Tag Archives: know thyself

Recovering a Lost World, Just in Time 

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A common trait in every civilization known to us is now fast disappearing. This trait is the thirst for knowing the self. Most people have read that the ancient Greeks pursued the goal of “Know thyself,” but they do not realize that self-inquiry also stood at the very center of the great spiritual traditions in India, China, and the Judeo-Christian world. Today, a need to know thyself–in other words, to answer the question, “Who am I?”–by no means stands at the heart of civilization either East or West.

We have learned to accept, passively or with eager enthusiasm, some guiding principles that erode the entire value of self-inquiry. Among these principles are the following:

  • The only true knowledge is factual and data driven.
  • Science trumps all previous forms of knowledge.
  • The greatest knowers of reality are scientists.
  • So-called spiritual knowledge doesn’t exist–such claims were part of a world riddled with superstitions and myths.
  • To look inward is a waste of time, since real knowledge of the mind will be revealed completely by studying the brain.

In one way or another these principles are the foundation of modern secular society. In many quarters a broad brush is applied to all spirituality as merely pre-scientific mumbo-jumbo, and the past is looked upon as one thing only: the benighted precursor to the advent of science. So be it.  In the face of secularism, no one can claim that the institutions which exist as repositories of spirit, mainly organized religion, are tending upward. Their decline is inevitable and speeding up–so most educated observers believe.

But a funny thing happened on the way to absolute secularism. Science ran into two questions that to date have proved seriously unsolvable. The first is “What is the universe made of?” The second is “What is the biological basis of consciousness?” Both are objective questions about external facts, so it would be surprising–even revolutionary–if they eventually led us back to the inner world and the all but lost thirst for self-inquiry.

Most people do not realize that these two questions are the greatest mysteries in science, because it is assumed that a) the universe is made of atoms and subatomic particles, and b) the brain produces the mind, or consciousness. Yet if we look without rose-tinted glasses at these assumptions, they have no scientific foundation. Of course atoms and subatomic particles exist, but they are not the ultimate things that make up the universe. Solid, substantial matter vanished with the quantum revolution over a century ago, and contemporary physics stands baffled at the threshold of a world that precedes and underlies the quantum world. From this unknown domain emerged the big bang, and at this very instant every subatomic particle winks in and out of the same region. Continue reading

Deepak Chopra: The search for self — How did chemicals learn to think?

the ghost of chris driedWe are all quite certain that we have a self. When you say “I like chocolate” or “I vote progressive,” no one asks what you mean by “I.” That task was left for centuries to philosophers and theologians. “Know thyself” is an axiom worth heeding, but what is there to know? If one camp of modern science has its way, the answer is “nothing.”  The self, we are told, is an illusion created by the complexity of brain functions. As thousands of inputs bombard each other every second, forming an almost infinite tangle of neural messages, a ghost was created whose name is “I.”

Thus in one stroke the problem that has intrigued humanity’s greatest minds — “Who am I?” — is reduced to a mirage or fairy tale. The search for the self has proved fruitless when brain scans are consulted.  There is no known location for “I” in the brain, and this lack leads one of two ways: either the self is pervasive or it doesn’t exist. Claiming that “I” is an illusion would seem like a cheap way to shrug off a very difficult problem.  Yet there is some backing for this position in the Buddhist concept of “emptiness,” which holds that all transitory events, including all of our personal experience, are fabricated by the ego-personality. If we give up our cherished clinging to “I, me, and mine,” freedom lies in the realization that there is no fixed self, no fixed mind, not even such a thing as consciousness.

Yet when they combine their efforts, Buddhism and neuroscience can’t convince the ordinary person that “I” is a ghost, and there’s another tradition that considers the self the richest part of who we are, the source of unlimited potential for creativity, intelligence, and evolution. In short, there’s a contest between the higher self and no self.  Until a small band of scientific skeptics and atheists stepped forward, waving the banner of absolute materialism, the no-self camp was decidedly in the minority. But materialists see an advantage in denying that “I” exists. For them it isn’t an exotic minority position with little bearing on daily life. No-self falls in with a larger notion that consciousness is just a byproduct of chemical reactions in the brain.

wooden neuronsHow did chemicals learn to think? Why is the sugar that feeds brain cells capable of writing Shakespeare while the sugar cubes in a coffee bar are not? Materialists have no answer. They assume, with religious conviction, that chemicals learned to think somewhere in the long evolution of the human brain. This is really a form of animism, like worshiping the spirit in a rock or tree.  It seems like a nice trick to go a step farther and call consciousness an illusion, since that strips all metaphysics and spirituality of any validity. But no one has remotely come close to explaining how chemicals create the illusion of thought, which is not very different from “real” thought.

I think the higher self position is the valid one, but it’s not monolithic. There are unambiguous claims among devout Christians that everyone has a soul that will be redeemed by God; this is the higher self as a person’s true core, the part made by God. But in the Indian tradition, there is room for ambiguity. The Buddhist position that the ego-personality is the cause of suffering is echoed in Vedanta by the doctrine of Maya, which holds that “I” is trapped in an illusion of its own making, the illusion that the material world is the ultimate reality and that we are defined by all kinds of external things: money, status, possessions, job, family ties.

These props keep the everyday “I” going, but they are actually like waves in the ocean. A wave looks separate and individual when in reality it is nothing but an event in the ocean; its true nature is nothing but ocean.

This search to find our true nature raises the mystery of “I” above arcane arguments among philosophers and neuroscientists.  Matters of suffering are at stake, not to mention psychological disorders, relationships, crime, and anything else where the self either goes wrong or behaves in inexplicable ways.

If we are machines that harbor the delusion of personal dignity, why not sweep away “I” and treat criminals, the depressed, and anyone else with a problem by injecting different, better chemicals into their brains?  That goal has become standard practice in medicine, yet more and more we are witnessing the dire effects of re-engineering the brain chemically. The alternate is to find out who this “I” really is, because that knowledge, which seems pretty important to begin with, leads to a redefinition of what crime, suffering, mental disorders, and relationship problems actually mean. It’s the most fascinating mystery anyone can face, standing at the very start of the spiritual quest.

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