Please enjoy an excerpt from Amit’s latest book, The Everything Answer Book: How Quantum Science Explains Love, Death, and the Meaning of Life.
The Ego and the Quantum Self
The self we ordinarily experience is called the ego. The consciousness that can get trapped in the tangled-hierarchical brain in the form of self is not the ego, since it has no memory and conditioning, no personality. The ego personality, on the other hand, is the result of conditioning. But how does conditioning enter the quantum view of the self?
Experience of the ego self comes to us in two stages. The first is the result of tangled-hierarchical collapse, as I explained before. This is what we call the quantum self. If only one collapse, or choice, were to occur, this would be the extent of the self.
But every time a stimulus comes and a new response occurs, the brain makes a memory of the event. And every time a stimulus is repeated, consciousness responds, not only to the primary stimulus (the quantum self ’s response), but also to secondary responses that are stored in memory. This cumulative reflection of events in the mirror of memory is what produces conditioning.
The self of this conditioned response is the ego.
Before conditioning occurs, the world-experiencing subject, or self, is unitive—one subject for all. You can also call it cosmic. Experience at this level of self is a very special experience—you feel one with everything.
But we see new things all the time when we go to new places. Yet we may not experience anything special about seeing a new waterfall or a new river. This is because we have seen waterfalls and rivers before and our minds have become jaded. If someone has never seen a waterfall, the experience can be spectacular. But even then, some people may miss the immediacy of the experience, because their minds get busy comparing the waterfall with similar past experiences, or with what they imagined the experience would be like.
This is why poets and mystics encourage us to be centered in the present—to see everything as if for the first time, to experience without the burden of past memories and future projections.
When we do this, we operate from the quantum self. By contrast, ego responses are jaded responses in which we feel separate. In ego responses, we lose that extra-mundane quality of oneness, of no- separateness.
There are other differences between the ego and the quantum self as well. Quantum-self experiences have no ancestry, no identifying trace of previous memory. Thus these experiences have the same “alive” spontaneity for everyone. This is why the quantum self can be called a cosmic self. Identifying with the conditioned pattern of stimulus responses (habits of character) and the memories of past responses gives the experiences of the ego self an apparent local individuality. In other words, ego experiences are different for each of us.
But conditioning does not completely define the ego. In the ego, we also have the capacity to be conscious of our own past experiences. By using this capacity, we reconstruct our memories to suit ourselves in different situations. In other words, we create masks or personalities for ourselves. Somewhere in the process, we become the most important of all the different programs that we operate for our functioning. We become simple hierarchical, and we experience this as a function of our own uniqueness and importance.
When we operate from the ego, our individual patterns of conditioning, our experiences—which are predictable—acquire an apparent causal continuity. By contrast, the experience of the quantum self is quite discontinuous. Moreover, our physical individuality is both structural and functional. But our vital and mental individuality are subtle. They are purely the result of conditioning and are therefore purely functional. We are all potentially capable of accessing all the possibilities of the vital and the mental worlds; but, as adults, we generally don’t do it. We don’t have enough time, for one thing. Instead, we identify with a conditioned set of learned patterns with which we explore the vital and mental worlds. These individual functional patterns we call our vital and mental bodies, respectively. The conscious identity we experience with our physical, vital, and mental bodies, along with their correlated content memories, is what comprises our ego.
Limits and Risk
Once we identify with the ego, we are determined and predictable. How then can we be free? How can we transform? How can we escape from ego bondage?
True, the sum and substance of conditioning is that, as consciousness progressively identifies with the ego, there is a corresponding loss of freedom. In the limit of infinite conditioning, this loss of freedom would be absolute. At that stage, the only choice left to us, metaphorically speaking, would be the choice between conditioned alternatives. This is not real freedom. In a world of infinite conditioning, behaviorism holds. This is the so-called “correspondence limit,” in which any new science predicts the same results as the old science. This is one paradoxical characteristic of any new paradigm. If the paradigm is correct, it must have a correspondence limit. In some limiting conditions, therefore, it must behave approximately as the old one did!
But we never go that far down the path of conditioning; we don’t live that long. Even in our ego selves, we retain some freedom. And a most important aspect of the freedom that we retain is the freedom to say “no” to conditioning, which allows us to be creative every once in a while. This is the essence of risk-taking. Risk-taking is liberating because, in a sense, it is the quantum self operating within you. So, we must never be afraid of risk. And there is experimental data to support what I am saying. In the sixties, neurophysiologists discovered the so-called P300 event-related potential that suggested our conditioned nature. Suppose, as a demonstration of your free will, you declare your freedom to raise your right arm and you proceed to do it. An EEG machine attached to your brain via electrodes will generate a P300 wave that allows a neurophysiologist to predict that you are going to raise your arm. So actions of “free will” that can be predicted are not examples of real freedom. So, are behaviorists right that there is no free will for the ego self? Are mystics right when they say that the only free will is God’s will to which we must surrender? But this generates yet another paradox: How do we surrender to God’s will if we are not free to surrender?
Neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet did an experiment that rescues a modicum of free will even for the ego self. Libet asked his subjects to stop raising their arms as soon as they became aware of their intent to raise them. He was able to identify a 200-millisecond gap between the two events—between thought and action. He could still predict the raising of the arm from the P300 wave, but, more often than not, Libet’s subjects were able to resist their so-called free will and not raise their arms, demonstrating that they retained the free will to say “no” to the conditioned action of raising their arms.
When I shared this information about Libet’s data with a friend, he said he was glad to know, even in his ego, that he had the free will to say “no” to conditioning, because he used to be a smoker. When he tried to stop, when all the health warnings appeared and smoking in public places was prohibited, he found he could stop his tendency to light up—but never for very long. It took him a long time to curb his smoking to a socially acceptable level while maintaining internal ease. “And
I still have the tendency to light up once in a while,” he told me. “If we have the free will to say ‘no’ to conditioning, why is addiction so hard to give up?”
My friend raised a good point—one that will take us to the subject of intention-setting and creativity—indeed, to the whole science of manifestation—in the next chapter. Let me end this chapter with an example of quantum-self-action and one of ego-self action. Again, it is Zen that tells the tale:
Two monks were about to cross a muddy river. Although
a high current was making the river muddy, it was not
really very deep, and was quite fordable. Just then, a
maiden appeared in a beautiful kimono that fell all the
way to her ankles. Naturally, the maiden was hesitant to
step into the river lest her clothes be ruined. One of the
monks asked permission to pick her up. When she nodded,
he carried her across the river and put her down.
The maiden thanked him and went on her way. The other
monk soon caught up with the first and they both continued
on their way.
After about an hour, the second monk spoke: “Brother,
you did something very wrong back there, you know. We
monks are not supposed to touch women, let alone carry
them for as long as it took you to cross the river—a full
five minutes, and you held her so close.”
The first monk said: “Brother, I carried the maiden for
five minutes, but you are still carrying her.”
The first monk performed an act of kindness, responding to his intuition that the maiden was in need of help. When we respond to our intuition, we act from the quantum self. The second monk was thinking from his conditioned ego self and his judgmental mind. So he suffered.