The Buddha said it. Sages have said it. Jim Carrey says it. Even Sam Harris would say it — after a long, drawn-out answer to a question on the subject: that there is no subject. There is no “I”.
I have taken to saying things such as: I experienced this image/thought/idea… because though the conventions of Standard English demand I use the first-person pronoun to allow a listener to know who is doing the doing or the experiencing in my sentences (not all other languages require this — Korean, Japanese and Chinese don’t require the use of subjects), I do not feel authorship for most of what happens in my brain, and ‘I’ usually (not always) implies a sense of authorship.
We witness our actions and thought, but we say “I thought of something,” “I came up with an idea/solution/poem. I did this thing.” In reality, you might be good enough to admit, we have ideas, we witness solutions, we discover poetic verses. These things come to us. And when we finally get up to go to the bathroom, doesn’t it seem as if we could honestly say, ‘my body finally got up’, when I had just been thinking about it? Think carefully. How often have you decided your favorite color, taste, or even dating type. Doesn’t something inside you do this for “you”? I have been thinking about this for decades – long before I heard of or read Sam Harris. The point is, it is a phenomenon common to us all – if we are observant and honest.
The Buddha said the brain was a witnessing gland, an interpreter, an observer; actually he said it was a sense organ. We can manipulate what we interpret in the world, design sentences to describe it, formulate equations around the properties we observe or imagine to be responsible for the properties we think we sense in the universe and edit the words that come to us in the writing of a poem. But these things — these processes we invent come from inspirations, flash-points, touchstones.
Ideas: Whence Do They Come?
Many people will tell you — myself included — that we get the best ideas in the shower, or during other mundane acts, when basically the mind and body are united in a task that does not allow for too much ego-driven control. Some might be tempted to say that during these deeds, such as in the act of bathing, we are following patterns — some learned, some programmed by habit, and some just common sense: you drop the soap and pick it up in the exact same way you had when you were five years old — minus any age- or injury- inducing changes in your locomotion.
And this deed, be it watering the garden, washing your hair, or doing the washing up (the dishes) is a “thoughtless” activity — and yet, the brain “thinks” as freely as if we were dreaming. And we get ideas. Some might say these mundane acts should indicate the brain is in its programming (programmed) modse. We are doing tasks — such as cleansing, organizing or even driving the car — a more or less programmed set of rituals and scripted responses to the world outside — which we ingrained the memory and motor circuits of the brain to come to engage in unconsciously. But during these acts of washing, working mindless tasks and driving, we sometimes find it more obvious to notice what the brain is doing behind the scenes all the time: thinking for itself. So, I would say that that part of the brain is on “auto-pilot”, whilst the rest is in “free-flight” mode. And this is where our genius comes from.
Einstein imagined the scenes that became his basis for the theory of relativity. He saw himself riding a light beam through the cosmos. He wasn’t in the shower, but haven’y we — in our busy lives — been deeply involved in working with water, as I alluded to, before — when we have experienced ideas we wouldn’t honestly say we authored?
Bears And Big Thoughts
I remember the first time I bathed in a roaring creek. I was on a back country camping expedition in Colorado — with a girlfriend. We had no other way to wash. Well, I can tell you that in bear country, you don’t blithely dream away a twenty-minute period amidst dense forest as you throw frigid water on your naked body in the out-of-doors. First, you want to get the task over with, because the water is nearly freezing cold. Next, you are scanning the horizon – which is basically a hundred yards in any direction, except up and down stream — for something big and furry that might want to miss the fish for a day for a side of human sushi and creek drink.
In the hunter-gatherer days, this is how people washed — carefully. Could it be that this was one of our first meditative acts in which the mind and body are engaged in auto pilot, whilst in the background the stirrings of conscious dreaming were in their infancy, in such a way as they could be called up today whilst we are in water? And in the time that ensued in which people became more used to this — effectively having our brains say, ‘fuck the bears’, I need a bath, this act of washing became more and more relaxed and automatic and so our contemplative thoughts increased at this time.
Sow we find ourselves, today, a hundred thousand years hence washing in total abandon — unless we have to make a commute. Could it be the body (or the part of the brain that is the body) tells the mind it is okay, now, to take over — when we are touched with water — because of our nascent experiences as a species, always in thought — with that medium?
More to Come on This…
Art Copyright Carl Atteniese 2018