Most of us have been taught to understand mind, thought, and self through a dualistic model of reality. I call that model of reality things-in-space consciousness, and it was born in the West during the time period known as the Enlightenment. Over the course of about two centuries we moved out of the worldview of the Middle Ages and into the Modern Era. During this transition, objectivity was prized. We learned to separate ourselves from nature. We began to see ourselves as independent, thinking beings with minds that were perfectly constructed to uncover nature’s secrets and understand the mechanisms of creation.
The birth of the Modern Age brought with it the birth of a self that saw itself as limited to a single lifetime and existing within an individual body in a dance of interaction with other independent entities. We came to believe that our minds and our seemingly limitless power of rationality made us unique among all of nature’s other creations. A separation between self and other was etched so deep in the field of consciousness that the bottom of the trench went too far down to see. Looking down at that seemingly bottomless divide we lost touch with the deeper connection between us. Like a flower that doesn’t see its own roots, we fell into a dream of separation that cut us off where the stem meets the ground. This fundamental assumption of separation colors all of our perceptions, especially our perception of our self and the source of our awareness.
Seeing ourselves as fundamentally separate, we naturally assume that the capacity for consciousness that we experience lives inside of us. And in our scientifically informed age we most likely imagine that consciousness resides in our brain and even more that it is a product of brain activity. We have learned that through our senses we take in information about the world and believe that our brain compiles that information into an experience of reality. We experience the world like a movie on a mental screen.
What if this were not true? As I look out at the other people in this coffee shop, my habit is to assume that they all contain a source of consciousness separate from mine. Each of them is a self—a being with a consciousness-producing brain or what I like to call a thinking-thing. If we experience reality in terms of things-in-space, then we see ourselves as thinking-things.
What would an alternative view look like? What else could we be if not a thinking-thing?
The alternative view that I want us to explore is that a self is not an independently conscious entity. A self, as my friend and colleague Dr. Jeffrey Eisen puts it, is a platform of perception. It is not a something that sees; it is a place to see from. I believe as the American philosopher William James did: that reality is created from pure experience. We are not having an experience of reality; reality is experience, and part of that is the experience of being a self that sees itself as a thing having an experience.
Reality is an ocean of experience, part of which is the experience of being a separate thing that is experiencing reality. If you contemplate this deeply, something begins to happen. You begin to fold in on yourself. As you contemplate reality as pure experience, you see that the experience of contemplating is contemplating itself. Some part of the ocean of experience has gathered itself up into a self-reflective swirl that bends and twists awareness in on itself. It is like a mirror trick that creates a being of light that comes to believe that it exists independent from the light that forms it.
If we contemplate the nature of who we are deeply enough, we discover that we are the experience of contemplating ourselves. There is no independent self-contemplating itself. There is just an experience of a self that experiences itself contemplating itself in a mental pirouette that resembles a dog chasing its tail. This contemplation contemplating contemplation will always be existentially unsatisfying to us until the moment our twirling drills a hole in the ground below us, and we fall through the floor of our being into a deeper reality.