Where did I come from? The answer is straightforward if you’re from a culture that believes in reincarnation: I came from my past life, propelled by good or bad deeds to a difficult or pleasant rebirth, and these stretch back infinitely, just as time itself.
To most of our listeners, the idea of past lives doesn’t make sense and isn’t scientifically verifiable. But still, the question of what we might have been before our conception is one worth asking. So in today’s meditation we take a skeptical but open-minded approach to this question, one that considers the various possibilities of where we came from.
Maybe you came out of nothing. It’s possible that your consciousness emerged from neurons that were awakened at some point during your growth inside your mother, like a new computer booting up for the first time. For the next few minutes, let’s probe this question deeply and take the various hypotheses of where me might have come from seriously, like an open-minded scientist.
We’ll consider the possibility that we are an emergent phenomenon arising from the activity of neurons. But we’ll also consider the possibility that our mind may have existed before those neurons. The reason for following this train of thought isn’t to convince ourselves that any one answer is correct. The wisest people on earth have debated this question for millennia without coming to agreement, and we aren’t likely to settle it today. But like we’ve seen with other meditations that start with a question, simply asking the question of our mind’s origin can deeply transform our sense of self, our happiness, and our connection to others.
We’re each willing watch a two or even three hour movie about much weirder fictions: about elves and hobbits, monsters, ghosts, Jedis, gods, living in the Matrix, time travel, and teleportation. What do these do to our minds? We know from neuroplasticity that everything we watch or think about changes our mind for the rest of our lives. You’ve been permanently altered by every TV show you ever saw.
So why not come with me on an adventure into our own minds to probe back through the stages of our own life, and then push past that mysterious boundary of our conception to see what might have come before; to see what this journey does to your mind. And the journey starts with that question we ask again and again of ourselves in meditation: What is the mind?
Motivation and breath
Get into your meditation posture, seated in a chair with feet flat on the floor, or cross-legged on a cushion. Start out the meditation with a motivation to meditate in order to bring out all your best qualities. Feel a sense of appreciation for all the good you already do, and that goodness is at your core; that the times you are impatient or angry or craving are fleeting, and that your mind at rest, without stress, is one that is contented and loving and open.
Now take that open, contented attitude toward yourself, and direct your focus to your breath for one minute. Bring all your attention to your breath, wherever you feel it. And let other thoughts and sensations recede, without pushing them away. Let your thoughts and senses fade into the distance and focus only on your breath.
(Focus on the breath for one minute)
What is the mind?
We are going to follow our mind back in time now. But first we ask again, what is the mind? When the mind looks at the mind, it can be almost like staring into a space. For a moment, let the mind watch whatever appears within the space of the mind and gently label those appearances: that’s a perception of the traffic outside, that’s the sound of talking in the distance, that’s a thought about what I’m going to have for lunch, that’s a fear, that’s a longing, that’s love, that’s my wish to be happy.
(Let the mind watch itself for one minute)
The mind is impermanent
Something that comes from the mind watching the mind is that we see how the mind is impermanent. The mind changes. In fact, the mind often changes very quickly, moving from thoughts to feelings to plans to regrets, memories, and fantasies all within less than a minute.
So the mind changes, the mind is impermanent. That’s one thing we notice immediately. The mind is a stream of awareness. And we are only able to notice this because one part of the mind is watching, while another part of the mind is being observed. It’s as if there are two parts to your mind: the watcher and the objects that appear within the mind. But how could that be? Do each of us have two minds active at once, one that is the subject and other the objects of the mind?
Who is the observer in the mind?
Look more closely and what you may notice is that no, the mind cannot see itself. Just like a knife cannot cut itself. What appears to be the watcher within the mind, the subject, is the present moment of consciousness. And the object of consciousness, what appears in the mind, is the previous moment of consciousness.
It’s like the mind packages our mental experience into little packets, like the ones computers transmit, or into frames like you see in a video. If you watch your mind for some time, you realize that there’s no observer outside these packets or frames. It’s merely the current frame observing the previous.
