Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Video of the Day: Sam Harris on the Illusion of Self

Today's video of the day is a short clip of Sam Harris talking about how neuroscience helps to reveal how what we call "self" is an illusion: the sense that there is a "center" to our experiences, that there is a self that is more or less continuous and permanent, that there is a "thinker" in addition to thoughts. These are illusions.
You can watch the video here.

I reflect briefly on this video below the jump.

One of the reasons I enjoy listening to Harris speak is that he stresses a point that many atheist writers overlook or at least downplay: that the experiences classically described as "self-transcendent," which are often (but not exclusively) experienced by the religious, are real and significant experiences. Anyone with some basic familiarity with meditation and magick will know that this is the case.
No one is denying that these experiences exist and that these experiences are important to people. What skeptics and atheists question are the interpretations that the religious make of these experiences.

If we were to try to use the Tree of Life to map what Harris is talking about, we might say that the illusory "sense of self," the illusion of being separate from the universe and being a separate being whose consciousness is a more-or-less stable and continuous "thing" corresponds to the "individual triad" (Sephiroth 7-10) and the paths that flow between them, symbolizing their influence on each other.

Having an experience where that sense of self "drops out" would be something akin to shifting attention away from the individual triad and concentrating on the actual triad (Sephiroth 4-6) and the paths the flow between them.
The first glimpse of the True Will -- the first crack in the illusion of self -- is often described in terms of self-transcendence, often accompanied with what is known as the Beatific vision (attributed to Tipareth, 6). It is a feeling of joy and wonder, where the world feels refreshed and new (because one is perceiving it for the first time without the distorting lenses through which the uninitiated individual perceives). It is often accompanied by the sense of being "one with all" or "losing the self."

Incidentally, I would not equate most of the trances people describe as "self-transcendence" with Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel (KCHGA, attributed to Tipareth), only because people tend to label a wide variety of experiences as "self-transcendence," from feelings of euphoria that result from exercise to the "peak experiences" described by Maslow to the "epiphanies" that characterize the fiction of James Joyce and so on.
KCHGA is a specific kind of self-transcendence in which one opens oneself to reality as it is. This is not meant to be mystical mumbo-jumbo. When I say "reality," I mean the real world: the physical, actual existence in which we live and move and have our (non-)being. Harris seems to be talking about something similar when he says that the state of non-self brings us closer to reality.

Consistent application makes it possible to achieve this state with some regularity (indeed, one possible definition of Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel is the ability to bring on this state more or less at will, without the rituals, trappings, and paraphernalia often necessary in the early stages of practice). But, as students of Thelema are aware, the significance of this experience is not the experience itself. The experience, by itself, teaches us nothing about metaphysics, nothing about the universe, and nothing about the "holy" or "revealed" status of certain scripture.
The experience is significant only for what it allows the individual to do next: to go out into the world and work his or her True Will. In order to do this, the magician must do more than shift attention away from the individual triad and toward the actual triad: he or she must become cognizant of the ways that the mechanism of thought distorts impressions so that the light of Tipareth may be allowed to shine through. The individual must purify the paths that connect Tipareth to the lower Sephiroth so that its light flows freely. [Forgive all the metaphors: it is necessary to speak in symbols, and it is hoped that the meaning will be clear]

So while we might define attainment or "Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel" in one sense as the ability to bring on a state of consciousness that can be attributed to Tipareth, a state of consciousness achieved by managing -- through one method or another -- to shift attention away from the distorting influences of the mind, the fullest sense of this attainment is the ability to bring that awareness back into everyday consciousness. The experience of the KCHGA state is such that it rocks the individual out of the normal patterns of thought, such that it shakes to the bone the individual's confidence in the mental pictures that normally distract the uninitiated. Repeated familiarity with the state will weaken the hold that the mental restrictions have on the individual, such that the individual, though the restrictions never entirely vanish, learns to see them clearly for what they are and perceive around them.

The work of purifying the paths from Tipareth -- work that is a prerequisite for obtaining the KCHGA experience and that is part of working the True Will in everyday life -- will be addressed in the next series of essays on the Paths on the Tree of Life.

1 comment:

  1. I think the (Buddhist) notion of anatta/anatman is under-appreciated, especially in terms of Thelema.

    Crowley referenced the Buddha's three marks a number of times and, of course, one of them was anatta ("no-self"),

    It is also said that an ipsissimus, the highest grade of the A∴A∴, is a "master of the law of insubstantiality" (anatta).

    It's pretty clear to me--as the Buddha realized-that there is no inherent self (atman), in either ourselves or any phenomena. (Though I do think there is definitely "something" in the universe, a kind of monad beyond being and non-being (what one might call Tao, or Ain Soph)--more in line with yogacarin thought than other forms of Mahayana Buddhism.)