I woke up this morning and continued to lie there since today was not a work day. My thoughts turned to the Buddhist idea of Non-Duality, or non-self, and 20 minutes later I understood it. After all these years I finally understood what Sam Harris and others were talking about. Now I know it’s all nonsense but at least I understand it. Or think I do.
Basically the idea is the same as the advice given to painters: Paint what you see, not what you think you see. To do this you have to disconnect the part of your brain that makes sense of what you are seeing. In painting you should rely only on your eyes, not on your brain. By doing this you paint a truer picture of what is in front of you. You won’t, for example paint a perfectly square house. Your brain knows that the house is square in some abstract sense but there is no position in space from where a house actually looks square so it’s better to rely on your eyes than on your lying brain.
Non-duality is the same. You have to stop your brain from interpreting your bare sensations. The difference is that while painting what you see helps you to create a truer picture of the world, relying only on the senses without recourse to the brain’s interpretation gives you a distorted picture of the world. The reason some people do this is that the feeling of self can be a burden and not allowing your brain to interpret the incoming sense data allows ‘you’ to disappear.
The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio wrote a book entitled Self comes to mind. He could have made the title a little longer and called it, Self naturally comes to mind and you have to try hard to stop it from doing so. Not very catchy but clear. What people who advocate non-duality are doing is preventing the self from coming to mind.
So from my bed this morning I heard sounds coming in from outside my window: there was a dog barking, a crow cawing, a car going past, someone unloading a crate. I lay there and felt my face pressing warmly into the pillow and my back pressing into my futon. (I would prefer a bed but hey, when in Japan do as the Japanese do). My body felt warm from being under the duvet though my arms were colder as they lay outside it. Suddenly I heard a single snort, which woke me up. The sound had apparently come from the back of my throat: I had almost dropped off to sleep again. All of these things were happening to me. I knew I was present because my brain needed me there to make sense of the sounds and sensations.
As an experiment I tried to immerse myself in the sensations without giving my brain a chance to fit them into a coherent picture…Barking is happening…cawing…whooshing…scraping-clanking…pressure…warmth…cold. What could it all mean?
Of course I knew what it all meant. It meant that there were dogs, crows, cars and people making noises outside and I was lying nice and warm at the hub of it all. As a game it was mildly interesting though difficult because it was hard not to imagine a dog in the street barking, a crow perched on a telephone wire cawing, a car going by outside, a person, almost certainly a man, loading or unloading a lorry. All of these are the brain’s interpretations of the raw sounds and sensations that come to you. It was almost impossible not to think that it was my face pressing into the pillow and causing the warmth, my back that gravity was pulling down onto the futon causing the sensation of pressure. Only a supreme effort could suppress the brain’s desire to make sense of it all.
So for the time that I was lying in bed before finally getting up, all this did make for an interesting interlude; interesting to see if I could stop the feeling of ‘me’ entering the picture and instead just be conscious of random sensations coming into existence as though from nowhere and fading back into nothingness. But once I let my brain make sense of it all ‘I’ had to enter the picture. There was no other way of making sense of it all. Stopping my brain from doing its work for a minute allowed me to experience a mildly pleasant feeling of not being separated from the rest of the world yet it was also disorientating and as soon as I relaxed and let my brain do its work, the whole charade burst like a bubble.
Such experiences aren’t necessarily always pleasant. I once fainted while being given a special kind of injection in hospital and for the short time I was unconscious and had no idea who I was, where I was, or how I had got there. My memory was momentarily offline and all that was left was a feeling of disorientation and spinning blackness. It was only when I came to and was able to orientate myself again that the panic left me.
When Douglas Harding talks about the feeling of ‘having no head’ being a kind of experiential truth he is right in a very narrow sense. It’s true that I generally can’t see my own head so my brain has to imagine it there. My bare sensual experience is of walking through the world headless, though my brain tells me this can’t be true. After all, it is also an experiential truth that when I close my eyes the world goes black, and when I leave my house in the morning the house vanishes. However, my brain tells me not to worry. The lights of the world haven’t gone out, nor has my house disappeared, even if this is an ‘experiential truth’. Much more likely is that I have blinked or turned a corner. And if I do a handstand, though it might look to me as though the world had suddenly turned upside down, the pressure put on my head and neck by the blood rushing to them suggests to me that it is I, not the world, that is upside down.
Anyway, here is Richard Lang espousing this daft view of ‘reality’. Quite how my hero Sam Harris can claim that Richard Lang and Douglas Harding make sense on this I just don’t get. I too think it’s a good idea to forget ourselves as much as possible as part of an ongoing effort to become less self-obsessed and to take more of an interest in the outside world. However, forgetting yourself is different from claiming you aren’t there (for you) because you can’t see yourself. Our visual field is important but it is not the only thing we know. Unless we are babies or retarded we can’t help but infer things.
Maybe it’s a good idea to stop ‘picturing’ myself in my mind’s eye as I sit at this computer, in this room, in Tokyo, in Japan, in the world, in the universe, on a Sunday morning in March in the year 2015. Maybe my brain really is obsessed with conceptualising things, seeing the bigger picture, putting myself in context rather than disappearing off my radar. Maybe after all this visualising of myself leaves my brain with too little processing power to take in what is actually in front of me. I also agree that there must come a point where all this contextualising goes too far and we might do better to simply pay more attention to the immediate, sensual world. I just think that taking ourselves for granted and thereby largely forgetting ourselves is a better way of shrinking the ego and noticing the world than imagining, against all our instincts, that we don’t have heads and that ‘we’ are nothing more than whatever happens to be in our visual field at any given time. I think that only by maintaining a sense of self, albeit an indistinct one, can we make any sense of all the incoming data. Without that sense I think I would feel disorientated and vaguely nauseous.
Our bodies are constantly sending messages to our brains, telling us whether we are lying, sitting or standing. The brain informs us that the warm pressure on our cheek is due to the pillow we are lying on, even though we can’t actually see the pillow with our eyes shut. It tells us from which direction a sound is coming, how far away it likely is and which animal, person or vehicle is producing the sound. The brain deduces all this, despite not being able to actually see any of it. The brain naturally builds up a picture of our surroundings and the existence of my head is part of this picture. A feeling of Non-Duality, of non-self, can only come about when we suppress this inferred information. When we manage to do this sensations appear to be happening in thin air, to nobody.
Non-Duality has nothing to do with the ‘true nature of things’ and everything to do with a person wilfully shutting down part of their brain. They do this to disorientate themselves so they can feel ‘one with the universe’. This is at most an amusing game you can play with yourself on a Sunday morning. On Monday you will have to dump these fantasies, boot up your whole brain and get on with real life.