The only reality

On a weekend summer night some time back, I was listening to live music at a laid-back venue. As I stood surrounded by a young, hip crowd, watching the performers play spirited, lighthearted music under strings of cute multi-coloured lights, a sequence of thoughts crossed my mind in quick succession.

They are vague to my memory now, so I am afraid I will be constructing some of it as I recall.

The beginnings are especially blurry. I guess they had something to do with the historical evolution of music. This in turn made me think of the idea of history repeating, or at least rhyming, which led to what feels like a small revelation.

The notion of reality that is shared among people  well, educated people in the modern world  is that there is a single truth of what happened in the past. What happened in the past consists of a great many things: a convoluted, interconnected web of natural, historical and cultural events and changes, all constantly causing each other in their interconnected evolution. In this history there are patterns to be found. For example, physical changes occurred in exact accordance with the natural laws. Social, cultural and political changes, although much harder to derive from the exact natural laws, still obey broad, qualitative patterns that have been empirically found and described by historians, political scientists and economists. It is in this realm of socio-politico-cultural evolution that history supposedly rhymes with itself. Together, the determinism of natural history and the qualitative patterns of human history are pieces of the great puzzle of Truth, or Reality, that are being steadily revealed by science and humanistic studies, and used to advance predictions of the future.

As individuals in the modern collective human society, tightly knit by a global database of shared truth, technique and values, this is what we constantly and subconsciously refer to as the single Truth. No one person has experienced all of it (in fact, almost none of it has been experienced by anyone alive), but there is the scientific method that provides indirect means of knowing what happened. Thus, Reality is viewed as an elephant that many different blind men have partial access to, and the process of reconstructing it is the great human enterprise. Regardless of how complex and ultimately infeasible this enterprise is, we still trust that Reality is a single elephant. My experience and account of reality may have little overlap with that of a 7th century Chinese philosopher, but within the final grand picture of the whole Reality, they must finally be compatibly reconciled, otherwise that Reality is not complete or true.

As I watched the musicians, my next thoughts were about a very different kind of truth, a very different form of reality: the personal one.

Not for the first time, I realized that the shared notion of the single Reality is after all indirect. This Reality which subsumes everything that ever happened: the big bang, electrons, dinosaurs, other people’s lives, the Holocaust and the final death of the universe, all ticking away along knowable laws, is a belief. It is a cluster of thoughts in my head that I have acquired from others and believe in because they are connected to other thoughts in a dense interconnected network of relations, reasons and logic. The glue of reasoning that holds this cathedral together is part of the scientific method, which is itself learned, indirect truth acquired from others. Most of this great undivided Truth is not really what I directly observe.

What, then, is my direct truth? It is only my own subjective experience: sensations, feelings and thoughts that are constantly unfolding before me, undeniably. It is undeniable to me not because I have scientifically proved its reality to myself, or had it validated by historians or seen it upheld by society as a shared belief. It is true, beyond denial and beyond the notion of having to prove or believe in it, simply and clearly because I have experienced it.

Some of this direct truth can in fact never be proved by the mechanisms of science and incorporated into the shared Truth, just as most of the contents of shared Truth will never be direct truth to me, regardless of the infallibility of evidence and proof. For example, when you hurt me, the pain that arises is as real as anything in subjective reality could possibly be. Yet, within the framework of the shared, objective truth, it is notoriously hard to even prove its existence. How can I get everyone to know and therefore believe, in perfect detail, my summer weekend night of live music, as my own memory of it is already beginning to fade? Technologies that can bridge the gap between such personal realities and the shared, objective Reality are on the horizon. Yet in the meantime, a lot of truths that are plain truth to me cannot be accepted as shared Truth by any means.

The shared ‘objective’ and direct ‘subjective’ truths thus appear to inhabit different worlds, and be antagonistic in fundamental ways. There are bridges connecting them, such as neuroscience, but they are not the same truth, and in fact they often come into direct conflict. As science tirelessly builds its cathedral of the one Truth, it remains nervous and uncomfortable with subjective truths , deciding on different occasions to dismiss subjective truths that counter its version, or simply announce that they are unreliable, and therefore unimportant as a topic of scientific investigation.

