You don’t exist … I don’t exist … Those may seem like strange statements, but there’s something very real about them. The words “you” and “I” imply that a being that is completely independent from everything else exists in the world on its own as a separate existence. But that is simply not true. There is no part of you or me that exists independently of everything else around us. The oxygen we breathe, the atoms and elements in our bodies, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the language on our lips, the ideas in our minds- indeed all the things that we may identify as the personality and composite of our individual self- came from other people, came from other living things, came from the stars.
My life, and your life, are just strings of cause and effect. Our lives are like mazes of dominoes in which each domino represents each moment of our lives. As soon as you are born, the dominoes hurtle into their string of collapse. This moment now is the domino pushing over the perfectly vertical subsequent domino. There is no part of you that is exempt from the causes and effects of the world- your totality can be erased by the world in infinitely many ways. It is profoundly confusing to me that the present moment is hurtling so fast into the past that there isn’t even time for me to really analyze it- there just isn’t time to really get a good look at it. I’m constantly in the present moment, but I never have had enough time to figure out those other moments, I never had enough time to understand what each of those moments really meant- they disappear almost faster than I can begin to analyze them. It’s absurd, really. Because of this, I sometimes suspect that time must be a product of consciousness. How long are we in the present moment before it goes into the past? A second? A microsecond? A picosecond?! If we can’t even answer that, all of our other notions of time should be brought into question. Clearly, we don’t understand time because we can’t even say what the present is. All time dependent physics might be out the window if we realize time is something caught up in us, not a property of the universe. Time must be different for a conscious, evolved animal than it is for the Universe! But we generally take the phenomena of the infinitesimal present slipping into the past for granted- we ignore it so much that we don’t even notice it. But I think it is very strange. In part, this is why I like meditation. Meditation allows time to slow down for your consciousness, so that you can analyze the present moment more thoroughly. In the same way that physics and astrophysics seek to understand physical reality, vipassana meditation seeks to understand our experiential reality. Vipassana meditation is very serious, long-term meditation (talking, reading, writing, or use of technology is not allowed and very little eating and sleeping is permitted) in which you seek to gain insight into your experiential reality for several days or months. Vipassana is most commonly practiced within Buddhist traditions, but no religious association is necessary whatsoever. To do vipassana is to be a scientist of your own experience. Vipassana centers (which are primarily in east Asia) are beautiful places where you can live for free, if you give your life up to becoming a spiritual scientist. Vipassana is my plan B, but regardless I hope to live at a vipassana center in the future. Anyway, the point is, the domino cause and effect play-out of our lives and the present moment slipping away at light speed only makes sense when we realize that there is no self- that we are just part of the flux of the cosmos. There is a great web of cause and effect that makes up each moment of our lives, but there is no self at the center of that web.
I know that there is no “me” that continues from moment to moment because the “me” that I could try to define for you now is different from the “me” I would have defined a year ago and will be different still from the “me” a year into the future. My goals change, my ideas change, my memory changes (mostly in a deliberate attempt to forget), my location changes. Perhaps my likes, dislikes, and interests stay relatively constant- but is that how I am to define this grand self- by an array of frivolous likes and dislikes? Or by a set of interests that any other human being could have? It seems that my social security number is the only permanent part of me. So is that what the I narrows down to- an undying number? What about the cells in my body- are they what make up me? No because every several years all the cells that were once me regenerate into a completely new set of cells. And your DNA definitely isn’t you because that’s 95%+ animal. What if you hooked up my brain to a computer and translated my consciousness into it- then would we be closer to pinpointing the self? Hardly. The feelings and emotions and thoughts that we have are so deeply connected with our bodily sensations that if you concentrated on a brain separated from bodily mechanism, I fear we’d be much further from locating the self. My brain is not me. My brain is nearly useless without my eyes, my ears, my mouth, my nose, my hands, my body! Consciousness and the perception of the self are emergent properties of the whole organism- the nervous system extends throughout the whole body, – so zeroing in on one organ (the brain) and hoping to explain the whole creature is a sad misunderstanding of our human existence. The brain is a highly overrated piece of meat, in my opinion. Nevertheless, when we look hard for what the self is and what its persistent characteristics are, the only thing we really find is a social security number. But we think something else is there, even though it is no where to be found.
The only (linguistic) problem with saying “I don’t exist” is that I am implying the absence of something that I have mentally defined (to claim the opposite of something is to remain caught up in the something). While “I don’t exist” is true, to totally escape the belief of an “I”, I must declare my self as a state of emptiness. Our language and our culture have doomed us into a state of self-obsession. Our language revolves around the words “me,” “I,” “you,” and the sense of the other, making it very difficult to surrender to a complete belief of no self.
The perception of a self is a mere biological illusion encoded into us by evolution so that an individual creature tends toward self-preservation for its genetic survival. But for us to be more than mere mammals, we must see that biological mechanism for what it is- an illusion. Atoms -which make up our bodies- are mostly empty space. The cosmos is mostly empty space. Hence, to declare my being as a state of emptiness is scientifically correct. I don’t believe in my “self” but I do believe in our deep cosmic interdependence. And the more that we come to know and understand this cosmic interdependence as our true “self,” the more meaningful life can be. I am more cosmos than I am a self. I am mostly empty space, just as the cosmos is mostly empty space. Letting go of the heavy self and embracing the lightness of emptiness is perhaps to glimpse the fringe of enlightenment. Ultimately, in realizing your inherent emptiness, you realize that nothing changes when you die. When you die, you remain the emptiness that you always were, except your body, now free to disintegrate into the rest of nature, can finally fulfill its ultimate purpose- to become completely integrated and interdependent with nature, without any remnant of a “self” as an obstacle. Death is the release of the one thing -the illusion of the self- that prevents you from being genuinely integrated with the cosmos.
If your nonexistence seems radical, it’s not- it’s one of the basic tenets of Buddhism. Here’s an introduction to emptiness on the Partially Examined Life (a podcast that I would highly recommend): http://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/2010/10/10/episode-27-nagarjuna-on-buddhist-emptiness/