Notion of Self
September 29, 2001
In a past life, while preparing thirty wildly disinterested
high school students for a history exam the state insisted
that I give them, I was presented with an interesting challenge.
The examination would cover western history from the rise
of Greek civilization through the Second World War. The challenge,
aside from pretending it was possible even to write such an
examination, was to find a unifying theme for twenty-five
centuries of large scale human activity. Without some common
thread to connect them to the past, these apprentice humans'
connection to the present would remain an unapproachable mystery.
I wanted them to understand what had happened, how we'd come
to be where and who and what we are. They, of course, needed
to pass the test.
I was in those days a budding young educator and took very
seriously my responsibility to subvert any young mind I could
get my hands on. It was the early seventies. The social and
political revolution that came inches from ripping America
limb from limb had quietly mutated into ad copy for Buick
commercials. It was my considered professional opinion that
the children of the middle class needed all the subversion
they could get. Every educator has an angle. That was mine.
History has been called a river of events flowing into an
ocean of legends, lies and indifference. It is, always and
forever, what we make of it: the raw data of what happens
is, as they say in the entertainment business, a story in
need of a hook. The unifying theme I gave my young innocents
was that the rise of western civilization is most honestly
seen as a relentless succession of robberies: most of them
well organized and all of them heavily armed. From this perspective,
humanity's trials and travails, its agonies and triumphs,
its laughter and its tears have all flowed from a single nasty
fault line in our collective psyche: our tendency to want
what we don't have and to take what doesn't belong to us.
The wealth of nations is, in simplest terms, the current
score in an endless blood bath of greed and violence. Owing
to the rules of play, and the uneven topography of the playing
field, whatever laurels there might be often wind up on the
wrong heads; and the strong, who aren't always more virtuous
than the weak, end up with all the stuff. They also get to
write the history books: a fact which explains why there are
so few accounts of fox hunts written by a fox. Their little
student eyes widened. They saw, they understood and, for the
record, every one of them passed the test. This is, a quarter
century later, more than can be said for whatever wizard it
is who lives behind the curtain.
Someone, it doesn't matter who, once offered the idea that
all ownership is theft. The earth did not, after all, come
with a deed; nor did the birds of the air, the beasts of the
fields, the fields themselves or the oil bearing strata beneath
them. The earth, it can reasonably be argued, belongs to everyone
and what belongs to everyone can belong to no one. Humans
are, of course, territorial animals, as justified as howler
monkeys to shriek from the treetops when someone invades their
berry patch. There remains a difference, some would say a
deep conceptual chasm, between defending one's territory and
parceling it into real estate. In many societies, not all
of them extinct and none more savage than our own, the notion
of buying and selling bits of the earth is a craziness unworthy
of anything but laughter.
The issue of possession, and its consequences, run deep.
A researcher recently found that human populations have varied
in relation to the status of women in the society. In groups
that reserved for women the status of domestic slaves and
breeding stock, population growth exceeded the territory's
capacity to sustain it. In groups in which women were considered
every bit as human as men, population remained in balance.
The pattern, the researcher noted, still plays out in the
world around us. When women are confused with something one
can own, the cellular metabolism of human society becomes
cancerous. Who among the thoughtful would be surprised?
Given the idea of ownership, the idiot notion of dominion
is as predictable as the progress of an untreated psychosis.
The myth of possession leads to the myth of control. The briefest
review of the behavioral outcome would, to a mental health
professional, indicate a patient crying out for intervention.
What greater insanity than to imagine that, even if dominion
over nature were possible, humans would be the natural choice
to wield it. (My personal vote would go to otters.) What unbridled
lunacy to think that, because we have a large, and largely
unused brain, we know more about nature than nature.
An old friend, who spends enough time in the forest near
his home on the Oregon coast to claim more "ownership" than
the timber company clear cutting it with a vengeance bordering
on hysteria, is looking hard to find a bright side. He believes,
with great sadness and sincerity, that anything that can properly
be called a rain forest will be lost in our lifetime. The
forest is not a collection of trees and plants; it's a free
form laboratory conducting critical basic research in the
perfection of life forms, one of which is us. Our dominion
boils down to turning the old growth DNA of evolution into
two-by-fours, bark dust and tree farms which are, to a forest,
what sofa-sized paintings are to art. We must remind ourselves,
my friend reminds us, there are things worth dying to prevent.
