Monday, 12 July 2010

Mortality and ME part 1

I suppose every individual has their own unique attitude to the fact that we are not immortal. Nevertheless, in a future post I'll try to categorise, no doubt in a banal and simplistic way, some of the attitudes I've come across, and I expect you have too. I think there some discernable types. Here, I'm after trying to say something useful about the ego, the sense that I am ME, and how that relates to mortality awareness.

The neuroscientsts, the experimenters and the writers therefrom (eg Damasio, Greenfield, Blackmore)tell us that it looks as though my (our) consciousness, my sense of being my unique self, my separate identity, is not a thing that sits inside my head and is added to or altered. They can't find "me"ness in there - maybe they will one day, though it doesn't look like it. It seems that our sense of a conscious self, separate from the world and different from everything else and everyone else in it, this "me" consciousness, is not one thing in the brain, but is continually created and re-created using all sorts of bits of brain inter-relating like mad.

So the ego itself is a construct, a set of processes. (Bear with me please, I'll get back to death and all in a bit.)It switches off, or at least winds down, at various times - obviously, or I'd never sleep, never be unaware of myself. My sense of a permanent thing that is ME is, in a scientific sense, an illusion. Not that I don't have an ego, but that it's a construct, not a permanent thing. It shifts, bends, dissolves, re-forms.

OK. If you say so. But it's still a powerful thing. I think it was TS Eliot who said that only those with a strong ego know what a relief it is to escape from it for a while. Something may be no less "real" and powerful to me because it is an illusion. Take the fact that to me Gloria M is an elegant, lively, fun-loving tolerant 42-year old, whereas in fact she's probably a grumpy old bag with attitude and many more years than that. My Gloria M's an illusion, but it works well enough, some of the time...

We escape our egos through total absorption in something, or someone, else. Late Beethoven quartet, sex, worship, being in the "mosh" pit at Glasto (to get down and dirty with the kids for a moment..)and meditation. One of the interesting things about meditation is that most people find it difficult to stay awake, even if they're not actually very tired, and yet they need to, because although sleep is an escape from the ego, meditation works because it is an escape whilst we are still awake. Very different effect.

The ultimate escape from ME-consciousness is of course - death. You may feel there is a permanent you that escapes from the body and goes on to an afterlife.I don't like polarising people's beliefs unnecessarily, but on this one we will have to differ, I'm afraid. (That's why I'm a humanist minister not an Anglican etc minister.) But in any case you might agree that a soul is not the same as an ego. OK - so: death is the end of ME-consciousness.

Gulp. That's all a bit stark, isn't it? We may be rational and "scientific" about it, talk about and indeed feel that death is essential, no life without it, all life must end, etc, but my ME-consciousness is not best pleased about that. Psychologist Dorothy Rowe says that above all we fear the dissolution of the self, actually more than we fear death itself. That seems to me to fit in with what the neuroscientists are telling us - the ME-awareness is a construct, and since we need it for a lot of our living, we will do a lot to protect it so we can construct it anew whenever it's needed. So naturally we fear death as the end not just of my life, but of ME.

Long blog posts are wearying to read, so if you're still with me, thanks, I'll pick this up soon.


  1. I'm still with you and looking forward to where this is going. So often we examine complex ideas about our existence that are based upon some very shoddy assumptions. What is 'me' and what will I do intellectually and emotionally to protect 'it' are questions that are essential to understanding death.
    Good stuff!

  2. Thanks for your encouragement Patrick,I'll plod a few paces onwards quite soon.

  3. Fascinating post, looking forward to the next part.

    I would agree with Patrick and also suggest that these questions are fairly central to understanding life too.

    Onwards, I hope

  4. It is great to finally find out you are a woman! I know the name might seem to give it away, but I thought you might be doing a double bluff with your nom de plume..
    Good post. You mention the great Sue Blackmore, I have become friendly with her, as I am insisting she contributes an essay to the Natural Death Handbook. No soul, no free will, no self. Scares the pants off me. Fiercely intelligent, generous and open hearted, even if it is all just crackling synapses.

