About six months after I finished my last novel I had a dream in which one of the characters in the novel appeared to me. She told me there was a continuity error in chapter 11. She said I’d got her home address wrong. When I awoke I remembered the dream and checked; sure enough the error was there. Fortunately, there was still enough time to correct it before the novel was published.
To this day I am still astonished by this event. I keep wondering about the mechanism by which the error was spotted.
Who was this janitor working late in the basement of my soul?
I can only assume she was part of the original team who wrote the novel.
Because I had nothing to do with it. Or to be more precise, ‘I’ had nothing to do with it. ‘I’ here refers to that Great Impostor known as the Self.
Sure, the Self pretends to be the one that does the work, and likes to take the credit for all our achievements.
But when you examine the matter more closely, you notice a strange phenomenon.
When you write, you do not consciously choose your words, they just flow, and your Self is nowhere to be seen.
The same thing happens when you become absorbed in a book.
Or if you paint, or play the piano or any musical instrument.
In all these activities the conscious Self is absent.
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called this experience ‘Flow’, and accounted it the time when we are at our most fulfilled, in part because the Self and the carriage of disturbing thoughts that seem to flurry round it like moths round a lamp, steps aside.
If you watch a concert pianist take the stage you can see the process unfold before your eyes. When she approaches the piano, the Self is in control. She is self-conscious, nervous, or at least anxious. Then when she sits down, there is a pause, the tension mounts, the audience hold their breath. Suddenly the fingers plunge onto the keys and the pianist’s Self disappears, she enters what is to all extents and purposes an altered state.
When the piece is finished, there is a pause. Thunderous applause breaks out and the pianist takes a bow and seems self-conscious once again, sheepish even, as if she is aware that she is receiving applause under false pretences. It wasn’t really her who did the performance. She wasn’t even there.
It’s a startling paradox.
Nothing is more fundamental or private to us than what we call our Self.
It likes to think of itself as the Captain on the Bridge.
The trouble is, when you look for the Captain, he evaporates.
Philosophers have long argued that the notion of a unified Self persisting over time is an illusion.
They say the ‘I’ emerges from the morass of chaotic mental activity, like the hum of bees in a hive. It emerges from the river or thoughts, feeling, intuitions, opinions that our minds churn out all our waking day.
The Buddha likened the Self to a chariot. If you take a chariot apart you are left with a heap of parts but nothing that can be called a chariot. To think that the Self endures is to believe the candle we light today has the same flame as the one we extinguished the night before.
In a sense, the Self is a work of fiction, constantly under revision. It emerges out of our constant mental chatter and narrates itself into being. It keeps an account of who we are, and keeps itself alive by a process of continual self-regeneration. The Self makes a running commentary but without the running commentary there is no Self.
When you look back at your life you turn it into a story. You select memories and string them together on the thread of narrative. Like all storytellers you add cause and effect. You turn your life into a plot.
And, crucially, you interpret the events. Were you crushed by successive blows of misfortune? Or did you heroically resist? This interpretation decides the genre of your life’s story.
Which is a delicious paradox.
When you write, it comes from a place you cannot name, deep within the basement of your soul. The Self is nowhere to be seen.
There is, however, one work of fiction it does write.
It writes itself.