Defined by Something Larger

Introduction

To me, the point of sitting still is that it helps you see through the very idea of pushing forward; indeed, it strips you of yourself, as of a coat of armor, by leading you into a place where you’re defined by something larger.

The quote above is from The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, by Pico Iyer. This is one of a number of books published in the last decade that touts the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. 

The book is well written, but I was a little skeptical about the depth of its message until I came upon the lines quoted above. This quoted material comes after several pages about how various corporations in the United States have instituted quiet time for employees. The quote addresses the danger of seeing meditation as just one more technique to achieve a corporate or personal agenda. But I also see in it an entrance to a deeper idea.

Something Larger – The Naturalistic View
From a naturalistic view, that we are defined by something larger is simply a fact. Here are some details of this fact:

1) We are physical beings, and as physical beings we are made of the atoms of a variety of elements, most commonly oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen. With the exception of hydrogen, all of these elements were formed in the center of a giant star that exploded as a supernova more than 4.5 billion years ago. Materially, we are the dust of this ancient star; literally we are stardust.

2) As anyone, however, who has ever sifted through the ashes of a cremated person or animal knows, we are hardly to be identified by this “dust.” As a work of architecture is not only the wood, stone and glass from which it is built, but such materials arranged according to a very particular plan, so with the living. Our basic form, our physiology, and the basis of our behavior are the unfolding of a kind of plan contained in our genes. This plan was shaped and reshaped during a billion plus years of evolution.

In our common speech we are likely to talk about “our genes.” But there is no entity inside that “owns” these genes. That entity is the ephemeral effect of the genes themselves. To the extent that there is any ownership, it is the genes that own us, not the other way around.

3) Beyond the material and the genetic information, there is yet another layer of otherness to peel away – the cultural information of our languages and knowledge. We like to think that language is a tool that we use to express our highly individual thoughts and opinions. But in truth, language is no such passive instrument – it shapes our thoughts and our very ability to think. And as for “highly individual,” is it not a rare human whose thoughts and ideas transcend the general milieu of ideas floating around in his or her culture? 

Many have been convinced that our “will,” our ability to form goals and intentionally govern our life, escapes these material and cultural conditions. Perhaps, but from a naturalistic point of view, what else can an act of intention be but something that occurs in our nervous system. If so, than the raw ability to intend must be part of our genetic heritage. What it takes to actualize the full scope of possibilities provided by this raw ability, however, is most likely something that various cultures have worked out – part of our software, so to speak. Although we only develop our intentionality by actually acting intentionally, the potential to do so is part of our biological and cultural inheritance.

These then are the three main layers of that something larger, that otherness, to which we belong and by which we are defined. The first of these is the realm studied by the physical sciences, the second the biological, and the third the social sciences and the humanities. 

But our otherness goes further. We are each involved with and dependent upon a variety of other processes. These include the oxygen/carbon dioxide cycle essential to our respiration; the hydraulic cycle that provides us with fresh, desalinated water; the production and radiation of solar energy that nourishes us and gives us warmth; and the technical and economic processes by which we access our food and other things necessary for our survival.

With every breath; with every sip of water and bite of food; with every sight, sound and touch, we exchange part of our being with the larger world around us.

And as our existence is dependent on these many mega processes of nature and culture, so it is equally dependent on a variety of micro-processes inside the body – digestion, metabolism, respiration, circulation, and many others.

There is one aspect of our “individual” self that is not based on these layers of otherness – each of us has a unique narrative, a unique record of a journey through space and time. In this we can each claim a certain particularity. If we need to feel unique, then we can cling to this. But since we are all alike in having this uniqueness, how unique is that? 

In summary, from the naturalistic perspective, the self is all otherness!  But note that this statement contains two parts: the first, “the self is”: this speaks to why, for each of us, the self seems the most direct and obvious reality; the second part addresses the contingent nature of that is.

An Alternative View
As a contrast to the naturalistic view of the self, we can compare the notion of the self held by certain theists, particularly Christians. In this view, each person is a unique soul, created by God. This soul is eternal and separate from the contingency of the body and particular conditions of one’s existence on earth.

