Illusion called “I”

I like to ponder upon a famous quote from Albert Einstein.

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness…“-Albert Einstein

It is an insightful observation, a deep thought coming from one of humanity’s best minds.It has two important aspects: sense of separateness from the whole and optical delusion of the consciousness.

I am going to focus on “the optical delusion of the consciousness” in this post.

Essentially what Einstein is suggesting is that the separate self that we call “I” is an illusion. What does that mean?

All illusions are mind made

To understand this, it helps to see our mind as continuously running computer program. Mind has some most basic algorithms which it uses to make sense of what is going around. The core elements of these algorithms are

Sensing change: Mind notices change against something that is not changing. Whatever is not changing, becomes a background and is ignored so that it can focus on the action that is happening through the change. For example, if you look up in the sky, your mind will quickly find something that is moving like a plane, a bird or a cloud and will tend to ignore the vast blue sky that surrounds everything.

Noticing patterns: Human mind is very good at noticing patterns of sensory information. Music is pattern of sound, a human face is pattern of visual features, and so on. Mind notices patterns and categories them to be able to navigate through the world.

Creating identities: Mind groups one or more patterns together and gives it a identity, that is giving it a specific name. This is where the illusion starts. The sensing change and noticing pattern steps in earlier points were based on observation of external world but the identity given to a pattern is totally internal creation of mind. The name given does not exist in the external world. Mind does exactly this around your existence and creates fictitious “you” which causes the illusion of “I”.

Distinguish an illusion from reality

To understand this further, I invite you to consider following examples:

– Suppose you bought an old car and you started calling it “Bug”. You replaced Bug’s tires immediately. Few months later the Bug got into an accident and you had to replace most of the body and the engine. Bug still has the same license plate though. Is Bug the same car that you had bought or is it now a different car? Would you still call it Bug ?

Do you think in spite of all these changes, it is still the same old “Bug”? Why? “Bug” is a identity your mind created around a pattern of car parts. Even though you changed most of the car parts, as long as you didn’t change all parts at once, mind’s algorithm will identify it as “Bug”. In reality a different car exist for you now, it is not the car you initially named as “Bug”. In fact “Bug” never really existed in reality, it was only a name that your mind created for an assembly of car parts that you owned. However it still makes sense for you to keep on calling it “Bug” and remember what happened to it for practical purposes.

– You are visiting “Oster Elementary” school you attended decades back. You notice lot of changes. There are new students, most of the teachers and faculty members are new. The school campus has changed due to recent renovations. Other than the name and place of the school, you realize that practically everything else has changed. Is this still “Oster elementary”  or is this a different school? Do you think it is still the same school? Why? Our cultural mind has created identity using pattern of location and function for school. So as long as an institution operates which teaches kids of young age and is located at the same address, mind is comfortable in keeping the original identity intact.

– Your cell phone fell on ground and got shattered. You went to cell phone provider and got a new phone of same model, same color. Your data was able to be restored through cloud. So you get all your apps, pictures, contacts even the background picture just the way it was before.  Will you say it is still your old phone or would you say it is a new phone? Do you think that it is a new phone? Why? Cultural mind gives more weightage to noticeable material changes than the information changes. So as the body changed completely, it is a new phone. But if you didn’t know that the body was changed, your mind won’t be able to figure out the difference.

How illusion of separate self is created

Now lets do the some inquiry towards ourself. Let’s imagine somebody asked you following, “You were born and your body continuously went through changes and growth. Every atom in your body is changed and replaced over years. How can you say that you are the same you? Your  thoughts change, your emotions change, your memories fade and new ones are stored. Are you the same you as you were few years back or are you a different you now?  If you are the same you, who are you? Was there anything constant throughout your lifetime ? Introduce yourself.

 To such inquiry, we tend to respond, “I am the same. My name is so and so. I was born on such and such date, at such and such place, I do this for living … , etc.

 That answer, is the identity that your mind has created for you. It is a collection of patterns which is identified with your name. It is what our mind refers to when we say word “I”. Just like any other conceptual identities, that “I” is conceptual, created and maintained by human mind and does not exist in external world as a tangible reality. That is the illusion.

Consciousness is the real you

Now, I can sense that you will say, “All that is okay and logically makes sense but I feel me. I know I exist and I am not conceptual.

You are right in saying that. This is where the consciousness comes in. Mind needs consciousness to function. Consciousness is this alert, alive, aware presence that functions as unchanging, omnipresent background, a space where sensory imprints can form.  This background is needed to register any sensory change mind can observe. But mind is not capable of creating an identity for the background because of it’s unchanging, omnipresent nature. 

So when you say, “I know I am real and I am the same” that sense is coming from your consciousness, your true nature. 

However when you think about yourself, your thoughts, your feelings, your life situation then the fictitious mind made identity is being discussed and you are indulging in an illusion. Your true nature, your consciousness is experiencing an optical illusion your mind is generating.

Want to stop the illusion?

 If you are thinking of how to stop this illusion, the answer is you cant. It is like saying, “I see rainbow in the sky when it rains. I used to think that it was something real, like some real ribbon of colors stretched in the sky. But I know that rainbow is an optical illusion that happens when I look towards sun through rain. It is not real as I thought, make it stop. Make me stop seeing the rainbow.”

 Rainbow is kind of optical illusion but so what ? An illusion is also a genuine experience. It is an experience that happens in certain conditions. You can enjoy it or you can ignore it. Similarly, the separate “I” is an experience that happens in certain conditions like when there is active human body and mind. You can enjoy it, play with it or ignore it. Choice is yours. The problem occurs if we get so fascinated by it, so hung up on it that we get totally absorbed and obsessed by the illusion. Then we start creating unnecessary suffering for ourselves.

Illusion in itself is not a problem. Mind’s obsession with the illusion is the problem. For example rainbow is an beautiful optical illusion but if you start thinking, “This is my rainbow and it may disappear soon and I want to make it last forever.” or “There is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, I am searching for it.” or “My rainbow is more beautiful than what your rainbow” or “My rainbow is right, yours is wrong.” Then we get sucked into madness.

So best take away from Einstein’s quote is to see the illusion unfolding continuously for you and not take it too seriously! 

Fighting the illusion of separate self or working to stop it from happening is what sometimes our spiritual practice becomes. But when you are fighting the illusion you are still participating in it, you are still falling for it. It is like playing a video game to find an exit inside the game which will make you stop playing the video game. It will just keep you stuck in the game.

The best way to not fall for an illusion is to step out of it

Give your mind a rest from time to time. Keep in touch with your aware conscious presence as much as you can. The illusion of “I” will keep playing but mind will stop taking you for a ride with it.

Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash


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