For those of you who read Part I of this article and are dying to know how it ends (sorry, double pun), welcome back. For new readers, let me summarize the previous piece.
The question “Who dies?” asks us to examine what it means to die. It’s an activity, something we are asked to be engaged in fully until our final exhale. In living life to its utmost each moment of every day we prepare ourselves for the ultimate end, the last rodeo, the final shimmering turn on the merry-go-round of this lifetime. The answer to Who dies? is anyone who lives.
The second part of the question is a bit more tricky.
Who is it exactly that dies?
The answer: no one, at least in the sense of a self.
That’s the fascinating neurological theory presented by cognitive neuroscientist Bruce Hood in his new book, The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity. Hood compares “ego theory”, espousing a complete entity called “self” existing inside of us, with the “bundle theory” of David Hume, an 18th century philosopher, which identifies the self as a bundle of memories, sensations, perceptions and thoughts all mixed up together in a stew of me, myself and I.
The self is so inextricably enmeshed into our identity that the very idea of an illusory self is one of the more difficult concepts to wrap our brains around. Not too surprising since our brain was there from day one of our childhood when it sat down at the ego’s drawing table and sketched out the outline of what our self would be. Decades later the pencil sketch has tentacled outward to evolve into a Technicolor spectacle of our life like a Sistine Chapel of one story connecting with another and another, all appearing to be touched by the hand of God.
“The daily experience of the self is so familiar, and yet the brain science shows that this sense of the self is an illusion. Psychologist Susan Blackmore makes the point that the word ‘illusion’ does not mean that it does not exist — rather, an illusion is not what it seems. We all certainly experience some form of self, but what we experience is a powerful depiction generated by our brains for our own benefit.”
This is juicy stuff.
Who and what we think we are is a deception played out with our self. Or our not-self. Consider the many hats/masks/selves we present to the other selves of the world each day. Worker. Mother. Husband. Friend. In each we are a particulate of learned behaviours and stories our nimble brain has manufactured to get us by in the myriad of social looking glasses we step through each day. If someone were to ask us “who are you?” we would likely rattle off a schizophrenic list of what we do, what we believe in, where we come from and who we are in relation to others. Those descriptions would no more define us than identifying seat, wheels, tires and handlebars as a bicycle. Severed parts do not equate the whole.
Coming from a Buddhism experience I have to say I felt a bit of giddy effervescence tickle me as I read Mr. Hood’s scientific assessment of our cult of personality bloated beyond steroid dimensions. Add the Theatre of Me to the mix with Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, YouTube, and any number of other social media platforms performing back-flips for our attention each millisecond and the layers of mass produced self begin to blur with what is true. The concept of no self, or anatta, is a basic premise of Buddhism. It contends, as does Mr. Hood, that if there were a self that is perceived as permanent it would not change. Everything, from thoughts to nuts, is transient. Anything perceived by our senses is subject to creative interpretation and as a sideways consequence becomes a derelict view of what is merely an occurrence.
What is watching the rain fall? What is feeling the firecracker heat of Indian curry? What is tasting the path of tears etching a face? To relinquish ownership of sensations and perceptions, thoughts and feelings allows us to step back and see the movie of circumstances play out without being compressed into a two dimensional mock-up of our Self playing all the roles on screen. There’s a solace, in fact, in stepping away from the notions that my pain, my lover, my job, my planet exist without my ownership attached to them. To see pain as merely pain lessens our attachment to it and lessens the brain’s thoughts about its severity. To see another person with compassion instead of through the lens of what they have done to our faux self surrenders us into a more heartfelt relationship with the other. It is through letting go of the perception of self that we can step more fully into this life and our connection with all of impermanence.
So, who dies?
V.F. Gunaratna, a Buddhist monk and scholar, answers the question this way:
“When analysis reveals that there is no person but only a process, that there is no doer but only a deed, we arrive at the conclusion that there is no person who dies, but that there is only a process of dying. Moving is a process, walking is a process, so dying is also a process.”
Here’s to life and to death. May we learn the one by heart before we’re asked to meet the other.
Self portrait of a self portrait of a self portrait … by Mrs. Logic – Flickr Creative Commons – Some rights reserved.
Excerpt from The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity – by Bruce Hood,
Published by Oxford University Press, USA, copyright 2012
Excerpt from Buddhist Reflections on Death – by V.F. Gunaratna, copyright 1994-2012