I believe that if we are honest with ourselves, that the most fascinating problem in the world is “Who am I?” What do you mean, what do you feel when you say the word “I”, “I, Myself”? I do not think there can be any more fascinating preoccupation than that because it is so mysterious, it’s so elusive. Because what you are in your inmost being escapes your examination in rather the same way that you can not look directly into your own eyes without using a mirror, you can’t bite your own teeth, you can’t taste your own tongue and you can’t touch the tip of this finger with the tip of this finger. And that is why there is always an element of profound mystery in the problem of who we are. This problem has fascinated me for many years and I have made many enquiries “What do you mean by the word I?” And there is a certain consensus about this, a certain agreement, especially among people who live in Western civilization.
Most of us feel “I” – ego, myself, my source of consciousness – to be a center of awareness and of a source of action that resides in the middle of a bag of skin and so we have what I have called the conception of ourselves as a skin-encapsulated ego. It is very funny how we use the word “I”, if we just refer to common speech, we are not accustomed to say, “I am a body.” We rather say, “I have a body.” We do not say, “I beat my heart” in the same way as we say, “I walk, I think, I talk.” We feel that our heart beats itself, and that has nothing very much to do with “I.” In other words, we do not regard “I, myself” as identical with our whole physical organism. We regard it as something inside it, and most Western people locate their ego inside their heads. You are somewhere between your eyes and between your ears, and the rest of you dangles from that point of reference. It is not so in other cultures. When a Chinese or Japanese person wants to locate the center of himself, he points (here, not here, here) to what Japanese call the kokoro or the Chinese call shin, the heart-mind. Some people also locate themselves in the solar plexus, but by and large we locate ourselves behind the eyes and somewhere between the ears. As if within the dome of the skull there was some sort of arrangement such as there is at the SAC (Air Force) headquarters in Denver where there are men in great rooms surrounded with radar screens and all sorts of things, and earphones on, watching all the movements of planes all over the world. So, in the same way, we have really the idea of ourselves as a little men inside our heads who has earphones on which bring messages from the ears, and who has a television set in front of him which brings messages from the eyes, and all sorts of electrode things all over his body giving him signals from the hands, and so on. He has a panel in front of him with buttons and dials and things, and so he more or less controls the body. But he is not the same as the body because “I” am in charge of what are called the voluntary actions, and what are called the involuntary actions of the body they happen to me. I am pushed around by them, but to some extent also I can push my body around. This, I have concluded, is the ordinary, average conception of what is one’s self.
Look at the way children, influenced by our cultural environment, ask questions. “Mommy, who would I have been if my father had been someone else?” You see, the child gets the idea from our culture that the father and mother gave him a body into which he was popped at some moment; whether it was conception or whether it was parturition is a little bit vague, but there is in our whole way of thinking the idea that we are a soul, a spiritual essence of some kind, imprisoned inside a body. And that we look out upon a world that is foreign to us, in the words of the poet Housman: “I, a stranger and afraid, in a world I never made.” So therefore we speak of confronting reality, facing the facts. We speak of coming into this world, and this whole sensation that we are brought up to have of being an island of consciousness locked up in a bag of skin, facing outside us, a world that is profoundly alien to us in the sense that what is outside “me” is not me, this sets up a fundamental sensation of hostility and estrangement between ourselves and the so-called external world. Therefore we go on to talk about the conquest of nature, the conquest of space, and view ourselves in a kind of battle array towards the world outside us. I shall have much more to say about that in the second lecture, but in the first now I want to examine the strange feeling of being an isolated self.
Now actually it is absolutely absurd to say that we came into this world. We did not: we came out of it! What do you think you are? Supposing this world is a tree. Are you leaves on its branches or are you a bunch of birds that settled on a dead old tree from somewhere else? Surely everything that we know about living organisms – from the standpoint of the sciences – shows us that we grow out of this world, that we, each one of us, are what you might call a symptoms of the state of the universe as a whole. But you see, that is not part of our common sense.
