You do not exist in the way you think you do. We have a cultural understanding that we, our personal identities, are somehow the consequence of billions of neurochemical reactions per second in our brains. Our sense of self is then merely the froth of hyper-complex activity occurring under the surface of our skulls. This is demonstrably not true.
Amnesia and Identity
A curious thing happens when people get amnesia, specifically retrograde amnesia, which is the garden variety amnesia we think of from soap operas and is usually caused by a head injury. Not only do they lose the memories of what happened, they also lose huge chunks of their identity such as favorite flavors of ice cream, fear of snakes, whether they wake up early or late, how they like their coffee, etc.
Much like the phrase “you cannot step in the same river twice”, Jill with retrograde amnesia is not the same Jill she was before the accident. She is definitely the same biological human but in every sense of the word, Jill is an entirely different person. This fact is important to understand because it is so counter-intuitive. Our identities are not the results of years of conditioning and hardwired in our brains after decades of experience. Rather, our identities are constructed in real time, second by second.
This has actually been tested in the lab, regarding phobias. It is now known that phobias are a self-reinforcing condition that causes a person to maintain the phobia by remembering the fear of the phobia habitually. Each subsequent avoidance of the initial object of fear reinforces the fear and strengthens it. By administering a drug which interferes with the memory as it is being recalled, phobias can be shut off instantly and somewhat permanently, much like a global amnesia.
If Jill can wake up from a car accident and be a completely and entirely different Jill, how is that even possible? This all relates to the Default Mode Network, the DMN.
Our brains are constantly narrating our lives, much like the author’s voice in Stranger than Fiction. We are telling ourselves what we like, do not like, prefer, fear, dream about, lament, etc constantly. Rather than being a book set in stone, memory is the air our brains breathe to construct ourselves in real time and when it is disrupted, we instantly change.
The DMN is actually a very complex system which uses various parts of the brain. This is one of the reasons that it has only recently been accepted as scientific truth. It is responsible for most brain related disorders we think of today like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, etc.
By scanning people’s brains in real time, as they are cognitively engaged, we now know that the DMN is most active when someone is daydreaming, thinking about themselves, others, planning the future or thinking about the past.
The way this aligns with the Buddhist notion of suffering should not go unnoticed. Daydreaming and self-referential thought is one of the primary focal points of attack for Buddhist practices.
The past is already gone, the future is not yet here. There’s only one moment for you to live.
Surfing the Present
Mindfulness, which is all the rage these days, is much like the science of Buddhism with the extraneous religious elements discarded. The way we understand Mindfulness today is due largely to the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, who adapted Zen Buddhist practices and scienced them up for the masses.
The goal of mindfulness practices is very straightforward, live in the present. Meditation is almost a way of creating a gradual amnesia which erodes the DMN’s power over us and liberates us from suffering by reducing the DMN’s power to generate anxiety through fear. When we sit and try to not think, we are actively combating the voice inside our heads, which is the DMN. The DMN is so pervasive, it is by far the biggest hurdle to the mindfulness beginner.
As the DMN becomes weaker through meditation, a strange thing happens. We are no longer as constrained by our identities, much like a person with amnesia. Jill can do things Jill did not think she could do previously because the voice inside of Jill’s head is weaker. Jill is increasingly more free to be anyone she wants to be rather than seeing her choices limited to “things that Jill sees herself as being able to do”.
The goal of mindfulness is the erosion of the self because that self is inherently constrained. All of our mental suffering is the product of the DMN. Our fears, paranoia, addictions, bad habits, etc are the result of the voice inside our heads and finding the ability to hush that voice is the most liberating thing of all.
The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.