We are a culture on the surface brimming with success, achievement, stability, and unity, but should one peel back the thin film and enquire past the everyday social etiquette, one will find an undercurrent of deep-seated alienation, despair and existential angst lying just under the surface of our social awareness. Whence does this melancholy zeitgeist originate from? Why is our society so profoundly attached to the behavior of accruing material? Why do we view our world as alien and foreign?
I believe the answer to this problem lies in two myths that inform our perception of the reality we live in, and in an understanding of the Western notion of ego and selfhood. Alan Watts called these myths the “Ceramic Model” and the “Fully Automatic Model” of the universe, and for convenience and as an ode to a great mind, I will use his terms henceforth. Before going any further, however, I’ll clarify what in what context I’m using the word “myth”. Now in everyday vernacular, a myth refers to a simple falsehood or a lie. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m defining a myth as “a story or tale with which we give meaning to our existence.”
First to the Ceramic model of our cosmos. This worldview is intimately linked with and derived from, the father God figures of Middle Eastern monotheism, and the political idea of God as a king of kings, lord of lords. In Genesis, it is said that God made Adam from clay, and breathed life into his non-living form. God is seen as a potter, the “inFORMer” of form, a maker of things, a creator, and as such those who subscribe to this model of the universe view reality as a collection of “things”, or stuff. From this notion comes the idea that we, as human beings, are foreign in this universe and owe our existence to the whim of a divine organism far greater than ourselves. It also presupposes that matter, or reality, is made up of definite chunks of “stuff”, and that the creator has imposed laws on this “stuff” that regulates its behavior.
Now sometime in the last few centuries, the idea of a fatherly God fell out of favor, particularly among scientists. They realized that the God hypothesis was, in fact, null, and had no explanatory value, however, they kept the idea of natural laws. Laws in this sense refer not to absolutes, but rather observed regularities in the behavior of certain phenomena. There is a curious “put down” philosophy inherent in this worldview, and you will find that most science from this period refers to the universe as “blind, dumb matter” and looks to man’s existence as a separate, accidental and meaningless phenomenon. We can refer to this worldview as the “Fully Automatic” model of the universe.
Now, this may be true, but there are some things we know about our universe and that we can infer from our observation of it that seem to nullify this idea to an extent.
We know now from our study of physics that what we call “stuff” is in essence just, the reality out of focus. Increase your magnification enough on a tree or a rock and you will find that it is composed of smaller “stuff”, atoms and quarks and the like. Perhaps there is no end to the level of magnification we can produce, and perhaps we shall find that there is, in fact, no smallest unit of matter. So physicists have taken to referring to reality as more like patterns than distinct, indivisible blocks of matter.
Physicists noticed that in order to accurately describe the behavior of an object, they had to describe in detail its environment.
We can also look to ecology, which shows a similar rule, that an organism is inextricably related to its environment and cannot be described except in terms of its surroundings.
So with this information, we can begin to see the universe as a process, of which we are as much a part of as the earth, the sun, or the smallest blade of grass. We can see that we are defined in terms of our environment, that we cannot be defined in its absence. Interrelation and continuity are fundamental to the nature of the cosmos.
The issue in Western culture is that the two myths above dominate our common sense understanding of reality. Both myths assume that man is separate from the external world, and both fail to note the interconnectedness between the organism and its environment, and even the connectedness of larger scale systems such as solar systems and galaxies.
So we can see that our ideas of selfhood and ego in the West are intimately linked with these two ontologies. There is an over-identification with the personal ego coupled with an ignorance surrounding current developments in science, and this leads us to the idea that we are, in our entirety, something of a somewhat somewhere behind our eyes that ends at the extremities of our skin.
Let’s go into this a little further. What are the implications of our having such a narrowly defined self-image?
First and foremost, we can see reflected in our speech the basic assumptions of this worldview. We say “Face reality”, as if it were something entirely separate, “I had an encounter with reality” as if the “I” being referred to is somehow divorced from the whole process. We look at the external world and wonder “what’s it going to do to me, and how can I stop it?!”
Our industrial enterprises and a significant proportion of our behavior revolve around subjugating or “conquering” reality. We are slowly but surely erasing our source of oxygen, our extended lungs, in the deforestation of the Amazon and the plundering of our old growth forests. This is an unsustainable attitude and one that leads to enormous discrepancies in wealth and living conditions, not to mention a profoundly damaging effect on our ecosystem. We are not conceptualizing reality in a way where the impetus is to live in a state of intelligent co-operation with our environment.
In our interactions with other human beings, this notion of selfhood handicaps our ability to empathize with our fellow man. We see him or her as foreign, and as such we are slow to come to the realization that he or she experiences life in much the same way we do, with similar wants, identical needs and an emotional range that matches our own. This focus on individualism legitimizes, in a sense, social conduct based on personal gain at the expense of others, and we see this reflected in our business culture and in our large-scale interactions with other nations.
So you see that fear is inherent in this concept of reality and the self. We fear our environment and go to extreme lengths to pacify it. We fear each other, and as such we erect mechanisms of defense to protect our vulnerable egos.
Now, this idea of the self is tightly bound to our culture, and to the two aforementioned myths. In eastern cultures, many people locate the sensation of “I, myself” in the center of their chest so we can see that the concept of what constitutes the self is culturally relative. We can also ask the question, “where does the I end, and the other begin?”. As we saw earlier, what we think of as separate objects are simply reality out of focus, and that the energy or “stuff” that makes up what we are at a fundamental level is the same energy that was the big bang, the galaxies and the stars, and that this energy is never static.
Take a whirlpool for example. We’ve all walked past a stream or a river and noticed one, and then come back some days, weeks or even years later to find that the whirlpool is in the same place, and looks much as it ever did. However, if we look closer, we see that what constitutes the whirlpool is in a constant state of change and renewal. The water passing through is never the same water twice and in much the same way the energy, the minute particles that makeup what we are as human organisms are constantly being replaced and changed. So we see that we are continuing with our environment in a purely physical sense.
So where does the “I” end? We can say at the extremities of our skin, but as we’ve seen this seems to ignore some basic aspects of reality. So perhaps we can say more accurately that “I” is all that is.
You are you because of everything else, and although you have an individual ego and a personality, and can only perceive reality through your senses, you are as much everything else as you are that.
Now the question we can ask at this point is, if so, what are we going to do about it?
I think the answer to that lies in a shift in our ontology to a more cohesive and accurate view of reality, and our place in it. Recognizing that “I am that”, as the Hindus put it, shifts the focus from individual competition and survival, to collectivism and harmony with our environment. It removes the imperative to conquer the external world, as one sees that this is really a form of violence, not only to something outside of us but because of our interconnectedness, to our individual selves as well. Having a strong sense of this unity should inform our behavior in a way that is conducive to compassionate action, love, reason, and empathy.