Western man has, for many centuries, been under the influence of two great myths. When I use the word “myth” I don’t necessarily mean falsehood. To me the word myth signifies a great idea in terms of which man tries to make sense with the world; it may be an idea, it may be an image. Now the two images which have most profoundly influenced Western man are: number one – the image of the world as an artifact, like a carpenter’s table or a jar made by a potter. Indeed, in the Book of Genesis there comes the idea that man was originally a clay figurine made out of the Earth by the Lord God who then breathed into this clay figurine and gave it life. The whole of Western thought is profoundly influenced through and through by the idea that all things – all events, all people, all mountains, all stars, all flowers, all grasshoppers, all worms, everything – are artifacts; they have been made. And it is therefore natural for a Western child to say to its mother, “How was I made?” That would be quite an unnatural question for a Chinese child, because the Chinese do not think of nature as something made. They look upon it as something that grows, and the two processes are quite different. When you make something you put it together: you assemble parts, or you carve an image out of wood or stone, working from the outside to the inside. But when you watch something grow, it works in an entirely different way. It doesn’t assemble parts. It expands from within and gradually complicates itself, expanding outwards, like a bud blossoming, like a seed turning into a plant.
But behind our whole thought in the West is the idea that the world is an artifact, that it is put together by a celestial architect, carpenter, and artist, who therefore knows how it was done. When I was a little boy and I asked many questions which my mother could not answer, she used to resort in desperation to saying, “My dear, there are some things that we are not meant to know,” and I would say, “Well, will we ever find out?” And she said, “Yes, when we die and we go to Heaven it will all be made clear.” And I used to think that on wet afternoons in Heaven we would all sit around the throne of grace and say to the Lord God, “Now, just why did you do it this way, and how did you manage at that?” and He would explain it and make it all very clear. All questions would be answered because, as we have in popular theology understood the Lord God, He is the mastermind who knows everything. And if you ask the Lord God exactly how high is Mount Whitney to the nearest millimeter, He would know exactly like that, and would tell you. Any question, because He is like the Encyclopedia Britannica. Unfortunately, this particular image, or myth, became too much for Western man because it was oppressive to feel that you are known through and through, and watched all the time by an infinitely just judge.
I have a friend, a very enlightened woman, she is a Catholic convert, but very enlightened Catholic, and in her bathroom she has on the pipe that connects the tank with the toilet seat a little framed picture of an eye. And underneath in Gothic letters is written “Thou God seest me.” Everywhere is this eye – watching, watching, watching – watching and judging you, so that you always feel you are never really by yourself. The old gentleman is observing you and writing notes in his black book, and this became too much for the West, became oppressive. They had to get rid of it, and so instead we got another myth, the myth of the purely mechanical universe. This was invented at the end of the eighteenth century, became increasingly fashionable throughout the course of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century, so that today it is common sense. Very few people today really believe in God in the old sense. They say they do, but they really hope there is a God, they don’t really have faith in God. They fervently wish that there was one, and feel that they ought to believe that there is, but the idea of the universe being ruled by that marvelous old gentleman is no longer plausible. It isn’t that anybody has disproved it, but it just somehow does not go with the vast infinitude of galaxies and of the immense light-year distances between them, and so on.
Instead, it has become fashionable, and it is nothing more than a fashion, to believe that the universe is dumb, stupid, that intelligence, values, love, and fine feelings reside only within the bag of the human epidermis, and outside that it is simply a kind of a chaotic, stupid interaction of blind forces. Courtesy of Dr. Freud, for example, biological life is based on something called “libido,” which was a very, very loaded word. Blind, ruthless, uncomprehending lust, that’s the foundation of the human unconscious, and similarly to thinkers of the nineteenth century like Ernst Hegel, even Darwin, and T.H. Huxley and so on, there was this notion that at the root of being is an energy, and this energy is blind. This energy is just energy, and it is utterly and totally stupid, and our intelligence is an unfortunate accident. By some weird freak of evolution we came to be these feeling and rational beings, more or less rational, and this is a ghastly mistake because here we are in a universe that has nothing in common with us. It does not share our feelings, has no real interest in us, we are just a sort of cosmic fluke.