But science hasn’t won the war yet, despite how strongly shared human opinion is going along with it. For example, consciousness is one of the great remaining puzzles to science. We do not understand the very entity on whose subjective experiences we have constructed the whole cathedral of objective Reality. How then can we claim that this Reality is infallibly true and complete? Subjective truth thus still has some trump cards that threaten to topple the entire scientific cathedral.

I got sidetracked into a philosophical discussion. I’ll abort that here, and just tell you what I felt that night. I felt that from my perspective as I stood there, there is only one reality, and it is my reality. When I close my eyes, reality goes dark. When I am in a dreamless sleep, reality disappears. When I am happy, reality changes, although nothing about the physical world does. The only universe and reality I know wakes and sleeps with me. My perspective is the only one that truly exists, and subsumes all else, including the bits and pieces of the cathedral of objective Reality that I have learned. Proofs and arguments about other perspectives, and truths discovered by others and incorporated into the great shared account of Reality, are mere thoughts when it comes to my subjective cosmos, and lack the undeniable authority of my immediate and direct experiences, such as hunger, love, or stubbing my toe.

In my reality, history has never repeated. Even when there arises conversation or thoughts about the repeating of the shared history I only indirectly know about, the conversation or thought itself arises and unfolds in a manner that has never occurred in my reality before. In my direct, immediate, unprovable but undeniable truth, reality is one. It is one in the sense that there is no more than one account of it. It is one in the sense that it never repeats itself. It is one in the absolute sense, that there was and never will be anything else. (It is also one in the sense that apparently different things like cars and chairs and people and emotions and science and the past all constantly blend into each other if you carefully notice, but let’s not get into that.) This reality is one, like a single gem, constantly revealing its endless facets with every new experience. I hold this one reality in the palm of my hand, and I am the sole observer of it. (I would earlier have said sole author, but now I doubt that I author anything about reality, although there exists the illusion of authorship.)

So that’s what I felt in a few seconds as I watched the musicians. Oh, and there is a small note about contemporary social life that was attached to this realization, which I shall conclude with.

Even as I stand listening to nice live music in a pretty setting, surrounded by happy young people, I can’t help but compare my life and experiences with those of imagined others that have social media accounts and might be having a better time than me. This very tenuous imagination has a very real effect on my immediate reality. It makes me feel anxious and distracted. But if I look closely, I see that in my subjective world, the reality where other people are having a better time is only as real as my thoughts about it. As I pay more and more attention, I see this more and more clearly, and as my imaginations of derived reality recede into the darkness, it is replaced by appreciation for the great and miraculous mystery of my unique undeniable reality, constantly turning its facets of pain and joy, boredom and serenity, glistening like a perfect singular gem under the only light of my consciousness.


Letting Go

The last rays of the sun caressed a soft paint of a sad gold on the brave steel towers of the young city. The dark ink of the quiet night hung watchful on the opposite horizon, stealthily creeping into the space given up by the receding light. The glass and steel vertices of the craggy city center reflected glints of the fading glow through my windows, as I sat contemplating the unbearable despair of being sentenced inside my skull for the rest of my life.

Here it is all, my feverish mind croaked from the corner of the familiar damp prison-cell: look at the pastel gradient of the dusk sky, the brown winter fingers of the tree branches scratched across that easel. Look at that incredible ambitious human habitat in the distance that lunges forth into the vertical. Look at all the being and the happening and the contemplatable beautiful in the observable world. This all I have given you, this all I create for you, this is me, do you not see? What of do you complain then? The very perfection and stillness against which you judge your being to be so ill and incomplete is also born out of and crafted and witnessed by another part of that very same being. What then necessitates this constant comparison and dog-fighting part of your living experience against another? As you give away the prize to one, do you not also create the rejected rest that will moan and claw and keep heaving their pathetic languishing dying breaths in this lightless cave?

