Seeing Right through Me

The first time I had a chance to see through “me,” I was under the influence of hallucinogens. The experience was like being ejected from the cockpit of your self with explosive bolts. I was too busy enjoying the view during free fall to wonder about all that had been left behind. Then the drug wore off and I found myself once again strapped securely in my seat. What a ride! But it wasn’t until I later slipped out of myself without chemical inducement that it occurred to me to ask who or what all this was happening to if there was no “I” to experience it.

The dissolution of ego boundaries – which Sigmund Freud’s friend Romain Rolland referred to as the “oceanic feeling” – has now been mapped by neuroscientists. University of Pennsylvania radiologist Andrew Newberg and his colleague Eugene d’Aquili used imaging techniques to scan the brain activity of experienced meditators.  During periods of deep prayer or meditation, all the test subjects showed diminished activity in the posterior superior parietal lobes. This is the area of the brain that orients individuals in three-dimensional space by creating a clear cognitive distinction between the bodily self and its surroundings.  Newberg and d'Aquili hypothesized that reduced activity in the parietal lobes temporarily dissolves the boundaries of self and produces the subjective sense of oneness that is a hallmark of mystical experience. My hunch is that something similar occurs in the brain on LSD, and even spontaneously, as later happened to me.

What does the loss of ego boundaries look like from the inside? Ah, but that is precisely the point. Without ego boundaries, there is no inside or outside to one’s experience. Life unfolds exactly as it did before, only without a sense of “me.” Even one’s thoughts come and go as before; they just don’t appear to belong to anyone, even when expressed in the first-person singular. You might think there would be feelings of emptiness, but that presupposes the self is some sort of container than can be emptied. The container, if there ever was one, dissolves along with the ego boundaries.

You might think the loss of self would leave one defenseless against the vicissitudes of life. But I had a dream around this time that provided some reassurance. The dream had to do with the stone retaining wall that runs along the turnaround of my driveway. The retaining wall is about three feet high, and there is an earthen embankment behind it. In my dream, the wall had been removed, but the embankment remained in place without the wall to hold it back. I took this to mean that the world would remain in place even if there were no self to hold it back.

Once you have had a chance to see through “me,” you might think that would be the end of it. The experience is exhilarating, and people often feel they have found union with God or the universe. However, if the self is an illusion, it turns out to be a surprisingly persistent one, at least in my case. All the world is a stage, as Shakespeare said, so we still have our little part to play, and there is always a danger that we will lose ourselves once again in our role. That, I suspect, is all part of the game. If the self is like an old suit of clothes I can never quite be rid of, then at least I hope to wear it lightly.

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