Separation Anxiety

cross posted from medium as a promotional synopsis for my work

At the very root of suffering in all its forms — anxiety, depression, stress, etc. — lies the one fundamental error of the human being: an acute sense of separation. Virtually every problem we face boils down to this easily overlooked issue. This sense of separation, also termed duality or ego, is the illusory problem that meditation sets out to extinguish.

To call it an error isn’t quite fair, it would be more accurate to think of it as an evolutionary adaptation that has outlived its usefulness. This sense of separation obviously serves a purpose in getting on in the world, surviving and accumulating resources. The ego, for lack of a better word, is the intelligence that allowed us to fight our way out of the animal kingdom. It serves as the basis for competition, hierarchy, power, and all that jazz.

However, included with the ego or separate self comes a deep-rooted sense of unease. The anxiety that comes with separation is built-in, it cannot be avoided. It is the natural result, it is the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve tasted. To believe that you are on your own, apart from all of life, is to be thrown out of the garden. But unlike the biblical representation which carries so much guilt and baggage along with it, it’s more useful to realize that this is just a necessary stage which the human being has to pass through.

So, how do we get back to the garden? As it turns out, just as the separate self is constructed over time, it can be dissolved in the same fashion. We are not born with the ego, it is piled on to us as we are slowly conditioned by environmental and hereditary factors. Suffering is an acquired taste, a rite of passage for humanity in a certain sense.

Nowadays, we can actually model the separate self in the brain using medical imaging. It is measured by the level of activity in the default mode network (or DMN for short). Multiple studies demonstrate how meditation reduces DMN activity, and conversely how depression and anxiety amplify this activity. This is a fascinating and ground-breaking discovery about the workings of the ego, it shines a scientific light onto the spiritual practices that have been around for millennia.

Meditation is the process of disengaging from the separate self, or default mode network. Simply put, the idea of “me” is gradually hard-wired into the brain neuron by neuron. This happens so repetitively and habitually that at a certain point it becomes second-nature to us, that continuous self-referential narrative of thinking that goes on in our minds. But we are providing the energy to this machine moment to moment, whether we realize it or not.

Meditation is a refusal to provide energy to the self, or DMN. Instead of going along for the ride with our thought patterns and their corresponding neural networks, we gradually learn to pull away from thought. Meditation is the art of becoming a witness to the mind, instead of an active participant. We simply sit and watch thought come and go. The “me” is seen as a temporary rising and falling of thought and emotion, a process which we can choose to withdraw our energy from.

From a neuroscientific standpoint, this makes complete sense. By continuously refusing to engage thought and the DMN, our sense of self — and therefore our sense of separation from the world — is diminished. With enough persistence, the ego/self/DMN can be eliminated entirely, also known as enlightenment. The energy and habitual pull of the default mode network is essentially starved to death. There is no longer anyone feeding the machine of the self. Neuron by neuron, thought by thought, the sense of separation that causes us so much suffering is dissolved.

If there are no longer two — “me” and the world — then there is just one, by definition. This is sometimes referred to as god, love, infinity, samadhi. It is a return to our inherent oneness. More accurately, it is a discontinuation of our moment-by-moment insistence on “me”. God, or infinite love, or whatever term you like, is already the case. We cannot escape it no matter how hard we try, we can only systematically try and cover it up with this dream of the separate self.

Right now the human species has taken its sense of separation as far as it can possibly go. We have never been more disconnected from ourselves and the world around us. As discussed, this is a prerequisite for transcending the ego. We only evolve when there is no longer any other option. Meditation is the quantum leap to the next stage of our evolution, the transition out of the unconscious, egoic mind. By manually putting an end to this outdated neural programming, we can evolve into a harmonious, sustainable species. At peace, interconnected, no longer driven by the illusion of the separate self.

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