More (or less) will and mind


13. More (or less) will and mind

We can now venture an answer to at least one of the questions we posed when we began to look at mind and will. The detour through self-identity does not involve our entire mind. The part of our mind that controls our involuntary functions is not affected, although the feats that some adepts at meditation seem to be able to perform, such as regulating their body temperature or blocking pain impulses, show that the partitions we are talking about are not absolute. There appears to be a part of our mind that operates out of a more direct connection with consciousness as a whole. This could allow a mind to correct the erroneous identification with physical existence without “outside” intervention, so let’s explore this possibility.

The development of self-identity is in essence the rather common experience of being distracted, in which our mind stumbles onto something it finds interesting and, for a while, we focus our attention on this thing, sometimes to the exclusion of other things, even important things. It might end up being a brief excursion, or it could turn into what we might call a passion, even an obsession. Addiction is a particular kind of obsession, and it can have fatal consequences, but for the most part we manage to pursue even fanatical obsessions without entirely losing our ability to keep up the necessary minimal interaction with the world around us — family, job, etc.

The kinds of distractions we encounter in everyday life, however, are nothing compared to our mind’s initial and dramatic encounter with life. Each of us starts seeing with a particular set of eyes, feeling and grasping with a particular pair of hands. And what our mind sees, what it feels, is utterly new. Life is wondrous and experienced through a brain and body that are inextricably linked. It really is no wonder, then, that this intoxicating immersion in materialism produces a self-identity strong enough to overwhelm the more subtle bonds of unity. But while those bonds can go unnoticed or be ignored, they cannot be broken, because they are part of the fabric of reality.

No matter how far the mind stretches in creating, maintaining and expanding the self, or no matter how solid a wall of isolated individuality it builds, it remains part of the web of consciousness and connected to life as a whole. There is always a way through to this reality, because the mistake we make is to believe an illusion. The mistake does not change reality.

We would be more than ambitious to hope to identify the exact mechanism by which the mind operates simultaneously on different tracks, or partitions itself to handle different functions. Instead, we might have to settle for a loose understanding that part of our mind remains rooted in non-individualized consciousness even if what seems like a majority of its energy is diverted into self-identity and self-will. If we can start from here, then all we need to complete a plausible mechanism for the mind to get back on track is for the rooted part to come to the fore.

An obvious possibility would be for this to happen naturally. And it is rather important to acknowledge this. Since there is no actual disconnection, we don’t need to reconnect. All we need to do is stop denying reality. Our mind could at any moment awaken, as from a coma. Nonetheless, we can simply acknowledge this and leave it to happen as it may, since our entire investigation hinges on the opposite dynamic – that we “naturally” move in the opposite direction. So we must identify some development or experience that works against, or at least casts doubt on, the illusion of self.

As long as I encounter a world of objects that are different from me, other individual selves included, I reinforce my own self-identity. If, on the other hand, I have an encounter in which I experience no significant difference between me and another, or others, then either I have to deny the reality of that experience or I have to question my self-identity.

What would it mean to recognize myself in another? There could be many answers to that question, but one is enough. Compassion fits our needs, especially since we have already given it some consideration. Even in its semantic guises of “seeing through the eyes of another” or “feeling another’s pain” we can discern possibilities, because each of our sensory organs is connected to one and only one brain. Thus, to enter another’s experience, we would have to be seeing or feeling simultaneously with our mind and the mind of the other. Of course, sayings are just sayings, and this idea could be dismissed that easily. Except that we are considering exactly the possibility that consciousness is not individualized.

For sure we need more than wordplay, but we also have to accept that while logic and reasoning are excellent tools that have served us well for millennia and will continue to do so, they have their limits. As we have said, compassion, or love, is not a product of thought, and even less of will; it happens. Often enough it contradicts logic, at least the logic that recognizes individual existence.

In its most easily recognizable form, it is an experience in which you are unable to recognize any essential difference between yourself and someone with a significant need. Another’s pain or need presents itself immediately to you. It might occur to you that only meaningless circumstances, accidents of birth and experience, separate the two of you. You might realize that the person you though of as other has as much right to claim anything in your life as you do, because his or her life is your life too. The power of the experience might move you to offer whatever is at your disposal, or you might back away in fright, or it might haunt you after you offer limited assistance and rationalize away your inability to do more.

The core part of this experience is that you lose your sense of self, at least for a moment. This can be a moment of profound unity, but it also can be disorienting. Most often, perhaps, it is both. The deep connection you feel through the fully conscious part of your mind is strong enough that you cannot ignore it. This experience of consciousness beyond self could in fact be revelatory, and compassion has surely led countless people to act out of a sense of universal brotherhood, if not dispense with the idea of self completely. But a self-identity built over years has strong defenses, and self-consciousness would do well to reject a non-self experience as a threat. This is worth special consideration, but first let’s look at how a mind acting out of self-will could manage non-self experiences.

Isolated incidents of compassion it could simply ignore and, eventually, forget. Done. But a persistent non-self experience or set of such experiences demands attention. Here a good example could be what we conventionally refer to as love. Not the more diffuse love of affection, which can easily be cast in a subject-object relationship, but the more concentrated experience of erotic love.

