Honk If You Don't Exist

You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.                 
--Bob Dylan, "Like a Rolling Stone" 

Recently I pulled up behind a car with a bumper sticker that read, HONK IF YOU DON'T EXIST.  I briefly considered honking, then thought better of it.  On a purely mundane level, I figured the owner of the car might not connect the honking to his bumper sticker and would reward my gesture with a rude hand gesture of his own.   Philosophically, the bumper sticker presents a logical conundrum somewhat akin to the so-called Epimenides paradox, in which the Cretan philosopher Epimenides claimed that all Cretans were liars.  If Epimenides were speaking the truth, his statement would be false.  Similarly, if you honked because you believed you didn't exist, you would presumably demonstrate the opposite.

As I suspected, the bumper sticker turns out to be something of an in-joke among Buddhists.  In certain schools of Buddhist thought, belief in a permanent self (atman) is regarded as an illusion and the source of much suffering.  However, this is not quite the same thing as saying the self doesn't exist, since the illusion of a self has its own kind of existence.  There is an ever-shifting constellation of thoughts, feelings, perceptions and desires that appear to belong to someone near and dear.  But no matter how hard you look, you can never find anyone at home.  "For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure," wrote the philosopher David Hume.  "I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.” 

I used to think that you had to sit in uncomfortable positions on the floor for many lifetimes staring at a blank wall  before achieving this realization.  However, I later discovered it sometimes occurs spontaneously, which is how it happened to me some years ago.   I awoke one night to discover there was no longer any separation between my body, the bed I was lying in, my wife lying next to me, the sounds of the night.  At first I thought there was no longer any "me," but gradually I came to realize that my self was still operating in the background, only now it had become almost transparent.   This condition persisted for days, then off and on for weeks and months thereafter.  I still had a job to go to, a family to come home to, bills to pay.  Apart from that sense of transparency, a certain lightness of being and a gently heightened awareness of things, my life continued much as before. 

I now know that you can never achieve enlightenment, because the part of you that strives for it ceases to exist at the moment of realization.   Here I had been looking forward to some sort of coming out party, and it turned into a funeral.  The big surprise, in my case at least, is that the dissolution of self proved to be as impermanent as the self is.  The ever-shifting constellation of thoughts, feelings, perceptions and desires is still there, whether I think of it as "me" or not.  Sometimes I can slip in or out of character as easily as a ham actor in a long-running soap opera.  Sometimes I still lose myself entirely in the part -- never more so than when I once again imagine myself to be on a quest to find God or enlightenment.  It is far better simply to cease all striving and to follow the meandering course of my life as it unfolds from moment to moment.  I have learned to await those odd moments of illumination when I am reawakened to the provisional nature of my own identity, as when I spy a bumper sticker that reminds me I do not exist.  The question remains: Do I honk if "I" am not here?     

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