I was sitting at a library computer at the University of Toronto when it happened.
It was September of 2014 and I was high on academia. I felt keen and curious and ready to devour any scrap of media that came my way. Little did I know I was one click away from a complete restructuring of how I viewed reality.
The stimulus was a YouTube clip called The Self is an Illusion–a Big Think talk given by Sam Harris.
After six minutes of monotone utterances on a white backdrop, a radical shift in how I viewed myself had occurred. Or rather, I should say, on how I viewed my self.
Consciousness is irreducibly subjective
~ Sam Harris
This line hooked me from the start. Irreducibly Subjective? How isolating. That means that despite the miracles of brain science and all the tools we have to monitor this magnificent organ, there is only one way to experience what it’s like to be me–and that’s by being me.
Put more concisely, there will always be two sides of the coin: the objective state of the brain, and the subjective experience of having one. And no matter how much we learn about the neural machinery, we get no closer to answering the question of why we get to experience the process in the first place. This is famously known in philosophy as the hard problem of consciousness.
Somehow, this all registered with me in real time as I sat piercing the screen with wide eyes. I knew paying attention in Psychology would pay off sometime. And in this moment, it was delivering–plus interest.
The back half of the video is where things get really interesting. Harris explains a pivotal shift that can occur inside this subjectivity that is ours alone. It doesn’t have a scientific name yet, so self transcendence or ego death will have to do.
It’s the experience of no longer having a self to which all experience refers back to. “The center drops out,” as Harris puts it. This can happen during prayer, or during moments of incomprehensible beauty like being under a star peppered sky or beside a raging waterfall at dawn. It’s this sense of being everything instead of being a part of everything.
In that moment, sitting among a sea of quiet students in the library, I teleported back in time to my 3rd grade classroom. My teacher, Mrs. Jeffereys, instructed the class through moving meditation exercises she called “brain gym.” Every morning the sequence culminated in a few moments of silent focus as we sat with our eyes closed.
I remember experiencing deep tranquility during these fleeting moments, as if I could sit in that hard plastic chair forever. I listened to the extraneous sounds in the room while basking in a distinct sensation of aliveness–a feeling I only felt in this unique context, during a blaring lack of stimulation.
My brain is tempted to claim that what I was experiencing here was self-transcendence. I certainly remember feeling completely at ease in the moment, without any sense of me or I, but then again we’re talking about a memory that’s a decade and a half old.
At any rate, this throwback to childhood seemed to give this video instant validity. I teared up the way you do when you’re bearing witness to the deepest personal truth. It marked the start of my spiritual journey.
Do you remember a defining moment in your life that changed everything? I’d love to hear about it in a comment below!