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Where Are You?

John Travolta looks for himself within the existential void
John Travolta looks for himself within the existential void

The differentiation between us and the universe may seem straightforward but, upon further reflection, it is not as clear where we “end” and the universe “begins”.

We became accustomed from an early age to distinguishing between ourselves and everything else based on what we can directly feel and control. We don't have direct control over objects around us, so we are distinct from those objects. We also can't directly feel those objects. We can reach out to them and touch them to feel them, but we can't feel anything beyond the very surface of the object and, even then, we have to reach out, so we are distinct from those objects. In this manner, we have come to recognize our bodies as a part of us and everything else as not part of us.

In addition to inanimate objects, there are also other people. Other people are particularly odd because they are just like all the other objects, except they look similar to our own bodies and behave similarly to "us" too. They are subjects just like us. Inanimate objects are not like us, so we don't infer that they are aware of their separate existence from the environment. But we are aware of that separation, and we would expect that other people are also aware of their own separation. They have their own first-person awareness but we can’t access it.

But is that separation between us and everything around us, including other people, real? That is not so clear.

You Are Nowhere

As you may recall, we become aware of our separation from the environment around us because we can't directly feel or control objects around us. However, we also cannot directly feel or control parts of our bodies and even our minds. We can't feel or control our kidneys. We can't feel or control cells moving within us. Their existence feels completely independent from ours. Our heart beats without our conscious control or knowledge. It still beats if we don't know how it works. Our lungs usually work without our conscious control. We do have some control over it but, for the most part, it works on its own. Our brains are also very automated. Many of our reactions, such as the fight or flight reflex, are automated and out of our control. Much of our behavior with our phones is also largely automated. It's habitual and addictive, they are designed to hook us and control our behavior. Some complicated actions such as driving a car or playing the banjo, have many steps that change depending on the environment. Those are difficult, so they require a greater degree of awareness and manual control. But once we practice those steps repeatedly and there is a clear logic to which step to take given each environmental input, then they become habitual and largely automated as well.

We are also largely influenced by our environment. Where we live, the family we are born in, the body we live within, the experiences we have as babies and children, all of those environmental influences shape who we become - our characters, our preferences, our memories, and our beliefs. We have little to no control over all those influences that shape us without our input, and they become parts of us that we identify with and think we have complete control over.

Sure, even as children we do consciously think and act on those thoughts, but are those actions and thoughts really our own when the environment influenced them in the first place?

Finally, it's not clear if even our free will is our own. Research has shown that we can predict a decision that is going to be made seconds before it is made based on a subject’s brain activity. If the synapses that determined a decision occurred before the decision, then the decision was caused by the synapses and not the other way around.

Given all those factors, it appears that we are nowhere to be found. Our bodies are just a part of our environment. It, in fact, exists even once we die. When we die, the environment just reclaims it as its own. Our bodies are just our internal environment. They are like the external environment, not really a part of us. We are thus not located within our bodies and neither within the parts of our minds that our brains control.

We thus each exist within an existential void within which we are nowhere. Nothing that we perceive is part of us. We are nowhere to be found.

You Are Everywhere

If we are nowhere, then where are we? Are we really nowhere? Can we exist nowhere?

Well, yes and no. We can't directly feel and control objects around us, but we can still perceive them in relation to us. That perception is done through our senses. Our senses connect our minds and bodies to the world around us and, thus, when we perceive those objects they become extensions of us. They are not separate from us because our perception of them is a part of our minds, it is not independent of our minds. We can't perceive anything independently from our minds, so everything that we perceive is part of our minds, not part of the environment around us. Therefore, everything is an extension of us.

Well, but you could reply that we don't control everything around us. We have no control over the universe so it must be separate from us. But as we discussed before, we don't control parts of our bodies either. Our bodies and minds are largely automated. That automation is intermediated by the interactions that happen between (a) our minds and bodies and (b) the universe we perceive. That means that our minds and bodies are inseparable from the universe around them. More importantly, we are entirely dependent on the universe to exist. We can't be aware of our own existence and thus exist as individuals if there is no universe within which our bodies and minds can exist so that we can have awareness.

