Michael teaches yoga and meditation, practises bodywork, and does philosophy relating to the mind, body, and yoga.

who am i? part one: who you are not

Previously on michael bartelle dot com, we closed with Patañjali’s opening definition of yoga in his Pātañjalayogaśastra:

Yoga is to bring the swirlings of consciousness to a halt. (1.2)

Although this is by no means the only way the ancient sages defined yoga, it is most certainly the most ubiquitous definition you’ll hear within the modern-day yoga community. The attraction to this explication comes from its succinctness, elegance, and seeming simplicity. The reasoning for Patañjali’s definition hearkens back to the notion of attention we discussed last week. This take we'll be taking a circuitous route (as per usual) back to our starting point by attempting to answer the following question: who is it that is responsible for the attentive faculty which the stilling of the mind necessitates? Answering this question will require a radical deconstruction of the various ideas we have about our identity as beings.

Anyone who has given the matter more than a cursory thought will have come to realise that common notions of our “identity” fail to provide us with anything resembling a stable entity. Consider your physical reality as a human being. The body you were born with is nothing like the body you have now: it was far smaller for one thing, and the vast majority of the cells, molecules, and atoms with which you were born have been replaced hundreds (if not thousands) of times over. This notion brings to mind the classical philosophical paradox of the Ship of Theseus, in which Plutarch asks the question: if Theseus’ ship, over time, has all of its parts replaced one by one, at which point does the ship cease to be the original and begin to be something new? Can something which does not comprise a single element of its original constitution be considered the same as the initial iteration? 

Admittedly, a ship and a human body are very different things. The ship, quite importantly, does not have consciousness; a living human body clearly does. Yet a closer examination of the situation may bear out more similarities than are originally apparent. For example, the reason why it seems sensible to continue referring to the ship with replacement parts as the “original”—or, for that matter, the reason we continue to refer to a football team which, over the course of several years, changed its players, management, ownership, uniforms, and even stadium as “still the same team”—is simply our own impression of continuity. There is nothing about the ship or the team, in and of themselves, which is remotely the same—except that we have continued to call them by the same names. We use this very trick to maintain an ongoing narrative about the continuity of the body. Thinking about it in strictly scientific terms, we have to admit that this continuity is a mere illusion.

But this still leaves the issue of consciousness. We understand that consciousness itself allows us to maintain this illusion about the body. However, we must first decouple consciousness as a phenomenon from the forms that consciousness takes. This is precisely what Patañjali wants us to do when he defines yoga as the cessation of the mind’s swirlings. Even if we move beyond the idea that we can look to the body as a source of stable identity, we often feel tempted to identify with other precarious notions—relationships, professional roles, bank account balances, opinions, and preferences. 

Try for a moment to bring to mind a childhood version of yourself. This presents a challenge for a number of reasons—even the memories we have made of what has happened in the last few days or weeks are probably episodic at best. Our earliest recollections can seem much more like short scraps of film footage—we have no idea what might have actually preceded or followed these mini-events which have survived in our memory. In fact, cognitive science makes it clear that our memories cannot claim anything like reliability. Multiple studies have shown the ease with which the brain can fabricate new memories of events which never actually happened. The premise of the film Inception, a futuristic story in which a team of people develop technology to enter into the dreams of others, relies on the notion that planting false information in somebody’s head would be far more difficult than extracting true information. Yet psychologists have known for decades that we simply need to “remind” somebody of an event which never actually occurred and their imagination will often very happily do the rest of the work, creating very detailed accounts of exactly how it went.

Is it???

Is it???

But let’s suppose for a moment that the majority of the memories you have of your childhood are, in fact, reliable. Can you recall the things you most cared about in your early youth? When I was a boy, I had an obsession with comic book superheroes. Notwithstanding the dubiousness of memory, I can say with certainty that, for eight-year-old Michael, collecting Marvel trading cards and action figures was nothing short of the meaning of life. I remember crying inconsolably in the toy store when I arrived with the money I had saved up that month in order to buy the Phoenix action figure, only to discover that it was out of stock. I genuinely thought the world was ending. 

The values I deemed most important as an eight-year-old are absolutely meaningless to me now (except perhaps as a faint feeling of nostalgia), as what I consider essential to my happiness has shifted so considerably. And there have been, of course, many other versions of my highest values between the X-Men of those days and the constant hardcore partying—er, I mean, philosophy—of today. These values transform just as reliably as the body does—and perhaps even more quickly and with greater repercussions in our lives. 