Try to become aware of this for a moment. See how what appears to be the observer in your mind is actually just the present moment of consciousness. And what the mind sees is the moment of consciousness that has just passed.
(Watch the present moment of consciousness observing the previous moment of consciousness briefly).
Where do moments of awareness come from?
When we look at the present moment of consciousness, we can ask where that moment came from.
One answer is that the moment came from neurons. But that answer isn’t wholly satisfactory, because the moment feels as if it is made of thoughts, sounds, images, feelings, words, and ideas. All of these are qualities that aren’t present in the literal matter of neurons themselves.
So, logically, neurons are a supporting cause for these moments of awareness. But they aren’t the moments themselves, just like computer software runs on computer hardware, but no one would ever say that the computer software is the hardware itself. You can have hardware that doesn’t run software at all, like a turned off computer or a brain that’s no longer alive. And you can have software that hasn’t yet been run or even written yet, like those thoughts and ideas you haven’t yet imagined. So, logically, your thoughts can’t be reduced to your neurons, even though they dependent upon them.
If the cause of a given moment of consciousness can’t be wholly found in the neurons that support consciousness, then where do we find it? The Buddhist view of psychology, which we take on now as a hypothesis, is that the cause of the present moment of consciousness is the prior moment of consciousness; that only consciousness itself can give birth to consciousness, just like other continuous phenomena in reality are dependent upon a continuity of the same phenomenon, like the continuity of space or a river or electrical charges running down a wire.
A question you can ask yourself now is whether I am the same me from that prior moment of consciousness? Or if it is almost like an entirely new me is born with every new mental experience. As yourself that question now for a moment and see what awareness tells you. Am I the same me that I was in my prior moment of consciousness?
(Meditate quietly for a moment on whether you are your prior moment of consciousness, or newly created at every moment)
Time travel within the mind
Now within this space of consciousness arising from consciousness that appears to be frames of experience, you can become aware that these frames of mind aren’t really separate, but that they emerge out of the substance of the mind and then dissolve back into it. And that the mind is like a holographic projector in which these thoughts and feelings and memories arise.
Just like an old movie projector, it’s possible to run the film backward. At the present moment you can look at the moment immediately past. But your memory also allows you to bring prior frames of consciousness back onto the stage of your mind as memories to re-examine within the present moment. Your mind is a time machine that can rewind the experience of your whole life.
So let’s go on that journey together now.
Start to rewind just this day, through the thoughts you’ve had since waking up this morning. Are those experiences the same stream of consciousness?
Move into the night before. Do you recall your dreams? Does your experience of sleep last night feel like the continuity of this same consciousness?
Now it’s yesterday. What do you recall from that day as you review it in reverse? Without getting caught up in the emotions or experiences or ideas, observe how your mind changed and ask whether that is still the same mind as the one observing, the one that’s still in the present moment.
Move into last week and notice what happened in your mind, how it reacted to experiences, its hopes and fears and fantasies.
And now into the month before. What concerned you? What happened and what was important to you then?
Let your mind move to the previous year. What was your mind obsessed with? What did it notice? What did it experience last year?
And the year before? Where was your mind two years ago?
Now trace back further through your adult life in reverse, the time since you left school. Notice what filled your mind. And ask whether it the same mind observing now?
And now back to college if you went there, or whenever you first left home. What was your mind like then? What do you recall? Is that mind of the past you observe a continuity of the same self you appear to be now, the one watching this memory?
Move back into high school: your moments of learning and growth, emotional and physical awakening. Without getting too caught up, observe how your mind was back then. And continue to ask whether that was the same continuity of mind you are today.
Now moving back through middle and elementary school, recall how your mind was then. What were your concerns and experiences? Is that still the same mind as the one watching now?
At home with your parents before you started school, when your world was smaller: your home, your parents, your siblings if you had any. Recall how your mind worked then: what it noticed, what it learned, what it felt. Are you the continuity of that same toddler’s mind?
Now try to project back into the mind of yourself as a baby: when your perception was fuzzy; when words were just a continuous change in tone, like music; when objects and the environment didn’t resolve into discrete things, but were just a confusing continuity of color and sound. Are those imagined thoughts and perceptions of a baby the same awareness you are today?
