time ago I spent a little over a month in this Buddhist forest monastery in Thailand living the monastic life of that school.¹ As there’s pretty much nothing to do there, practically everything earthly is forbidden, and you can only meditate so much on any given day, you need to come up with some adjustments to your living. Lucky for me there was no shortage of Buddhist literature, so I decided to spend my time delving into the Buddhist concept of no-self. Now of course as a Buddhist I was somewhat familiar with the teachings already.
But as many people know, one of the central tenets of the Buddha was, that there is no self, that it’s an illusion; that we regularly fight and suffer for this imaginary concept, which is us. Many of these Buddhist claims are deceptively easy to understand rationally, like, everything is impermanent for example, but there’s a very real difference between knowing and understanding. The other actually affects your outlook and actions, and the other doesn’t. That’s why Buddhists spend so much time sitting down meditating: wisdom comes from direct experience.
Well, this one morning when we were doing our chores, it finally hit me, this epiphany, this sudden mental storm and a feeling of understanding what this whole no-self-business meant. I came up with a very neat philosophical thought experiment. It actually had such an impact on me, that this certain uneasiness pervaded me for some time – this anxiety that I later recognised as the fear of death, because the experience of losing myself was so concrete to me at the time. But back to that experiment. You’re free to hop on, if you feel like it. Are you ready?
Imagine you’re a part of a medical procedure: we’re taking parts of your brain and swapping them head-to-head with another person. All you need to do in this experience as a test subject is to tell us what you feel through the procedure. Can you do that? Perfect!
At first we change the first fifth of your brain. You feel quite normal. You notice that your favourite ice cream is no longer banana flavoured, but it’s suddenly chocolate. Well that’s weird. We continue and change a second fifth. Now you notice that you remember something you didn’t before, some foreign memories. The third fifth of your brain is changed. You’re subtly transformed. Suddenly the environment and people around you make you feel different. Everything’s physically the same around you, but still changed; you notice different aspects of reality. The fourth fifth of your brain is now swapped. You’re very confused about this increasingly psychedelic experience. Finally the last piece of your brain is being replaced. You get a little while to adjust emotionally. How do you feel?
Well the experience itself was very disorienting, but you’ve managed to get yourself finally together. You feel like yourself again, all though you still think very differently. But it doesn’t matter as they’re your ideas, and you feel they come from within you. All you feel like doing is fulfilling your desires, no matter if they’re not the same ones you had an hour ago.
But now the doctor brings forth the other person. He explains that your brain now, as hard as it is to believe, is completely inside that person. You are not you anymore, in short. And you notice all the familiar mannerism in that person. But now something unexpected happens: they electrocute the other person – and your original brain – to death. A violent surge of current leaves behind only a charred, smoking cadaver. You died. But there you are looking at your dead self. What do you think?
“I’m so glad that didn’t happen to me.”
This demonstrates that there really is no us, as we imagine it. That the idea of us is fundamentally flawed somehow. All though it might be convenient to talk about “us”, it obviously gets shit done, there are some contexts where the conventional truth will bring about only suffering. The Buddha talks about the “ultimate truth” in addition to “conventional truth”, and that’s the plain where we don’t exist as individuals.
Well, let’s finish this story now that we started it. You get sent home to your new life. You decide to pick up meditation practice as inspired by your recent experiences. You want to understand what’s going on, how can you be both dead and alive at the same time. For years you sit there crosslegged, eyes closed and focusing on your breath. You start to notice that it’s not you who does your thinking. Ideas and urges simply pop up from the void. You try to find someone from within your headspace, where is the little man controlling you, but it seems that no one’s home. There’s just things happening, but there’s no one specifically doing the happenings.
You review the scientific literature and find out, that your emotions are deterministic for one, meaning that scientists will decipher your intentions from their brain scans well before you are consciously aware of them yourself.² You get familiar with post rationalisation, meaning that we humans are rationalisation machines who first have an intention, and then our internal play writer simply writes something as an excuse with very little regard to anything called reality or truth – and obviously we don’t even know it’s happening.² Finally you find out about the phenomenon, that when the connection between our brain’s left and right hemispheres is severed, both our brain develop their own selves, their own personalities, their own memories.³ And the same thing would probably happen in reverse if you combined two brains together, that there is no feeling of two selves left but only one – because that’s how consciousness works.
You stand there on the bustling city street, while hats and trench coats pass you by. The earth pushes you up, the air keeps you nice and cool, and the midday sun warms your face. You finally realise that you don’t exist. No one does. There’s only these observer moments, where you (conventionally speaking) observe certain phenomenon in your consciousness. And the phenomenon, the feelings and actions you observe from other people, are no different than the feelings and actions you observe from within yourself. They all spawn from the same unknown darkness.
There’s no need to take things personally anymore. There’s no need for that righteous anger, that indignation, that’s always been so integral for your persona. Life’s simply a flowing experience to be observed and understood. And behind all those mental objects, all that stuff that we mistook somehow to represent us, what’s left there, it’s universal. The canvas behind our experience, the raw existence, qualia philosophers call it⁵, it’s the same for us all. In a very real sense, we’re all one, and the universe is all one.
So the next idea is how could something like death even exist? Mental objects arise and disappear all the time, but it doesn’t feel like dying. It feels intuitive to think about consciousness or life as some kind of basic power of the universe, like gravity for example. And if a glass falls to the floor and finally breaks down, is that the death of gravity? Of course not.
So you stand there and think to yourself: Now look at me, all enlightened and shit. The Buddha would be proud.
1. Wat Pah Nanachat, http://www.watpahnanachat.org/index.php
2. B. Libet, C. A. Gleason, E. W. Wright, & D. K. Pearl, 1983
J. D. Haynes, 2011. Decoding and predicting intentions. Ann. NY Acad. Sci. 1224(1): 9–21
I. Fried, R. Mukamel, & G. Kreiman, 2011. Internally generated preactivation of single neurons in human medial frontal cortex predicts volition. Neuron, 69: 548– 562; P. Haggard, 2011. Decision time for free will. Neuron, 69: 404–406.
3. Zaidel et al., “The Callosal Syndromes”; Zaidel, Zaidel, and Bogen, “The Split Brain.
4. M. S. Gazzaniga, J. E. Bogen, and R. W. Sperry. 1962. “Some Functional Effects of Sectioning the Cerebral Commissures in Man.” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 48.