Escaping the prison of self

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The terrific Ana Torrent in the Spanish film, ‘Spirit of the Beehive’

At the moment I’m ploughing through a book called About Time. Its main idea is that over the ages cultures have viewed time differently. How we view time is influenced by the science of the day, which in turn is influenced by the culture of the time. Each one, science and culture, feeds off the other.

The author, Adam Frank, talks about the biblical story of The Fall. Eden was a timeless place where Adam and Eve dwelled in complete unself-consciousness. They were naked but didn’t realise it, or at least felt no shame. However, after eating of the Tree of Knowledge they fell from grace, noticed their nakedness and felt ashamed. God expelled them from Eden and this is when time’s clock started ticking. It was the human version of the cosmic Big Bang; our consciousness suddenly ballooned and we left the animals far behind. Apparently most cultures have similar stories which refer to a lost timeless paradise.

Frank sees these mythical stories as harking back to a time before humans became self-consciousness. Until our Big Bang moment our bare consciousness was like that of the animals, who probably don’t think of themselves as separate entities. Self-consciousness brought with it a feeling of separation and the sense that the clock was now ticking.

I have to say that I’m unconvinced by this idea that humans possess a collective memory of how things were before our Big Bang moment. Instead, I think these stories may be harking back to childhood. I think that very young children have a kind of animal-like unself-consciousness until they learn to view themselves as isolated subjects in a sea of objects.  This is a pleasant time, before we erect the subject-object barrier. Then we have a ‘mirror experience’ and notice that we are separate and the rest of the world is ‘out there’.

Apart from making friends and falling in love, I see no way around this acknowledgement of our isolation from the rest of the world. My physical separation from the things around me strikes me as a brute fact and not some weird interpretation. My body is the hardware and ‘I’, that is my conscious self, am the software. Just as I draw the borders of a computer at its surfaces, so I draw my borders at my skin and everyone and everything outside that skin isn’t me. Some mystics and meditators try to muddy the waters by persuading themselves and others that this apparent separation is a result of bad thinking and in reality we are all part of a giant consciousness and nothing and no one is separate. I think this is nonsense. I believe this because when I stub my toe against the table I notice that it is only me who is grimacing in pain and everyone else carries on as normal. If we were really all part of the same consciousness, then surely everyone would be hopping round in agony.

So if you have no friends or are not in love, is there any way to alleviate the unpleasant feeling of being alone in an uncaring universe? Well, perhaps. I think each of us experiences separateness differently. Extremely self-conscious people are painfully aware of being separate individuals; they feel they are just one more object in their picture of the world. It’s like an inner eye that is always watching them. On the other hand, there are people who appear to be only vaguely conscious of themselves and quite happily scratch their private parts and pick their noses in public, either oblivious or indifferent to the fact that someone might be watching them. They don’t feel like objects in the eyes of others.

Children also get so immersed in an activity that they forget themselves. They have no idea that their eyes are wide open and that their mouth is gaping, like the girl in the photo above. Their emotions are written on their faces. All their attention and brain processing power is dedicated to what they are doing and there is none left for self-monitoring. At such moments, though their bodies might be separate from the rest of the world, they themselves are unaware of this, and that surely is the important thing.

The lesson I take away from this is to immerse yourself so fully in the outside world that you rarely give a thought to yourself and your separateness – though if you are an adult it’s best not to let your mouth fall open. You need the company of people you like or to engage in fascinating activities to forget your separateness. Or maybe if you view the world like a historian might, feeling yourself caught up in the grand sweep of history, that could also help.

The girl in the photo above seems to have escaped from the prison of self, at least for the duration of the film. Yet films end and so do books and both tend to dump you back into separateness as soon as you emerge from them. So maybe it is really only the company of others that can help us permanently overcome feelings of separateness.

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