The notion of ownership runs deep: deeper than rainforests
and wetlands, deeper than the condo in Cabo, deeper than the
family assault vehicle, deeper even than the children we import
from third world countries to vacuum carpets in Brentwood.
(As anyone with too much money will tell you, nothing in life
quite compares to owning another human.) Rich or poor, slave
or master, a final question faces all of us: who, or what,
am I? When I say I, what is it exactly I mean? What do we
see when we look in the mirror; or, more importantly, when
we turn out the light? What is it, truly and finally, that's
ours? Until we know this, we can't know our place in the unfolding
universe; and, if we don't know that, whatever else we know
If we possess anything that can't be taken from us by a slump
in the market, a boss who doesn't appreciate us, or a lover
who's had enough, it must be who and what we are. Our dearest
possession is the idea of a self: a privileged observer who,
through thick and thin, is always there: looking through our
eyes, fondling our sensory circuits and trying, often desperately
and to no avail, to understand what's going on. Should the
world turn on us and take away our toys and trinkets, we still
will have our selves. If we can be certain of anything, we
can be certain of that. We can also be certain it's not what
we don't know that hurts us; it's what we think we know but
Siddhartha, the man who became Buddha, had an interesting
take on the notion of self. Confronting the challenge of putting
an end to human suffering, the hook he gave us for the history
of human experience was that unhappiness has its roots in
attachment: in clinging to imagined permanence in a world
whose only constant is change. This is as close as Buddhism
comes to original sin. We divide the world revealed to us
by our senses into two parts: the self and the not-self. Disengaging
from the seductive smoke and mirrors of the not-self is challenge
enough; disengaging from the intimate, incestuous embrace
of the self is the end game of all control. Here, loosely
paraphrased, are Siddhartha's thoughts.
Whatever the Self is, it cannot be our body because our body
is impermanent and dies. Whatever the Self is, it cannot be
our feelings because our feelings are in constant flux: what
we feel now we did not feel yesterday and may not feel tomorrow.
Whatever the Self is, it cannot be our thoughts because our
thoughts rise and fall like leaves in the wind and change
radically from moment to moment. Whatever the Self is, it
cannot be our soul because our soul is pure becoming: the
product of our actions. Siddhartha concluded that, instead
of a Self, there exists only a bundle of Not-Selves clamoring
for attention. His advice, in simplest terms, was to ignore
them and get on with our search for happiness: the swiftest
horse that bears us to enlightenment.
But we were speaking of history and the rising and falling
of civilizations. All politics is personal. On the most fundamental
level we can imagine, our sense of self, we are all of us
the idle rich: possessed by our possessions and owned by the
act of owning. It's helpful sometimes, when considering the
unfolding and unraveling of life around us, to consider the
nature of the "real" world. Aside from music and poetry, the
best description of things as they are is provided by physical
theory; or, as it was called when ordinary people were encouraged
to think, natural philosophy. Physical theory, it's important
to remember, isn't the least bit theoretical. A theory may
change over time, or be supplanted by a more powerful theory,
but its generalized principles are grounded firmly in observation.
In order to be successful, a theory must explain what we see.
This is its reason for being.
The most successful theory in the history of human thought
is quantum mechanics. Nothing, not even general relativity,
comes close to quantum theory's ability to explain the vast
scope of what we can see, from the birth of light to the death
of stars. As far as quantum theory can see, there are no nouns
in the universe. There are only verbs. There are no products
in the universe, there is only ceaseless process; no things,
only events; no endings, only beginnings; no being, only becoming:
a rising and falling of phenomena that, not so oddly, mirrors
the rising and falling of mind. Rather than a great machine,
the creation more closely resembles a great thought.
And thoughts, like cats and rain forests and people, can
never be owned. Like all of life, they can only be experienced.
Burgess is an author of three books and writes several columns
for various newspapers. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org