the self
The Last True Hermit

The Last True Hermit tells the story of Christopher Knight, a man who spend twenty-seven years living in complete isolation in the woods of Central Marine.

Knight survived for all that time, through the harsh Maine winters, by stealing food, clothing and supplies from camps and houses nearby, a practice which eventually led to his capture when the local police chief rigged a nearby camp with a silent alarm.

The entire story is absolutely fascinating (do yourself a favour and read the whole thing), but the part that most caught my eye comes near the end. Michael Finkel, the report who wrote the piece, presses Christoper to share his insights; what did he learn after spending almost thirty years alone? Surely he must have gained some kind of unique perspective on the human condition after living for so long in a way that few other human beings have ever lived:

Chris became surprisingly introspective. “I did examine myself,” he said. “Solitude did increase my perception. But here’s the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn’t even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.”

It’s surely impossible to imagine solitude on the scale that Christoper experienced it, but this description powerfully brought to mind my experiences of meditation. The feeling of “just being there, without the need to define myself,” is one I’ve experienced many times during meditation and which is difficult to maintain when in the presence of others.

Perhaps that’s what Christoper had been seeking when he’d decide to walk alone into the woods 27 years ago. A space where he could just be.

Who Am I?

There’s been a lot of talk about the nature of the self here, but perhaps none of it has been presented more beautifully than in this video from The School of Life. Do yourself a favour, make yourself comfortable, and hit play. Mind-blowingly good.

"The first step towards self knowledge is being able to laugh at yourself."
The Subtle Power Of Changing Your Identity

I’ve written her many times about the illusory nature of the self. About how we think of our personalities as these fixed, permanent things, when in fact we’re just a string of choices and habits, threaded together by a story we tell ourselves. Many people feel a little disheartened to be described ini this way, but for me, it highlights how limitless our potential for change and growth is at every moment.

That’s the theme of Leo Babauta’s latest piece for Zen Habits on changing your identity.

One of the most powerful switches I ever made when changing my entire life was switching up my identity.

And while I never did it overnight, I successfully did it in multiple areas:

I changed from a smoker to a non-smoker — and once I did, I stopped thinking of smoking as something to do when I was stressed.

I went from meat-eater to vegetarian (and later to vegan). It literally took meat off the menu for me, so that I didn’t even consider eating it.

I thought of myself as a marathoner. Later, as just someone who exercises regularly to stay fit and healthy. It meant that there was no question I was going to exercise, even if I fell out of it for a bit because of disruptions.

Leo breaks down how he was able to make these changes and even some of the potential pitfalls of changing the way you look at yourself, but there’s no question that taking the opportunity to look at yourself in a new way can be life changing.

You Probably Don’t Exist

What is at the centre of consciousness? Where is the thinking, choosing, acting part of ourselves that we call “I”? Our sense of identity is so close, so fundamental, that most people will go their entire lives without even thinking to question it.

But that’s exactly what Exurb1a does in this fascinating (and hilarious) video on the true nature of the self. If you’ve got eight spare minutes, and feel like triggering a quick existential crisis, look no further.

Catching Sight Of Your Self.

How much do our senses tell us about the world? Well, we already know that there’s a lot they miss. Infra-red and ultraviolet light, ultrasonic waves, and a host of tastes and smells that our animals friends can detect, are imperceptible to us.

But even the things we can see, hear and feel can’t necessarily be trusted. As much as it may seem like it, our senses don’t give us an objective, unfiltered view of the world. What we perceive is simply our brain’s best guess of what’s going on around us based on past experience, our current emotional state, and plain old fashioned guesswork.

This is beautifully pointed out in this piece by Anil Seth on the nature of the self (emphasis mine).

The story emerging from a rich blend of philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience is that the self is not ‘that which does the perceiving’. Instead, the self is a perception too. Or rather, it is a collection of related perceptions. Experiences of the world, and of the self, are created by the brain following a common principle – a principle of ‘best guessing’, or what we might call ‘controlled hallucination’.

The bedrock idea is simple. Raw sensory signals are ambiguous and unlabelled. Although they reflect really-existing properties of the world, they do so only indirectly. The eyes are not transparent windows from a self out onto a world, nor are the ears, nor are any of our senses. The perceptual world we encounter – a world full of well-defined objects with various properties like shape and colour – is created by the brain through a process of inference, of under-the-hood neurally-implemented probabilistic guesswork. When I see a red coffee mug on the table in front of me, this is because ‘red coffee mug’ is the brain’s best guess of the hidden and ultimately unknowable causes of the corresponding sensory signals. When I experience the glow of a sunset, or the sharp taste of an adventurous cheese, that too is a perceptual best-guess. We never experience sensory signals ‘in-the-raw’. Every experience is an interpretation, a construction.

You Are Not A Thing.

It’s tempting to think of yourself as a thing. After all, the world is full of them. Everywhere you look, everywhere you go, they bombard you with their thing-ness. With their separateness and definability. Trees and rocks and cars and buildings and countries and rules. There’s no getting away from them. When you’re surrounded by…continue reading on Medium…
What is consciousness?

Speaking of the way we perceive reality, this video by Michael Graziano delves into the topic of how our brains create our models of the world and ourselves.

…one recent theory is that consciousness is the brain’s imperfect picture of its own activity. To understand his theory, it helps to have a clear idea of one important way the brain processes information from our senses.

Based on sensory input, it builds models, which are continuously updating simplified descriptions of objects and events in the world. Everything know is based on these models. They never capture every detail of the things they describe, just enough for the brain to determine appropriate responses…

…our certainty that have a metaphysical, subjective experience, may come from one of the brain’s models. A cut-corner description of what it means to process information in a focused and deep manner.

Reality Is Not What It Seems – and Neither Are You.

To say “it’s easy to overlook the fact that our perception isn’t the same as reality,” is perhaps the greatest understatement of all time. It’s almost impossible not to overlook it. Not overlooking it takes dedicated effort which still only allows us to overlook it for brief periods.

Everything we experience, from sounds, to smells, to the words on this screen, even the feeling that we are a single cohesive self, is a construction of the mind. An attempt to make sense of an influx of various vibrations and energy frequencies. This article by Anil Seth captures the idea with an eloquence I’ve not seen before:

…imagine being a brain. There you are, locked inside the bony vault of the skull, trying to figure out what’s out there in the world. There’s no light in the skull; there’s no sound either. It’s completely dark and it’s utterly silent. Your eyes and your ears just deliver streams of electrical signals to the brain.

These signals don’t come with labels attached – “I’m from a cat! I’m from a coffee cup!” – they are just electrical signals, signals which do not themselves have any shape, color, or sound. Therefore, in order to figure out what’s out there in the world, the brain has to combine these ambiguous sensory signals with some prior “expectations” or “predictions” about the way the world is. And that’s what we perceive – the brain’s “best guess” of the causes of its sensory signals.

An Open Letter To The Woke.

Forgive me for beginning so abruptly, but what you’re most confused about is who you are. This isn’t an attack, just a fact. I mean go ahead, who are you? Can you express it in words? Exactly. You have a name and family. Maybe you have a job. You look a certain way. Your genitals…continue reading on Medium…
Why our senses are fine-tuned for utility, not for ‘reality’.

Cognitive neuroscientist Anil Seth on the gap between conscious experience and objective reality:

…I’m also not saying that everything is in the mind. I think this is an important qualification or distinction. ‘There is an objective reality out there, at least as far as I know. But it’s how that reality appears in pour experience which is always a construction.

Watching the conversion of meditative and scientific views of perception is really exciting.