Another page on this site, an essay I’ve entitled “Reclaiming The Self,” has gone through fourteen revisions since it started out, as I have struggled to explain -- to myself and to anyone who might read it -- some topics which came up in an unusual conversation with a few friends almost ten years ago.
The issues raised in that conversation are central to the questions of personal identity and epistemology, but until then I hadn't even thought about enunciating these views, even to myself. (In our language-based society, it’s sometimes difficult to accept the notion that it's not necessary to put words to ideas in order to act, and that words only become necessary when one needs to communicate these ideas.) Nevertheless, my "explanation" slowly evolved into what it is now: some generalizations I have been able to make about my journey into fully functional adulthood.
Writing it allowed me to verbalize systematically certain concepts which I now realize have been the ground of my reality for over twenty-five years. It focuses specifically on certain conclusions I drew, as well as the effect of my agreement with those conclusions. These concepts are based on six short sentences I heard one night in January, 1952: “You are, within yourself, the world. You are, within yourself, the space-time continuum. Now, you asked me, ‘Was there a difference?’ There probably was. I made my world different. I changed it.” (First Session: January 20, 1952). It took me twenty years to finally really understand that what I had heard in 1952 was then, and is now, precisely true. I thereby accomplished a major shift in the way I viewed the world and myself as well as how I perceived the relationship between the two.
The event precipitating this shift was profoundly traumatic. For about an hour, late one night in 1972, my wife told me, in exquisite detail, what her interior life had come to contain -- she saw life as essentially without purpose, and she was convinced that she was irrevocably stuck in this state, with no way out. In short, she believed she had “gone crazy.” Actually, her previously unrealized chronic anxiety, stemming from her earliest childhood, had been building for some time and had finally manifested. She had been quite skilled at masking its symptoms, however, and until then I'd been oblivious. But now, utterly panicked (I had known none of this before that instant), I mumbled some vague words of reassurance to her and she rolled over and went to sleep.
Not I. What had, up to that instant, seemed a typical domestic relationship - four kids, a good job in a small Midwestern town, and (most significantly for me) a devoted wife who had looked after me for the past fifteen years -- now was revealed as a yawning abyss. I lay there all night, wide awake, staring into blackness, both literal and metaphysical. Where had I gone wrong? Why weren't things working the way they were supposed to?
Sometime before dawn I ran out of thought. Dead stop.
Then, without warning, I suddenly revisited, perhaps only for an instant, the complex of feelings and emotions which made up the moment of my birth, forty years before: a month premature, born without a discernible heartbeat or breathing reflex, in the midst of a seizure induced by my mother's eclampsia. In those days, therapeutic response to this was, at best, primitive. I was dunked, alternately, into basins of hot and cold water until my autonomic nervous system was sufficiently stimulated - "kickstarted" so to speak - to begin heartbeat and respiration. Thus my conviction that my life thereafter was other peoples' responsibility. It abruptly became clear to me that my most basic assumptions about “how things work” must be fatally flawed. I was in despair - either I could change or I could die, and I didn’t think I knew how to change.
Then, without conscious volition of any sort, I began shedding all agreement -- every agreement I had ever made with every aspect of my environment, from conception onward. I don't know of any other way to describe the phenomenon, other than to say that my psychic clothing; that is, every concept that I had ever placed value on, was just dropping away. And, when that last and most fundamental premise - that I was somehow the responsibility of others - dropped away, I was reduced to pure awareness. I no longer had any selfhood or identity; that is, although I was no longer the effect of others' effort, I had not yet elected to become an independent cause.
In retrospect, this probably took less than a minute, but while it was happening I was no longer aware of temporality. I lay there, literally in a cold sweat, finally knowing - with absolute certainty - that my life was up to me from that moment on. And I precisely mean my life: if I had permitted it at that moment, I would have died, since all that was left was the least agreement necessary to maintain my autonomic systems. At this point it became clear to me that my response to each succeeding moment must be independent and spontaneous, without recourse to others’ opinions, views, or dogma. (“You are, within yourself, the world. You are, within yourself, the space-time continuum...”) I then had to reconstruct myself, even in order to get out of bed. (Until the moment before "I" got "it" out of bed, my body was an assembly of components which had a primitive functional relationship with one another, but lacked any cohesive directed purpose.) The rebuilding job, simply put, consisted of deciding what degree of affinity I was prepared to effect with each and every component of my environment.
I finally truly understood, at the most fundamental level, that what we are and what we will be is the ineluctable outcome of the decisions we have made about ourselves, about others, and about the nature of the world. Truly integrating this understanding inevitably results in the restoration of fully functional, self-determined existence. This realization is ultimately liberating, since one no longer has any desire to blame anyone for who one is, where one is, or what one is doing.
Finally, I came to understand the nature of reality, whose cornerstone is consciousness: (a) it is created by the delimitation of perceptual chaos through agreement; (b) it is unique to each individual; and (c) we create a cultural consensus regarding the content of “reality” using language as our tool. Language is our willed abstraction of our experience, just as identity is our willed abstraction of what some call "the ground of being." A visceral understanding and utilization of these insights constitutes, in a real sense, the abandonment of all paradigms; at that instant, one steps through what Zen calls “the gateless gate” (a one-way passage, by the way.) But everybody's got to do it by themselves, because it isn't teachable in any current sense of the word, since language merely abstracts the experience rather than describes it. Yet the experience is available to everyone. Once again, Zen: