Each one of us sees the world in a different way to everyone else. We each have our own unique world-view, our own take on reality, because of the mental maps we scan the world through.
One of our most powerful mental maps is the one that consists of our personal answers to the question of "what am I?" Our personal take on this one affects everything we do, how we feel about ourselves, how we relate to others and how we live our lives. Ultimately, it can affect the future survival of our species.
If, for example, we had a world-view that went something along the lines of: "The universe is a cold, empty, meaningless place, life is an accident, I am as small and helpless as a gnat and my life is meaningless so I might as well either end it all now or get what I can for myself, whether or not it causes harm to anyone else, because their lives are also meaningless and we're all going to die anyway," we could not be terribly surprised if we found ourselves depressed, unpopular and possibly in prison. Compare that with the view taken by someone who says: "I'm constantly amazed at the miracle of life, the beauty of the world we live in and the way everything is interconnected. I think the greatest miracle of all is the love between people and I do everything I can to look after this world and make others happy. That's what my life is about."
Does that last one seem a bit cheesy and too good to be true? We could think: "It's all very well for that second person to be so goody goody. They probably had all the breaks: rich parents, good education, good job. It's easy to say life is brilliant when you have an easy ride. The other poor soul probably had all the crap thrown at them!"
It's possible. But supposing those two people had lived through exactly the same set of circumstances: same parents, opportunities, wealth and all the rest of it, yet still saw the world in very different ways. How is that possible? Can we choose our view of the world, whatever our circumstances, in the same way that we can put on a different pair of spectacles?
Imagine that you are standing inside a huge glass bubble. Painted on the glass there are lots of dots of different colours. If you were to stand with your eye up against a black spot, the whole world outside the bubble would look black. If you stood back a bit and glimpsed some of the other colours available, you could maybe choose a nice rose-tinted one, or perhaps avoid the dots and look through the clear bits of glass. You might even find a way of washing off all the dots and enjoying a completely unobstructed, all-round view.
We have already looked at how some beliefs may well be more helpful to us than others, both as individuals and as a species.
One of the most widely-held beliefs in the world today is that we are all separate. This idea of separation gives rise to all kinds of problems, from jealousy and crime to war and genocide. Such things are only possible if we see ourselves as discrete entities, different from each other. Even those people who have faith in some kind of over-arching power or being, which many of them call "God", usually see this God as separate from themselves.
Where did the idea of separation come from? It's an easy enough conclusion to draw when we see ourselves as a little temporary bundle of blood and bone surrounded by skin, but now that we know from our scientific enquiries that the universe is an energy field and we are all made from the same stuff, are we still justified in thinking of ourselves as separate from everything, including our God if we happen to have one? Is that not a recipe for loneliness, suffering and conflict?
Let's have a look at what we know about what we are, using what we have already learned from our exploration of how the mind works and our exploration of what the universe and "reality" might be.
What Am I?
If I ask the question "What am I?", I can begin by asking whether or not I am just a body.
Supposing all there was that I could call "me" was a body. I would have senses and reflexes to allow me to interact with my surroundings, recoil from things that are too hot or too cold, respond to light and sound etc, but suppose that was all I could do, like some primitive life form or an android with no on-board computer to allow it to do anything other than react to stimuli in very basic ways.
Clearly there's a bit more to me than that or I wouldn't be sitting here writing this.
The body changes all the time, with cells continuously dying off and being replaced, food molecules being broken down, used and passed back out into the environment. My body, if I can call it "me" at all, is just a temporary holding pattern for the atoms that I have eaten, drunk or breathed in during the last few years, and the ones that were present in my body when I was born are now scattered to the far-flung corners of the world; part of skies, oceans, soil, plants, animals and other people. A carbon atom in my hand right now might once have been part of dinosaur's toenail! And every atom in my body and yours was created in the hearts of suns. So, miraculous as it may be, this body is not me.
So what else am I?
Well for one thing, I do have access to an on-board computer, which I call a brain.