And now imagine moving back into your mother’s womb. Was it warm and cozy? Frightening? Tight or relaxed? Vague or specific? And is that mind of a fetus one that connects in an unbroken continuity to your mind today?
You can watch the feeling of shrinking down, of your consciousness becoming more primitive. And at some point you can ask, did my consciousness begin at this moment? Was I like a new iPhone starting up for the first time? Consider that possibility for a moment, whether it’s possible that your consciousness began from from nothing to become something.
And now consider whether your consciousness continues back. With your mind’s eye, see your mother’s egg and a sperm swimming away from it in reverse, back to your father. As you watch the distance between them grow, imagine that your consciousness came from somewhere earlier, before entering into the union of sperm and egg. As we go in reverse, where does that consciousness come from?
And is that consciousness, broken free from the sperm and the egg, still part of the same continuity of mind?
Imagine yourself in a space between lives experiencing intangible forms and thoughts and feelings. Imagine what those might have been, even if it’s only a creative exercise.
Consider whether it’s possible that you might have had another life. In one way, of course, you did, through your biological connection to your parents and grandparents and great grandparents; that the energy of your mind has its roots in their consciousness and DNA and their learned experience.
Or maybe a wholly different life comes to you, one unrelated to your direct ancestors, but still part of greater humanity.
Step back into this imagined life, and look inside, look around. Who am I? Look back through this life. Was this a person with a family? What did they do and think and feel? Let your imagination explore, not with certainty that this was you, but with an open-minded creativity like writing a story or improvising music; through this process, feeling a greater connection to humanity and its history. Just let your mind’s creativity explore who this might have been: how important their life was to them, how meaningful and painful their life’s experiences were.
And then this person too was a child and a baby and was inside a mother and then what happened before? Imagine another life, then another and another, as your ancestors or strangers or other forms of life. What do you see as you rewind faster and faster through more and more imagined lives?
Maybe you feel a connection to all the creatures on earth that we evolved through to arrive at our humanity. Let your mind rewind through the past. Do you still feel that you are the same continuity of mind? Or do you feel a connection through the greater consciousness of our species, to other living creatures, or to life itself; even back to the dawn of life, emerging mysteriously from stardust and the Big Bang and the heat of our sun? Feel your connection to all of history in the continuity of your consciousness.
Returning to the present
And now let your mind come to a stop wherever you are and move forward again. Fast forward through all those lives, all the evolution of the universe, our star and planet forming, biological evolution, our common humanity through a thousand generations of humans, or a mysterious mental evolution between unrelated bodies. You can feel a greater connection to the history of all life on earth. And then you arrive back in your mother’s womb. Re-emerge from her as a baby that grows into a child, a student, an adult, and back to today right now.
Was that continuity of experience all me?
Rest in the present moment again, seeing that even now, new moments of consciousness are arising. Is the new one still me? Who is watching these moments of consciousness? Feel the change, the forward momentum of your mental experience. Feel yourself riding the wave of your life on earth, at the end of history, at the tip of evolution, and see what that does to your sense of your place in the world and the universe among all these other minds.
Everyone around us has a similar connection to the history of life through their body and genes and mental evolution; everyone lives the hero’s journey of their life. Everyone was born with this mystery to explore of where they came from and who they are. These mysteries of life unite us.
And now you can gently come out of the meditation and we can dedicate whatever experience we had to be a cause for developing a bigger sense of who we are and our connection to our past, our parents, our history. It can lighten your feelings of attachment or frustration right now to see how many strong feelings and powerful experiences you’ve had in the past that you’ve almost forgotten. And realize that your mental experiences today also are impermanent and changing. Hold this sense of yourself as a constantly changing entity, one that’s fluid and learning and growing and capable of so much good.
And as you go out into your day, try and carry with you this greater sense of the continuity of your mind and the impermanence of your mind and a connection to the history before you were born, whether you feel it through biology or physics or mental evolution, and see what that does to your actions, see what it does to your perceptions and feelings, and see how it changes the way you treat the people around you.