June 4, 2024, 7:45 a.m. | Tagged under Psychology, Philosophy, Podcast

Below is the big "answer" to the question "who or what are we?" after interviewing many people about this topic. I mixed it together with insights from consciousness-altering experiences, the writings of people whom are much smarter than me, and conversations with (finally) a good therapist. It is, of course, not a real answer, but a path towards more meaningful questions.

(Sidenote: I might have started this podcast series for the wrong reasons. In trying to understand the "self" with my intellect, by the hope of controlling it in the hope of becoming "zen", and not feeling anything bad anymore, I was in fact numbing "my self" and all the good things that feeling alive bring with it, very much in contrast with the conclusion at the end of the overly long ramblings below).


Every once and a while, or in my case, about 3000 times per second, a thought pops up in my head, but why? Is there some underlying theme, some mutual predicted consequence if these thoughts would be followed into effective action? What is the purpose of this mysterious energy that is assessing what should pop up in my mind, and whether (not) it should drive me to action? And, is this energy the "who or what I really am"?

The analysis was interesting. First of all, you got to love the irony. What is the purpose of my urge to do this analysis about the purposes of my thoughts? What's the expectation I'm trying to achieve with this? Is it freedom? Do I think if I only know my thoughts well enough that I will get freedom from all my anxieties?

There is some kind of energy in me who can not stand boredom, who confiscates surprisingly silly thoughts just to not be too alone with the empty vessel that is myself, who is living in all kind of hypothetical experiences except the one I'm having here and now. To be honest, many of these thoughts have to do with a sense of security, about not losing what I have, or regaining what I once had. Physical security is necessary of course, psychological security on the other hand might be an utopian thought.

In that sense I wonder if I would have so many thoughts if I didn't have any memories that could be the building blocks? Are there much of these imaginations that remain that have nothing to do with this projected (sense of) security? For example, let's look at yesterday. Did I have any original image, not related to previous experiences?

For instance, one thing I did yesterday was post something on my social media channels (makes me feel like a celebrity right, the feeling I am in my friend's/follower's daily newspaper, if only they would read it!). Later in the day, I felt an urge to check my phone to see if people had "liked" my post, or shared their thoughts about it (because that is the real reason why I write, to talk with others about these questions I still know nothing about). But, where did this urge come from? It just magically popped up. It was not like it was the consequence of some external trigger, like when you see a snake and you are immediately feeling/seeing many things spurring you to act (the silly thing about this though is that sometimes not having this confirmation on social media can feel as threatening as a snake waiting to bite). So it feels like besides being in the here and now, I seem to be in different parallel universes at the same time that my brain is creating for me, urging me to act upon the mix of these situations which are actually not really there.

So, it must have been something internal inside me that assessed, even if I am in a wonderful peaceful quiet place with interesting people around me, still the best thing I could do is checking my phone. I think this really shows how besides getting input from the here and now, my experience is simultaneously always creating images of how previous experiences I disliked/liked could happen again in the future, or that I might lose out on them. My brain is consistently looking to act according to projected pleasure and pain. This dopamine system, the amygdala, etc, have evolved because the very presence of these systems made us more "fit" to survive our circumstances, in comparison with people who had less evolved systems. But back in ancient times, feeling an existential threat was more often than not linked to a real acute danger. But is this still the case today? And is our stress really acute or a continuous chronic urge/aversity towards the past? And how far off is this from the actual survival purpose that these systems were evolved for? And, here might lie to power of psychedelics. I often think that the best way to have a psychedelic trip is to "invite the discomfort". For instance, when I think about an urge I have that sometimes pops up during a trip, I immediately see so many things at once, I see/feel (sometimes with synesthesia) the previous experiences the urge relates to, how I felt back then, and how I see the future repeating itself. This all wrapped around the here and now.

Another thought experiment. Let's analyse my thoughts about the local slightly awkward tourist guide I had yesterday. I was thinking how he was quite exhausting sometimes, but is that really a thought about him or is it just my previous experiences projected onto him?