When we studied the APET model, we saw that when the brain receives input, the information is processed through the amygdalae. A patten-matching process takes place via the set of maps or templates through which we scan the world. The new information then gets an emotional tag.
So that's something that sets me a bit apart from a primitive life-form or an android already - I have emotions. I not only see, hear, touch, taste and smell the world around me; I have feelings about it as well.
This is useful for my survival, it gives me fight or flight capabilities and lets me get attracted to some things and avoid some of the unpleasant stuff out there. Sometimes these feelings can be very strong and not particularly useful if I get too bogged down in them.
Fortunately, if I can calm myself down sufficiently, I can step back deeper into myself and access my rational, thinking brain or higher cortex, which can even choose to over-ride emotions if it wants to.
I have access to memories that help me to make sense of things within the context of time and space and enable me to learn from my experiences. I have an ability to name and categorise everything I experience, which allows me to communicate with other people around me using language. I have an imagination which allows me to create pictures, compose music, express my feelings through dance or write poetry. I can calculate, analyse and plan. And, in my mind's eye, I can visualise anything from the entire known universe to the sub-atomic world.
I can even get stuck in all this mental clutter sometimes and have difficulty switching it off, especially at night when I want to go to sleep. Happily, I can also learn techniques to help me to do that. I can meditate and step back to a quiet place beyond thought where I can rest without disturbance from the mind and its mischief.
Perhaps an android could be programmed to do most of these things too. It could store and retrieve vast amounts of information and calculate complicated sums beyond anything my brain could cope with. But could an android have imagination? Could an android have its own motives, rather than those of its programmer? Could an android have original thought and free-will?
I'm a human being. Isn't that a bit more than a collection of parts that can be programmed to do certain things?
Let's step back into myself a bit more, to the part of me that watches the content of my thoughts. I can see that I am thinking.
I can observe my thoughts as they come and go. I can choose what I think about, I can choose to think about nothing and I can choose not to think at all.
Since thoughts, opinions, beliefs and feelings are always changing and since I can stand back and observe these changes, I am clearly not those thoughts, opinions, beliefs and feelings; I am whatever it is that is doing the watching.
If I am trying to work out a particularly complicated problem, there are times when I can just switch off all the mental churning around and go for a swim or have a nap, and then suddenly the solution to the problem emerges, seemingly out of nowhere, not from my logical brain but from some deeper part of me which I call my intuition.
We have not yet programmed robots to have emotions, could we give them intuition? Or will that always be a defining characteristic of humanity that sets us apart from our mechanical creations? Who knows? But even if we did manage to create some super-android that could do all these things, is there still something more to a human being than a machine with feelings, thoughts or even intuition?
Perhaps the key to answering this one lies in the words "human being". I am a human being, not a human doing. Robots are programmed to do things. Even if they ever became so sophisticated that they could reproduce themselves and programme each other, so they didn't need us any more, would they also have an awareness of being? (Like in Isaac Asimov's "I Robot")
Is there not something behind all the mechanisms of my mind which is deeper and more fundamental than all the layers we have discussed so far, a sense of "I am something"? And, when all the labels I place on myself are gone, when I take off all the hats I wear on a day to day basis such as "I am a mother", "I am a friend" or even, "I am a human", is there not still a sense of "I am"?
I wonder if a robot would have this sense; a switched-on-and-aware-but-not-yet-sensing-or-doing-anything kind of awareness, a ready state without a any kind of content or function: just being and, most importantly, being aware of that being.
I know that I am aware that I am.
I also know that people around me appear to work in much the same way. They have thoughts and feelings and flashes of inspiration and intuition, and when they are able to calm down and allow their minds to be still, they can all be simply aware of "I am".
And that's the interesting point here. "Maybe that "I am" in them is the same as the "I am" in me.
I've just described my view of the world from the outside in, like a line from my surroundings via my body, feelings and thoughts to the innermost part of myself, the "I am" that is my deepest - and perhaps my only real - Self.
