A Small Medium at Large

“Go to a novelty store to buy a dummy rubber hand.  Then construct a two-foot by two-foot cardboard “wall” and place it on a table in front of you.  Put your right hand behind the cardboard so that you cannot see it directly.  Next have your friend stroke identical locations on both your hidden hand and the dummy hand synchronously while you look at the dummy.   Within seconds, you will experience the stroking sensation as arising completely from the dummy hand.  The experience is uncanny, for you know perfectly well that you are looking at a disembodied rubber hand, but that doesn’t prevent your brain from assigning sensation to it.  This illusion illustrates, once again, how ephemeral your body image is and how easily it can be manipulated.”  – Dr. Ramachandran

In a series of mind-bending exercises, Dr. Ramachandran demonstrates the malleability of our body image, sense of location, even how we can “experience touch sensations arising from tables and chairs that bears no physical resemblance to coming from (our own) human body parts.”   Give it a try! Readers can Google “rubber hand magic supplies” for retail sources.  

NOTE:  Not all who try the experiment are successful in getting quick results; the time can range from minutes to much longer, but don’t let this stop you from trying.   The goal is not to offer an entertaining parlor trick, but to self-awaken. 

In Ramachandran’s words, “your own body is a phantom, one that your brain has temporarily constructed for convenience.”  In describing the effects of an experiment where the rubber hand is eliminated, and the friend simply stokes the surface of the table itself (in tandem with one’s own hidden hand), he states:

“It was as though the table itself had now become coupled to the student’s own limbic system and had been assimilated into his body image . . .  Indeed the technique may give us a handle on the elusive psychological phenomena such as the empathy and love you feel for a child or a spouse.  If you are deeply in love with someone, is it possible that you have actually become a part of that person?  Perhaps your souls – and not merely your bodies – have become intertwined.”

He continues:  “Now just think about what all this means.  For your entire life, you’ve been walking around assuming that your “self” is anchored to a single body that remains stable and permanent at least until death.  Indeed, the “loyalty” of yourself to your own body is so axiomatic that you never even pause to think about it, let alone question it.  Yet these experiments suggest the exact opposite – that your body image, despite all its appearance of durability, is an entirely transitory internal construct that can be profoundly modified with just a few simple tricks.  It is merely a shell that you’ve temporarily created for successfully passing on your genes to your offspring.”

At this point, I know that very few who read these words are going to try this experiment.  Most will opt for an intellectual or conceptual idea of this unsettling body-mind experiment, and settle for less.  We’ll push our hands into the pockets of our dressing gowns and look knowledgeably into the distance.   “Now I know all about it,” we say.  “Eddie’s in the wash.”  It’s the default position in American education:  Assume that reading about something creates the same shift in perception that comes from an actual experience.  It is also how our post-modern generations have been educated into near total helplessness.  

But we don’t know diddly-squat about anything until it’s tried.  Even in a party setting, where gales of laughter arise in the act of profound body/mind translocation, many hang back content only to watch.  Why?  The sad fact is that many of us live in a kind of generalized fear – a fear of being in the city, of physical threat, or maybe anxious about fearful and terrible things that are happening continuously around our world.  Then there is the threat of extinction – loss of human existence altogether.  It’s not just a personal fear of death – we are immersed in an omni-phobic culture – armed to the teeth, afraid of virtually everything.

So, before I proceed to the cool and entertaining neuroscience stuff, a brief detour into something a bit more profound is necessary:  The fear of death is not a characteristic of death; fear is a characteristic of life.  When we’re actually dead we will know what it is – and maybe we’ll not be capable of knowing anything at all – and we’re even afraid of that.  

Mark Twain remarked, “I have no fear of death. I was dead billions and billions of years before I was born, and I’m here to tell you, I wasn’t inconvenienced by it one bit.”

All this, it can be said, has something to do with ignorance of the actual nature of the One and the nature of Reality.  Although we try to ignore it- try to hide the fact we are identified with the body/mind in a background cloud of noise, arts, sports, music, politics– we’re fundamentally afraid of death and we don’t like it at all.  It’s not something we look into often, nor deeply.  So what happens in fear? 

It is a contraction in the body mind, a constriction of the natural and easeful flow of simply being.  The energy, the muscles and nerves- all constrict whenever there is the perception of an “other.”  Where ever there is another, fear arises.  “Otherness” is a fundamental illusion of egoity; whenever there is self-contraction, fear arises.  There is nothing about this illusion of otherness, of difference, of the “I, me, mine” point of view where fear is absent.

For there to be growth, to handling all our presumptions of separateness, we must witness – and not identify with – the impulse that is fear.  In the practice of mindfulness we become aware of the illusions that accompany it as such.  Slight variations of these illusions include otherness, relatedness, and ‘differences.’  Just to exist in a body/mind is to feel trapped, to fear.  Doesn’t it make sense to surrender to Reality itself?  Ok, but how? 

Devotion begins with a tacit recognition that there’s a power greater than ourselves, a Being of which we are temporal extensions.  We can be carried by this recognition, moved by it, instructed by it until we become grounded in our spiritual practice.  What’s that look like when our practice or faith culminates in the transcendence of egotism?  Peace, Knowledge, Bliss, they say. When self-contraction, as fear, as the very substance of ego is no longer unconscious and overwhelming, the mind is no longer constrained to operate experientially.  Advanced souls can broadcast the feeling of ever-new joy from the same level.  It becomes creation through participation.   

Fear is always coming from somewhere else, caused by something else, and once suffered, we end up somewhere else.  Notice how the premise of strategic separation comes with the magical thinking of a personalized fear, and that a personalized salvation, like a mirror image, comes from the same place in consciousness.  Hierarchical religious systems, often arrayed in battle against each other, also teach that salvation is located somewhere else, caused by somebody else, and when saved you will end up someplace else.  Thus, are we assigned an escape pod for the mighty fiction of our egos, and, believing we “know”, think little more about it.  Somewhere far in the background is the idea of “peace on earth.”  So which is it?  Meanwhile, we continue to live in fear.

It would seem that the actual experience of becoming One is our greatest fear of all.  A glance at the world shows we want nothing to do with it. We have all these competing belief systems, because the real implication of fear is not about physical death, but the fear of total loss of the individuated self in Union with God.  When a drop meets the ocean, it’s no more a drop.  This would be the condition in which our very worst fears are completely and terminally realized.  

It somehow seems logical to proclaim truth, but not actually realize it, or find the real God, because it would require a total loss of “individuality.”  So we double-down on our defensiveness.  Some compete to “save” others, to sheep-swap (raid other congregations), another extension of egoity itself.  How is it we fail to identify all this suffering as our own activity?  Or, that we can neither feed ourselves nor our neighbors should a bad situation arise?  We can do better.

 OK!  So all the stuff I urge readers to try out goes with the understanding that this column is written around the collegiate level, deals in abstractions, may involve a dictionary at times, and occasionally pokes into areas some may fear to tread.  But please just realize the whole point of taking out our brains and playing with them has the important objective:  to kindle up the desire to create a permaculture movement in our generation; to face the future as one people.

Are we skeptical?   Well, I hope not.  The educated skeptic is a perpetual questioner.  He reflexively challenges any truth claim that requires that he undergo a process of self-transformation in order to fully comprehend the answer.  He demands yes-or-no “facts,” not an invitation to engage in a process that he cannot dominate both meaning and outcome.  Skepticism, as the ongoing celebration of peeing on one electric fence after another, is a sad substitute for actual mental health if you ask me. Suggestions that we, the Ozark people, can manage our own lives and economies are not to be hooted down with, well, skepticism.