Furthermore, we do not even have to look to different points in time in order to find such different values and goals—we need simply look right within our own brains in any given moment. Reflecting on the evidence from studies of “split-brain” patients has a lot to offer us in this arena. These individuals are usually people who have suffered from serious forms of epilepsy, where a neuronal “storm” begins in one side of the cerebral cortex and spreads to the other side, creating severe seizures. Doctors have found that severing the corpus callosum, which is a bundle of nerve fibres that connects the two hemispheres of the cortex, helps to dramatically reduce the occurrence of seizures. 

One teenaged boy who had recently undergone the surgery displayed rather typical characteristics for a split-brain patient. Joseph LeDoux, Donald Wilson, and Michael Gazzaniga worked with him by writing down questions and presenting them to the far left and right sides of the boy’s visual field. This was their way of isolating each side of the brain—the right eye would process information for the left brain, and vice versa. Due to the fact that the major speech centres of the brain are located (for most people) in the left hemisphere, this young man was vocally able to answer the questions which he read with his right eye, but had trouble doing the same for questions which came in through his left eye. However, the scientists found that, even though he was unable to speak the answers to such questions, he was able to respond to them by arranging scrabble tiles with his left hand. At one point the researchers asked his left brain (via his right eye) what he wanted to do when he grew up. He responded, speaking verbally, “Oh, be a draftsman I guess.” When the researchers asked the same question to the same young man’s right brain (via his left eye), he quickly arranged the scrabble tiles with his left hand and spelled out “automobile race.” 

I actually haven't read this book yet, but it wins my award for greatest title of all time.

I actually haven't read this book yet, but it wins my award for greatest title of all time.

While such results may initially seem astonishing, they really shouldn’t surprise us. We all have our moments of ambivalence—just think about the last time you were pondering over two or more choices on a restaurant menu—and it seems clear to me that these warring desires originate in various parts of our brain which have developed in order to prioritise our different needs. And while different parts of the brain ostensibly serve the organism as a whole, it is not always clear that they know how to play together well. 

So what happens when we ask ourselves who we are, and continually reject anything which is subject to change? That means we cannot be our bodies, we cannot be our thoughts, we cannot be our roles in the relationships we have with the rest of the world. What remains? Patañjali’s notion of the “Seer” (often also called the “witness” or the “observer,” or indeed the “spirit” or “soul”) provides a rather attractive alternative. His third sūtra clarifies what exactly happens when the mind-stuff can come to a place of stillness. Patañjali explains:

Tadā drashtuh svarūpe vasthānam.
Then, the Seer abides within himself. (1.3)

 This, in turn, requires further explanation, which the fourth sūtra provides: 

Vritti sārūpyam itaratra.
At other times, [the Seer] identifies with the swirlings [of consciousness]. (1.4)

In sum, what Patañjali is arguing is that yoga is about bringing the consciousness to a point of stillness (1.2). When that happens, the "Seer" can identify with himself (1.3), rather than with the thoughts, desires, and other unreliable mental swirlings which which it usually identifies (1.4). So the benefit, (and perhaps the goal) of Pātañjalayoga is a cessation of identification with mental distractions through the act of bringing attention back to the Seer.

Sounds clear, right?

Well, I really wish it were. Unfortunately, what seems so simple and elegant falls apart under the microscope. 

Let's start with the concept of the "Seer." According to the Pātanjalayogaśāstra (2.20), the Seer is none other than purusha: the formless, desireless essence of spirit at the core of each individual. In both Samkhya philosophy and the Yogaśāstra, the role of purusha is simply to observe without getting involved. This makes things somewhat awkward though: if purusha, by definition, is a witness who does not have any desires or goals, precisely who is it that wants to engage in the process of yoga in order to allow for the Seer to identify with itself again?

There is an analogous problem in Western philosophy which Daniel Dennett and others refer to as the “Cartesian Theatre.” The term alludes to Descartes’ position that the soul is essentially a mental agent which observes the world and is able to act through the body. I find it quite useful to think about it in terms of the film Being John Malkovich, in which John Cusack’s character discovers that a door in his office building is actually a portal into the mind of John Malkovich (played by John Malkovich), enabling him to observe everything that happens in Malkovich’s life. The Cusack character, a puppeteer by trade, soon discovers that his talents extend to controlling Malkovich from the inside. Hilarity and more confusion ensues. But, philosophically speaking, only confusion ensues when we examine the plausibility of the Cartesian Theatre. Two things render the notion intractable.

