For many years, I have wondered about the nature of mind and self, identity and personality. My story, What’s Left is about a woman who has a brain aneurysm which floods much of the right side of her brain, leaving her with her capacity for math and logic, but no memory of those she loves. The story was inspired by what happened to a couple I knew thirty-eight years ago.
Where did she go? I wanted to know. Her personality altered so dramatically that the couple no longer knew or liked each other and parted not long after her recovery. How could her personality be erased by blood and be replaced by another just like that? Who was she now?
In my twenties, I had a dream where I had been committed to an asylum. I would come to consciousness for fragments of moments and then descend into a restless darkness for interminable periods. At last I broke through to find myself on a bench in a hallway with my sister beside me. I looked at her pitying face and asked her, “Do I live here?” And when she nodded, I wailed in despair only to be sucked back down into a hellish powerless blackness.
I have read and reread many times Baba Ram Dass’s, Be Here Now, wherein he learns from an Indian guru the nature of presence and being. I have spent years sitting in meditation watching my thoughts float by, practicing detachment, witnessing, calm abiding – what my guru calls No-Mind. Perhaps it’s the mind itself that wants answers, wants to know the nature of itself, but these days, with the ever-increasing number of people suffering from Dementia and Alzheimer’s, the question arises again and again, “Who am I?” that “I” can be snatched away in a flash?
In Osho centres and ashrams there is a “course” one can take, called the “Awareness Intensive.” In this three day workshop, the participants pair off and ask the question again and again, “Who is in?” It used to be, “Who am I?” taken from a device used by Ramana Maharshi to help his disciples move deeply into the nature of being and self. Sarovara, who leads this process has this to say about the transition: “This new question is a progress from the traditional “Who Am I?” to make it clear to the seeker to not to get stuck in the layer of personality but to penetrate even deeper, to find the source of consciousness, the centre of our Buddha Nature…”
But what if we lose the mind with which we are questioning it? What if we lose our grip and slide into a morass of confusion and forgetfulness? Are we still pure awareness or are we empty shells, having lost our opportunity to break through the illusions of the ego?
I have had moments of breakthrough, small “satoris” where there is simply a freshness, an openness, a silence that is full and bright, where all these constructs fall away, and for those brief glimpses, “I” am not. But then a kind of panic grabs hold and snatches me back. The ego isn’t too happy about not being in charge and it will do whatever it needs to in order to stay in control. To keep me thinking about mind rather than dissolving into the bliss of no-mind.
Are we our minds? When our minds are gone do “we” still exist? Does it matter, except to those who love us? Sigh. I’d better go sit and let these ideas zoom by like cars on the highway of thought and try not to get into any of them – not even the shiny red sports models.