A young child asks his mother to imagine that she is completely surrounded by tigers , with no weapon available, and nowhere to hide. What would she do? The mother hesitates, ponders the question, and replies that she has no idea what she would do. The mother then asks the child what he would do, and he replies, “I would stop imagining.”
I came across this enigmatic little tale in a book I am reading: “Stepping Out of Self- Deception: the Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-self” by Rodney Smith. My mind keeps returning to its deceptive simplicity – how much of our fears, anxieties, worries, and dreads are born of our own imagination? And what is the imagination, when you get down to it? Neurobiology creating worlds out of electrical impulses…including the very real impression that there is a ‘self’ capable of inputting, managing, and analyzing the data.
I am also reading Diane Keaton’s memoir Then Again in which she traces the deterioration of both her parent’s mental capacities and abilities to maintain a ‘self’ – her father’s as a result of a brain tumor and her mother’s due to Alzheimer’s. (When books I am reading cross-pollinate it always causes me to pay special attention.) In both cases, their respective imaginations began to rule their experience and caused them (and all their loved ones) undue anguish. Their “selves” were no longer at the wheel. But then where does that self go? Who is driving? What is experiencing the anguish? I tend to think of a mental illness as some sort of discreet demon – an evil imposter that wrenches control away from the proper owner of the brain/body. As if the sane person was locked up in a cage in a corner of the mind, rattling the bars, screaming to get loose. But that could really only be the case if we want to put our faith in some sort of entity akin to a soul. Because increasingly, neuroscientists are affirming many of the basic tenets of Buddhism: the “self” we wear so deeply, clutch so strongly – that, in fact, is the essential definition of who/what “we’ are in this world – is impossible to parse out from the machinations of the brain.
Meditators with years and years of experience tell us that they experience a consciousness unrelated to a sense of self; a deep, impersonal awareness that absorbs and dissipates the ego. Does this awareness remain present, I wonder, lurking above it all when a person’s imagination runs haywire? Or take the comatose person lying in a bed for decades with no apparent signs of brain activity other than those maintaining the body – is this pure awareness present without the mitigating factor of imagination or self?
What happens when there is no “i” to stop imagining or to imagine at all? I can’t imagine it….can you?