Do you not see, that it is not in fact any property of what you call the inhabitable prison of your skull, but your incessant readiness to jump to heartless rejections of the home of your living, that is the root of your psychosis? Let it go, let it all go. It is not an affliction, it is an indulgence. You are clinging to the mythic tree that you complain will not let you free. It is not an act of acquiring more, it is an act of doing and demanding less. It is here, right here, the key is in your palm, why won’t you look? There is room always to step back, opportunities always to keep unclenching that fist from the sand you wish so hard to hold on to.

Jumping to an Outer Self

I had a strange and frightening dream experience today. Then I had a theory of the operation of the mind that I thought of when I lay in bed for a while afterward thinking about the experience. I shall first describe to you the dream, and then the theory.

The dream was that I am photographing a huge concert in Austin. It is nighttime and anything is hardly visible, but I am on a raised rim around a huge rectangular concert ground teeming with a dense population of dark human heads numbering in the tens of thousands. The ground centers on a deep pit of some sort from which a faint red glow emanates, presumably the source of the music, but I cannot see it clearly for the forest of black heads around. Everything is blurry and unclear and dark.

Apparently some others are there to photograph it as well, and with alarm I watch them step off the raised rim onto the sea of people, and the surface of this dark granular sea begins to move swiftly  to the central pit as they step on it, like a crowd of small dark pebbles rolling to create a moving surface. They move along with it until they drop into the central pit.

I do not want to do this so I step away and into a covered area beside the rim. I think there is a person standing there, leaning against an opening, looking out to the concert ground. Maybe not a person. I had a feeling it could be a individual of an alien species of sorts, and this gathering that I am at is not something entirely human.

There is a box or something on the ground that I stumble on, and a jacket or something I was carrying drops to the ground, along with my phone, which opens up as it hits the ground to spill its battery (it’s a Nokia E5 that does this every time it hits the ground in real life).

I stoop to pick it up, and as I do so, the frightening part of the dream begins.

I feel a very sudden onset of a heavy, heavy drowsiness land on me. My eyes get immediately heavy and my body is hard to pick up off the stooping position. Everything in me  wants to lie down and drift away into the unobserving nothingness of sleep, and my mind launches a vigorous and alarmed fight against this. It is a very frightening feeling, because sleep never arrives like this, so it must be something else, and it is my own body that is betraying me. Everything is getting dark, and it is my own instincts that are bullying me to let go and fall asleep, while my self feels like a small person trapped inside this fast-darkening human body machine, taken by sudden fear and shock but not knowing how long it can keep up its small, fragile, important fight.

At this point I look to the floor and notice that the battery that spilled out of my phone is blue. My battery is actually not blue. Which means, I tell myself, I am dreaming. I have been taken already. The battle has been lost. This is not waking life any more.

I think I fall gently to the floor on my back, and the panic inside me soars to unbearable heights. I cannot go like this, I tell myself. I remember the person/alien standing there. I do not know who it is, but surely they shall not be so unfriendly as to not offer me help in such a crisis.

‘I need help!’ I shout out. There is no response.

At this point I half-open my eyes with a lot of effort. And I see bits of my room that I am sleeping in, in Austin. I see a beam on the roof, and the Tintin poster I put on the wall. This part is not a dream. I do really see this with my half-open eyes.

But I am not able to wake up.

This really, really frightens me. This has never happened to me before. I know that I have breached the layer into final wakefulness, but something is still keeping my mind from being able to fully wake up, try as I might. It is also strange because it is not that I am too tired and sleepy to fully wake up, and that I am not trying hard enough out of my drowsiness. There is a full battle going on inside my head, but this highly increased activity has no effect on being able to finally wake up. It is indeed a very, very strange thing to find oneself in.

I put all my resources together into one concerted effort, and then I feel something. I feel a shift in perspective, as if I am now a new person who is outside this experience, looking at the struggle I was going through as a dream that needs to be woken out of. I feel myself as being on the outer loop of a nesting, no longer the character struggling in this story, but a real-life person waking up from a dispensable dream in which this character resided.

