Many years ago, I would spend a lot of time reflecting on virtual reality. The idea that you could put on a special helmet and become somebody else really intrigued me. You could be transported into an entirely new world, in a brand new body. You could become a secret agent, a medieval knight, an angelic being in a fantasy world, whatever you want.
But there was one thing that puzzled me. Could you truly become the character you wished to be? For instance, could you make yourself love things you don’t love? Could you hate things you don’t hate? Could you make yourself believe things you don’t believe? Could you change your personality, thought patterns, and other fundamental aspects of who you are?
The virtual reality helmet may give you a new body and transport you into another world, but it wouldn’t replace your mind, or your thoughts, your likes, your dislikes, and other preferences.
For instance, say you wanted to experience a virtual reality novel featuring the life of a medieval nun. If you’re not spiritual or religious, it will be difficult to recreate the experience. You may put on the helmet and watch things unfold from the nun’s eyes, see her daily life, and feel her bodily sensations, but could you experience life as she experienced it, fully, totally? You may not believe in Jesus, but to this medieval nun, that’s all she cares about. Her entire emotional life is tied into her religious beliefs. Could you experience that, considering you’re not a religious person and see it all as superstitious? Could you fear the wrath of God? Could you feel the extreme guilt of insignificant sins? Could you feel a longing to be with a being you don’t even believe exists?
Or what if you wanted to experience the life of a mercenary swordsman in ancient times? Could you find joy in killing your enemies? In pillaging villages? Raping innocent women? Slaughtering children? You may be watching those events unfold from within the virtual reality helmet, but you’d likely experience disgust, or at least I would. That’s not what the character experiences. The character revels in all the blood, gore, and violence, and feels bliss at the idea of exerting his physical strength to dominate the world around him. Your emotional experience wouldn’t line up with what it was really like to be that person.
So is it not possible to experience the life of another person without actually being that person? As I got deeper and deeper into meditation, I realized that this is not how things work. First off, there are no fundamental characteristics which describe who I am. A desire doesn’t make me who I am, neither does a particular way of thinking, or a preference for one thing over another. Actions and decisions are not me either, and the same goes for emotional reactions to various events in life. These things are not fundamental, they’re experienced within awareness just like anything else. Secondly, there are no people. None of us are the experience that we’re having, on any level. For instance, this life I’m living now as “Jason” is very similar to the sort of virtual reality experience we’re describing. He is just a character that I’m aware of. I’m not Jason’s thoughts, what Jason likes, what he dislikes, any of his preferences toward anything, his body, his decisions, his actions, or anything else. I am the witness which is aware of all these things. He’s a character that’s loaded up into the VR experience currently “displaying” in consciousness.
This awareness can experience any character, any environment, in any period of time, living within any body (or no body at all), experiencing any thought, any like, any dislike, and all the rest of it. I realized that THIS is what I am. But what is “this” exactly? It cannot be captured in words. If I were to try, I’d say that “I am”. I am conscious awareness, a sort of blank canvas that can experience anything and everything, similar to how a computer screen can display any image. So I can experience the nun exactly as she is, just as I can experience the mercenary soldier in his totality, and at the same time always remain who I am and have always been.
You may say, “But you’re Jason!” I disagree. I can meditate and directly perceive that this is not true. To say that I’m Jason is like saying the current image on a computer screen is the computer screen. But maybe speaking in terms of visual images is confusing you. Imagine a screen that has thoughts “on” it, has emotions “on” it, has desires “on” it, has space and time “on” it, has bodily sensations “on” it, etc. It “displays” the entirety of everything you’re aware of. THAT “space” of seemingly infinite possibilities is what I am, yet I’m not any particular image on the screen. I am the thing being display, yet not at the same time. It doesn’t capture the entirety of what I am, what’s possible for me, or the true essence of my being.
The “real” me? I have no story. I was never born. I will never die. I have no qualities. No properties. No conditions. I don’t come from anywhere. I won’t ever go anywhere. There’s nothing I have to do. I don’t want anything. I lack nothing. I have everything. I am everything. To be more precise, there aren’t even separate things. That’s all an illusory idea, something that’s false. Things, separation, duality, space, time, those are a certain type of experience I can have. Those are all possible “projections” onto this awareness I’ve been talking about. A certain type of experience, that’s all.
Anything that changes is not me. Anything that comes and goes is not me. What I am never changes, is ever-present, and will always be present. In fact, you can’t even talk about “me” in terms of time. It’s not something that persists through time, it’s beyond time. And this isn’t anything special to me. It’s you as well. There is no me, no you, not even an “us”. Just “I am”.
I realized this while reflecting on a book I read which was filled with near death experience accounts. When a fifty year old man died, his grandparents and other dead relatives came to greet him on some plane beyond this world. Then I got to thinking, if I’m not my body, nor am I my thoughts, then these “dead” people aren’t either. If I were to die, and say my grandmother came to me, who would I be speaking to? She wasn’t that body, nor was she any sort of like, dislike, or thought pattern, or anything of the sort. The real her didn’t have a story, just like I don’t have a story. So what would I be talking to? How is this person supposed to greet me? In what way? What property or characteristic uniquely identifies her, as opposed to me? There are none. She’s a character within awareness, just as Jason is.
The second you no longer identify with your body, your thoughts, your likes, your dislikes, your actions, etc. you see through the entire illusion. All of it. Spirituality. Religion. Life. Death. You’re left in this silent peace and all is fine.