Even from a purely biological point of view, our existence is completely inseparable from the existence of all life on Earth. All organisms on Earth share the same DNA system. We have the DNA of all life within our DNA. In addition to most of our DNA being remnants of the DNA of all other lifeforms on Earth, our own bodies are composed of cells that are mostly not our own. Human cells make up only 43% of the cells in our bodies. The rest is composed of microorganisms. We are holobionts. We are walking aquariums for microbes.

The boundary that separates us from the universe is much thinner than it looks at first glance. We are a part of the universe, inseparable from it. The individual is more of a useful fiction than a reality.

All of this can be clearly understood when we look at, for example, our lungs. Our lungs work largely on their own, and thanks to them, we can breathe and thus survive. But our lungs only work because of oxygen. Oxygen has to come from somewhere. It comes from trees. Therefore, we are just as dependent on the trees exhaling oxygen as we are dependent on our lungs inhaling it. Like our lungs, we have no control over the trees and they are automated. If our lungs are automated and we are dependent on them, and if trees are likewise automated and we are equally dependent on them, then the trees are just as much extensions of us as our lungs. They are an inseparable part of us. And if this applies to the trees, then it applies to the universe as a whole.

We thus each exist within an existential void within which we are all there is. Everything that we perceive is part of us, it is all extensions of our own awareness. We are everywhere and part of everything.

Squidward running from himself within the existential void
Squidward running from himself within the existential void

You Are Your Self-Awareness

How can we be both anywhere and everywhere at the same time? Because where we are is dependent on our awareness of who we are. If we perceive ourselves nowhere, we become aware of our non-existence everywhere. If we perceive ourselves everywhere, we become aware of our existence everywhere. Whether we are one or the other is dependent on the focus of our perception at any given point, it's dependent on our awareness.

Whatever you are focused on, whatever you are doing at any given moment with intention, becomes you. When you play piano well and you really feel the music, it's not you playing piano, your body and mind play the piano automatically. But it’s also you playing the piano because you feel the music. You become part of the piano, it becomes an extension of you. The music is not just the notes that are played, it is also the emotions that the music elicits in the listener and the player, so the music you play is also a part of you.

Other people are just you having different experiences from different perspectives. We are all having the human experience. If you were born in place of someone else, you would become that someone else, through their position in the human network and through the experiences they have. How can we claim to be free when we have so little awareness of ourselves, of how the environment influences us? Even if we make an effort to become more self-aware, there are still parts of us that have been shaped by past events which we don't even remember anymore. The consequences of those past events have shaped our behavior and that behavior has been, in turn, internalized through habit, becoming a part of our character and of our conception of who we are as individuals.

We have control over everything immediately around us, but only if we are perfectly self-aware. Only if we have complete knowledge of the world around us, we can control it. Therefore, we can’t possibly fully control it, we can only have partial self-awareness and, thus, partial control. We also can't change it overnight, but we can influence it instead of allowing it to influence us. Still, very few people are even aware of anything that I have just said, let alone aware of how they are influenced by their environment, so they are not self-aware nor free in any real sense.

I've tried to write about this many times before but I've never been fully satisfied with it and probably will never be. The issue is that talking about this being as self-awareness, and the individual as being in itself is insufficient. Language is not sufficient to describe this reality, it must be experienced, because being requires experience to be understood. Experience has information that cannot be transmitted through linguistic representations, it can only be transmitted through the direct subjective awareness of the relevant experience. As such, the best I can do is to guide you. It's like the old Chinese tale of the finger and the moon. When I point my finger at the moon, my finger is not the moon but it's referring to it. In the same way, words refer to experiences, so you don't fully understand a word until you experience what it represents.

You are nowhere AND everywhere. You are being in itself.

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