Continuum of the Self: Threads in the Tapestry of Existence
"All conditioned things and events in the world come into being only as a result of the interaction of causes and conditions. They don’t just arise from nowhere, fully formed… anything that exists and has an identity does so only within the total network of everything that has a possible or potential relation to it."
—from The Universe in a Single Atom,
by His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Each of us is a thread—every person, every single thing that exists—weaving its way through the intricate tapestry of time and space that enigmatically comprises the universe. We are not merely points in this grand masterpiece, isolated and irrelevant, rather we and our influences stretch backward and forward through all of time and space. As threads we touch more than we know, and we hold together the fabric about us through connections we barely understand. Unfortunately, we are not aware of the linear nature of our being, since we immediately sense only what surrounds us at a given moment. This very limited viewpoint creates the impression that we are only a self-contained pocket of elements and circumstances. In reality, however, the details that describe you, your behavior and your personality are not isolated qualities that exist by themselves, having appeared out of nowhere. They are the products of long strings of forces leading back to the birth of the universe, forces that have gradually pushed and shaped what you and everyone else are today. Today’s reality is a product of yesterday’s reality continuously modified by the events and circumstances that occur moment by moment. So you—the collection of attributes that describe you at this particular moment—are not an entity unto yourself, rather you are an aggregation of incidents sculpted into form by physical and social inertia. You are an indescribably long series of events at a fleetingly ephemeral point in time, in this place, at this moment. Therefore we are much more than the entity that exists here and now, we are every place and every moment—we are a wondrous and infinite continuum of the self.
Inertia is a principle in the science of physics that describes the tendency of any object in motion to maintain its speed and direction unless acted upon by an outside force. Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity eventually expanded this principle to apply to energy as well as matter, and the priniple clearly applies to the myriad forces that sculpt society, as well. Each of us, every individual on our planet, is an unimaginably complex collection of thoughts and views, behaviors and beliefs, morals and prejudices. Some of these are within our conscious awareness, but most are underlying tendencies that occur mostly without our knowledge. Every one of these elements of personality that compose our inner psychological structure is a product of some invisible social or physical force—something learned, inherited, mistaken or assumed. It is like a billiard ball striking and moving the others in its path, where something that we see or read or witness creates a conclusion or opinion within us. This conclusion, right or wrong, will later influence countless decisions in our lives. So we see the direct affect of one minor detail onto many others. If we were to multiply this phenomenon by some unimaginably large number, we may catch a glimpse of the complexity of the subject at hand. Each contact with us creates a position that affects a dozen future acts, then later influences a hundred others, and so on, increasing this way in layers of magnitude beyond our ability to conceive. That is the phenomenon of social inertia that makes each tiny element of our personality the point of origin for waves of influence that affect events to the far reaches of society. These effects carry themselves forward by statistical tendencies, in that the personality traits they engender in us tend to express themselves in ways that reinforce their own apparent purpose. That irresistable flow of event and influence is the wave pattern of human society. We are as one unified essence, waving to and fro in the currents of the cosmos. But instead of cherishing that unity, we tend to seek separation as a way to edify and deify our individual egos. Eventually we come to see that divided state as the natural condition of the universe.
The separation that we mistakenly perceive is, after all, the grand illusion of sentience—in the course of our evolution it was supremely beneficial to see ourselves as autonomous beings in order to survive, conquer our environment and develop our awareness. It appears to us, as we move through the world, that we exist as an isolated collection of body parts and ideas. As such, we seem to be our own person, independent and autonomous, ruling an inner kingdom of our own design. This perceived independence creates a relationship of differentiation from our surroundings, wherein we stand tall within our own minds, separate and aloof, observing all that occurs in an outer, other, land. This appearance of separateness, of independence, of superiority over the world around us, is based on the illusion that you and the world are two distinct elements. In reality, however, the universe is not a vast grouping of individual elements, and to realize this we need only look back along the timeline of origin and development. In this way we would see the continuity of all existence, the unbroken spectrum of incident and circumstance that results in everything that exists. This concept, though true, is far from obvious because our thought processes have not developed which such a lofty goal as the comprehension of universal truths. They have developed solely to help keep us alive.
