(This is the continuation of a series exploring the nature of the human ego in the world’s religions and science, beginning with this post.)
In modern times the nature of the human ego has also been recognized by many in scientific disciplines, in psychology and other fields. I described some of this in an earlier post, in the psychological study of cognitive development in children. But what about losing the sense of “self,” the sense of an “I”?
I wrote once before about atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris’s thoughts about Jesus and other ancients, and how he came to the realization that the insights of some of these ancients may contain “important psychological truths,” but have become corrupted and are “mere intellectual ruins” of what they originally were.
What are those psychological truths that the ancients were trying to communicate? Harris noted:
Most cultures have produced men and women who have found that certain deliberate uses of attention—meditation, yoga, prayer—can transform their perception of the world…
…contemplatives in many traditions claim to experience extraordinary depths of psychological well-being while living in isolation for vast stretches of time. How should we interpret this? Either the contemplative literature is a catalog of religious delusion, psychopathology, and deliberate fraud, or people have been having liberating insights under the name of “spirituality” and “mysticism” for millennia.
Unlike many atheists, I have spent much of my life seeking experiences of the kind that gave rise to the world’s religions…
I can attest that when one goes into silence and meditates for weeks or months at a time, doing nothing else—not speaking, reading, or writing, just making a moment-to-moment effort to observe the contents of consciousness—one has experiences that are generally unavailable to people who have not undertaken a similar practice. I believe that such states of mind have a lot to say about the nature of consciousness and the possibilities of human well-being. Leaving aside the metaphysics, mythology, and sectarian dogma, what contemplatives throughout history have discovered is that there is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves; there is an alternative to simply identifying with the next thought that pops into consciousness. And glimpsing this alternative dispels the conventional illusion of the self.
Harris notes how our well-being is often disrupted by our incessant inner talk, and identifying ourselves with that inner talk. Such identification is the ego, the “self.” Close examination of our consciousness can often reveal the ego for what it is, that such thoughts appear within consciousness, and that we are not those thoughts themselves. Identifying with our thoughts creates an illusion of self. If we can witness the thoughts arise and subside, over and over again, then we might eventually realize we are not those thoughts, and instead we perceive a profound unity with all experience. We disidentify with the ego, with that talking mind, that sense of “I,” and this can reveal a deeper unity in our conscious experience.
In a Big Think video, Harris talks about this “illusion of self,” and how the direct experience of this reality may have been the fundamental and transformative experience for many of the major world religions’ founders that led to their insights and teachings, which often became corrupted later.
Now it’s possible, I claim, and people have claimed for thousands of years, to lose this feeling [of “self” or ego], to actually have the center drop out of experience. Rather than feeling like you are on this side of things, looking in, as though you’re almost looking over your own shoulder, appropriating experience in each moment, you can just be identical to this sphere of experience. That is, all of the color and life and feeling and energy of consciousness, but there’s no sense of center.
So this is classically described as self-transcendence or ego transcendence in spiritual, mystical, new-age religious literature. It is in large measure the baby in the bathwater that religious people are afraid to throw out. If you want to take seriously the project of being like Jesus or Buddha or whatever your favorite contemplative is, self-transcendence really is at the core of the phenomenology that is described there. And what I’m saying is that it’s a real experience, it’s clearly an experience that people can have. And while it tells you nothing about the cosmos, it tells you nothing about what happened before the Big Bang, it tells you nothing about the divine origin of certain books, it doesn’t make religious dogmas any more plausible, it does tell you something about the nature of human consciousness. It tells you something about the possibilities of experience, but then again, any experience does.
People have extraordinary experiences. And the problem with religion is that people extrapolate from those experiences and make grandiose claims about the nature of the universe, but these experiences do entitle you to talk about the nature of human consciousness. And it just so happens that this experience of self-transcendence does link up with what we know about the mind through neuroscience to form a plausible connection between science and classic mysticism, classic spirituality. Because if you lose your sense of a unitary self, if you lose your sense that there’s a permanent unchanging center to consciousness, your experience of the world actually becomes more faithful to the facts. It’s not a distortion of the way we think things are at the level of the brain. It brings your experience into closer register with how we think things are.
So the experiences of self-transcendence that many of the religions describe may reveal aspects of the nature of human consciousness, the nature of the human mind, at the very least. I disagree that it tells us nothing about the cosmos, for we are a part of the cosmos, so if it tells us something about consciousness it is naturally telling us something about the cosmos too. And I do think it tells us much about the nature of religious texts and doctrines, particularly the environment in which they were written, perhaps being attempts to describe some of the phenomenology of those ineffable experiences, putting to words through symbol and metaphor the feelings and intuitions of the egoless experience, and trying to point others toward such experience. The problem in fundamentalist religion often comes from taking their words literally and not metaphorically, in taking the symbols as literal realities. Even as Harris notes, these experiences may lead to profound liberating insights about ourselves, and a way towards lasting fulfillment and well-being in our lives, just as many ancients noted (see John 10:10).
Such self-transcendence experiences may provide a “connection between science and classic mysticism/spirituality,” revealing to us truth about the way things really are (Jacob 4:13; D&C 93:24). The illusions and delusions that are often propped up by our acute sense of an ego-self can come toppling down. That revelation of truth when the ego falls away may be a large measure of its liberating insight, when the person realizes that their sense of “self” is nothing (see Isaiah 40:17; Dan. 4:35; Moses 1:10; Helaman 12:7; Mosiah 4:5, 11). All the worries, concerns, certainty, shame, guilt, neuroses, problems, trouble, pride, errors, embarrassments, sufferings, or what might otherwise be called “sins” that are all closely tied to our sense of an ego-self, and that are produced by that ego-self, all evaporate and disappear when ego consciousness is subdued or absent from brain activity. A self cannot worry if there is no self. A self cannot feel shame if there is no self to be ashamed. This may be associated with the exalted sense of forgiveness, remission of sins, salvation, and redemption that the ancients wrote about through their mystical experiences. They returned to a “nakedness” of pure, innocent, and perfect being in the egoless experience of consciousness (D&C 93:38).
Neuroscientists have begun to be able to study these experiences, to try to learn what may be happening in the brain during ego dissolution. In my next post I’ll describe one of the ways that they are researching it.
(Next post in series: The Neuroscience of Ego Dissolution and Transcendence)