And therefore, the only hope for mankind is to beat this irrational universe into submission, and conquer it, master it. Now all of this is perfectly idiotic. If you would think that the idea of the universe has been the creation of a benevolent old gentleman, although He is not so benevolent, He takes sort of “this hurts me more than it is going to hurt you”, sort of attitude to things. You can have that on the one hand, and if that becomes uncomfortable you can exchange it for its opposite, the idea that the ultimate reality does not have any intelligence at all, at least that would get rid of the old bogey in the sky in exchange for a picture of the world that is completely stupid.
Now, these ideas don’t make any sense, especially the last one, because you cannot get an intelligent organism, such as a human being, out of an unintelligent universe. The same in the New Testament, that figs do not grow on thistles nor grapes on thorns – applies equally to the world. You do not find an intelligent organism living in an unintelligent environment. Look, here is a tree in the garden, and every summer it produces apples; and we call it an apple tree because the tree “apples” – that’s what it does. All right? Now, here is a solar system inside a galaxy, and one of the peculiarities of this solar system is that, at least on the planet earth, it “peoples” in just the same way that an apple tree “apples.” Now, maybe two million years ago, somebody came from another galaxy in a flying saucer and had a look at this solar system, and they looked it over and shrugged their shoulders and said, “Just a bunch of rocks,” and they went away. Later on, maybe two million years later, they came around and they looked at it again and they said, “Excuse me, we thought it was a bunch of rocks but it is peopling, and it is alive after all; it has done something intelligent.” Because you see, we grow out of this world in exactly the same way that the apples grow on the apple tree. If evolution means anything, it means that. But you see, we curiously twist it. We say, “Well, first of all in the beginning there was nothing but gas and rock. And then intelligence happened to arise in it like a sort of fungus or slime on the top of the whole thing.” And we are thinking in a way that disconnects the intelligence from the rocks. Where there are rocks, watch out, watch out! because the rocks are going eventually to come alive and they are going to have people crawling over them. It is only a matter of time, just in the same way as the seed, the acorn is eventually going to turn into the oak because it has the potentiality of that within it. Rocks are not dead.
You see, it depends on what kind of attitude you want to take to the world. If you want to put the world down, you say, “Oh well, fundamentally it is only just a lot of geology, it’s a stupidity, and it so happens that a kind of a freak comes up in it which we call consciousness.” That is an attitude that you take when you want to prove to people that you are a tough guy, that you are realistic, that you face facts, and that you don’t indulge in wishful thinking. It’s just a matter of role-playing, and you must be aware of these things; they’re fashions in the intellectual world. On the other hand, if you feel warmhearted towards the universe, you put it up, instead of putting it down, and you say about rocks, “They are really conscious, but a very primitive form of consciousness.” Because, after all, when I take even this crystal here, which is glass, and go (I tap on it), well it makes a noise. And that response, that resonance is an extremely primitive form of consciousness. Our consciousness is much more subtle than that, but when you hit a bell and it rings, you touch a crystal and it responds, inside itself it has a very simple reaction. It goes “jangle” inside, whereas we go “jangle” with all sorts of colors and lights and intelligence, ideas, and thoughts, it is more complicated. But both are equally conscious, but conscious in different degrees. That is a perfectly acceptable idea. It’s just the opposite of the idea, you see, all I am saying is that minerals are a rudimentary form of consciousness, whereas the other people are saying that consciousness is a complicated form of minerals. You see? What they want to do is to say everything is kind of bleh, whereas what I want to say is “Hooray! Let’s a life is a good show!”