Our awareness has evolved for the purpose of survival, and it has adapted wonderfully to fulfill that function. However, that does not mean that through it we can be aware of everything that exists, either materially or conceptually. Through the gradual process of survival and adaptation we have developed a sensitivity to light patterns, physical pressure, auditory vibrations, olfactory impressions, and oral chemical analysis that have served us well. We have continued through our history long enough, and successfully enough, to develop the higher brain functions that we refer to as complex thought, identity and planning. But to believe that these amazing abilities, while capable of getting us this far in our evolution, are sufficient to make everything that exists in the universe knowable to us is somewhat shortsighted. Everything that we can sense is not the same as everything that can be sensed. We have developed in a very specific environment and adapted to it well enough to get where we are today. But the universe is an unimaginably vast and varied theater, and it would seem to be a foolishly arrogant conceit to believe that the senses we have developed specifically to survive on this tiny, beautiful planet are comprehensive enough to sense and understand everything that exists.
A basic truth of the existence of any element of universal evolution, including our own Human race and its newfound sentient nature, is that "existence" is actually a gradual process of "becoming." Nothing suddenly "is." Everything rolls out from something that came before it, in a process that fits the behavior of everything else that rolled out before. It is a process that stretches back as far as the beginning of the universe. We have evolved to find food, avoid predators, procreate, care for family members, and other characteristics that would best ensure the continuation of our species. But a clear understanding of concepts regarding the nature of the universe were irrelevant and unimaginable to us as we struggled to survive in the caves and forests of our distant past. In fact, all of our modern and sophisticated scientific knowledge is little different from our ancestors’ practice of going out and gradually learning which berries could kill you and which were safe to eat. We look out at the stars, we catalog, and we theorize. All of our science, our current understanding of the universe, is only Humanity gingerly touching its fingertip to the surface of a lake of infinite depth. It is this very limited degree of awareness that creates the illusion that we exist as isolated and discreet entities in a world that swirls independently around us. But we did not suddenly pop into being on this lovely planet Earth. We rolled out of it like eddies from a whirlpool, in strict accordance with processes ancient and established. This is an idea that we superficially understand, without really grasping the deeper significance of it.
The mandala is a picture of all space and time, it is a map of the entire universe and everything in it. Try this meditative experiment: Look at any mandala and imagine that it is a tiny, close-up detail of a much larger image. Envision it spreading outward, revealing its vast entirety, its borders stretching into the distance, farther and farther—north, south, east, west—without end, to the edges of the universe. Now imagine that the mandala has a depth that descends into itself, as if you were looking into the cross-section of an orange that stretches endlessly inward. Now draw this depth back in the other direction, stretching behind you as well. You have filled the known dimensions of the entire universe with the mandala that sits before you. Now the structure of the mandala becomes a connective tissue that visibly links everything together into a tapestry of infinite beauty and detail. If you watch carefully, the mandala itself will begin to alter its form, slowly but continuously morphing into new and wonderful configurations. This is what the universe does at every moment, what it has always done, and it is these slow and ancient movements that have gradually brought about the tiny universal facet that sits here reading these words and wondering about the nature of its own existence. You did not come from somewhere outside, you are not a "thing" in a "place." Rather, you have grown naturally from the processes of universal evolution and are as intimately integrated into the fiber of existence as any given point within the structure of the universal mandala. This continuous process gradually arrives at not only what we are as physical beings, but as societal elements as well. Every person, at every instant, is simply a flash in the furnace of universal becoming. The circumstances that have led up to your existence, both physical and social, can be viewed as a continuing series of events and occurrences that are in this given state (you) at this given moment (now), but will, with each passing moment, become something new.
What you are at this very moment is like the crest of a wave moving through water. If you follow the movement of the wave, you will see that as it approaches some floating bit of wood, the wood rises with the passing wave and descends again after it has passed. The same is true of the water molecules around the wood—they rise and fall, but are not moving forward with the wave. This is because the wave is not made up of the water molecules themselves. The form and energy of the wave moves through the water, through the molecules, and leaves them behind as it goes. If the wave is not made of water, what is it made of? Take sound as another example. As a wave of sound moves toward your ear it is not a wind of air molecules that is rushing toward you at 344 meters per second. The sound wave is not composed of air, so what is it made of? The essence of all waves is pure energy, and that energy uses the medium through which it moves (air, water, etc.) as a vehicle, nothing more. In this same way, you are a wave of universal circumstance. The molecules of your body do not define you, they are only a vehicle, even the thoughts and beliefs in your mind change from moment to moment, so they cannot really be what defines you. You are the embodiment of all the energy that has led up to your present process of being. Everything that we could conceivably believe defines us is only the latest incarnation of a 14 billion year old process of universal becoming. The body you move around in, the thoughts that speed through your mind, the mythologies you swear by, are all the slow and gradual accumulation of circumstances stretching back farther than we can imagine. Like the wave in the water, "you" are this energy that has come to call itself by your name at this point in time. The energy within you has always existed, and will continue to exist long after the processes that keep your body alive cease to function. There was no single day when all at once there popped into existence a planet Earth, or Life, or a Primate, or a Human, or a specific culture or race or religion. All these elements came about slowly, following what came before, in indefinable and inseparable stages that form an endless continuum of existence.
