I found this little fossil pipi in a crumbling cliff face near Raglan. I am told it is from the Jurassic period. To think about that, imagine a time line with a space of 1mm for every year; OK? Now, the width of your computer screen would be about 1/2 a metre - that is, it would represent the time from Christopher Columbus until the present. Now imagine the line shooting off the side of your monitor, and continuing on for another 140 kilometres and you'd get an idea of the span of time since this little guy was filtering yummy tidbits out of the sludge on some Jurassic seabed. It was once a living thing, like the hand that holds it. Now it's not a live thing anymore but a stone; yet something of it remains: the pattern of it, the shape of it. Or at least a faint semblance of the shape of it has persisted across that vast, almost unimaginable chasm of time. The shape has outlived the transformation of every atom that once made it up.
The hand too is just a pattern or a shape. It's made of atoms, none of which are alive. The atoms are made of .... well, nothing really, as it turns out. They seem, as far as we can tell, to be shapes or patterns of energy in a similar way that a whirlpool is a pattern or shape of water. Or, another metaphor I quite like is music. Music is a shape or pattern of sound, that exists completely independently of the instrument that plays it. The pattern or shape is what matters, not the stuff that gives the shape some sort of form. We people are shapes the universe has formed in the kind of energy we call matter.
The big question for me is: what exactly is this shape? What is this thing I call myself? Descartes, responding to various people who thought that the self didn't exist said "Cogito Ergo Sum: I think therefore I am" What he meant was that because there were thoughts that he was aware of, something must exist to be doing the thinking. Well, OK, that's obvious, but it doesn't get us very far, because it doesn't explain what exactly is this thing that is cogitoing.
Where do you look for it? How do you study your own consciousness? It's impossible really, because the thing being studied is the thing that is doing the studying. Trying to examine your consciousness is like trying to bite your teeth. It's like trying to photograph your camera: it can be done but only by using a mirror or another camera. We see ourselves, in other words, only as we are reflected in the world and people around us or as another perceives us. What we are seeing is not our consciousness but only an image or a shadow or a copy of it.
Despite the difficulty of perceiving ourselves, most of us do have a very strong sense of self. We know our shape, more or less. We know the sorts of things we like and feel. We know how we act. We have a sense of continuity, that the Me who played in the sandpit at 5 is the same Me who plays on the computer at 55. Now here's the tricky bit. This Me, this self we are aware of, is not exactly the same thing as the consciousness who is aware.
Varela, and before him the Buddhists, say that this self we are aware of; this Me who seems to have such strength and such a continuous existence, is in fact an illusion. It is sort of a mirage; a little piece of sleight of hand that is being played out in the universe. It's a very persistent and strong illusion, and it seems, for most of us, to have taken us over to the extent that most of what we do is an attempt to reinforce the idea that the illusion is in fact real. I think Varela is right but to say that the self we perceive is an illusion is not the end of the story, because there's something bigger, deeper, more real than ourselves lying under the illusion: something that is as much richer and more complex and more exciting than our illusory selves as a real pipi is from a stone facsimile. I think there is a deeper reality that we can only arrive at when the illusion we call the self is seen for what it is. Which is more easily said than done. Perhaps this process of seeing through the illusion to the real life beneath is what Jesus meant when he told us that 'whoever finds his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it' (Mtt 10:39)
So what's the nature of this deeper reality? Aha! Good question, that.