I reach for my phone again. To stave off the boredom of the mundane, I open the Google News app and scroll, scroll, scroll. Google’s algorithm has observed me for years now. They have a gigantic set of data culled from Google Searches, Gmail habits, Google News habits, and even perhaps old data from when I thought Google+ and GoogleWave were poised to take over the world.
Google knows what I want.
Google gives it to me.
Every time I open the Google News app, I’m mindlessly searching for the next outrage, scrolling for anger. Google knows I am easily triggered by the antics of certain politicians. Google knows I will click on headlines that promise to deliver me a hit of self-righteous anger.
The Google News algorithm is an outrage engine.
In this week of Woodward audio recordings, POTUS floating Cruz for SCOTUS, altered CDC reports, and orange skies in California, it’s not hard to find something that will set me off. To maintain a modicum of credibility, the algorithm drops in an opposing point-of-view from Fox News or the New York Post. But even this seems disingenuous, not so much an attempt at fair and balanced as it is a way of giving me more grist for my mill of indignation.
This is unhealthy, isn’t it? It’s desire leading to suffering.
Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” just popped up on Spotify. Appropriate.
These last two decades, our lives have moved more and more online. We’ve willingly participated. Even though we know how Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple work, we still find ourselves feeding their algorithms, developing a cyber-self. But like all selves, the cyber-self needs to be fed and nurtured to survive. My cyber-self, at times, seems to enjoy the taste of apocalyptic warnings about the downfall of formerly trusted institutions.
What’s your cyber-self’s favorite meal?
The cyber-self begins with something real. My central nervous system creates an emotional response to what I’m seeing in my feed. It sends out chemical signals, a physiological and emotional reaction: anger, outrage, despair (usually). The emotions I feel are absolutely real phenomena, biological events. These biological events, like all such physiological responses, cause me to act. The headline stimulates my nervous system; I respond to the stimulus with a click. The click creates the datapoint which feeds the outrage engine.
To the casual observer, the cyber-self seems like it’s created by a series of choices. I chose to click the headline, after all. Therefore, I had some choice in the way in which the algorithm constructs its parallel version of me.
But each choice is a little less free than the last.
As the algorithm develops its understanding of my preferred menu, it feeds me fewer and fewer options. It knows that I prefer hamburgers to chicken sandwiches, so the chicken sandwiches fall off the menu over time. Thus, the bevy of options grows more and more limited. The app gets better and better at giving me what I want: bleak burgers with a side of frustration fries.
But a careful examination of the cyber-self confirms its non-existence. The cyber-self is an illusion. It exists only as a data set and a series of calculations. Look deeply into either one and the cyber-self will disappear into a haze of bits and bytes, a flurry of 1’s and 0’s.
This, I suppose, is cyber-anatta, cyber-no-self.
The version of me that exists in internet databases is not really a thing. Understanding this allows me to navigate the feed with some self-awareness. It allows me to scroll through the Google News app and recognize what I’m doing to myself.
It is mindfulness.
It is awareness.
The Ego Machine
Our minds function much like the algorithms of the outrage engine. Our brains observe experiences and construct memories from them. The memories, of course, are flawed facsimiles of reality. They preserve only what we perceive and what fits the patterns that we’ve already developed. We hold to a worldview, a schema or paradigm that filters what we perceive and constructs the world.
As part of this process, of course, the brain produces the Self.
Consider, for a moment, some outrageous and difficult to imagine phenomenon. How about a black hole? We can hardly conceive of a black hole without imagining ourselves in some way perceiving it:
- What must it look like to see the event horizon?
- What must time dilation feel like?
- How would the bone-crunching gravity feel?
We construct our worlds out of experience and experience is built on perception. Moreover, the most important thing in my world, typically, is me. After all, my world ceases to exist when I no longer exist. (Aside: This is perhaps why death is so frightening to some. The end of my life means the end of everything!)
But “I”—i.e., ego or Self—is part of the constructed world, part of the reality that our mind produces. We cannot conceive of ourselves as separate from reality. We are in it and of it. Therefore, the ego is constructed.
The brain is an ego machine. It filters through the database of experience and produces ego, constructs Self.
We all know this, of course, because we instantly connect ourselves with our experiences. Imagine, for example, that you grew up in a completely different set of circumstances: different house, different family, different ethnicity, different socio-economic status, etc. Very few of us would argue that we would be the same person. Each change in experience sets us on a different trajectory and creates a new version of me. Even when we make small changes—dye our hair or buy a new wardrobe—we tend to exclaim: “It’s a new me!”
Like Theseus’s ship, we have to ask ourselves: How many changes are necessary before we admit that this Self, this ego, this “I,” no longer exists?
We live our lives as if we are the protagonists of a great novel. We develop rich inner lives; we get into—and solve—a series of problems and conflicts. Each morning, we wake up fresh, ready for the next episode. When we look back on things, we even develop them into stories that follow familiar narrative arcs: inciting incident, rising action, climax, dénouement.
These stories pile up. These stories aggregate. These stories build the Self.
One of the fundamental characteristics of reality according to Buddhism is anatta: no-self. When we looked into the cyber-self, zooming in closer and closer until it disappeared into a haze of computer code, we saw just how illusory it was. The same holds true for the Self. The ego we construct, the one built out of our experiences and the stories we develop from them, is equally illusory.
Take one of your favorite stories about yourself and examine it. See if you can put yourself into that space.
- Where are you?
- What do you see?
- What do you feel?
- What do you smell, hear, and taste?
If you can, stay in that place but step out of yourself and try to imagine all of the things around you that you haven’t noticed or remembered. What don’t you see? What don’t you feel? What don’t you smell, hear, and taste?
The story is built on a memory which is a subjective and filtered impression of a moment in space-time. The memory pales in comparison to the reality of what is actually happening in the moment. The story, therefore, is limited in its scope. You count it as an experience that builds you, just as a particular scene in a novel or movie establishes a set of traits for characters in the scene. This story, you might think, illustrates my trustworthiness, or perhaps it’s a story that illustrates your quick temper. In all cases, it is simply a story you are telling yourself.
Keep zooming in on these experiences and you see them disappear into a haze of subjectivity. The Self, the ego, is a constructed thing. It does not exist without the story. Change the story and you change the Self.
This is no-self.
This is anatta.
Thinking about anatta tends to send us down a rabbit hole.
- If I have no self, then who am I?
- What am I?
- Am I?
Well, these questions will pretty much wreck you, if you let them. The key is to find clarity about all of this. Understanding how the Self is constructed creates a great deal of freedom, but only if you can find some small bit of reality to hang on to. The key to clarity is observation of experience. The more we observe our experiences and note them, the more we come to understand what is and what isn’t.
This is mindfulness.
This is awareness.
If you’re buying my line of reasoning so far—and I readily admit that many readers will have gotten off this train a long time ago—then you’re looking for an answer, searching for a solution to the problem of Self. The answer, not surprisingly is simple:
Clarity comes in drips and drops as we sit in meditation, develop our focus, and note our experience. In meditation circles, this is often called insight practice.
The key word, really, is “practice.”
It takes practice to see the world as it really is. You don’t run a marathon without training, and you don’t develop mindful awareness without doing some practice.
Step #1 is to sit and know you’re sitting. Feel everything. Notice everything. See how much you can notice about what’s happening right now. Build up your focus and awareness.
We’ll keep talking about it…but, for now, just sit and know you’re sitting.