What about my thoughts about the people I care about? Did any thought, remark, observation about somebody recently not relate to my own needs, insecurities and personal frustrations? But if so, is it then possible to have a completely original non-self-centered thought about someone (some would call this "love")?

Maybe an easier question is what experiences have I had in life that I felt were transcendent beyond myself, where I only experienced what there was, and whether there was an experiencer seemed to be of little importance. I do remember when I first saw the Aletsch glacier in Switzerland that I was truly awe-struck, it was a feeling and not so much a thought. I was one with my body, or even better, I was my body, and I had just strained myself by running a not-so-small distance. I was breathing, I was the breating, and I was the landscape. I find it hard to describe how it was, but it is easier to describe what it was not. I felt no separation, no tension between what is and what should be. There was no experience that was not allowed, or needed to be altered. The feeling of having something or someone that could alter it also seemed to fade away. Even the possibility of any alterations being possible seemed utterly illusionary.

This, and other more "progressive" experiences, e.g. psychedelics, have made me wonder whether the "observer" comes before/after/simultaneously to the thoughts/images. This, baring in mind of course, that I use my thoughts and therefore the observer to do this assessment. During writing this, I am also awkardly aware of how far I have come from my initial question "what is the purpose of the mysterious energy that drives my thoughts?".
This is why I value these experiences of awe, of altered state of consciousness, because it feels like something indescribable, not an analytical (after)thought, and if it can be described, it is via negation.

So, to answer the question I posed in the beginning of this paragraph, I can perhaps reframe it to "where there still thoughts/images when my sense of self seemed to have disappeared?. And the answer is yes, there were many images, there was much experience. Even very much so, in the case of the psychedelic ones. However it "felt" like there was no distance between the experiencer and the experienced, it even seemed like the experiencer was just a superposition of all kinds of previous experiences, exactly the same as the experience. So I can infer that the thoughts/images do not depend on the feeling of an observer looking from a distance that needs to be present.

But, is the opposite true, does the observer depend on the observed? I think so yes, but with an important nuance, which is, only if there seems to be some kind of energy of needing to alter the experienced, or more concrete, some resistance to it. This is very much relatable to my infamous wide array of anxieties popping up. I experience something, maybe someone I care about looks at me badly, I simultaneously experience previous situations that I associate with this that made me feel bad, which consequently, makes me have resistance against the experience I have now. My body gets into full preparion mode, my heartbeat heightens, mabye I start sweating, and my mind labels this bodily experience "fear", ironically dissosciating myself even more from "my body", which I too easily separate from myself only with the use of this thing we call language.

And maybe herein lies parts of the answer, maybe my sense of self comes into being by the mixing of the current sensory input with previous ones, consequently making my mind label it as "my current experience". And it feels like when I am afraid, my body is reacting to experiences that are not really there right now, creeplily close to what some might label "PTSD". And in that way I am reacting on basically merely everything except the thing that is actually propaging from the there and now around me.

So I feel like my body is bracing itself all the time for previous experiences, themselves made up ironically mainly by other previous experiences (it's like an experience inception), and I am only rarely aware of these implicit memories popping up. So actually, am bracing my body for fiction, weird right? And the "me" that seems to be so much distant and in control of this body, seems to be made mainly of memories itself. In this very thought however, I can find immediate peace and a sense of perspective.

Coming back to the question of the thoughts of caring about people, or what we would label "love". Given the above, how much of these thoughts are really a selfless reflection of love, and how much are just previous experiences projected onto that very person, making it possible to see the person as almost everything but how he/she really is? I think just seeing these of my mental patterns, sometimes, even if it is only 2% of the times, makes me see the people around me differently, and with that automatically comes an immense sense of compassion. This I think, is the value of exploring consciousness, and it's altered states, even it it comes with a lot of caveats/nuances.

Since I like metaphors, and because certainly in a psychedelic experience, there seem to be more metaphors than actual factual content (if objective truth really exists is another great topic by the way to overanalyse instead of just having fun), I'd like to share two of them.

