How Impermanence Creates Emptiness

I’ve talked about my take on the old Buddhist idea of suffering (or ‘dissatisfaction’). I view it through the lens of impermanence – if our intrinsic rewards disappear through our fingers, we can never be satisfied with reality. The third characteristic of existence – emptiness – follows a similar idea.

Emptiness, also known as no-self or egolessness, is a strange idea for any sentient being to hold. I mean, it sure feels as though my mind continuously exists. There are no clear jumps or gaps. Sure, I don’t remember everything and my attention wanders. But that’s more like a camera with poor focus and no memory card. This idea is like the camera disappearing at times.

Does the mind persist, even when attention wanders? It could, except that anything “continuous” is an illusion.

A great human skill is thinking about your own thinking. We can even do it in real time – we can have an experience and observe our reaction at the same time. It’s not even difficult. But that experience is impermanent. It feels continuous unless you pay close attention to it. Then, like getting up close to a monitor, you can see the graininess.

And that thing that’s doing the observing? That, too, is impermanent. Your attention flickers as much as the observed sensation.

Your mind is an impermanent observer of flickering sensations. How can it be said to continuously, permanently, exist?

Neuroscientific Impermanence

If you think about how consciousness emerges from the brain, you arrive at the same idea. Neurons don’t carry current like a wire; they translate chemical signals into electrical signals back into chemical signals somewhere else in the network. On the level of individual cells, we see impermanence in action.

Could a cluster of impermanent signals combine to create a permanent signal? Sure. Add enough blips together and it comes out as a steady tone. Or what seems like a steady tone. Waves – whether sound or electrical – are impermanent. They have troughs and peaks. This is what it feel like to notice something – troughs and peaks, or flickering.

Now, we don’t know what causes consciousness. It could be an illusion – a side effect of a trillion networked nodes firing. It could be a feature we evolved because a sense of self is useful. I don’t know. Either way, a continuous consciousness isn’t possible.

If consciousness is an emergent property of the neural network, then we can think about it like other emergent phenomena – like traffic jams. Traffic jams arise spontaneously from simple rules and are nearly impossible to predict. You can measure the size and duration of the jam. You can map its density.

But it’s no stable thing. It shifts like a cloud. No part of it is a continuous feature. Even cars stuck in the middle can suddenly move. If they are lucky enough, they can even escape the jam. At any moment, a car that’s in the jam can be out of it a second later. Then back in it again. And at the macro level, those measurements about its size and density change moment to moment. On no level is it continuous.

Consciousness is the same. You can measure and classify the mind. But what is conscious, what is unconscious and what is external to you have fuzzy boundaries. They aren’t clear and they change.

If a sense of self is an evolved feature of the brain, then it’s just like happiness, hunger or blue. It’s a sensation made of smaller sensations, each of which flickers like a faulty lightbulb.

Neuroscientific Egolessness

So if your sense of self is impermanent, does that mean we are ‘empty’? Does it mean the ego is an illusion?

There is your conscious mind – the captain of your ship. It’s a good analogy because a captain doesn’t make a ship move or turn. It gives orders and some other crewmember adjusts the rudder or cranks the engine.

When you decide to raise your arm, you don’t raise it. You aren’t aware of the thousand microcontractions your muscles have to make. You give the order and it rises on its own. To put it another way, the conscious mind decides to lift the arm and the unconscious lifts it.

And where does that decision come from? It feels like the conscious mind created the decision out of nothing. But brain scans show the unconscious mind deciding things before the conscious mind realises it’s made a decision. It gets the result of decisions and only thinks it decided them.

You might wander what the point of the conscious mind is, if it doesn’t make decisions. It trains the unconscious how to make decisions. It’s also good at some other human-specific tricks like imagining possible futures. But, again, it draws on information and decisions made invisibly by the unconscious mind.

What does this mean for your sense of self? Everything you think is conscious thought comes from unconscious processing. Everything that feels continuous about the world and your perception is flickering impermanence.

Masters of meditation can notice the flickering and trace the pre-conscious origin of thought. Their attention is so finely tuned that they can observe their own neurology process information. They do this even though their awareness is part of that neurology – and shares in its limitations. So the best you can hope for, with a lifetime of training, is to impermanently observe flickering, pre-conscious neural activity.

This means that what we think of as ‘self’ is a stuttering ball of instinct that lands in our field of awareness. That is the core idea of no-self. You can hone your mental powers but they’ll always run on neural hardware. And there’s nothing one neuron or a trillion can do to create continuous, fully conscious awareness.

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