Before you read the following please read this particularly if you support marriage equality for same sex couples (I’ll be starting my posts with this link for the next while.)
At a recent talk on Hindu philosophy at Bendigo library the statement was made that one thing for certain is that we exist. Each of us can begin a philosophical enquiry with “I am”.
I objected in a way that probably didn’t make a ton of sense at the time. Fortunately I have a blog to explain myself properly in. Score!
The speaker at the library is a Hindu nun, Sister Nivedita Chaitanya and she gave a great address – calm and clear with well illustrated points. It went over-time but I don’t think anyone minded so interesting was the discussion.
The point of the talk was to illustrate one aspect of Hindu philosophy; we (along with everything else in existence) are all the same basic stuff, the same “pure being” with our differences being merely form. Further the form is illusory and believing in it is damaging. The “reality” is the pure being we share with everything and we should aspire to know it.
Now Hindu philosophy is more complicated than one paragraph but it’s not a terrible summary. In Hinduism our self or soul is called Atman and the divine is Brahman. The point of Hinduism is “moksha” or release and liberation from “samsara”, the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Philosophical Hinduism would tend to say that Atman is Brahman – the two are the same. Perhaps not the same exactly but Atman is “in” Brahman like salt in salty water. They are indivisible. Realising this truth is the key to moksha.
I feel like I’m raining on an ecstasy trip but I just don’t share the sentiment that our form conceals a true self we share with everything. I applaud how we-are-all-one inspires people to live in harmony with others and the environment but it’s hardly so profoundly “true” that I feel any desire to nod sagely at its wisdom. Allow me to explain. It’s a round-about journey to my point but please travel with me.
First find me one thing that doesn’t have form. Find me a person without a body; find me a plant that doesn’t have structure, an element that isn’t an arrangement of molecules, an atom that isn’t an arrangement of particles, a particle that isn’t fundamentally an arrangement of energy. There are none.
It is only on a completely basic level of energy and vibration that we are all the same becomes any kind of physical fact. On the level where everything is shit boringly virtually nothing then I am one with the tree, the stars and your momma. But... do I care?
Forms make us what we are. Form is what makes water wet, a carrot delicious, and shit stink. Without form you have nothing. Well nothing of any interest anyway. You certainly don’t think and feel without form.
Perhaps you think you do. Perhaps you think that somehow your consciousness can exist without a form like a body. If so you have no hard evidence for that position. There are ghosts and there is astral projection but they are at best unverified. I however have oodles of repeatable evidence that consciousness is dependent on your body. Skip sleep or drink alcohol and observe your thinking change. Have you ever been under a heavy general anaesthetic? Affecting brain chemistry changes your consciousness repeatedly and reliably. Isn’t it a fairly intuitive leap to assume that if the body was truly broken that consciousness itself would not survive?
Bah, who says we have to be so scientific. If you have experienced ghosts and astral projection then fair enough the idea of an independent soul is consistent with that and I won’t argue with your experience. If like me, you haven’t then it strikes me that assuming your consciousness is divisible from it’s form just seems odd. It’s odd in terms of how we know life; consciousness is intimately dependant on what happens to our body.
Now the idea that we are some sort of little self piloting a body on planet earth with the capacity to jettison ourself from the craft at death is a mischaracterisation by simplification of Hindu philosophy. Exactly what of us is the Atman that is Brahman is the complexity. So we may say that memory has a physical basis evidenced by Alztheimers but maybe memory isn’t Atman/Braman. We may say that pregnancy changes our moods and tastebuds but those things are not Atman/Braman either. The little self inside, the true self, the soul, is maybe not even a thinking entity.
All I’m contending is that whatever’s left is boring. My soul without memories, moods and tastes is such an abstract concept that sure I can share it with another person, a chicken or even a chair (as the talk suggested). Yet this won’t be prompting any recognition of myself in the other. There just isn’t any of my self left in that soul.
So what is the reason for this enduring belief in the soul? I think that most people must experience themself as an enduring and stable personality in some way despite what I’ve described as the relationship between the body and the mind. When Sister Nivedita Chaitanya said we all know that we exist, there were murmurs of agreement with this statement. I suspect I sounded like a nut to some people when I said that I know no such thing.
I concede that I talk about myself as an enduring concept. “I” am all over this essay after all. But that is a convention of language. The way we talk about seeing doesn’t prove that sight issues from our eyes like a cartoon gaze beam. Nor does it prove that images are instantaneous and light has no speed because our language implies it’s so. When I say “Bugger me,” I don’t mean it either. Perhaps people fall for language as truth?
Still the audience nodding in agreement did seem to be reflecting on a deep inner knowledge of their soul’s existence not just being caught up in word games. Maybe at the end of the day I should concede that I just don’t get it, that Hindu philosophy or other ideas of the soul captures many people’s reality but it misses mine completely.
I experience myself like the foam at the crest of a wave. Whenever I reflect on myself I don’t see myself at all. All I see is what I was a moment ago. I am therefore always a “was” ending and never an “am” being. I live perpetually a moment after that which “was me"’s death – in that death, by that death even. I am not that thought, that feeling, that sensation or this sentence but I am not anything else either. This is my lived experience. I don’t exist.