Come On Over

As you drive north on Route 9 in Middletown, Connecticut, you can look across by the Arrigoni Bridge and see a large sign on the opposite bank.  In bold white letters against a dark background, the message reads: COME ON OVER.  The sign has been there since the 19th century and has somehow survived the vicissitudes of man and nature.  I don't know how the sign came to be there, although I assume it must represent a bit of civic boosterism by the citizens of Portland, Connecticut, which is just across the bridge. 

The sign has always beckoned to me, although it has never actually persuaded me to cross the river unless I happened to have business on the other side.  It speaks to me in a much deeper way, reminding me from time to time of the need to step across the psychic threshold that separates "me" from the world.  We all have a sense that we are on the inside looking out, our nose pressed against the window of the world  -- except it's not literally our nose, and there is no actual window.  The real question is whether there is a self at all looking out on the world. 

The 18th-century philosopher David Hume set about trying to answer that question and concluded, in effect, that there was nobody on the inside looking out.  "I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and can never observe any thing but the perception," he wrote.  "When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep, so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist."  He concluded there was no fixed entity that we could call a self, only a "bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement."

Hume's insight -- which is shared by various mystical traditions -- can be either threatening or liberating, depending on how wedded you are to the idea of having a self.  If Hume is correct, to lose one's self is to lose precisely nothing, since we are nothing apart from our perceptions anyway, and they continue as before.  We have nothing to lose and everything to gain, because once the self is out of the way, there is nothing separating us from the world.  We cross over to the "other side" and discover the "other side" is all there is.  

It may seem incongruous that a staunch empiricist and skeptic like Hume should arrive at an understanding of self that only a practiced contemplative can fully appreciate.  Hume had no use for metaphysical speculation of any sort.  He was in his own way as tough-minded as any Zen master wielding a bamboo stick to discourage idle speculation about Buddha nature. A contemplative must eventually turn away from other-worldly pursuits to truly grasp the mystery of God.  Like Hume, he or she must be a consummate realist.  In Wallace Stevens' phrase, a contemplative learns to see "nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."  By this reckoning, the self is abandoned and God is embraced.

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature
Wallace Stevens, "The Snow Man"    

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