It is sometimes said that the three greatest – and toughest, and most significant – remaining scientific questions are these:
- What caused the Big Bang?
- What is the “Grand Unified Theory” that integrates quantum mechanics and general relativity?
- What is the conscious self?
It’s interesting that the last question is up there with the first two: it’s that difficult and that important to answer. And from a contemplative perspective, including a Buddhist one (our own home ground), the self is often seen as a major source of suffering.
With complicated and challenging subjects, a good strategy is to start simple and build on one solid step after another. For example, I once worked for a mathematician doing probabilistic risk analyses of really messy problems (e.g., what’s the likelihood of a nuclear power plant melting down?). He told me that there was a saying:
A real mathematician is someone who wakes up every morning and asks, ‘What is a number, actually?’
In that spirit, I’ve structured this essay in six parts.
The Six Parts
- We will begin by considering how the most rudimentary forms of awareness developed in the animal kingdom and then evolved into their full-flowering of human consciousness, including current theories about the neural networks that enable it.
- Next, we’ll step back to consider what are often called “nondual” perspectives on consciousness, which will require clarifying what is “duality,” and the three different kinds of nonduality; you could find this section an exhilarating intellectual roller-coaster or a murky quagmire or even both, and feel free to fly over it if you like.
- In Part Three, you’ll see an exercise that could help you get an experience of the changing nature of the self. (As with any exercise, take care of yourself, and if you become uncomfortable, step back from it.)
- In Part Four, we’ll tour the distributed and variably activating circuitry of self functions in the brain, and also touch on out-of-body experiences and related remarkable states.
- Next, we will explore the evolution of “self,” from its primitive roots in simple animals to its manifestations in higher animals such as dogs and monkeys . . . and human beings.
- Finally, in Part Six, we’ll go through a variety of methods for relaxing the sense of self.
This is a relatively long article, but it is actually a succinct summary of a subject that fills library walls, and I think it will reward your time.
Here we go.