by Virginia Chase Sanderson
If we are none other than ourselves, separate and discrete, how is it that we so easily mirror the feelings of others? By what peculiar ignition does my husband’s anger instantly cause anger to flare in me? In the presence of a nervous person we feel nervous. In the presence of joy, joy. We talk of a “contagious mood”–how does a mood jump the gap between two people? If I were really a separate entity, the mood of others should as little affect me as the weather in Paris when I am in Minnesota. And yet it does.
I offer to you this, that I am not merely me, nor you merely you. I inhabit my body, but perhaps I also inhabit the space between our bodies, and perhaps–certainly it is proven to be so on an atomic level–I penetrate your being, and you mine. What else, my friend, is love?
One day, as I was practicing yoga, I was bending forward toward the ground, head hanging, torso and arms limp. My arms were loosely dangling from my shoulders, and they swayed ever so slightly. I closed my eyes. I thought about my two rag-doll arms. I slowly became aware that if I did not look at my arms, I did not know where they were, because I could not feel them. They were hanging somewhere in space, and they might just as well have been in Paris: I could not feel my arms. There was nothing for my neurotransmitters to grab in order to report sensation or location, for nothing was touching my arms, no slight breeze was stirring the hair on my arms, and they were neither warm nor cold.
With my eyes closed I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I had lost my arms. That I was not my arms. And, by extension, that I was not my legs or my torso or any part of my body. Try it sometime. Say goodbye to your arms. And wonder what in fact you are when you float free of your body.
The written word has always had for me a peculiar quality. I have the sensation, whatever I am reading, of reading the work of just one author. Yes, all the books ever written, all written by the same person! Oh, sometimes this person uses archaic language, and sometimes this person is in a chatty or vulgar or repetitive mood, or is downright misguided, but for all its notes and tones, at the end of the corridor I hear only one voice, the musings of just one consciousness, one Author of all the books.
This impression is so strong that if I chance to turn over the book and see a picture of the author on the jacket, I am jarred, even incredulous. Did these thoughts, these words, these imaginings, come from this bespectacled and balding jowly gentleman with the dour expression? No. I submit that they did not, that they poured forth through the vehicle of this named individual, and in doing so took on some of the qualities and idiosyncrasies and failings of this individuated life form. But the author, oh, the Author, is not he who receives the royalties.
And, for this last misbegotten generation of chauvinists of both sexes, won’t you admit to surprise when you notice, at the end of the article you’ve been reading, that it was written by a woman? This penetrating, keenly observant mind, this rapier wit, this analytical intelligence, a woman? Yes, women too partake of the one intelligence. The Author has no gender.
One night as I was bent over my papers, working at my desk, I was absently observing ants crawling about. As I plucked ants off the desk, and off my arm, there came a moment when I was no longer absent. I began to feel as if I was lifting and removing the heavy tentacles of a giant creature, a colossal thing that consisted of all the ants in all the world. It was no good to get rid of an ant or so. For the tentacled thing would just pick itself up and uncoil its tendril tongue somewhere else again. There was no killing this giant creature, however many cells might be squashed now and then. The Ant, of which the ants were members.
It was late one hot sunset afternoon that I watched the gnats swarm overhead. In a kind of shimmering cloud they moved together, but this was a cloud that had edges and volition. It constantly changed shape. Some of the gnats flew toward the edge, some to the center, but whereas their trajectories were never identical, this thing of which they were a vibrating part never lost its form. The gnats moved as one being on the patio this night. What were they? What are we?
Yes, well, what are we then, this clump of men, women, young, old, fleshly forms housing consciousness, feeling, will, and imagination? We are perhaps like the tiny lights in that dusky constellation of gnats, or the living tentacles of an unquenchable organism. We are points of intersection on a web; we are among the countless immaterial voices of our Author.
About the author
Virginia Chase Sanderson has taught literature and writing at California State University in Los Angeles, where she also worked in the feature film industry. She taught literature and writing as a lecturer and teaching fellow at Cornell University, and was a visiting lecturer in cinema at Ithaca College. She recently retired from her local community college, where she taught English, French and humanities. In 2011 she received her bachelor in fine arts degree from the University of Minnesota. She is a longtime writer of personal essays.
By Michael Heap
I suppose that I am no different from most people in spending time contemplating questions such as why I exist, what defines my personal identity, what is my fate after death, whether I have had a previous existence, and so on. I do not think it will ever be possible to truly answer these questions, but I would like to be able to consider some answers that seem to me to be at least feasible. So, after several years of deliberating I have written an account of what I call my “search for answers” in a book entitled Universal Awareness: A Theory of the Soul. By “soul” I mean one’s awareness of being as distinct from the person one is aware of being.
Amongst the questions that have spurred me on is “Why was I born the person I am and not somebody else?” Now, my logical side immediately tells me that this question is based on a false duality, namely “I” and “the person ‘I’ am”. “I” is integral to “the person ‘I’ am” so the question doesn’t make sense (maybe). There is, however another question: “If the person I am aware of being hadn’t been born, would I be aware of being someone else?” Again one might dismiss this question, this time as mere “counterfactual thinking”: for the person I am now not to have been born, the entire universe itself would have had to have been different; but the universe is as it is. Nevertheless I do believe that it is a meaningful question and it has an answer “yes” or “no” (possibly others, but let’s stick with these two). Either way the answers raise further intriguing questions.
