Who are we? We are the pure, empty field of awareness in which our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions arise. Most of us are caught in the illusion that we are our thoughts and feelings, and that these thoughts and feelings make up a solid sense of self.
Yet the sense of self, when investigated carefully, reveals itself to be an illusion. Although we all have a continuity of patterns of thought and feeling that create an understanding of the world, and ourselves, we are not these thoughts and feelings, as thoughts and feelings incessantly come and go, rise and fade, and change over time. If we look carefully, we see that we do not choose our thoughts and feelings. Our brains generate them automatically in response to the stimuli we receive from our environment as well as the thoughts that precede our current thought. The brain is merely executing a massively complex algorithm, synthesizing input into a mixture of thoughts, perceptions, and feelings, which then guide our actions. This process, every changing, is not who we are.
If we look closely, we see that the one constant that never changes over time is our awareness, or consciousness (with the exception of those who have suffered neurological damage to their brains). This vast, empty, silent awareness is the only aspect of us that is unchanging during our waking lives. The problem is that most of us are so closely identified with our thoughts that we are lost in them. Most of us cannot take a step back, as happens in meditative states, and observe the drama unfolding in our minds with the experience of being the Observer, and not the psychic drama itself.
If, then, we are this mysterious awareness that we call consciousness, what is it? How does it arise in us?
The answer is that our awareness is the symphonic product of a neural orchestra. Just as the atmospheric vibrations of music created by a musical orchestra are neither matter nor energy, but rather patterns of energy propagated on the matter of air, so we are neither matter nor energy, but are rather the patterns of synaptic energy transmission propagated through the matter of a vast network of billions of neurons. And just as the music ceases to exist when the instruments stop playing, so we cease to exist when our neurons stop firing. To a certain degree, we die every night when we enter very deep stage four sleep, when cortical neuronal activity is at a minimum, only to be resurrected in the morning when our neurons again begin to play their song. Thus it is that when we die, we go into our final sleep of non-existence. The orchestra dies and ceases to play, and our bodies return to the ground of being from which all Life arises.
Some people believe that our thoughts and feelings, our illusory self, persists into an afterlife when we die—that we “go” to Heaven, or perhaps to Hell, or that our soul goes on to live another life on this earth. These beliefs invite several questions: What empirical evidence do we have of an afterlife, or of Heaven and Hell? If our awareness goes away in the unconsciousness of sleep, of anesthesia, or of a coma, how could it be that our awareness, a product of the activity of our brain, would somehow magically continue to exist once our brain is dead? Do worms have a soul that goes to worm heaven after death? What is the fundamental difference between us, and worms, and other life forms, other then the orders of magnitude increased complexity of our brains?
For myself, I experience a Universal Life Spirit that pervades all of Life. It is not personal to me, except to the degree that Life is for Life, and I am a part of Life. It’s not about us, but rather our DNA, the great program of Life. Our DNA rules, as all of life is about perpetuating and improving DNA, driven by constant mutations of DNA, combined perhaps with some mysterious Life Spirit.
Individual consciousness is a gift of Life, allowing the Universe to experience Itself. It is not about us, it is about the Universe. Our belief in an afterlife is merely a defense mechanism for us to cope with the ancient, instinctual, fear of death. Each of us faces the psycho-spiritual challenge of transcending our fear of death, and embracing our own mortality. We have just this one, transient, fleeting experience of Life, and then we die a sacred death in order to make room for new Life. This calls for humility, knowing that Life is about Life, and we are merely a tool, or vehicle, of Life. When we face death and overcome our fear of death, life becomes all that more precious, as we know it is fleeting, and we will very soon cease to exist. Knowing this, we savor life more deeply, and selflessly dedicate ourselves to the enhancement and perpetuation of life.