!9:ΣE>77, Intergalactic Anthropologist

© Dr. Chris Schriner 2006
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
November 5, 2006

[Minister walks to the microphone with two antennae seemingly growing out of the top of his head:] How very strange and wonderful to be back here on my home planet, safe and sound. Two years is a long time to be gone, and it certainly seemed like ten years to me. In case any of you are unfamiliar with my expedition, I should explain that I traveled to Planet Three in Solar System 2079. For two years I lived on that planet among the Northern Californians to study their peculiar humanoid ways of thinking, speaking, and acting.

Now that I am back again with you, my fellow participants in the planet of Centros, I am ready to report my findings. (But first, if you don't mind my being informal, I'd like to remove my antennae. Ahhh, that's better.)

This morning I will discuss a concept that is used every day among Earth people, but which is quite difficult for us here on Centros to understand. This concept is expressed by a word that is spelled S-E-L-F, pronounced, "self." This syllable is combined with other words that refer to persons - myself, yourself, ourselves, and after two years on Earth I will probably lapse into using these terms "myself." Earthlings use the word self in referring to who they are - to themselves, as they would say. In the past we have translated this word into our term centerpoint, because you and I think about who we are in terms of centerpoints - we are centers of consciousness, centers of feeling and thinking and activity. Such a translation could not possibly have been more misleading! The term centerpoint and the term self, as used on Earth, are totally different.

Center implies that the center is part of something else. If I hold up this paper and say to you, "Show me the center of the page," you point toward the middle of it. Obviously this central area is continuous with the rest of the paper; it is not something separate. But the Earth idea of self actually implies separateness, as if humans were free from outside influences. One of their most famous poems reads, "I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul." (From "Invictus," by William Earnest Henley)

The line of demarcation between the self and the outside world is presumed to be the skin. (Chuckle) I know that seems bizarre. You and I are vividly aware that our skin is interpenetrated as we breathe and eat. Various cosmic particles pass through us all the time, and perceptions penetrate us as well. My voice enters you through the ears; your faces enter my eyes. Earth people know this too, because their bodies are similar to ours, and just as permeable. Yet they still imagine that whatever is inside of the skin, is them.

Some of their scientists are now questioning this myth of the separate self. While visiting California, I went to a lecture by a minister - his name was Shiner or Schrimer - who talked about "Family Therapy." In the past few decades psychotherapists on Earth have discovered that members of a family interpenetrate each other psychologically - Duh! - and that the best way to change the behavior of one member of a family may be to gather the whole clan and work on the family system. This is an example of what they call "systems thinking," and Dr. Schrimmer was so charmingly excited about this idea. I endured his little sermon with a condescending smile, but apparently this is something new for Earth people.

Systems thinking seems to be catching on in this fellow's church, which I think was called the Contrarian Universalizers of Mission-Speak. I heard their choir singing about the interdependent web of existence, and being "part of every mountain, sea, and, shore." ("This Tough-Spun Web" by Carolyn McDade) But I doubt that Schimer and the others really understand this idea.

One Earthling who did seem free from the illusion of separateness was a writer named Alan Watts, now deceased. Listen to this wonderfully ironic passage from a work of his called, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are.

Society ... pulls [a] trick on every child from earliest infancy. ... the child is taught that he is ... a free agent, an independent origin of thoughts and actions - a sort of miniature First Cause. [The child] ... accepts this make-believe for the very reason that it is not true. He can't help accepting it..p (p. 65)

We seldom realize . . . that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, ... We copy emotional reactions from our parents ... we do not exist apart from a society. Society is our extended mind and body.

[And Watts concludes:] Yet the very society from which the individual is inseparable is using its whole irresistible force to persuade the individual that he is indeed separate! (p. 64)

Now I should clarify that humans do know that society and family are important. Some Californians even honor their ancestors on a holiday called Day of the Dead, perhaps without realizing how alive the dead are within their own minds.

Nevertheless, even as some humans are questioning the illusion of the separate self, others are reinforcing and exaggerating this idea. Certain popular psychotherapists not only say that each so-called "individual" is like a little walled city, they imply that our personal walls are tall and strong enough to withstand any outside force. One should take total responsibility for one's own fate. So obviously if people have financial problems, it must be their fault. If someone catches a cold, a pop-psychologist might ask, "Are you in touch with how you created that cold? Why did you want to get sick?"

So the first key difference between our concept of the personal center, here on the planet Centros, and the human concept of self that I discovered while visiting Earth, is that Earth-people see the self as separate from the rest of reality, whereas you and I know that our personal centers are continuous with everything that surrounds us.

A second remarkable oddity about the Earth people's idea of "self" is that the self supposedly continues through the passage of time. When you and I speak of the way we "were" in the past or "will be" in the future, this is just a convenient way of speaking. Obviously I'm not the same person I was five or ten years ago. Earth people dimly realize this, and yet they actually maintain that they're the same person when they were conceived as when they die. Honestly, I'm not making this up!

