Experiencing the Universe Unfold

Experiencing the Universe Unfold
Annaka Harris

One of the reasons meditation practice and psychedelic-assisted therapy cause people to feel “at one with the universe,” more connected to other people, and are effective treatments for disorders such as depression and PTSD, is because they quiet a circuit in the brain neuroscientists call the default-mode-network. This circuitry, active during periods of introspection, remembering the past, and planning for the future, is in part responsible for our illusory sense of being a self—that is, something separate from the rest of the world and even separate from our own brain when we’re in the full grip of the illusion. And this sense of self is related to the feeling of freedom of will: It’s my “self” that swoops in to intervene in the physical world and in the brain processing “I” choose to redirect.[1] When the dual sense of self and free will drops out, people report a feeling of wellbeing deeper than anything they’ve ever experienced. This makes sense, given that these twin illusions keep us isolated on islands of selfhood, disconnected from one another and everything else.

Human decisions are in fact a process of cause and effect, like any other natural phenomenon. But people sometimes recoil at the suggestion that we don’t have free will, and I’m often asked, “If I don’t have free will, why would I do anything?” There’s much to discuss here that’s important, including notions of responsibility, punishment, consent, etc.—all of which can and do operate in a world without free will and which I address in other writing.[2] But one thing to point out is that if it’s in fact true that we don’t have free will, we never had it, so I haven’t taken anything away by denying it. Nor are you losing something if you come to this realization on your own—even though it may feel that way. Everything you’ve ever done—every decision, every good deed, every form of self-improvement—were all done without free will. Nothing has changed, except that you now have a deeper grasp of the way things work.

Moreover, it’s impossible to “do nothing.” If you lie in bed all day in an attempt not to do anything, you’ll soon find that it takes an extraordinary amount of effort not to move, or eat, or use the bathroom (or think, for that matter). There’s no state of doing nothing. The river of brain processes—and, more broadly, of cause and effect across the universe—keeps flowing.

One difficulty in seeing human decisions as a process of cause and effect in the brain is that the brain’s inputs and capabilities for outputs are so complex. A much simpler living system, such as a pea tendril, is capable of two behaviors: 1) growing in a straight line at a given rate, and 2) growing at a faster rate and coiling (when it bumps up against a branch). Additionally, a pea tendril essentially receives two inputs: branch / no branch. But in the human brain, all of the factors leading up to any particular decision—genes, past experiences, one’s mood at a particular moment—contribute to even the smallest decisions. And the consequent output can take very many forms: When faced with a simple question, “Water or Lemonade?” I can choose water or lemonade, but I’m capable of running screaming from the restaurant or reacting in any number of other ways in response. One thing that’s difficult for us to gain an intuition for is the fact that even though the brain, as a system, is capable of an uncountable number of sequences of behaviors, that doesn’t mean it’s capable of all those behaviors in every moment in time.

Decision-making is a process in nature. And a beautiful one at that, in which the ever-changing dance of electrical firing in the brain is in constant dialog with the outside world and other beings (if I smile at you, your subsequent brain processing will be different than if I frown at you). It’s not easy to break through the illusions of self and free will, but when we’re briefly able to, it can help us let go of ego, increase our capacity for compassion, and feel at one with the rest of nature. For many of us, seeing past the illusion of “self” is a source of spiritual reflection. We catch a glimpse of the mystery and profundity of our true circumstance—that of being an integral part of the universe, experiencing events unfold from a unique point in spacetime.


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[1] Although “I” is useful shorthand for “the brain and body system known as Annaka,” it often refers to something that feels extraneous to that system; i.e., it is an illusion.

[2] For more, see chapter 3 “Is Consciousness Free?” in CONSCIOUS




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