When you are born you quickly learn to differentiate yourself from things and people around you. When you fall over you notice it hurts. When someone else falls over you notice it doesn’t hurt. Aha, you think, so this person over here is me and that person over there isn’t.
Sometimes it can feel like you are an independent self living inside your material body but this must be an illusion. Your body preceded you and conjures you up in the process of keeping tabs on what it is doing. Your sense of self emanates from the body’s functioning. When your body stops functioning, so do you. The body’s interaction with the world throws up a sense of self in the same way that the interaction of raindrops and sunlight form a rainbow. Of course, the rainbow isn’t physically there, yet to claim that you can’t see it would be nonsense. Nobody thinks that their personality is a physical thing, nor that they could pinpoint where it is located in the body, yet this doesn’t mean that personalities don’t exist.
Your body is separate from the rest of the world. If you are aware of this separateness then your sense of self surges forward, and if you aren’t aware of it, it recedes. Animals probably have a very weak sense of self, the kind that the body produces while mapping itself and stops lobsters from eating their own claws. Quite why dogs chase their own tails is a bit of a mystery, though I suspect that something so distant from their head and which seems to move independently registers in their doggy brains as being outside themselves. Either that or they are just playing silly buggers.
Humans have a more developed sense of self than this, one which enables them to plan and to deceive others. You are able to do this by including yourself in your picture of the world. The sense of self probably varies from person to person and from occasion to occasion. If you are giving a public speech, your sense of being a separate self will probably be uncomfortably strong, whereas watching TV or reading a book can make you pretty much disappear off your radar.
Some people intentionally try to lose their sense of self. They want to feel ‘at one’ with the universe. Tellingly, to achieve this sense of ‘no-self’ they have to sit very still so they are not interacting with the world. Then the pleasant illusion of not being separate from the rest of the universe can invade them. This of course feels subjectively very real and they conclude that they have gained an insight into the true nature of reality.
My own view is that they are doing something analogous to holding their breath for a minute, going pleasantly dizzy and seeing stars and concluding from this that the air really is full of tiny shooting stars and that the fabric of the universe is soaked in some pleasant, dizzying solution. If you interpret things in this way then you probably believe that your bedroom actually starts spinning every time you get drunk.
Needless to say, I think what these people are experiencing is a chemical reaction in their own heads rather than them discovering some truth about the nature of the universe.
Of course, once people get up from the lotus position and run to catch the No. 35 bus their sense of self suddenly reappears. It isn’t that they are once again suffering from the persistent illusion of having a self, but that they are now back in the real world where they can no longer afford frivolous delusions. The sense of being ‘one with the universe’ no longer bears scrutiny once you are trying to cross a busy road and are in danger of being knocked down by that universe.
While I can understand why people would want to rid themselves of their sense of separateness, I think that trying to lose your sense of self, once it has developed, is like trying to become a virgin again. When you were a baby your sense of self was probably under-developed and you often didn’t notice yourself. However, after developing your sense of self and noticing that ‘you’ exist, it’s hard to un-notice it. It’s like eating of the Tree of Knowledge. There’s no possible return to innocence.
Apart from the difficulty of trying to un-know something you know, I don’t think it is desirable to disavow the self completely. It is only by seeing ourselves as separate that we can love other people. Unless you have a sense that you are here and she is there, there is no way to build a bridge across to her. You can’t be friends with someone you aren’t separate from.
Imagine if planets could feel. Mars and Jupiter feel lonely so they decide to ‘become one’. Mars slips its orbit around the sun, spirals down and crashes into Jupiter and is immediately swallowed up by it. Now it is Greater Jupiter, a single entity and it finds it has no one to play with. It was happier before when Jupiter and Mars were two separate entities.
Okay, that’s enough hard-nosed, clear-eyed reality. Back to fantasy.