We are not what we think we are, of that I am sure. And yet, what we think we are shapes our behavior, the quality of our relationships, our values, feelings of right and wrong, justice, and compassion. The key to personal and social transformation, which as we will see, are the same thing, is ‘identity.’
A breathtaking scientist, author and friend, Howard Bloom, writes about social biology, how independent particles, molecules, simple organisms team up to form super-organisms, how they share information, act in unison, form even bigger networks or gangs called species, on and on. Zooming back these appear as continents, oceans, planets, solar systems and galaxies, all moving, changing, forever.
Where do we draw the line that separates ‘me’ from everything else? The sieve-like membrane we call skin is so full of holes it forms no boundary at all. 30% to 40% of our body weight is bacteria and other parasite-guests hitching a ride. Without these micro-beasts we would not be. Is the bacteria living inside each of us – us? If not, we are a little more than half of what we think we are.
Perhaps we are defined by our thoughts which seem to emanate from nowhere between our ears, in the black hole just behind eyes. But thoughts just don’t happen, nor do feelings. Thoughts and feelings are shadows first cast by sensations coming from out there and then bouncing around like pinballs inside, triggering feeling and thinking bells along the way. Take away out there and in here disappears too. Inner and outer give rise to each other, and I am both.
Every now and then something new appears, a fresh perception. Musing about the reciprocal nature of what we are – suddenly, after reading a particularly explosive paragraph Howard had written, there it was. What I call me, my social-cultural identity, my personal ego or image of self-inside and the outer images that make up the culture-outside are the same. Looking through different ends of a toy telescope the inner and outer appear completely different – but they are, in fact, the same process, both are images.
Right, wrong, do this, not this, good boy, bad girl, language, the names we give things are all embodied reflections of the collective super-ego we call culture. Growing up, needing to belong, we personify these collective images as a self-image, and that’s what I think I am, but am not.I asked David Bohm, one of the most respected and visionary scientists of the 20th century, why we have such a difficult time seeing that the self, as we know it, is an image?
David Bohm: The Problem With the Self
There is an assumption or concept which, if it [the self] were real, it would be extremely important. It would be the highest value. Just think of the word, ‘self.’ Its basic meaning is the quintessence, the essence of all essences and that would, of course, have supreme value.
If we assume there is a self. This stirs up the whole mind and brain inside. It feels, just from that assumption, that something is going on inside which corresponds to this assumed self and gives it an apparent reality. Once it has been assumed that this self is real and not merely an image, and is attributed reality, then it takes first priority and everything else comes second, so everything becomes distorted.
For example, if somebody tells you that the self [especially your self] is bad, this will create a disturbing feeling inside this image. There will be a very powerful move to change that, to falsify, to say instead that you are good. This sort of distortion becomes universal.
According to how you assume the thing is, you actually feel it that way. If you assume the self is in there, then you can feel it to be in there–it is attributed to be in there, and if you assume it’s good you’ll feel it’s good and if you assume it’s bad, you’ll feel it to be bad. These feeling are very powerful, very disturbing or very nice. They take on tremendous importance and as a result, everything else tends to be made subservient.
M: David, you and Krishnamurti explored this ‘self as an image’ business for many years.
B: One of the main points is, we don’t really understand the nature of our thought process; we’re not aware of how it works and it’s [the images of self are] really disrupting, not only our society and our individual lives but also the way the brain and nervous system operate, making us unhealthy, or perhaps even in some way damaging the system.
Krishnamurti recognizes that thought, rational, orderly, factual thought, as in doing proper science, is valuable, but the kind of thought he has in mind is self-centered thought.
One might wonder why self-centered thought is so bad. If the self were really there then perhaps it would correct to center on the self because the self would be so important. But if the self is a kind of illusion, at least the self as we know it, then to center our thought on something illusory, which is assumed to have supreme importance, is going to disrupt the whole process and it will not only make thought about yourself wrong, it will make thought about everything wrong. Then thought becomes a dangerous and destructive instrument all around.
M: Once it is assumed that the images we have of ourselves represent something ‘real,’ are not a fantasy, how does this assumption affect the brain and consciousness, not only personally but culturally?
B: If this image of the self, the concept of the self, is assumed to be all-important, the brain starts to develop a defense mechanism to defend this image against any perception of its falseness or illusory character. You can see this very easily.
If somebody says, “You are an idiot,” there is immediately a response to say, “I’m not an idiot.” It’s painful to have an image of yourself as an idiot, therefore you’ll say, “You’re wrong,” and you may start adopting all sorts of false explanations to show that you are OK and the other person is the idiot.
This is a minor point compared with the tremendous energy that comes when the very existence of this image is apparently threatened by some evidence that it is only an image, an illusion. Then, the entire brain starts to be disrupted. As a result a defense mechanism comes in to block or to wipe it out or to turn attention somewhere else, simply to make it almost impossible to go any further into this question.
It’s clear when someone like Krishnamurti comes along and says that this [image of self] is an illusion or isn’t that real, this defense mechanism is provoked into action.
M. Are we conscious of this?
B: The major form of defense is simply concealment of what’s going on. If we could see what’s going on it would be obvious it’s an illusion; like seeing through the trick of the magician. All the ways I’ve described, such as forgetting and zapping your mind, or jumping to something else, are modes of concealment. We are not conscious, certainly of the defense mechanism, because this process of concealment itself has to be concealed in order to make it effective, and therefore, the major part of defense consists in making the whole process unconscious.
M. We generally feel this self is the beginning of everything. The self is the thinker that produces thoughts. It is the center that does things and has things done to it. That is what I think I am.
B: Krishnamurti is suggesting, proposing, even saying that the self is not the source of thought but rather, thought is the source of the self. That may seem paradoxical to our ordinary experience, but at least we can make it reasonable.
We are saying that the assumption of the self creates inside a kind of image of the self, corresponding to that assumption, with great power. That image is attributed reality and [you] get a feeling that it’s real. Therefore, you assume the assumption that the self is the thinker, the source of thought. In that view, the thing that is really solid is the thinker and what he is thinking about.
What is being suggested instead is that the thought process is real, it’s going on in the brain and nervous system, and this thought process contains in it the assumption of a thinker who produces thought.
It is as if the thought process were producing a television program of a thinker producing thought and the mind is watching that program so intently that it mistakes it to be reality.
The destructive conditioning we’ve been talking about, that is, this conditioning around the self-centered thought is really an enslavement to absurdity, to destruction, to unhappiness, sorrow, and no other kind of freedom means anything unless we are free from that….
Which brings us back to identity.
Understand that you are the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The brain evolved the capacity to create images so compelling that it, the brain that produced the image, got lost in own enchantment, abstracting an image of self and forgetting it had done so. Not being able to function if it can’t trust itself, the brain that made the mistake defends against any perception that it made such an error, locking humanity in a self-centered self-culture delusion for thousands of years.
The only hope of breaking the spell is to evolve a new identity, one that is free, or at least transparent to self and cultural images. We need a new identity, one that is not based on images.