And that’s when I actually woke up. I fully opened my eyes and looked through the crack of my blanket at the morning sunlight pouring into my room, illuminating the white ceiling. I checked to see if this is what it felt to be fully awake. My faculties were returning as they always do each morning, and I was assured that I was awake.

An epilogue is that I lay in bed for some more and drifted off into drowsiness again, and somehow managed with my sleepy antics to land a desk lamp on myself that shook my entire half-asleep world and jolted me finally into wakefulness enough to get me out of bed.

Now comes the theory, and the theory is about that final part where I stepped out of a loop and into a surrounding perspective that helped me wake up.

As I was lying in bed after this experience, still in a half-asleep state, I was thinking in my head how such a shift of character was possible. How in my mind I could both be a person, and then in a moment be another person regarding the first person as their dream.

And I had the following ‘insight’. I do not claim this in any way to be a well-founded theory of any sort, but I thought about it later and it seemed to link to some other ideas about the operation of the mind in an interesting way, so I thought it would be good to preserve it.

If you consider the brain as a very complicated computer, which I almost certainly believe it is, only using neural circuits instead of logic gate circuits, one can draw analogies between the working of the brain and that of a computer, although computer architecture today is at an infant stage in many ways compared to the complexity of the human brain.

A computer runs many processes at any given time, and they are interrelated in increasingly complex ways. Without going into the hard problem of consciousness, if the brain is the hardware, the mind, our thoughts, and our sense of self doing things must be some complex fallout of the processes that go on all the time in this vast and complex neural circuit.

It is important now to consider that like a computer, the brain is supporting many processes at once in its network. The sense of self doing things is a fraction of these. It has many subconscious processes, some which we may choose to become conscious of if we direct our attention to, and may let them recede back into the subconscious at our will (think of the exercise of trying to isolate all the noises in a noisy environment, or listening for a particular instrument in a piece of music). Some processes are forever in the subconscious and cannot be brought into attention. Similarly, there is data that can either be consciously pondered or packed away as memories that recede from the consciousness until retrieved perhaps many years later. (There is data in your mind now that you cannot think of unless someone produces a very specific cue, when it jumps right up.) The sense of self and conscious thought is only a group of processes in the brain amidst this sea of processes, illuminating a fraction of the other processes and data by shining its small light on them as and when ‘we want’.

Now this was my theory, that the collection of processes in this neural hardware that embodies the feeling of the self is not a concrete, unchanging one. In other words, ‘we’ inhabit different collections of processes in the hardware at different times.

At this point I think it relates in a way that I’ve been hearing said a lot in the context of mindfulness meditation or vipassana, for example by Sam Harris, that the self is only one of the incessant stream of thoughts arising in this one unchanging background of consciousness. ‘Pure consciousness’ is the substrate on which thoughts evolve, such as hunger or boredom or the feeling of self and having a body and doing things. The final objective of mindfulness meditation as I understand it is to dissolve the state of the mind into this pure consciousness, undisrupted by the arising of thoughts. In the context that I am talking about, the potential in this complex circuit for processes to go on that sense the outside world, take decisions and reflect internally, is the one unchanging substrate. The processes themselves that arise, operate transiently and quit to make way for others are only temporary, and our (so-perceived) continuous ‘sense of self’ is a constant real time transition of inhabiting different collections of processes in the neural circuitry. Note that I do not aim at all to explain how a collection of neural processes can assume a ‘sense of self’. This is related to the hard problem of consciousness that I do not even want to hint that I can solve.

Now, just as in a computer we can have encompassing processes running, observing or controlling subjugate processes, so can happen in the computer inside our head as well. In fact, in a computer of such staggering complexity, it must happen. For example, the rush of anxiety as you face a crowd of people on stage is a process in your mind. You can choose to observe it as it happens (then you’ll be taking the first steps to mindfulness). At that point, the self is a process that is observing this other process, both occurring in this complex neural circuit.

What happens then when the process that ‘we’ inhabit shifts from a nested process to another that observes the first? Would the experience be somewhat like what I went through? That could explain how I was both the actual person struggling to wake up, and then switching to be the other person who felt like they were dreaming of the first and could control its termination.

