May 5, 2016

Waking up

Last week I stumbled upon the work of neuroscientist-philosopher-author Sam Harris, and over the weekend I read one of his books, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Outside of maybe high school religion class, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with the words “religion” and “spirituality” in the title. What interests me, though, is learning about how the mind works and the nature of our existence. That’s what a lot of this book is about.

I’m fascinated by the ideas presented here, all of which are logically sound but take an open mind to entertain.

What is consciousness?

I guess I’ve never really thought about the nature of consciousness. Apparently science can’t tell us how or why it arises. While there is reason to suspect consciousness is an emergent property of complex information processing, this doesn’t explain the specifics of of how, nor the reasons why, it appears.

The only evidence we have that consciousness exists is that we each experience it. And through observation we can see that other beings display behaviors that are consistent with our own experience of consciousness. But there’s no measurement or readout that you can point to and say, “THERE IT IS!”

Consciousness is simply our subjective experience of the world around us.

The illusion of a self

Studies show that the left and right hemispheres of the brain are two separate areas of consciousness. This has been proven by observing people who’ve had the link between the two hemispheres of their brain severed.

Yet we all have this feeling of a self — like there is an discrete entity that lives behind our eyes that is having the experiences and doing the thinking.

Who am I? It seems like I’m the voice in my head that thinks thoughts like “What do I want?” “I’m hungry.” “Remember to do this later.” But if you pay close attention, you see that it’s nearly impossible to stop the random chatter and you’re not in control of which thoughts appear. In the book, the reader is asked to try this: Sit still and try to not think. Then notice the thoughts that start flowing in. Did you know what they were going to be? Did you choose them? No, you didn’t.

We talk to ourselves constantly—but who are we talking to? The feeling that there is someone or something in our head that we can talk to is an illusion created by the mind. Like an optical illusion, what you see is real only because your brain interprets it as real. If examined more closely, however, the illusion disappears.

It’s not that the illusion of a self isn’t necessary. We couldn’t form relationships or survive without it. But I find it fascinating and valuable to know that the sense of self is a fabrication of the mind and it’s possible to break the illusion.

Here’s where it gets spiritual

Negative feeling are caused by negative thoughts. By practicing mindfulness, you learn to separate thoughts from your identity. Thoughts arise and disappear. You don’t have to follow them whenever they go.

Being in a state of mind that’s free of distraction and illusion—even if only for a minute at a time—can bring a feeling profound connection and calmness that improves the quality of our lives.

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