When I was a child I used to get travel sick. Just travelling a few miles along winding roads was enough to make me vomit into the pot we used to always take along for the purpose. After being sick I used to lie down across the back seat, now feeling better for having emptied my stomach, and either close my eyes and listen to the snippets of conversation that went on between my family, or stare up through the car windows at the branches of trees or the sky going by above me.
Perhaps it was the odd perspective – we don’t usually see life going by from upside down or notice the sound of a voice rather the conversation – but there was something pleasant about just lying there, listening and watching. There was no need for me to do anything. At that moment I was no longer feeling sick and was going somewhere with my family. That was enough.
After reading Sam Harris’s new book Waking Up I was reminded of those moments because that is how I pictured his idea of ‘selflessness’. Harris is convinced that we don’t have selves. This is not the same as saying we don’t have bodies, or memories or anything else that we usually associate with being a person. He just believes that there is no separate self inhabiting the body and brain.
This is hardly news to many people. I think most people have dropped the idea of there being a person who lives inside us, making all the decisions and generally directing us. Some religious people perhaps still cling to the literal belief in an immortal soul inhabiting the body, but even this, I suspect, is just a way of talking rather than it being their actual belief. Most of us feel as though ‘we’ were living just behind our eyes, staring out at the world, but many of us suspect this is an illusion, just we know a rainbow isn’t physically there. I doubt that anyone believes that if you cut them open and scrabble around in their innards that you won’t find a self in amongst all the blood and guts. No one thinks the self is a physical thing.
Quite a while ago I came to believe that we have a sense of self without there actually being a self inside us. The sense of self was just the sum total of everything happening in my body. It was the body’s way of orientating and keeping track of itself. This sense of self is useful, and probably essential for making sense of the world and ourselves. Many animals probably have a rudimentary sense of self, otherwise when they got hungry they would eat themselves.
Even so, realising it is a sense of self rather than a thing in its own right can be an important discovery. And once you let the sense of self drop for a moment, there remains just a consciousness of what is going on both around you at that moment. Then even the rumblings of your stomach seem just one more thing that is happening in the world. At such moments you look with more equanimity on what is happening to you and the world.
When I am on one of my long walks something happens to get my attention – a loud car goes by, something blows across the path, a bee flies by – and it is only then that I realise I have been lost in for the past few minutes. Before I used to immediately return to my thoughts after the interruption so as not to lose the thread. Now I try to just let the whole train of thought just drop. Why? Because it is more pleasant than ruminating. When I stop thinking I actually feel myself breathe out and relax, relieved. It’s as though I had been holding my breath and been slightly tense until ‘waking up’.
There is something dogged and grimly determined about all this ruminating I do. The thoughts are more often negative than positive and frequently involve putting the world to right, or changing something in my own life. Of course all of us drift into these kind of ruminations all day so there is nothing unusual about me. But even if such thinking comes naturally to us, this doesn’t mean it is good. After all, eating chocolate comes naturally to me but it isn’t healthy.
According to Harris, we use the same part of the brain for these automatic ruminations as we do to build our sense of self. This kind of thinking is our default mode and this kind of thinking perhaps strengthens our sense of self. (I think this is what Harris claims but I could be wrong). Personally don’t want my sense of self strengthening any more. I want it reducing. I am already self-obsessive enough. In general I tend to like people who aren’t overly self-conscious or overly attached to themselves. They are often rather cavalier about themselves and I this attenuated sense of self is probably due to habit of thought. They tend to use that part of the brain that looks out at the world rather than constantly including themselves in their thinking.
Anyway, I would like to have more of those selfless moments when I just stare up at branches of trees and listen to conversations without joining in. I would like to develop the habit of ‘waking up’ more often and for longer periods on my walks and looking more at my surroundings instead of immediately being dragged back into my thoughts. You see, when I let those thoughts drop, my worries about myself and the world tend to vanish and what is left is just the consciousness of roads, fields and sky and a reduced sense of self. That is, until the next time I lose myself in thought.