The Grand Illusion
Self-identity: A useful fiction or an idea that is ready for retirement?
This essay is part of a series called ‘Seeing Ourselves as Systems’. Sign up here to get access to future posts.
One of my favourite lessons from Entangled Life, Merlin Sheldrake’s fascinating book on the extraordinary world of fungi, is just how hard it can be to distinguish between separate species with absolute clarity. Where does a tree end and the mycelium begin? What is the centre of a fungal network? How do we locate its locus of control? None of these questions have clear answers.
The fungi perspective reminds us of the forest’s nature— that it isn’t this collection of separate parts but rather a deeply complex system of constantly changing physical connections. Biological organisms giving way to ecological systems.
Like the forest, you and I are also dynamic, complex, open and interconnected systems. Where exactly does my body end and the environment begins.
We may think of ourselves as separate objects acting independently of the surrounding context, but this is just a story that we have mistaken for reality. An illusion we got a bit too close to. “A fallacy of mistaken concreteness”, as Alfred North Whitehead famously said.
APPROACH WITH SKEPTICISM
Upon engaging with this topic, I can easily imagine warning bells going off in some readers minds…
“What are you going on about, David?? Of course, I am separate from my environment!”
That’s fine. I get it. One of the brain’s primary functions is to maintain a steady state—physiologically, but also psychologically. If a model of the world is perceived to be working, then your psychological immune system will perceive harmful or disruptive ideas as threats, especially ideas that challenge its fundamental schemas.
If you find yourself getting defensive or triggered by the story that follows, try to pay attention to the texture of that feeling and the patterning of the thoughts that arise with it. Also remember, that like the story I am investigating, the very investigation is itself a story of sorts… a model to examine a model. Okay, that’s enough for disclaimers.
WHAT AM I?
It may appear obvious that you and I are these separate bodies with names and personal histories. You are attending to the words I have written on this page, right?
If this is unquestionably the case, I encourage you to look a little deeper. Go a little further. Restrain your certainties and cultivate some curiosity towards the possibility that things may work differently to the way they seem.
To do this, you really need to go sincerely into this question of “What am I?” You need to explore it from every possible angle and do so without fear or expectation of what you may find.
Let’s go into the question together—What am I?
Am I my thoughts—the thoughts that I am thinking? Surely, not. Thoughts arise and then disappear. They come and go. Sometimes they ruminate for a while, but inevitably, they move on. Clearly, I am not the thoughts.
Neither am I the thinker. Sorry, Descartes. It is evident that ‘I’ still remain when there is no thinker—as is the case in flow states and deep meditation. The thinker comes and goes, but yet I seem to remain.
The same can be said for moods, emotions and feelings. Like thoughts, they arise and move on. Sometimes they linger. Sometimes they appear sharply without invitation. But inevitably, they lose their grip and move on. Yet I remain. Clearly, I am not my feelings.
Am I my body? I feel like my body is always with me. Perhaps my body is what I am. Is that what I am?
Again, the answer is no. Like the Ship of Theseus, my body is constantly changing. New cells are born, and others die every minute. After seven years, my body will be made of an entirely new set of cells from the one that exists today. That means my bones, neurons, and organs will be completely different too. My body is also home to fungi, viruses, archaea, protozoa and a bustling microbiome of gut bacteria. All these things come and go, yet I seem to remain. Clearly, I am not my body.
Sheldrake writes eloquently about this idea in his book:
Your “microbiome”—your body is a planet. Some prefer the temperate forest of your scalp, some the arid plains of your forearm, some the tropical forest of your crotch or armpit. Your gut (which if unfolded would occupy an area of thirty-two square meters), ears, toes, mouth, eyes, skin, and every surface, passage, and cavity you possess teem with bacteria and fungi. You carry around more microbes than your “own” cells. There are more bacteria in your gut than stars in our galaxy.”
What about my name?
Am I my name? Obviously not. If I wanted to, I could head to the department of home affairs and begin the process of changing my name. I could start calling myself Cassandra. I could change my email sign-offs, social profile names and identification documents. Eventually, the label would change. Yet I remain.
Maybe I’m thinking about this the wrong way…
As opposed to a physical object or a label, maybe a better way to understand what I am is as a structure or a pattern of some sort. Perhaps I am the unique set of DNA that makes up my genome? That seems closer. I am the unique combination of 30 000 genes. I am my DNA!
This brings up another problem, though…
When I die, my bones will still carry my unique DNA. So my DNA will exist, yet I will not. If I cut my leg, my DNA will leave my body through the outpouring blood, yet surely I cannot say that I am that outpouring blood, right? If I provide fluids to map the DNA of my genome, I cannot say that I am those fluids. If I donate an organ to someone, I can’t say that I am that person. It becomes even more apparent when epigenetics is brought into the picture— i.e. my phenotype is entirely different depending on whether certain combinations of genes are turned on or off. And then, ofcourse, there are identical twins who share the same DNA code.
Clearly, I am not my DNA.
AM I USEFUL?
So I am not thought or the thinker, feelings nor the feeler. I am not the body or the brain or the bones that hold them together, nor the DNA instruction manual that is used to build the cells, organs and bodily systems. I am not my name nor the labels that are given to me.
Performing the inquiry regularly makes it clear that ‘I’ do not exist in any real and permanent sense. Neither do you.
The “I” is nothing more than a label assigned for functional purposes. An illusion. An apparently useful fiction. A map. A story. A concept. A model.
But is the model a pragmatic one? Is it useful to see myself as a separate organism, acting independently of the world around it?
Perhaps this story of ‘I’ is responsible for all the suffering and misery in the world. For all the depression, fear, hatred, and the lack of love. For all the confusion. For the disconnection. For all the apathy towards the natural world around us.
What if we loosened our occupation with ‘I’ and saw ourselves more like natural systems? Open, connected, complex and impermanent. Not only would this be a more accurate representation, but perhaps it may make us happier and healthier too.
Just a thought.
Share the love: If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing or forwarding it to family members, friends and colleagues. Are you that family member, friend or colleague? You can sign up for free here.
Let’s start a conversation: If you have any questions or thoughts on the content discussed in this post, let’s start a conversation. If you’re in your inbox, you can reply directly to this email. If you are on the Substack post, you can add a comment below.