The Cheshire Cat
“The most common
ego identifications have to do with possessions, the work you do, social status
and recognition, knowledge and education, physical appearance, special
abilities, relationships, personal and family history, belief systems, and often
political, nationalistic, racial, religious and other collective
identifications. None of these is you.”
Douglas Hofstadter, in his book I Am a Strange Loop, also writes about the appearance of identity:
“It seems to me
. . . that the instinctive although seldom articulated purpose of holding a
funeral or memorial service is to reunite the people most intimate with the
deceased, and to collectively rekindle in them all, for one last time, the
special living flame that represents the essence of that beloved person.”
Who we think we are is what is reflected in someone else’s eyes. And, like the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, we tend to fade away until nothing is left but our smile—that is, the emotional effect of the memory of us in others, colored by all the other relationships that each person in our social constellation retains (a Pegasus of similarly fading smiles in the infinite darkness). When we cease to exist, that flame is the fading smile of the Cheshire Cat.
I exist in your perception. I seem to exist, as well, in my own perception. But I can’t rely on that, for what I perceive is continually changing, one moment solid, the next moment a confusion of contradictory impressions. You’d think that one’s perception of one’s self would be the most reliable, the most constant. Not so. In fact, we’re so used to our selves changing that we don’t notice it. It’s like a sky full of clouds, or the pattern of traffic around us on the freeway. Look away for a moment, and it’s different.
“You’ve changed,” she says.
“Who, me? No, I haven’t changed. I’m the same guy you married.”
“You used to be so thoughtful.”
I never thought of myself as thoughtful, or not thoughtful. I pay attention to whatever is in front of me. It’s she who has changed. But she would never admit it.
Hofstadter sums it up with another metaphor (maybe the
most accurate way to express any profound truth):
“We are all
curious collages, weird little planetoids that grow by accreting other
people’s habits and ideas and styles and tics and jokes and phrases and tunes
and hopes and fears as if they were meteorites that came soaring out of the
blue, collided with us, and stuck. What at first is an artificial, alien
mannerism slowly fuses into the stuff of our self, like wax melting in the sun,
and gradually becomes as much a part of us as ever it was of someone else
(though that person may very well have borrowed it from someone else to begin
with). Although my meteorite metaphor may make it sound as if we are victims of
random bombardment, I don’t mean to suggest that we willingly accrete just any
old mannerism into our sphere’s surface—we are very selective, usually
borrowing traits that we admire or covet—but even our style of selectivity is
itself influenced over the years by what we have turned into as a result of our
repeated accretions. And what was once right on the surface gradually becomes
buried like a Roman ruin, growing closer and closer to the core of us as our
radius keeps increasing.”
Those mannerisms are what are called “memes,” enduring products of culture that seem to replicate themselves rather like the genes of biological evolution. While genes replicate through natural selection, memes replicate through imitation. Who we are, then, is by means of a combination of genes and memes.
That doesn’t answer the more basic question, of course. How does the “me” (the fruit of this process) become “I”? We are all conscious of ourselves; how could this not be real? At least the cells in our brain, where our consciousness presumably resides, are physical, chemical, and biological—isn’t that a measure of objective reality? They must contain the information, at least, that we can say defines us.
But, according to Hofstadter:
cells inside a brain are not the bearers of its consciousness; the bearers of
consciousness are patterns. The
pattern of organization [is] what matters, not the substance. It ain’t the
meat, it’s the motion! Otherwise, we would have to attribute to the molecules
inside our brains special properties that, outside of our brains, they lack. . .
. But if the molecules making you up are not the “enjoyers” of your
feelings, then what is? All that is left is patterns.”
I am but a story, a history of experiences. No, not just a story. A continually swirling pattern of neural activity that sees itself and integrates that with incoming sensations to create the story. Never still, always seeking more encompassing patterns by which to make sense of existence, to create meaning, to continue the story. There is no separate thing that sees through these eyes, but only this current pattern of neural activity, this story-in-process.
But wait. Even the glowing grin of the Cheshire Cat implies something else, some larger reality that supports it. Saying that it all gets down to cells and molecules and atoms and quarks, nothing else, seems to leave something out.
Ken Wilber refers in his writings to a “Ground of all Being,” that which manifests itself in the material, living world, that which we are sometimes aware of but cannot point to, that which we can name (in hushed voice), that of which we invent descriptions for our comfort but which continually eludes us. We, being but stories ourselves, must invent stories of things we experience, however ethereally, however obliquely.
If we cannot find a me except as an abstraction, a constellation of patterns in neural activity, we can still infer what allows it all, call it what you will—God, Spirit, Being, or whatever. The paradox about naming it is precisely what enables us to think that we understand—our need to make up stories. Our stories are not it, any more than our perception of the moon is the moon. And once we think we understand, once we develop our stories, they become the memes that replicate through the culture, reflecting our needs but never it. Different cultures create different stories, even when they all point to the same ultimate Source of Everything.
The South African author Laurens van der Post put it
this way: “Reality, no matter how
widened and heightened our perceptions, never ceases to be anything but the
effect on us of an infinite mystery.”
We may accept, with Hofstadter, that what we call
consciousness is simply patterns of electrochemical activity. We may even come
to see that “the puzzle that is me” is not a separate thing but exists only
as a relationship—not in a
relationship but the relationship itself.
So, if at the most basic level we are each a pattern of
relationship to that Ultimate Ground of Being, then we are also a pattern of
relationships to each other—never separate, never simply “I.” The deeper I look into the essence of me, the more I discover you,
and the more I look into your eyes, the more I see me.
Donald Skiff, November 27, 2007