This is a doozy, but worth it. We’ve arrived at a point in our discussions where it’s become necessary to address some potentially distressing concepts. Through the practice of mindfulness and gaining an understanding of the moment, it is inevitable that we question the true nature of our personal identity, or “self”. The topic is about as personal as you can get, and many of us will initially react to the process with intense emotion and quite possibly repulsion. This reaction is normal and will almost certainly pass with continued understanding, but consider this a trigger warning of sorts.
Real Has No Meaning
We’re going to have to go deep right off the bat here. Traditional education gives us an understanding of the world as having two distinct but equally real parts. The external objective universe is all that tangible, measurable, verifiable stuff that obeys the laws of physics. Our minds are the second part of this interpretation of reality. Our thoughts are subjective by definition, no one but our selves can observe them first hand and they are free from virtually all physical constraints. The mental contents (ideas, imagination) are rarely considered to be real, but few would dispute the definiteness of the mind itself. That is, until they begin to understand the mindful perspective.
Let’s have a quick look at some of the things we’ve covered that contradict the very definition of reality as we know it:
- Everything we observe is first interpreted by brain processes, which are prone to error and only produce an interpretation of events.
- Our experience of time is generated by the brain during the interpretation. Our senses only experience the outside world as discrete packets of information, also identifiable as a recurring moment, or “the moment”.
- Mindful practice can reduce and ideally eliminate the illusion that our observations somehow constitute a definite reality.
That’s some pretty heavy stuff, and it’s bound to lead to an even heavier question. If reality isn’t actually a thing, then how can we be real?
When people come to question their very existence, there is often an intense urge to abandon all trains of thought that have led to this point. It’s understandable, since accepting the idea would be both difficult and incorrect (whew). Don’t worry, we are certainly real in some capacity, in that we are capable of observation, even if the information is suspect. Yes, that’s another way of saying “I think, therefore I am”, but with a bit of a simplified twist. Thinking isn’t the key component, observing is. But that’s another philosophical debate for another time. The point is that you don’t have to worry about not existing, but it’s something you need to consider if you’re going to get to the real root of the issue.
Redefining Your Concept of Self
Well here we are. There’s no turning back now. We just barely avoided labeling everything, including ourselves, as being unreal. What most of us cannot (and should not) avoid, is the realization that the self is in something entirely different from what we were taught. You do exist, but it’s probably not the you that you think exists. Here’s why.
You’ll notice that in all discussions of the mind, there are two distinct but interdependent parts that inevitably come into play: the information and the observer. We are the observer(s). Psychologists struggle with this concept, so much so that it’s called the “hard problem” when they try to figure it out using the scientific method, philosophical arguments or just about any other academically structured form of study. We don’t have this issue because we’re not restricted to any type of dogma. In the practice of mindfulness, the proof is in the experience instead of the paperwork. Our brain processes information and we observe the product. No argument’s there right? If you’re willing to accept that, then you need to consider the implications for personal identity as well.
There’s a good chance that many of the things you think of as traits that define the real you (beliefs, behaviors, preferences, etc.), are actually determined by the characteristics of your brain processing. The “real you” is still involved because the information would be meaningless without the observer, but your true nature can remain hidden behind the many distorting influences that are included with the data. You think you’re conservative? Nope. But your brain definitely has a way of making non-conservative ideas seem relatively unattractive, whether they “objectively” are or not. A love for cold weather might be a conditioned response to account for a heightened sensitivity to external heat, possible caused by a genetic condition. You have no choice in the matter, being an observer only to the final product, which has already been labeled.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Big questions just lead to bigger questions. It may appear that I just said free will doesn’t exist, and that our real selves are just bland observers without any form of uniqueness. Though this might be a tempting spot for nihilists to abandon ship, I don’t recommend it. Things are not nearly as bleak as they may seem. You always have choice; it just takes some work to know how. That’s exactly why we practice and study mindfulness. It helps us strip away all of the influences that corrupt our perspectives and prevent us from experiencing information without bias. We can’t avoid these factors, but we can begin to work around them once we learn to have awareness and acceptance. Only then can we become familiar with the characteristics of the observer, which is our true selves and the core of our being.