What happens when Malkovich goes into his own head? Malkovich Malkovich. Malkovich? Malkovich, Malkovich Malkovich. Maaaaalkoviiiich...

What happens when Malkovich goes into his own head? Malkovich Malkovich. Malkovich? Malkovich, Malkovich Malkovich. Maaaaalkoviiiich...

The first (which we have already considered at length) lies in the problem of interaction between the mental and the physical. If, according to Cartesian dualism, the little John Cusack puppet-master in our heads is a non-physical entity, how exactly do the "strings" that he pulls function to control our behaviours? We have already explored how seeing mental and physical “entities” as overlapping phenomena, rather than separate ones, can help us to overcome this issue by making the separation between mind and body unnecessary. 

Yet the other challenge facing the Cartesian Theatre is a bit more insidious. Such a notion appeals to us because it gives our senses an "audience." That is to say, the various streams of information coming in from the sense organs get to have a "screen" onto which they can project a fully synchronised film, which we experience as consciousness. The consciousness-as-Cartesian-audience model seems so intuitive precisely because the "stream" of awareness that we experience really does feel like it works that way. The idea that there’s a little organiser of mental impressions and sensory information somewhere in the brain gives us the sense that there is something singular about who the individual entity is: who I am, who you are. When we examine the notion a bit more closely, however, we see that having a little observing John Cusack in our heads—even if we take away the string-pulling mind-body interaction aspect of the relationship—would entail that Cusack has another little Cusack (or maybe it’s Cameron Diaz, or Catherine Keener) inside his head—otherwise how would his conscious experiences come together themselves? And of course, that little observer would need an additional observer, and so forth, ad infinitum. Philosophers refer to this rather famous conundrum as the “homunculus” (little man) fallacy. Thus, the notion of the Cartesian Theatre does not, in fact, answer any problems we might have about how consciousness or the mind work—it just pushes the problem back a step, thinking perhaps that it is clever enough to hide the problem in a way that nobody will really notice. 

In Patañjali, the issue bears certain similarities to the Cartesian model: the role of purusha serves the same role as the audience in the mental Theatre. However, and perhaps more troublingly (or at least troubling in a different way), Patañjali could not be much clearer about the fact that Purusha is dispassionate, disinterested, and does not meddle in physical affairs (2.20). If the goal of Pātanjalayoga (4.30-34) is to experience an isolation, or separation (kaivālya), from the natural world and physical body (prakrti)…who, exactly is doing the practising? Who, in other words, is developing the attention via which the mind finds its state of calm? It cannot be the Seer, because it is disinterested and inactive. And if it is prakrti, it would seem that nature’s entire goal would be to obliterate itself in service of purusha. And if purusha is genuinely disinterested, and if it is already in a state of purity, why would it feel the need for isolation anyhow? Such a disinterested entity would by definition be unaffected by anything that happens in the natural world. What’s more, since purusha can only logically exist in the form of an infinite regress of consciousness, any separation between spirit and matter would be subject to instantaneous collapse within such a metaphysical bottomless pit. 

But let’s just suppose for a moment that the existence of such a purusha does not immediately negate the existence of prakrti in the form of the physical body and the natural world. And let’s suppose that it is indeed prakrti who harnesses the attention necessary to free purusha from its bondage in the ever-changing forms of the mind-stuff. Would prakrti (and the attention which it has been working to develop in the yoga practice) not simply disappear when the mind has gone still? What is the point of the existence of prakrti in the first place? Patañjali answers as follows:

Svasvāmi-śaktyoḥ svarūp-oplabdhi-hetuḥ saṁyogaḥ 
The sole purpose of the connection between the ever-changing and the eternal is to recognise the true, transcendent form (2.23)

The logic Patañjali offers, then, is that prakrti exists only to confirm purusha’s existence—in other words, nature’s purpose is to fulfil the role of the Seer. But by this logic, it seems much more as though the Seer needs a connection to, rather than a separation from, the material universe. This idea, which we’ll pick up next week, leads us nicely to the possibility of seeing our identity not as something which is eternally still or unchanging, but as a poignant product of kaleidoscopic connections and interactions.

who am i? part two: who y'all be

the "goal" of meditation