  5. Thanks Rupert. I like your description of Ms Blackmore - I'd just add, having read recently her book "10 Zen Questions," that she's also intellectually and emotionally very brave. Excellent idea to get her into the mighty and hugely valued NDH, the insights opened up by her way of being and her ways of telling us about it are enormous. Interstellar. I bet she'd be embarrassed by all this gush, bet she'd hate being seen as a guru, but she is unique and very valuable.People who can live on the frontier are hugely important to the rest of us. I also like "crackling synapses." Could be a book title.
    I think, on a trivial matter, and talking of frontiers, that it's tricky to rely too much on indications of sex or gender valency via the can go wrong either way and up the middle too...
    I'll look forward to SB's essay in the next ed. of NDH, then.

  6. You are absolutely right GM, I am suitably chastened. It was an assumption that stuck, as assumptions tend to. I have now change my mental avatar of you.
    Sue popped up in a book I was flicking through yesterday, 6 Feet Over by Mary Roach. Roach was talking about Michael Persinger's "God Helmet" in which weak magnetic fields specifically directed cause mild temporal lobe epilepsy and produce a sensation of "the other" which can account for religious experiences, visions, ghosts, ufo's etc. Sue had one of the strongest reactions of anyone, and one of the weirdest of her life, quite something as she is no stranger to an altered state. Funnily enough, Persinger was not quite the debunker that Roach had assumed he was, that pesky assumption rearing up again, being perfectly open to the idea that it was merely enabling us to see what was really there. Wouldn't you love a go on that?
    BTW, Sue no longer technically a Ms, if I understand the prefix correctly; she married her long term partner Adam Hart Davis in June. The service was of course, Humanist.
    More of this stuff please GM.

  7. Fascinating. Thanks. Can I get a God Helmet on eBay? Maybe saints etc were born with one screwed on, as it were. And of course, whether "It" (i.e. Himself)is actually "there" or whether it's merely crackling synapses might make little difference, objectively viewed, to the value of the experience. Oh dear. More fodder for my ramblings.

    But such explorations are the territory of the frontier rangers such as SB. Maybe her reaction was strong,exactly because she has explored so rigorously her own mental processes and meditative states.If you'd never seen a painting or a photo in your life, you might think Picasso's "Demoiselles d'Avignong" was a pretty arrangement, no more. If you approach it through the experience of Constable, Impressionism etc then your reaction will be all the stronger because it is neurologically "well informed." Or not. I'm out of here, the ice is thin...

    No chastening intended, Rupert, and you're right about Ms, and I knew she was married, so there we are again with identity fluidity sliding all around us in the wonderful way it does!

  8. Oh, and Rupert, congratulations to Ms Blackmore, er, that is, Mrs Hart-Davis, well, you know who I mean..

  9. I will pass on your congratulations. I will nudge her this way, but I do know she feels mildly harassed by information bombardment.
    Regarding whether saints were born with a god helmet on, Persinger's theory is that the geomagnetic field of the earth is responsible for these visions,seeing as ghosts and religious visions are often site specific. This idea chimes with those of people like Paul Devereux a researcher into "ecopsychology" and the late Fortean trickster John Keel, who created amongst other things, the myth of Men in Black.
    I too am out of here. Where will it end??

  10. Hmph. This comments column reads like an exhilarating or an insane slalom ride.

    I think an interesting aspect of ME is that it remains so unembodied. We have no idea how our physical presence affects other people or what we look like when we're listening... When we perform through our bodies (a speech, an interview) we have no insights into how it went - "How did I do? How did that come across??"

    We should never see ourselves as ME sees us. Others see a different ME altogether.

    I don't know that narcissism is a widespread disposition. Most people have a very uneasy relationship with ME. Death offers respite through remission, and for that I shall be eternally grateful.