As I was lying in bed, still half-asleep, these are the thoughts that went through my mind. As I said, I am not claiming any of these to be founded in anything at all. They just seemed to be interesting ideas, and may in future spring new ideas and connections that can actually be placed on firmer logical grounds, so I decided to blog about it.

Let me know what you think.

The following is a truncated clip from one of Sam Harris’ lectures talking about mindfulness meditation in the context in which I referred to him.

A moment with the Universe.


A sad grey twilight watches me from outside the window. Faint traces of the sun’s orange being given up to the quiet waiting blue some way up from the horizon.

How long has it been since I opened these little attics of my mind? How long since I last deemed they were of value? How long since I let the universe touch me, filling a moment? How long since I let it hold me and stare into my eyes, unhurried with questions?

Aren’t there really two ways of seeing everything? One says that the only things that matter are those detached of irrational feeling, while the other says that only how you feel about the universe is real. In the end, we are left to choose. How long has it been since I last chose the second?

Darkness now trickles closer to the horizon, chasing the last orange around the planet, leaving the city draped in beads of harsh sodium.

Isn’t it sad how it gets harder every day to see the face of the universe and contemplate its incredible existence, even for a fleeting moment? Isn’t it ironic that what is most difficult to see is the greatest encompassing truth? Is it not childish to clutter one’s fleeting time with small playthings, that have only to do with marginally extending that time? Isn’t it sad how many hurdles must be overcome, in violation of the code of compliance, to sit down with the universe for a moment of uninterrupted privacy?

Isn’t it sad how, despite knowing all this, one must chase this conditioned lunacy day after day until time runs out?

How will I be any different? It is an increasingly escaping possibility that I shall.

For now, just a moment will have to do.

Until the next time, universe. Hope to see you again. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.

Thoughts from a drunken party

Are there any utilitarian side-effects to a conscious attempt towards the dissolution of the self? It might seem an odd question to ask, for the very task of this self-learned dissolution is only taken up by those who have reached a state of mind that has conclusively disengaged from any utilitarian goals.

I suppose I need to elaborate my definition of utilitarian in this context. The dissolution of the self and ego are lofty tasks that are hard and long to achieve. Are there other observable effects that arrive earlier and easier on the way that lend towards the final goal and towards happiness and peace in general? That is what I meant by the question.

I realized tonight on the way home from a drunken and disappointing party that there is at least one; I am sure there are more.

I realized that we are too eager to judge people we do not know too well yet, but have the slightest bit of information that we can base any judgement on (a bit of this was going on in both directions at the party). The poverty of information about people we have just met enables us not to hit any contradictions as we construct an image of them that lends heavy credence towards this judgement that we wish to paste on them.

Why are we so eager to judge people in the first place? The answer is obvious: it makes us feel better about our own selves. This is the underlying incentive and motivation behind judgement of any kind really.

Now comes in the utilitarian part of working to dissolve the ego. If you have taken the goal seriously to any degree and have given it some thought, you realize that working to elevate yourself above the perceived moral or intellectual characters of others is damaging to this goal, for it only serves to build the ego that you have realized is doing you no good. Not only is it damaging to this particular goal, it is a misdirected ambition to pursue, for it can only be fueled by things such as information-deprived quick judgements of people. The more you get to know and like the other person, the more they are on your side and they become your friends, an extension of your self and the things you stand for, and then you start using only their good qualities to judge other people and their friends against. It is an entirely opportunistic and self-deceptive process once you start to think about it.

Therefore, a willingness to erode the significance and importance we attach to the ego brings with it a necessary inhibition from being quick judges of other people. One is more accepting, forgiving and patient with people as they grow to understand them as a human being. In fact, I believe it makes it easier to imagine oneself to be the other person, which is a thought that if attended to with any sincerity even for a few seconds, makes harsh judgements nearly impossible henceforth.

And of course, such a quality would bring happiness, companionship, trust and peace in many ways, long before the dissolution of the self is achieved. I think there are many fruits worthy of picking on the way to this final goal; in fact the journey might scarcely be worth it without these collateral pickings.