Alan Watts often said that what people are looking for in Eastern spiritual practice was a transformation in how they see themselves and in their feeling about who they are. He and Krishnamurti as well as some of today’s neuroscientists see our use of language creating a filter that interferes with personal evolution.
The use of language binds us to time. It takes time to express a thought, time to read a book, time to think through an argument on an issue. Our sense of our self is a story in time with a sequence of ‘before’s and ‘after’s . We believe we have a beginning at birth and an ending at death and we narrate much of the time in between.
Description puts passing events into a culture-based code. Judgments arising from cultural norms attach themselves to the narration. The usefulness of the code, enabling us to remember and to plan, seduces us into accepting it as reality. The story includes felt grievances and worries, which torment us with remorse and disappointment. Many live most of their lives in the descriptions. When our story dominates, the living present, recedes into the background. At its most controlling, the narration takes the place of reality and we treat our concepts as unchangeable absolutes that twist relations with immediate experience. When we feel oppressed by time we need to remember that the oppression is a concept in our mind. It is part of the story we tell and locks us more deeply into our description of what’s happening than in the actual moment we could be living. Self-consciousness builds with attachment to our ideal protagonist as we measure ourselves against it.
Involvement in actual experience doesn’t require a self. This is why books like “The Power of Now” are popular, because whatever is going on in the story, focus on the immediate experience has duration, an extended moment, released from time and self-consciousness. We feel relief to be freed from the cage of identity we’ve created. Animals, having no means to narrate, live in the now. The present is timeless whenever we’re in it. This is the view of mystical religions of all kinds; incarnation of the divine is in the full attention to existence free of conditioned concepts. Moksha, liberation from the socially defined view of the world, getting away from what the community says one should think and feel, must be found for oneself. It can’t be codified because it is a direct encounter with the world.
Our story is a type of self-conditioning. It includes the values of the group in which we were raised, our sense of other people’s expectations of us, and our feelings about them, where we think we’re heading, and where we’ve been. It locks us in time. Thinking about our story stimulates the emotions, even intensifying them with the judgments we’ve made on the events remembered. Pains of the past are re-experienced, desires for the future re-ignited. Yet it’s not that easy to let go. We may not realize that one reason we stay in the story is because we’re attached to it. Like a work of art, it is our own creation, so a certain amount of pride in accomplishment might be operating below the surface. We think of it as who we are and would rather not give it up, even if it makes us suffer. A program on Radio Lab referred to the story AS the self. Without the verbal narrating, the ego-self disappears.
But conscious awareness does not. Neuroscientist, Jill Bolte Taylor notes that narration is a left hemisphere phenomenon. When she had a stroke and the left hemisphere stopped functioning she gained access to a consciousness not contained by the story, absolutely in the here and now, and her whole sense of an individual self disappeared. She said her awareness felt bigger than her personal brain could hold.
Without the filter of the story, images and sensations flood in, and life is richer than we realize. Cultivating our visual sense is one way of loosening the hold of the autobiographical fiction we tell about ourselves. Words break things into objects and symbols, whereas images show information in terms of processes and relationships- many variables interwoven. The more that’s included the better the picture. We understand where we are in the scene and the relationships entwined with our presence. It’s a conscious cognition that apprehends meaningful connections. Investigation fills out and broadens the picture. Making decisions based on a having a bigger picture is wiser than simply having the facts and opinions. As recent research has shown, we make better decisions by intuition than by thinking and analyzing facts. In one of my favorite metaphors for intuition, John Pfeiffer (“The Human Brain”, 1955) wrote, “Intuition is like the behavior of a compass needle which, immersed in a vast and intricate magnetic field of unknown origin, simply points. “ Intuition is the guidance of visual consciousness. Your eyes tell you where to go. Look more deeply into where they linger and let the story fall away.