This view of the human self may be more flattering to the ego, but it is purely myth and metaphysics; empirical evidence does not support it in the least. Yet, even today our ideas of the self in the West are strongly influenced by this view. 

Something Larger – The Spiritual View
Having provided this brief survey of our otherness and contingency, I will add that I don’t think this naturalistic view is what Iyer means in his statement about being led “into a place where you’re defined by something larger.” 

To be intellectually convinced of our otherness is different from a direct experience, an inner experience, of that otherness. And it is to such a direct experience, I think, that Iyer is pointing. In an article I published here many years ago, I call this experience of otherness “communion,” and suggest that it is something that various spiritual traditions have in common. There I wrote:

By communion, I mean any kind of experiential integration of the individual being into a larger whole. The communion experience might be ephemeral or enduring; it might come as part of formal ritual or arise spontaneously. The aboriginal return to the “dream time”; the sacrament of communion in Christian Churches; the experience of Samadhi, Satori, or Nirvana of the Eastern Religions; the beatific vision of the Western mystic – are all in the gamut of the experience of communion.(1)

In the communion experience, the isness of the “self that is” is experienced in its fullness within and through the simultaneous experience of its otherness. In the various traditions this “otherness” takes on many names: Tao, God, Goddess, Brahma, the Great Spirit, Mysterium Magnum. In naturalism we usually just call it Nature or Cosmos. In all of these the otherness is the creational source, the ultimate cause of our existence.

My favorite metaphor for the relation of self and otherness is that of a wave upon the ocean. A wave has a form as it moves across the water. Yet at all times the wave is also part of the water. The wave will crash upon the shore, but the end of the wave does not diminish the ocean. Each wave is a part of the ocean, and the ocean and its waves will continue long after any particular wave breaks.

So with us. If we focus on our individuality, then we must recognize our inevitable death (or fool our self that there is an afterlife). If we focus on the great process of life of which we are a part, than we can rest assured that that which is most real about our self, the process that has engendered us, will continue long after we’re gone.

By nature (which is to say by the evolutionary process through which living organisms have been formed) we are selfish. Evolution demands that each creature seeks to survive and reproduce (though there are exceptions, such as some social insects). A natural egotism and “will to power’ is the result of this demand.

Over against natural selfishness, the spiritual traditions have emphasized humbleness, wrestling with the ego, and ultimately, selflessness. These spiritual ideals are a cultural achievement that goes against our basic nature. As it is hard to work against gravity, so it is hard to go against our instincts. That is why spiritual work is often pictured as an uphill climb.

In our secular society, religions and spiritual traditions are sometimes mocked as being illusions, and often for good reason. The point I’ve been developing here, though, is that in relation to the true nature of the self, which is contingency, otherness, and interdependence, some of these traditions may be expressing something more accurate than the common view of our secular society.

Beyond this, they also offer something that the secular society does not, which is spiritual liberation – a liberation that comes through penetrating a false understanding of the self and experiencing its true nature. But there begins a topic where words become ever less useful in conveying experience, so I won’t go further.

I’ll simply end by saying that mindfulness meditation is the most direct means I know to the inner recognition of our true nature. As Iyer suggests, this is one of the benefits of “sitting still.” 

 

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Notes:   (1) Quote from the the article Communion published here on August 8, 2017.

1 thought on “Defined by Something Larger”

  1. Thomas, I too like the wave metaphor for the relation of self to otherness. Each wave will end at the shore, but waves are a form that the ocean can’t help but make at its surface.

    You point out that “the evolutionary process through which living organisms have been formed” creates us all as selfish ‘waves’ so we can survive and reproduce. But I think it has also made us more aware of the larger ‘ocean’ that you allow. For example, many species care for their young, we humans often cooperate with each other quite easily, and we know that growing old is part of the scheme of things. I think our natural selves include a basic (though too faint) awareness of others and of the fragility of the self.

    Brock Haussamen
    38by.blog

    Reply

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