Indeed, you are but the latest incarnation in an endless process of universal "becoming." Therefore, whatever you are, whatever qualities you possess, whatever adjectives can be used to describe you, these are just momentary glimpses of a wave of being that stretches backward and forward without end. All the details that we usually use to define ourselves—job, interests, family, etc.—are only temporary descriptions of circumstances, elements of our lives that are mostly outside of our control anyway. So what, if anything, can truly be said to define you? The problem is that all definitions are limited, inasmuch as they are an attempt to fix something in time and space for the sake of convenience and communication. Since everything is continuously transforming, every possible definition grows less accurate as time goes on. Of course, the application of definitions is a practical way of talking about the world around us and allows us to communicate with some degree of efficiency. But the world of the mind, of the self, is hyper-real, richly detailed and overwhelmingly intimate. We have an entire universe of impressions swirling about within us, an endless process of acquiring, cataloging, analyzing and theorizing. If we were to discard the self-definitions that describe our activities, our possessions, our personal history, our relations—in other words, if we do not list these superfluous circumstances of our lives as defining elements—then what do we have left? What does "I" truly mean?
In fact, you can even discard the concepts of "you" and "I" completely, insofar as they are used to distinguish a person from its surrounding environment. They are convenient tools, just as your address and driver’s license number, but like the plastic in your wallet they have no true universal validity. Now, if you expand your reference so that when you use such terms as "you" or "I" you are referring to an element of self within the wholeness of the universe, the connective relation between you, me, everyone and everything, then in this way you acknowledge the unity that pervades all. You are an aspect of the universe, unique and wonderful, like the infinitely varied face of the mandala. And so we can see that there is truly no such thing as self-definition, for it necessitates a separateness that does not exist. The "I" that we revere so highly is an illusion, and while it is natural that we should have developed it in our history, it is not an accurate vision of our place in the universe. Even to say something like "our place in the universe" is inaccurate, because it presents the two as separate entities where no separation exists. Here we see why language is not suited for topics such as this—it is designed to isolate and identify, and so it must ultimately fail to grasp the holistic oneness of existence. There is an essential incongruity between reality and language. I use the term “reality” to refer to the physical universe we live in, both seen and unseen, including the less tangible realm of thought, imagination and philosophy to be found somewhere within the sentient mind. Reality is a holistic system where nothing is truly separate from anything else, while language is a cultural tool designed to separate and identify. Words and names serve to pick elements out of a wider landscape, to quantify them and categorize them. "Reality" is a unified tapestry of phenomena, each without practical individual identity. "Language," being a system of division and separation, misrepresents reality as a series of discreet elements while ignoring their connective essence. It is like trying to comprehend the information in an encyclopedia by analyzing the shapes of the individual letters. We may learn something about the alphabet, but we would remain unaware of the relationships between the letters that truly carry the meaning of the whole. Ultimately, the only accurate definition that can be given of any element in the universe must include a description of all its relations with every other element in the universe, and so the definition would necessarily be as extensive as the universe itself. This interrelationship is key to understanding the whole, and it emphasizes the holistic nature of reality– an underlying unity that pervades and harmonizes everything that exists. Words may point us toward understanding, but they can never convey the ultimate truth. The old Taoist and Zen monks knew this fact very well. So all that remains for us is to ponder these brief glimpses of cosmic unity and try to point our awareness toward a greater sense of spiritual interrelation. The self is a continuum of events and circumstances, an unbroken spectrum of being in the infinite tapestry of cosmic unity. Ultimately this unity is the only true definition that exists.