There are some who would say that the deepest part of me is my Ego, my collection of memories and experiences and wants and desires and opinions and beliefs and idiosyncrasies. They might even say that I have a little inner child hidden within me which is vulnerable and needs protecting. Nothing could be further from the truth. As we have just seen, all of those ideas are peripheral and ever-changing.
Deep inside of me there is something that never changes, something which quietly watches all of my thinking and feeling and ideas and imagined vulnerabilities, without being affected by any of it.
Inside me, inside every one of us, there is something more magnificent than anything we can imagine, and that's what we're going to look at next.
A Walk to the Centre
Imagine a group of people standing in a circle, looking outwards from the centre as if there were a sun in the middle and each of them was looking out along a single ray of that sun. Out at the edge, none of them could see the sun behind them, only whatever it illuminated in front of them.
Now imagine that each of them asks the question: "What Am I?"
Out at the edge, they could be aware of their bodies and senses.
As they stepped back towards the centre, they could notice that they have feelings, thoughts, opinions, beliefs and intuition.
Passing through each layer of being, they would come closer and closer to the centre, and the circle would grow smaller and smaller, until they were standing shoulder to shoulder and could link hands with the people next to them.
At this point, they would have gone deeper than thought, opinion, belief, emotion and even intuition and be at the level of "I am something". They may even realise at this point that everything that separates people from each other (the bodies, emotions, thoughts, opinions and beliefs) were all "out there" at the edge, in the layers they had left behind. They would be beyond their ego, beyond their individual self.
Here, at this deep level where there was no thought, there might be an awareness of connection, of "I am all".
If they were then to turn round and face the point where our imaginary sun was located, the central point upon which they would all be standing if they took just one more step, they could perhaps see that, at the centre of every one of us, there is "I am", and it's the same "I am" in me, in you and in everything.
We are all one.
What lies at the heart of me is what lies at the heart of you, at the heart of everyone else on the planet, at the heart of all life and at the heart of reality itself. There is no vulnerable "inner child". We are one with everything.
Interestingly, the word "sin" was once an archery term meaning "missing the mark". If you view the diagram above as a target, you can see that missing the mark means identifying with the outer layers and missing the centre, the observing Self.
The cure for sin is "atonement" or "at-one-ment". When we see that we are all one, there can be no sin because all greed, fear, anger, jealousy, desire and hostility, all the thoughts and emotions which cause us to harm ourselves and each other, are associated with the outer layers, where we see only the differences and imagine ourselves to be separate.
Looking at this picture, how can any of us be separate? And, if there is a God or some kind of cosmic consciousness, how could that be separate from us?
Why is this a useful and empowering world view?
As individuals, as single rays of that sun, if we can make a habit of stepping back and taking a wider view, we can stop seeing ourselves as a body or as a set of thoughts, opinions and beliefs that we have collected over the years: our ego, which is as insubstantial as the wind. Instead we can step right back to the centre and look out along our ray.
It is when we step back to the centre that we have the power of choice. We can see our connection with everything, our unity, and we can see our mind and body as instruments that we can use. We can use them to be what we choose to be, think what we choose to think, feel what we choose to feel and act as we choose to act. This is the real meaning of the word "freedom".
As a species, if we all truly looked at the world in this way, we would not need laws and threats and punishments (or promises of rewards in heaven) to control us and prevent us from harming one another. Standing at the centre and seeing that we are all one, why would anyone feel the need to harm anyone else, knowing that, by so doing, they would be harming themselves?
Would we not be more likely to begin to look after each other and look after our planet? Would our actions begin to be guided by love instead of by fear?
Would such a vision give us the inner strength to take responsibility for our own actions instead of relying on some kind of omnipotent "father figure" to tell us what to do and help us to sort it all out?
Do we have the capacity to shape our own reality and direct the flow of our own destiny by working together towards a vision of the future that we choose for our species and our planet instead of hurtling blindly towards extinction, brought about by our own greed and fear?
Perhaps it is time for mankind to come of age and for all of us to discover what it is to be fully human.