Perhaps this illusion of personal continuity is reinforced by the strange custom of using the same name throughout their lives, at least among males. You and I, here on our planet, are identified by a code-cipher. Mine is printed in your lecture-program. But we also have many other names. People have attached well over a hundred different labels to me, and we enjoy this diversity; we even have fun with it. But on Earth, there is one name, and they take that little identifying tag so seriously! If you want to upset Earthlings, just mis-pronounce their names or make fun of them. They get so upset.

Because they assume that their identity persists, many humans feel great pride or shame about what they did or did not do in days long gone by. They also obsess about death, wondering whether their continuous stream of personal identity will keep going in an afterlife. Here on Centros we also treat death as a mystery, but it is just one small aspect of the greater mystery of change; we're changing all the time. But Earth people find it almost impossible to accept the obvious fact that all creatures are dying and being reborn every single second.

Again Alan Watts tries to help them see the obvious. He writes that

A human body is like a whirlpool; there seems to be a constant form, called the whirlpool, but it functions for the very reason that no water stays in it. (The Book, p. 43.)

Actually one of their major religions, Buddhism, declares that "all things are impermanent, all is without a self." But I wonder how many Buddhists truly understand this teaching.

So humans think their skin separates them from the rest of the world, and they believe that the contents of this bag of skin persist through the passage of time. The third and final difference between our view and theirs is that they conceive of themselves as internally consistent. Inside their skin there is a single united personality. Of course, you and I are keenly aware of having many, many "selves" - hundreds of potential ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. We expect to experience internal conflict and ambivalence, and we set up our lives and our society in ways that reflect this reality. Earth people have as much inner conflict as we do, but they will not admit that this is their natural condition. There's something "wrong" with them if they have mixed feelings and contradictory thoughts. They become particularly upset if their government leaders show any sign of inconsistency; they call this "flip-flopping." You and I would assume that anyone who is unable to flip-flop must be mentally defective.

Because of their peculiar beliefs about "self," Earthlings try to program their lives as if they could be totally consistent. Their preachers expound on the virtues of monotonously uniform behavior, using the word, "character," which seems to mean that a person's actions are predictable.

One of their psychologists, Robert Ornstein, realizes that each person has many facets, and he cites examples of human inconsistency. He writes,

Imagine that you are alone in a room and hear someone cry for help ... Would you help? Probably. Now, imagine that you are sitting with a few other people when you hear a cry for help. Would you go to help? ... No, probably: you are three times less likely to help if there are six people in the room than if you are alone. The group we are in has a profound effect on us, more than we would like to think. ... we compare our attitudes with those of the group; we make decisions we never would have made if we had been alone. (Robert Ornstein, Multimind, p. 88.)

We here on the planet Centros understand that even if someone commits a terrible crime while one aspect of the personality is in control, other aspects of that person may be positive and even compassionate. But some of the most influential religions on Earth teach that God judges each person as either good or bad, and sends the good ones to paradise and the bad ones to eternal damnation - as if each person were consistently good or evil. They sometimes sense that there's a saint in every sinner and a sinner in every saint, but usually their view of the goodness or badness of each center of consciousness is astonishingly one-dimensional. They then project this limited and ignorant understanding onto their gods.

So even though Earth people are similar to us in many ways, their idea of the self strikes us as odd for three crucial reasons. They imagine that the self is separate from what is not-self, endures through the passage of time, and is internally consistent, at least in those with good character. And unless one realizes that Earth-people really believe these three ideas, one cannot begin to understand what it is like to dwell on Planet Three of their solar system.

If I could have left any gift for the Earthlings, it would have been the gift of a multi-dimensional sense of "self." I've even imagined giving this talk to Rev. Shrinnimer's congregation, since they seemed to be rather open-minded. After the talk, I would have asked them to think about it for a week, noticing that the outside world does penetrate inside their skin, that they do change from moment to moment, and that their minds keep shifting so that various aspects of their personalities take turns running the show. I'd have promised that we would talk about these ideas further next Sunday, and perhaps even could go into the religious implications of a more complex and multi-leveled sense of "self." But of course there's no way for me to do that.

I want to close with a speculation. Perhaps the root of this odd idea of self is just a simplistic desire for neatness and order, a tendency to force reality into tidy little compartments. Again, Alan Watts sounds as if he would have been more at home on our planet than theirs, as he writes:

Apart from such human artifacts as buildings and roads (especially Roman and American roads), our universe, including ourselves, is thoroughly wiggly . . . Clouds, mountains, plants, rivers, animals, coastlines - all wiggle. They wiggle so much and in so many different ways that no one can really make out where one wiggle begins and another ends, whether in space or in time. Some French classicist of the eighteenth century complained that the Creator had seriously fallen down on the job by failing to arrange the stars with any elegant symmetry, for they seem to be sprayed through space like the droplets from a breaking wave. (The Book, p. 52.)

If I were an Earth-creature, I guess I would want to see order and symmetry in my own nature. If I experienced my mind as a breaking wave, I might feel confused, anxious, and threatened. But I hope that some humans have flashes of lucidity in which they realize that the breaking wave of every conscious moment possesses such power, magnificence, open potential, and delicious complexity. For to see through the illusion of the simple and separate self is to expand that little centerpoint and join the larger self, the vast interconnected community of all that has breath.

To the second sermon in this series

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