Connecting the dots on the self

Over the past few years, I have been fortunate to read a good number of books, and sometimes to connect the dots among some of them, as much as they came from different writers, experiences, and historical periods. Here are three that, I believe, are about essentially the same central idea:

  • René Guénon, Man and his Becoming according to the Vedanta (originally published in 1925);
  • Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966);
  • Sam Harris, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (2014).

The central concept is perhaps most vividly expressed in the Alan Watts book (see a good Brainpickings summary here):

We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms. Most of us have the sensation that “I myself” is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body — a center which “confronts” an “external” world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. “I came into this world.” “You must face reality.” “The conquest of nature.”

This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.

Alan Watts, a Brit, was a lapsed Episcopal priest and lifelong student of Zen Buddhism who transplanted himself to California in the 1950s. He wrote one of the first bestselling books on Buddhism, The Way of Zen (1957), but was also influenced by Hindu scriptures, especially Vedanta, and Chinese philosophy. He came in contact with many figures in the Human Potential movement and earned a large followership through a weekly program on a Berkeley radio station. He lived his later years between a houseboat in Sausalito and a cabin on Mt. Tamalpais.

René Guénon, born in central France, became acquainted with Hinduism and Taoism in his student days in Paris; in the early 1910s he embraced Islam and was initiated into Islamic esoterism, taking the name Sheikh ‘Abd al-Wahid Yahya. He researched and published extensively on Eastern doctrines, becoming one of the first Westerners to popularize the darshanas, or “visions”, of Hindu philosophy and devoting a seminal text to Vedanta darshana, the most metaphysical of them all. In 1930 Guénon moved to Cairo, where he joined a Sufi order and lived for the rest of his life.

Sam Harris is a living author from California, so I’ll leave it to his publisher: Sam Harris is the author of five New York Times bestsellers […]. The End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. His writing and public lectures cover a wide range of topics—neuroscience, moral philosophy, religion, spirituality, violence, human reasoning—but generally focus on how a growing understanding of ourselves and the world is changing our sense of how we should live. 

The Book, by Alan Watts, is challenging and accessible at the same time, and I highly recommend it. It is a delight to read and poses a true conundrum to the reader, especially at a time – like today; I am writing barely two weeks after the terrorists attacks in Paris – when separateness spikes up, and none of us can imagine being leaves from the same tree as the perpetrators. And yet it offers me a lesson – the self is illusory – so important, and so radically different from everything else I might think about what I am, that, if I could learn it, it would provide me with all the empathy and the humility that no worldly doctrine or practice has yet been able to teach me.

Guénon’s book on Vedanta is dense, obscure and technical; I only recommend it if you’ve had at least a crash course in traditional Indian philosophies, as his attempt to decipher the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras relies on the reader mastering at least their basic vocabulary. Nevertheless, if you find an edition with good explanatory notes, it can be deeply rewarding – and it is plausible to me that at the core of Guénon’s reading of Vedanta there is the same insight that, forty years later, compelled Watts’s book.

Harris’s Waking up suffers from a few idiosyncrasies (for example, he seems to have quite enjoyed a number of brain-damaging drugs in verifying that they would indeed open the doors of perception) and spends too many pages quibbling with phenomena of marginal interest, such as near-death experiences. The author acknowledges his debt to Advaita Vedanta and to Poonja-ji, the teacher he practiced with. But the spiritual path he has found most rewarding is a different one, which is little known in the West, and seems irresistibly seductive. Dzogchen, a stream of Tibetan Buddhism, offers – in contrast to the many “paths of gradual ascent”, whereby a student adopts a practice like meditation for years or decades – a “path of sudden realization”, where a qualified teacher may precipitate an insight such that the pupil may “take the goal as the path”, experiencing the intrinsic selflessness of awareness in every moment: “the freedom from self that one might otherwise seek is the very thing that one practices.” No wonder our Western minds struggle. The author himself admits that, at his level of practice, the freedom from suffering allowed by the sudden insight of non-duality lasts only a few moments, although these moments can be repeated, and “punctuating ordinary experience in this way makes all the difference”. If you are a seeker, this may not be the solution for you or even your cup of tea (to the extent that “you” perceive yourself as a separate self). Still, Waking up is a worthwhile read if you are willing to be open-minded, to challenge your view of the world, and to glimpse what a different experience of reality might feel like.