Bertrand Russell once claimed that if he wanted to hear Aristotle's mistakes, all he had to do was listen to his housekeeper. Ideas, he thought, wafted downwards from the culture's most advanced minds, taking centuries or even millennia to settle in among the uneducated.
Lately I've been wondering how long it will take a set of ideas to make a shorter trip: From late 20th century studies of the brain and its associated cognitive psychology to the larger educated public. Because when educated Western non-specialists talk about consciousness, and in particular about the kinds of questions raised by Eastern philosophies and spiritual practices, we still usually start from a "common sense" that to me seems rooted in a mistake philosophers made during the European Enlightenment of the 1600s.
If I had to sum up the Enlightenment mistake in one line it would be: Self consciousness is primary. Epitomized by Descartes' cogito ergo sum, the Enlightenment thinkers assumed that the rock-bottom of consciousness was the Self. Of course we know ourselves, they thought, and our knowledge of others is indirect, by analogy. I know how I feel when X happens, so maybe other people feel the same way.
One reason they made this mistake was that in those post-Luther but pre-Darwin days, you did not worry about how human consciousness arose: God made it. Consciousness could be a unique human spark completely unrelated to any other species' mental processes. You didn't have to explain how, if self consciousness was primary, a fly's tiny brain could support a sense of self.
But from a contemporary evolutionary perspective, self consciousness seems to arise very late in the game. It comes out of a more primitive form of consciousness that we might call situation consciousness. (All the terminology in this article is made up for the purpose of popularization. I'm not a cognitive scientist myself – just a fan – so I don't know what the standard usage is.) An event is happening and a reaction is called for. Imagine you're in a kitchen and a cookie is on the table. A self-conscious mental process would be something like: "I'm feeling hungry. Maybe I'll eat that cookie." But a situation-conscious process is more like: "Cookie. Eat." The situation-conscious mental field contains no I that has feelings and qualities and motives; there's just a situation and a reaction.
It's easy to imagine comparatively uncomplicated animals like reptiles or birds having some kind of situation consciousness, and maybe not having self consciousness at all. An animal could go a long way without self consciousness.
Built on top of situation consciousness is something we might call motive consciousness. Motive consciousness happens when you start to make a distinction between objects that obey purely physical laws and objects that have some form of volition or freedom. Hunting an animal is different from hunting an apple. If the apple slips out of your hand, it will fall to the ground and lie there; but if a rabbit slips out, it scurries off in some less predictable direction. A boulder rolling down a hill is very different from a tiger bounding down it.
In order to interact more effectively with volitional objects, the mind needs some concepts that describe mental states. Concepts like motive arise together with concepts that describe emotions – not so that we can think about ourselves, but so that we can think about other motivated beings. The rabbit runs a particular way because it is afraid, it wants to escape. A rabbit who hasn't noticed us yet acts completely differently – and an apple doesn't seem to care at all. Like situation consciousness, motive consciousness is entirely external – there's still no I with an interior life, just a world with more complicated objects in it, demanding more complex patterns of reaction.
Motive consciousness can lead to social consciousness. Concepts like friend, enemy, mate, and so on arise. (Not the words, necessarily. I'm using language to point to mental states, not claiming that words are present in the states themselves.) In the beginning, even social consciousness can still be external. The friend is a very complicated object indeed, but it is still part of the situation, something to react to.
At some point, though, you can't model the behavior of others without looking through their eyes back at yourself. Friend is backing away because she sees that I am angry. Her behavior makes no sense without accounting for her assessment of me. So I have to start modeling my inner state as part of the situation. And I can't understand the social roles assigned to others until I understand what social role I myself have been assigned. Am I male or female? Weak or strong? Fast or slow? Admired or despised? That's self consciousness.
When you understand self consciousness in this way, you see how cumbersome it can be. Self consciousness is not something that is just given; it's inherently circular – consciousness turned back on itself, the mind becoming part of its own model. Some aspects of my self-concept I can read directly from sensory cues – I can tell if I'm excited from my breathing or heartbeat. But am I honest? smart? deserving? How do I sense that? I might be jealous or depressed for some while before I notice. Another person might be the center of my awareness for weeks before I realize: I am in love.
And once you see how odd and roundabout and kludgy self-consciousness is, those spiritual quests to overcome ego start to make more sense. Self consciousness has a lot of baggage, a lot of overhead. Sometimes that baggage is worth carrying, but sometimes it isn't and yet you can't put it down. That's what all that zen-of-tennis stuff is about. When a hard serve is coming at you, you don't have time to be a social being that everyone is looking at and forming opinions about. You don't need to picture yourself through the eyes of all viewers or defend yourself against their possible judgments. You need to be back in the most primitive situation consciousness. Ball. Hit. You need to lose yourself.
The point isn't to eliminate ego, or (worse yet) not to form one in the first place. Self consciousness is one of evolution's great gifts. Being able to picture yourself and your inner states in detail can be a major advantage. Self consciousness opens the possibility that you might decide to become a better person. Having the self-awareness to say, "I'm drunk, someone else should drive" might save your life. When you're negotiating what role you will play in your major relationships, you need to be able to predict which promises you can actually keep. People who can't do those things are crippled.
But when you're windmilling your arms to avoid losing your balance and falling down the stairs, you don't need to be aware of the fact that you look silly, or to feel embarrassed about it. That's self consciousness run wild.
So the point of spiritual practice isn't ego elimination, it's ego management: How much me does this situation really require? Less? More? Do I have the skill to turn the me-dial up or down as needed? That's the kind of mastery that a good spiritual practice teaches.
But it's all going to seem very mysterious until you lose that Cartesian assumption that Self is given and stop imagining that self-overcoming is either unnatural or superhuman. Quite the opposite: Self is achieved. Self is hard work. No-Self is a relaxation, not a strain.
Someday soon, I hope, that will be common sense.