First, I'd like to think that sometimes, if I want to be more "ego-less", I need to be more like a child. But, that also seems contradictory, because a child can have a rollercoaster of emotions in 10 seconds, and is that really what being ego-less "should" be like? But then is feeling something a bad thing that I have to stay away from? I recently read the phrasing by Orhan Pamuk that I really like "(as a child, my emotions) didn't bring me closer to my "self", but to the ideas of evil and pain, and that one has to keep away from these things". I think this is a nice way to express the "self" as coming into existence by memories contemplating aversities/desires onto the future, but that the feelings themselves are totally okay. And, you certainly shouldn't learn not to listen to these feelings anymore, but see them as something actionable, bearing in mind that they are the consequence of a mix of many experiences, a part of it is the here and now (and I think this is the experience one should pay attention to), but mainly they are mixed up with situations from the past.

Secondly, I'd like to compare the sense of ego-centered viewing of the world with watching a star in the night's sky. When you do that, you are watching into history. Why? Because the star takes millions of lightyears just to reach you, because we are watching from a distance. Maybe it is the same when we are watching another person. We only see history, our own history, our interactions with this person before, projected onto this person. Why? Because we separate ourselves from a distance from this person (as I said before, sometimes just as easily with the use of language). As long as I have "my needs" and another person has "her/his needs", there is separation and distance. But then, when you think about love, when the needs of the other matter more than your's, or when you see underneath they are exactly the same, then there is very little distance, and you are very close to seeing that person how he/she is just in that moment. Only this I would call true love.

So to conclude, what is the purpose of this seemingly automatic energy that seems to control my thoughts popping up, and the (bodily) feelings of requiring to act upon them? It might sound cheesy, and I know I probably lack the intellectual integrity to handle consistently with this conclusion, but I really think it is love. Why? Because it seems like the underlying purpose of this energy is providing some kind of continuity, not only for myself but for "others" I care about as well, in minimizing pain and maximizing wellbeing.

So, maybe this energy has a layer of learned desires/aversities of previous experiences repeating itself around it, some resistance to the here and now, which I'd like to cal "my self", the image of a well-meant commander popping up in between all the other images of conscious experience, giving the illusion of some static and controllable quality of consiousness. Maybe this commander might need a well deserved rest from time to time, because his quirky habits and traits were finetuned for survival, but 95% of his desires/aversions seem to have very little to do with that. We live in a world in which we are so estranged from our evolutionary origins, where so much is happening, but not much is really going on. But still, there seems to be so much wrong with all these "individuals" in our society.

In the end, I don't think I will ever find an answer to the question about "who or what I am", or how to let go of myself, and how to finally "become" peaceful. It is like inviting a guest at a dinner party whom you know nothing about. How can you invite the indescribable? You can't, you can only leave the door open. Our mind is so clever that whichever guest it has considered inviting, it will sooner or later see that guest at the door. But is that really peace that you would find at the door, or are you just looking back into your own history again? Similarly, can you really seek love, that indescribable thing that all of us are longing for? I don't think so, but I think for some mysterious reason, giving that indescribable thing seems to be much easier.

Oh wait, just hang in there for another few seconds, I should probably wonder if there is anything actionable I can set forward in my life from now on based on the above hyperanalytical ramblings? Well, I think situations, either currently happening or fictious adventures occurring only in my mind, are often better than I see them to be, and I have to see through the past projecting itself upon the present/future. If I could just do this, and learn to trust in this, without ironically consequently falling back to more analytical thoughts, that would be really nice.

And, the same is true for people, they just might also be better than I think they are, everybody is struggling in this world that estranges us from our evolutionary origins, so even without being able to get into their mind, certainly as somebody with autism, I can also choose to trust in this and just be kind.


In the end, have I found an "answer" to my question "who or what are we?". No, and I am left now with more questions than when I first got started. But was it useful to think on these things? Very much. And I have found a better question for the next series of the podcast!