I don’t exist.
Neither do you.
To put it in less confrontational terms, the thing that most of us in the Western world relate to as the “self” is an illusion. And we refer to it repeatedly without thinking about what that “self” really is.
I don’t have a lot of deep experience with Buddhist dharma, so I can’t say if their take on this is the same as mine. I’ve read about the experience of some who meditate, and they eventually reach a point where they say something like the boundary between themselves and the rest of the universe fell away, and they see their bodies as just part of a continuum of existence that encompasses everything. Occasionally, they just see everything as made of light. Sometimes, that is what Enlightenment means; other times, it means they lighten up and stop taking everything so damn seriously. Preferably both.
I mean those thing, yes, but also something else.
What are you? What am I? Is it this collection of atoms that we think of our body? Well, where is the boundary of that? Is it the place where the outermost molecule of our skin touches a molecule of air (or water, if you’re sweating or swimming?) Well then, what about the things you eat and drink? Is it part of you as soon as you close your mouth? Or not until it is in your stomach? Or absorbed by your intestines?
Well, let’s say you drink some water. It gets absorbed into your blood stream, then excreted by your kidneys. Eventually, it’s gone again. It was not part of you, then part of your blood, and then gone again. That water is not you. The same happens with every atom and molecule of your body. They are just temporary visitors. They are not “you”.
So maybe we are a pattern of molecules, ever changing, but still basically the same shape and form. Like a wave in a stream, where water splashes over rocks; the water is constantly changing, but we can still point to the wave and say, “There it is.”
We’re not just molecules, though. When we die, most of the molecules are usually still there, in mostly the same place. But even most atheists would agree that the “self” isn’t quite the same at that point. The “you” or “I” -ness of it is gone. Call it what you like: spirit, soul, personality, consciousness.
At least part of it boils down to electrical currents flowing through neurons. Stop that, and we are gone. Stop the electrical current to the heart, and the blood stops flowing. Nutrients and oxygen stops being delivered to the cells. Their limited stores of energy run down in mere minutes. The nano-machinery in our mitochondria can no longer pack phosphates onto adenosine. Electrons can no longer be stripped from atoms to form ions, and sent careening down a tendril of a nerve to kick the next reaction into motion. All the interconnected neurons are a beautiful, encoded pattern, but they just don’t do anything anymore. Again like the stream: if the water stops moving, there is no more wave. So where is the “self” now?
All this is true, too, but it’s still not the entirety of what I mean.
I notice this: when I am around a certain old friend of mine from high school, I say and do things I wouldn’t otherwise. Part of that is because of experiences we have shared. Part of it is because of things we both can relate to, out of separate but similar experiences: My mother was an alcoholic, for instance, and though I don’t know exactly what the case was with his, I know his childhood wasn’t that great, either. And I know he’s not going to judge me for some things that others would. But also, I know he has certain expectations of me, as well.
I’m a little different on tumblr than I am in person. A lot, maybe? I don’t know. I’ll let you decide that for yourselves.
I am definitely different with my son than I am before he came along. Having him to protect and raise and teach about the world gives me a definite purpose. I am more assertive, when it comes to things that could affect him. If it’s just me, I don’t put up as much of a fuss over things if they don’t go the way I wanted. And when it comes to setting goals and so forth, I am distinctly more motivated when he is involved; I’ve ridden my bike more since he started wanting to ride together a week ago than I ever did on my own, though I got it months ago. Similarly, I have lists of things to do that have been lingering for months, but if something comes up with a friend on tumblr that they need my help, it’ll often jumpstart me into action.
I don’t exist. Neither do you.
What does exist, it seems like to me, is the web of interactions. I think about what you expect of me, and you think about what I expect of you. I say something, and it triggers a memory in you, and you react—maybe consciously, or maybe not. Doesn’t matter, because soon I’m reacting then you are again then I am yet again. If someone drops out of your life, or changes their role in it, you lose a part of your “self”. And a new part takes its place.
There’s this cultural undercurrent in most contemporary Western thought that glorifies the individual. It says that you’re grown up once you’re independent. Being dependent on others is bad. And each person should be allowed to make whatever choices they think best. “It’s my body. I can do what I want with it!” And we should “want” someone instead of “need” them.
I tend to think there is something beyond that. There is something emotionally and experientially healthier that being independent and “self-actualized”.
Maybe I’m writing all this just to justify the fact that I don’t have much motivation to get anything done on my own, just for myself. Maybe.
But even if I am, I believe that highest state a human being can achieve is not independence, but interdependence—belonging: to a couple, a family, a citizenry, and a civilization. I think a human being needs that belonging. We need to matter to others, and have people who matter to us. We need a place and a way where we make a difference.
And I think that’s why life in America today is full of so many unhappy people, trying to figure out what they want and how to get it for themselves, as if that will make them happy. No. Figure out what someone else wants, or needs, or what would just make their day. Get it for them, do it for them, for no good reason other than that they are human and part of your world.
Without you, I do not exist. There’s a pile of shifting atoms here with some electrical fields moving around, but that’s it. Without me, you do not exist.
But together, we get to give each other form. We get to point to the boundaries and say, “Oh, there you are!” I need you. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s kind of beautiful. It’s human.