Most people identify who they are with their physical selves. This is evidenced by how obsessed we are with our bodies. It’s all well and good to take an interest in your appearance, on the grounds that your appearance is what you use to interact with the world around you. But few would deny that the pursuit of beauty has reached epidemic proportions. “Buy this new wondercream to hide those wrinkles!” screams the latest TV advertisement. Young people are constantly bombarded with impossible standards of beauty from the media and are urged to think, “This is what you must be or you are not good enough.” Middle-aged people are encouraged to mask what they are becoming by this gel, that needle, or the other operation. It’s as if the entirety of your personal worth hinges on what you look like.
You can buy into the hypnotic trance sold to you by the media and society, or you can think your way out of it by asking one simple question: “What am I?” First of all, you are not your body. Your body is a machine. It may not be made of metal, but it works on exactly the same principles. Grab any human biology textbook, look at the diagrams, and tell me that’s not a machine. Our bodies are made up of thousands of parts, each one unique in appearance and function, each one serving the whole machine, allowing you to walk, run, dance, talk, whisper, shout, look, listen, smell, pick your nose, and so on. The body is a biological machine. You feel this machine is you, because you are so intimately aware of it and connected to it. If someone kisses you or slaps you on the face, you feel this, not only on your face, but in your emotions. This way, we are lulled into thinking, “My body is me.”
The body is 70% water. Are you, then, 70%, water? If you fill the bathtub with several litres of water, would you say that you’re two thirds of the way to creating a human being? Let’s take it further. In the centre of your chest is a heart that pumps blood around your body. If your heart failed, and you received a heart transplant, are you any less you for having an organ from another person working in your body? No, you still exist. It’s no different from replacing a faulty component in a car engine. If you lose your your legs in a car accident and are in a wheelchair for the rest of your life, you still exist. In fact, a whole lot worse could happen, and you would still be here. Because the body is not you. It is the vehicle you are using to intereact with the physical world.
So, what am I? You know what I’m getting at by now. I am the awareness looking out from behind these eyes. I am the consciousness that is able to say, “I am me.” It seems so obvious to me now, and yet I’ve lived with the false understanding all my life that I am my body. “Body consciousness” seems to be the prevalent way of thinking in the world, because few people question the reality that is handed to them on a platter by the conditioning of human experience.
Okay, so I’ve identified myself as my consciousness. But what is consciousness? Is consciousness the brain? Am I still just a biological machine with the central part of me being my “grey matter”? Is self-awareness nothing more an electrical activity flowing through neurons? The atheist says, “That’s exactly how it is.” The spiritualist says, “No, we have a soul.”
To answer this dilemma, I would use the analogy of comparing the brain to the processor of a computer. Just like a brain, a computer can think. You can program a computer to perform a task, feed it data, and it will work its way through the task and produce results for you at the end. In fact, a computer can think much faster and more reliably than a human brain. It’s like a superbrain. Imagine yourself playing chess against a computer. The game is quite real, because your opponent’s thoughts are quite real. And let’s face it, unless you’re very good at chess, the computer is going to win. But here’s the thing: even though you’re playing chess with a computer, would you ever say that your computer is self-aware? Can your computer use its own volition to say to itself, “I am conscious”? No. It isn’t conscious. And this points to a very important truth that is sadly overlooked by science. Thinking and consciousness are not the same thing. (I’ve heard people use different words for these concepts, and there doesn’t seem to be any consenus. I’ve heard someone refer to “mind” and “consciousness” as the same thing, and referring to the other as “pure awareness.” For my purposes, if I refer to “mind,” I’m referring purely to physical brain-based thought. When I say “consciousness,” I’m referring to self-awareness.)
There’s no doubt that thinking is brain-based. After all, chemical substances affect how you think. Different animals, with different sizes of brains, have different levels of intelligence. People with brain damage have problems thinking correctly. All this makes the atheist rub his hands with glee and claim, “Look. You’re nothing more than a brain. Here’s the proof.” But this is only true if mind and consciousness are identified as one and the same. And the computer analogy shows they are not. Atheists don’t seem to realise that they are essentially reducing themselves to the level of robots. Robots are a facsimile of consciousness, incapable of self-awareness; we’re the real thing.
An important question to ask at this point is: “If consciousness is something that trancends brain-based thought, then does it die when the body dies?” It’s impossible to answer this question on purely rational, empirical grounds. If I say I have an immortal soul, something that transcends physical life and drifts off to who knows where after death, then how exactly do you measure and quantify that and say “Look, here is consciousness” using the science of the physical plane you’re claiming to transcend? Bit of a predicament, eh? If you’re of the strict mindset that dismisses everything outside of empirical investigation as untrue, then this is the point where some of what I say from here on will read like nonsense. You’ve decided never to believe in something you can’t grasp, even though there may be such a thing as the ungraspable. But as I see it, absense of proof does not necessarily mean proof of absense.
People commonly believe in one of two archetypes: you either have an immortal soul or you don’t. But the trouble with archetypes is that they are merely hand-me-down ideas that slip into your thinking without you realising it. I think the truth is far more amazing than the idea that the human race is a collection of disembodied souls floating around in some other realm. In choosing what to believe about the nature of consciousness, my own intuition is my guide, with rationality as its close cousin, providing clues and helping me avoid self-delusion.
When I was a Christian, I had the rather primitive understanding that when I die, my personality floats off into the ether to meet God. But if I identify my consciousness with my personality, I make another mistake. Personality is purely brain-based and this is easily provable. For instance, the personalities of teenagers are dictated by chemical changes in their bodies as they go through puberty. Alternatively, when a teenager drinks a can of Red Bull, you can watch a rapid change of personality unfold – at least temporarily. There are clear differences in the way that men differ from women in how they think, feel and act, and these differences are purely bio-chemical. Furthermore, imagine yourself shipwrecked on a desert island, completely alone. What happens to your personality when there is no one to interact with? It cannot be expressed, so it ceases to be. Yet you don’t cease to exist. I happen to like my personality (others may disagree!), and I feel quite attached to it, but I know it will undergo changes in later years, just as it has undergone changes up till now. Personality is not a constant that equates to consciousness. Science shows that there’s a lot about you that is provably physical in nature, and everything that is physical perishes. A mother who loses her teenage son in an accident will not find that same bubbly, quirky, mischeivous personality waiting for her on the other side, because all those things that made her son the person he was are physical in nature. When you die, say goodbye to your brain and everything you used it for. After death, we’re done with thought and emotion. Do you think you’ll continue to be a man or a woman, psychologically and emotionally, after you shuffle off this mortal coil? Why would you be, when everything that dictated those qualities has turned to dust?
My, doesn’t this cast a new light on our assumptions about what lies beyond death? I am left with the understanding that my awareness trancends physical reality, and yet there’s so much that I think of as me that I’ll be leaving behind. When I die, just what will I be? Because there doesn’t seem to be much left of me to be anything! The horror of this situation is simply a result of identifying who you are with the wrong thing: your personality, your ego, your sense of being a unique individual, different from everyone else around you. “But if I’m not my ego, what’s left?!” you cry. “If all I amount to when I shrug off this body is some bland, unthinking, unfeeling consciousness, then death might as well be oblivion, for all I care.”
Ah, but all is not quite as it seems. There are more pieces to this puzzle. But that’s a story for next time.
The knowledge of what we are is discovered by realising how we’ve been misdirected by our experience. We’ve been conditioned to think, “I am a human being having a spiritual experience,” when the underlying truth of it is “I am a spiritual being having a human experience.”