Sexual union is one of the most intense experiences people come across on a regular basis in the ordinary course of life. I think anyone who has made love to a partner they genuinely cared for can validate the sense of oneness beyond the obviously physical aspect of this union. And perhaps there is nothing more unifying in our world than a sperm and egg annihilating their individual existences to create a new being. But, as with compassion, we are talking about experience here, not ideas, so the loss of self involved in this most intimate of physical interactions can be validated only subjectively.

At any rate, the point of interest is how a mind steeped in self-will deals with this situation. The handy escape of ignoring or forgetting something so intimate, something that is not a chance, momentary encounter, is not available, or much less readily if it is. It can, however, be treated as a very special case, a semi-mystical aberration. We could reinforce this escape route by affirming its uniqueness in a way that moves it even more into the realm of the mystical or religious. Every culture and religion I can think of has done just this. Marriage has performed the task admirably well. It is something extraordinary, holy, willed by God even. It is part of a grand plan. It needs to be set off from the realm of everyday experience. All of this serves to discourage us from applying any real sense of unity we might gain through sexual union to life in general.

Nowadays, of course, marriage is not what it used to be in many places, and sexual relations are more haphazard. But I think sexual union retains its status as an exception to our ordinary way of relating to others. Where it does not, the pleasure of sexual recreation might simply have replaced the depth experience of sexual union.

Another case would be the bond between parent and child, or among siblings, or with “soul mates.” Without spending a lot of time on the matter, I think we can acknowledge that we treat these relationships as special. And the point being made is that splitting off our less-common experiences of extreme closeness — verging on or spilling over into union — as “different” makes it easier to ignore their subversively unitary nature. The more common detached relationships or relational experiences (not every encounter with a “significant other” is unifying) can carry the day and reinforce our illusion of individuality.

So there are ways that consciousness can break through and challenge self-identity. Consciousness can triumph, and we can reclaim our true identity as life itself, but self-will is quite capable of deflecting even the most persistent of these challenges. And it does so with all the blessings of religion and society.

The mind whose behavior we are describing in bits and pieces is enigmatic, as we expected. But we must not forget that we are looking at things from an evolutionary viewpoint, in which the human mind is a relatively recent phenomenon that we are still learning how to use. It is not a finished product and was not designed from a master blueprint that has been checked and double-checked by a host of experts. It is an amazing development in life’s materialization, but there is no reason not to think that a few bugs need to be sorted out.

Nonetheless, we should see if we could cobble together our thoughts on the subject thus far. Mind is the interface between consciousness — life’s distributed awareness, ultimately of itself — and a biological unit that serves as a vehicle for consciousness. The localized, physical part of that interface is the brain. Life is the energy that powers this machinery.

At some point in life’s advance from the first single-cell copying machines to larger entities with more complicated programming, control mechanisms became sophisticated enough for us to call them brains. Rudimentary consciousness made its appearance as brains developed the complexity to support it. Then, as brains went beyond calculating and directing reactions, to analyzing and making strategic decisions, as consciousness began to manifest in individualistic, non-mechanical ways, an implicit awareness of individual existence arose. Decision-making centers formed, expressing themselves as will.

Some species have gone much further, and humans (but perhaps a few other species as well) have developing very advanced abilities such as language and abstract thought. Certainly the human brain has developed to the point that a human mind can clearly distinguish between an “inner” world of perceptions and thoughts linked directly to the body it operates through, and an outer world. This, of course, is the advent of self-consciousness, which expresses itself as self-will.

If these transitions seem hazy, it is because they are – hazy and gradual. But they proceed in one evolutionary direction. Mind is hazier. It is life energy mixed with will, the immanent whole with a particular incarnation of itself, an incarnation with a consciousness advanced enough to complete the circle. The unscripted, evolutionary nature of this incarnation along with the infinite combinations of genes and circumstances, and the mental processes they enable in individual brains, provide a solid basis for the emergence of free, or at least unpredictable, will. But something even more fundamental is at work.

Mind appears to have a hybrid nature. Consciousness and will both exert controlling influences in what seems a shifting arrangement, with will wandering between concentric alignment with consciousness and an outer circumference of independent expression as self-will. Consciousness, self-awareness of the unitary impulse of life, is by its nature not localized. It contributes a constant, non-individualistic influence through the mind, but this influence does not have the focused, immediate impact of self-will. Additionally, self-will is uniquely related to the brain that hosts it, whereas consciousness is more a field in which conscious beings operate. As a result, self-will can easily assert itself, though not absolutely and with no significant immediate effect on consciousness, which continues “in the background.”

This dynamic relationship gives mind fluid characteristics while providing the necessary continuous link with the unity of life. Mind inhabits a continuum that ranges from collective consciousness to the purely individual. Naturally, the assertion of self-will reinforces self-identity, while the alignment of will with consciousness has the opposite effect, the self identifying with the whole. I think, though, that we should deal with some lingering doubts by asking whether it is taking things too far to suggest that a mind would actively and continually deny reality, and expend all the energy needed to maintain a false self. To answer that, we need to return to that most uncomfortable of subjects.

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