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 would either close my eyes and listen to the snippets of conversation that went backwards and forwards between my family, or stare up at the ceiling of the car and at the branches of trees and at the sky going by above me.
Perhaps it was the odd perspective – we don’t usually see life from upside down or notice the sound of a voice rather than the content of 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 I 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 most people. I think a lot of us have dropped the idea that there is a little person living inside us making all the decisions and generally directing us. Some religious people perhaps still cling to the idea of 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 as we know a rainbow isn’t physically there. I doubt that anyone believes that if you cut a person open and scrabble around in their innards you will find a self in amongst the blood and guts. No one thinks the self is a physical thing.
Quite a while ago I came to believe that I have a sense of self that was really the sum total of everything happening in my body. This sense is my body’s way of orientating and keeping track of itself. A sense of self is useful for making sense of the world. Many animals also probably have a very rudimentary sense of self, otherwise they would eat themselves whenever they got hungry.
Even so, realising it is a sense of self rather than an actual self can, I suppose, be an important discovery. And once you let the sense of self drop for a moment all that remains is a consciousness of what is going on both around and inside 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 perhaps look at the world with more equanimity.
When I am on one of my long walks and something gets my attention – a loud car goes by, something blows across the path, a bee flies by – it is only then that I realise I have been lost in thought for the past few minutes. 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 it strengthens our sense of self. But I don’t need my sense of self strengthening any more. I want it reducing.