Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Last week in my God of Science/Science of God class we were exploring the neurological nature of belief. At one point the young woman leading the discussion asked us, “What is the one belief that you find the most difficult to give up?”

Before I go one, answer that for yourself: What is the one belief that you find the most difficult to give up?

As we went around the classroom answering her question most of us offered beliefs associated with faith: the belief in the Trinity, the belief that God is love, the belief that God loves me.

Dig deeper, I kept urging them, dig deeper. Then it was my turn. The answer had come to me as soon as the question was asked. The one belief that I find most difficult to abandon is the belief that I exist.

Like Descartes, I can doubt everything but the fact that it is I who doubts.

Intellectually I do in fact doubt the existence of an independent thinker. Intellectually I suspect that the “I” I think I am is an illusion, the by-product of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations generated by the firing of millions of neurons in “my” head. I am, quite literally, an after-thought.

I accept this self-as-after-thought as being an accurate description of reality, and yet I cannot surrender the feeling of “I” that the brain generates. After all, who would do the surrendering? And yet there are moments when “I” am surrendered; when grace overwhelms me and “I” am no more. These are moments of exquisite silence; the silence hinted at in 1 Kings 19:12 (Still Small Voice). “I” do not conjure these moments; there is no way for me to do so. They are a gift from God who is my true self. Yet I can prepare myself to receive the gift.

Even in class, as the answer to the question arises within me I sense an I behind the “I”, a field of awareness that is pure subject. As soon as I become aware of it, it vanishes, of course, as I have made an object of it and thereby hidden myself in the illusion of self. My practice, then, is to trace the “I” to its source, to see it arising, and to know that my true self is that source from which the “I” arises. This is what Ramana Maharshi calls self-inquiry. Of course this glimpse of God is lost as soon as it appears, for the “I” that sees it is not the I that is It. But something lingers of the true I even as I take refuge in the illusory one.

The Hasidic sage Reb Nachman of Bratslav calls this “rishimu,” the fragrance of scented oil that lingers long after the oil itself is gone. The fragrance of God permeates everything, hinting at a Presence even when It cannot be found. For now I am content to breathe deeply of the fragrance and let the smell remind me of the One I am.


Phil said...

My own most tenaciously-held belief is not the Cartesian cogito or any variant thereof, just because my existence, and yours, and that of everyone else I encounter, seem too palpably immediate and real to question in the first place. No, for me it's the belief that our species is evolved and the correlative hope that it is still evolving. It's very hard, to the point of disorienting, to imagine reasons strong enough to compel my abandonment of that belief/hope. I don't guess anyone in class said that?

Aaron said...

I have a belief I refuse to give up on. Or at least, I have so far. I believe selfhood matters. While I too find it possible to doubt the existence of the self, and am willing to accept its dissolution (either through meditative practice or...um...death), I cannot accept that selfhood is therefore a meaningless or negative condition.

There often seems a bias in mysticism to me: away from self and toward God. But God, it seems, moves the other way: from the eternal and ideal to the transcient and concrete. Otherwise, why creat the universe at all?

In Exodus, when Moses asks God who he/she/it/they is, God replies: I am that I am. I've seen this translated a number of other ways, but none that satisfy me the way this syntactical glitch does. God's answer here is either that godhood or god consciousness and selfhood or individual consciousness produce and sustain each other. The I/thou relationship central to Judaism is (I think) an insistance on the necessity of both self and god consciousness. So I can accept that I am an illusion: but I refuse to give the illusion up.