Over the years, I have approached my quest for answers by a process of objectivization. By this (an ugly word for an honest and mind-blowing enterprise) I mean that there are important assumptions about our world based on our subjective experience – i.e. ways of thinking that we impose upon the world – that can be set aside for the purposes of addressing the above questions.
The first thing I do is to keep in mind the distinction between objects and the activities they perform. (Objectively, this may be a false duality but that is not so important for present purposes.) We can do this in particular with respect to any individual human being by distinguishing the physical body of that individual from what his or her body (especially the brain and nervous system) does – the activity it performs. Thus we arrive at the strange but logical conclusion that what we refer to as “a person” is actually an activity and not a material object. Hence we can say, “I do, therefore I am”. Our being is in our doing, and when we stop doing, we stop being.
It is thus possible (and there are various thought experiments that we can do to support this) to set aside something that seems to us to be beyond doubt, namely that our personal identity is preserved over time – i.e. that we are “the same person” from moment to moment. Indeed we may argue (although not crucially here) that the very concepts “sameness” and “identity” are attributes that we subjectively impose on the universe but are not a property of it; for example, I may say that the desk at which I am sitting is not “the same desk” I was sitting at a moment ago, since, in that moment, the whole universe has changed.
Boldly on we go. All conscious experience occurs at a moment in time that we call “now”, and only what is occurring now exists. Events before now have ceased to exist; events later than now have yet to exist. But we must ask, “What defines now as a moment in time in the universe’s history, other than the experience of an individual sentient being?” The answer is “Nothing”! The moment we call “now” – time present – is personal to each one of us, as is time past and time future.
Let me explain this a little further. In everyday experience, events may occur before, simultaneously with, or after a given event, including an individual’s conscious experience. There is however no absolute “now” in the universe and therefore nothing that objectively defines what is in the universe’s past, present and future. There is still such a dimension as “time” but we can detach existence from time so that everything in the universe’s history exists, as it were, simultaneously. We can understand this by imagining time as a spatial dimension and conceive of the universe throughout its entire history as a four-dimensional object. “Now” is equivalent to “here” in space, and hence can only be defined by a given observer; likewise past and future are equivalent to “there”.
What is it that divides the universe into a myriad separate “things” or “objects”, likewise “activities”? Again, only sentient beings. So let us, for present purposes, relinquish this way of thinking and instead conceive of the universe as being one organic whole, engaged in one activity. (Describing the universe as “process” might be more apt; it may not be strictly logical to refer to the universe as though it were the agent of its own activity.). So we can think of anything we identify as “an activity” as something that is undertaken by the universe itself. For example, in my book I ask the reader to consider the question “Who wrote Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony?” from the standpoint that the answer is “the universe”.
Consciousness and self-awareness are themselves activities engaged in by the universe. Hence I put it this way: “The universe engages in the activity of being aware of itself and its own activity at rare and minute localities in space-time where its structure is appropriately organised to do so”. We call such parts “sentient beings”, but we must always keep in mind that “awareness of being” is something the universe does; it is not an isolated activity of certain objects. Awareness is, however, experienced in a localised manner; the universe does not experience awareness simultaneously at all these localities. Thus at any particular moment I am only aware of being “the person I am” and not anyone or anything else as well.
Incidentally, it may be argued by means of thought experiments that within each of these structures that we identify and label “human brains”, represented in some way is the entire structure of our universe, or at least much of it. If our universe were slightly different in any way, this would be reflected in some difference in our brain, even if only at the level of a few atoms.
It is not such a great step now to arrive at the core of the theory of universal awareness. For all of us awareness is an eternal experience, an activity the universe engages in; there is never oblivion. But it is always awareness of being something in the universe, a sentient being. And so, in a manner of speaking (I say this because it is not easy to express what follows in the language available to us) when “I” am not aware of being the person “I” am now, “I” am aware of being some other sentient being. This sentient being is literally any of the other sentient beings that exist in the entire space-time universe. All share the same soul.
I could stop here, but something seems wrong. The theory as it stands is highly deterministic and, without any further consideration, it does not allow for the possibility that events may sometimes be undecided until the exercise of “free will”. Well, maybe, however compelling it seems to the contrary, we do have to abandon the subjective impression of “exercising free will”. However, free will or “making a conscious choice” is not incompatible with current scientific thinking; free will, may be possible in some form, though we need to engage in some radical, and in this instance rather speculative, objectivization to understand how this can be. In a nutshell, maybe free will or conscious choice is associated with momentary states of uncertainty in the outcome of brain activity. And maybe these states occur at those times when we do indeed feel uncertain about what action to take and we have the sense of making a conscious choice. And even more radical, but consistent with some current scientific ideas, the two or more possible outcomes available to us are allowed to co-exist in different versions of our universe.
Whatever the case “We see through a glass, darkly” and the truth becomes more discernible only when, instead of inventing more illusions and stories, we relinquish existing ones. So let the world speak for itself. And when it does, unexpectedly it emerges as a more extraordinary and awe-inspiring place to be a part of than we could ever otherwise conceive.
About the author
Dr Michael Heap (www.mheap.com) is a clinical and forensic psychologist living in Sheffield, England. He is the author of several textbooks on hypnosis and has taught and lectured widely on this subject. His book Universal Awareness: A Theory of the Soul may be ordered at https://www.createspace.com/3640356 or from Amazon (paperback or Kindle). For a summary of the theory visit: https://sites.google.com/a/sheffield.ac.uk/soul/ where readers are invited to share their comments, criticisms, suggestions, and so on.