Transcript: Jeff Lieberman on Science and Spirituality at TEDxCambridge 2011

So, this is even more difficult, because we have to look at our own movie, the movie inside our consciousness. So we’re going to do two quick experiments, and this only will give you a taste of something that takes much longer to understand the depth of.

So, the first one is your sight. From what we understand in physics, all light is a vibration of electromagnetic field. And none of those light waves intrinsically have any color. There’s just this change in frequency. But once those waves go into your eye and into your brain, you create the subjective experience of color.

Now, what this means is that you all think that you are seeing me out here, with a red shirt on, but this red only exists in your head, and so, this entire picture you’re seeing is happening inside your head, in a movie inside your consciousness. And if you remove a little bit of the attention from me directly, you can start to have some attention on yourself, noticing that you are seeing me inside your head.

So, let’s do a second experiment. It’s even more subtle than that one.

Read this sentence twice, silently to yourself.

[The voice in your head]

[“I can hear the voice in my head reading this sentence”]

OK, so it’s weird, right? But you can get this very weird, subtle perspective that you can look at your own thought process objectively. You’re actually listening to the soundtrack of thoughts inside your head, in your movie of consciousness.

[I am]

So imagine that I do this process for thousands of hours, and I just try to look, as objectively as possible, at my thoughts, and my emotions, and my perceptions, and even the way that my brain has modeled space and time. The more that I pull attention away from the thoughts and the perceptions, the more I seem to notice myself noticing these things inside my consciousness. And eventually, maybe I can pull all of the attention away from all of those layers of thoughts, perceptions, my body, my sensations, and there’s nothing left to perceive, there’s nothing left that I can consider myself, because I’ve seen it all in front as not me. And yet, the one thing that remains is this feeling of existence. “I am” remains. This feeling of “I am”.

And what I find when I sit in that state is that what my identity is, whatever it is, is beyond perception, it cannot be perceived, but it is still experienced. And this “I am” is the root of our entire existence. “I am” is latent in every single aspect of our existence, but just like a fish might never notice the water that it swims in, we might never notice the “I am” because it’s covered.

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“I am” is a completely empty experience, it’s devoid of any content, and when I experience it directly, on its own, there’s the possibility for a realization: “Maybe I’m not a human being that has consciousness. Maybe I’m consciousness that is shaped into a human being.”

And when I see this totally empty experience, there’s no content, form, structure, there’s not even a model of space and time that is generated in the mind. And we’ve seen those conditions before, 13.7 billion years ago, when the entire universe was an undifferentiated, pure energy. And so, just maybe there is the potential to realize directly I am that energy, I always have been that energy, and I always will be that energy.

Einstein said that thoughts suffer from an optical illusion of consciousness, this illusion that there’s a separate person inside an environment, when in reality, there’s just energy in motion, everywhere. And just like an ocean is water in motion, we can call a certain part of that ocean a wave, but it gives us the illusion that the wave is a separate entity in the ocean. But a wave is not in the ocean. A wave is the ocean.

And similarly, we might not be waves. Maybe we’re the ocean. Maybe all of us are energy, and we can realize that directly. Now, this experience could never be reduced to words, because it makes words, but it could be experienced, and I think it’s such an important experience that people have been trying to name it for thousands of years, and they call it spiritual enlightenment.

[You are not what you think]

And I think the first human beings started realizing that they were fundamentally energy about 2,500 years ago. And all of them say the same thing. They say it is the complete ending of human suffering. Well of course it’s the end of human suffering! All suffering is based on the illusory separation that there’s an individual in the environment, that there’s a person that has to survive, that this specific collection of 1,000 trillion trillion atoms has to hold itself together.

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But if I realize directly that I am energy, and I realize that the body and the mind are a temporary manifestation of that energy, then I can fully accept the death of the body and mind as something that does not happen to me, because I was always energy and I always will be.

And if I were to experience that directly, this voice in my head that tells me I have to do certain things in order to be fulfilled loses all of its power. At this very moment, I never have to listen to that voice again, and so everything in life becomes a game, for fun, a play. And we’ve all experienced that, but it’s very hard to remember, because we were so young, and maybe we were at the beach building a sand castle, and the entire world faded away because we were only building it to build it, and we weren’t trying to get somewhere else. We hadn’t even learned how to plan.

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