28. You Didn't Make It, But You Have To Eat It
Q: Hi Robert. How does the knowledge that you are not an independent self manifest in your actual experience? Can you please say more about that, or is it a change in perception about which little can be said?
A: Ask yourself this: When I speak, where do the words come from? The ultimate source of words is of course a complete mystery. Anyone who claims to know that source is likely hopelessly indoctrinated, or a scoundrel. But short of ultimate matters, strictly in a relative sense, where do my words, both speech and writing, originate?
Words come from language that I learned by imitation as a child and keep on learning even now from other people’s words. So “my” words are really not mine, but words I have heard and now repeat. Words circulate. They are passed around as shared objects, not actually originating in any individual mind, but held commonly in the human mind. If that is seen, it’s only a short step to noticing that ideas circulate in the same manner—ideas are passed around as shared objects—so that thoughts involving those ideas are not at bottom my thoughts either, even if they seem to be. Once you see that, the “independent self” no longer seems so independent, does it?
For many of us, “myself” means the body along with whatever feelings and thoughts arise habitually — particularly the kinds of thoughts called memories. I may be accustomed to calling those thoughts and feelings “mine,” but are they? I don’t make them, nor do I choose them. They arise on their own, spontaneously coming to awareness whether I want them to or not. When I say “awareness,” I mean an instantaneous, automatic knowing without any trying to know. If you doubt this, just sit quietly for a few minutes and observe the stream of consciousness without either trying to think anything or trying not to. You will soon see what I mean.
Nevertheless, for many of us, as thoughts and feelings bubble up naturally and unbidden, a “me” quickly takes credit—or blames itself—for them, as if a self-directed, self-governing, autonomous myself somehow produced and controlled thoughts and feelings moment by moment, choosing and deciding what to think and feel, and what not to think or feel.
This assumption of credit or culpability happens so quickly and so seamlessly that many of us never even notice it. But if the habit of taking responsibility for what was never chosen in the first place is taken for granted and left unquestioned, then the praiseworthy, blameworthy me that you are calling an “independent self,” will appear to be not just a fact, but the central fact of this aliveness — this be-ing — we call “my life.” The independent self is not a fact, I say, but a figment — a socially implanted idea, a straw man who only seems to have free will enough to deserve either praise or blame.
By way of illustration, imagine a typical “good Christian” who finds himself fantasizing about sex with a stranger he passes perchance in the park. He is likely to feel ashamed of the sin of lust, and the “adultery in his heart”—and all the more if the stranger happens to be another man. He will feel guilty, as if those fantasies, which arose inadvertently and unbidden, had been his choice, and therefore his responsibility as their chooser. But that man never decided to have sexual thoughts and feelings; they just appeared. All of that comes upon us like fate. You feel what you feel when you feel it.
No one is to blame for any of this, and no one deserves credit either. In each moment, what is, is, including “myself,” and cannot be otherwise. Society, which thrives on controlling its members, hates that idea, but that does not make it any less true. This does not imply carte blanche with regard to the behaviors society will tolerate legally, but that is another question entirely.
What is, is, and cannot be otherwise. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles. You can eat the cookie — in fact you have no choice but to eat the cookie — but you did not make the cookie. The ingredients for the cookie don’t come from “you.” They come from everywhere.
Just remember this: I did not make it, but I have to eat it.