The meaningful conclusion to be derived from this fact leads us to a much clearer understanding of our place in the world. Amazingly, we seem to both underestimate and overestimate ourselves at the same time. We underestimate ourselves by not realizing that we are an essential expression of the myriad activities of an entire universe. But we also overestimate ourselves, by assuming that our actions and attitudes are exclusively our own. Given the long and complex history leading up to what you are right now, there is only so much credit, and blame, for that matter, that you can correctly apply to your actions and to those of the people around you. Do not judge yourself or your neighbor too harshly for a foolish or hurtful act, and for the same reason pride and arrogance for our personal accomplishments should be held in check as well. When someone does something offensive to you, that action is the result of millenia of universal inertia—all the actions of that person’s life and the beliefs of his ancestors and the pressures of society as a whole have culminated in that one single action. Our thoughts and actions are a combination of genetic tendency, familial and societal teaching, and the ongoing experiences of life. These primary forces shape and govern, with nearly absolute authority, how we act and react to the world we live in. We can achieve some influence over our actions, but that takes a very conscious and directed effort on one’s part. We must recognize when we are acting out of this kind of behavioral inertia, rather than from careful consideration of the circumstances involved. Few of us are even aware of the need for such analysis, rather we tend to coast through our lives exhibiting mostly reflexive, reactive behavior. In order to have an effective influence over the crescendo of circumstance that puts us here and now, doing this or that, we must exercise an awareness of our state of being—what fuels our fears, our strengths, our desires.
This ongoing sequence of events and circumstances that have made our present self into what it is at this moment has an inertia that governs itself and propels itself forward in increments that are statistically likely to occur. These events need no effort on our part, they are a result of their own history. We have the potential ability to affect this vast wave of circumstance, to change events, to influence this flow in very fundamental ways. But for the most part the entire world, not being aware that there is anything pushing it forward, believing its every action to be self-created and self-determined, exists on reflex alone and allows the incidents of their lives to just happen as they are likely to do. Of course, we do give thought to our lives, making decisions in a considered and calculated manner, but we do not realize that the mental processes we use to think these thoughts and make all of these considerations are as much a product of the great inertial wave as the uncalculated behavior of water in a stream or of a breeze blowing through a forest of leaves. Even our thoughts are as forcefully propelled by all past experience as our actions are. Our reason, our judgement, our morals and our discernment, all qualities that we cherish and revere, are only the products of history, mythology, egoism and evolution. As such, we must always consider them suspect, and subject them to the most rigorous scrutiny. To understand this is a large part of achieving some degree of influence over our life, but it is like an addict’s recognition of his dependency—seeing the truth doesn’t make difficult goals easy to accomplish. Still, it is a crucial step if there is any hope of success at all. When we become aware of the circumstantial forces that propel us blindly through our lives, only then can we put our efforts into changing our course toward a more considered future. When we can think about thinking, when we can consciously consider the unexamined shadows that linger behind our reflexive thoughts, then we have some hope of achieving influence over the situation.
In this way we can truly see the logical argument for such previously abstract, though admirable, concepts such as acceptance, compassion and forgiveness. Who can be angered by the movements of a floating twig when they recognize that it is the force of an entire river that propels it so speedily forward? We observe the actions of the world around us and make judgements upon them based on our own inner standards and experience. But we must recognize that the subjectivity of our personal viewpoint renders it too limited to possess any great degree of accuracy or absolute reliability. We color every observation with our personal views, yet pretend that we see things exactly as they are. Every human experience is a combination of something perceived and someone perceiving it. Since the perceiving individual interjects so much personal color into the situation, you and I would give differing reports of any incident that we simultaneously witnessed. How great the difference is depends on countless personal details and circumstances. Whenever we observe the events of the world we must remember this and realize the foolishness of being too rigid in our beliefs. We must not be overly certain or judgemental of the world around us. Each of us sees the world from a different position, both physically and psychologically, and so every position is relative. In society, just as in the universe at large, there is no fixed point and no unassailable truth. Everything is relative to everything else, and nothing is absolute. We must realize that because of the inertial force of history, our thoughts and actions can only loosely be considered our own. It is the waves of circumstance that toss us about on the cosmic sea—only through disciplined analysis and effort can we find the clarity of mind to think reasonably and operate effectively beyond the forces of the maelstrom. But if anything can be said to be our duty, our responsibility, our destiny, it is to hope that we can one day act as truly reasoning beings, able to consider the universe for ourselves rather than acting only according to the impulses and forces that envelop us.
February 15, 2008
by Peter Patrick Barreda, material copyright 2009, all rights reserved