Mind as a hyper-dimensional membrane

(Updated 9 September 2012: A long, instructive, and sometimes even contentious online discussion has emerged around the ideas in this post, which you can find here. From that discussion, reader Michael Larkin framed the ideas below in a beautiful story-form that I republished, with authorization, here.)

A representation of a hyper-dimensional
membrane. See discussion below. Source: Wikipedia.
As part of an online debate in a discussion forum last week, I posted an early articulation of some of the ideas I've been working on. I thought it would be interesting to re-post it here, with some more explanation. This is work-in-progress, so please keep that in mind. Also keep in mind my anti-realist stance: everything I will describe is supposed to be an 'as if' model. In other words, my claim is that nature may behave as if the model below were true, but not that the model is literally or ontologically true.

Here we go: Think of the entire universe as a phenomenon of mind. In other words, imagine that there is no world outside of mind modulating your subjective experiences. All there is are the subjective experiences themselves. These experiences entail certain patterns and regularities that can be described by what we call the 'laws of physics.' As such, the 'laws of physics' do not govern objects in a world 'out there,' independent and separate from your mind, but simply represent the patterns and regularities of the flow of your subjective experiences. Strictly speaking, nobody can ever prove that there is a world outside of experience, and/or independent of experience, since any attempt to do it would itself simply be (within) experience. We just like to infer that there is such a world out there because that seems to explain why different human beings report sharing similar and mutually-consistent experiences. I discussed this in a recent video, which I link below.


Now, if everything is in mind, it might as well be all in your mind. Yet, it is reasonable to accept, even though it can't be proven, that other people do have minds too (I discuss this point in the video above as well). So if the universe consists purely of experience, and nothing outside of experience, how can we model such a universe in such a way as to accommodate apparently different minds? And how come all these apparently different minds all seem to share the same reality, if there is no common 'outside world' modulating their experiences? How do we reconcile all this under one coherent model?

Think of the collection of all phenomena of reality as a dynamic painting unfolding on a certain kind of canvas. That canvas is the fabric of mind. Now think of the fabric of mind as a hyper-dimensional membrane (that is, a membrane in more than 3 dimensions of space) that supports unimaginably many and unimaginably complex modes of vibration. To visualize this, think of a 2-dimensional, flat membrane vibrating in different modes, as illustrated in the cymatics video below. All the patterns you see in the video are merely those supported by a pedestrian 2-dimensional membrane. A sufficiently hyper-dimensional membrane, in turn, can conceivably support countless more patterns than all those you have ever experienced, or will ever experience, in your entire life; more complex patterns than any landscape you've ever seen or any piece of music you've ever heard. Therefore, the exercise here is to imagine that the patterns of our experiences are the vibrations of a hyper-dimensional membrane. They are not produced by a world outside of mind, but are the fabric of mind itself vibrating in unfathomably complex modes. Do you see what I mean?


If the hyper-dimensional membrane that constitutes the fabric of mind is not vibrating, then there is no experience. You can visualize that as dreamless sleep. But even though there are no vibrations in that case, the fabric of mind is still there, so there are experiences in potentiality, given that the hyper-membrane can start vibrating. Don't let Realism creep in unnoticed: this hyper-membrane is not something outside of mind; It is mind itself. Its vibrations are subjective experience, of the kind you are having right now, as you read this.

Now assume that different parts of this hyper-membrane can 'fold in' on themselves, forming (partially) closed loops. Think of it as pinching a part of the fabric of your shirt and rolling it around your finger to form a loop. Suppose also that this can happen in several different parts of the hyper-membrane of mind, so you get many different 'local loops' of mind. Suppose, in addition, that loop formation can be recursive, or fractal: you may have loops on top of loops, on top of loops, etc.

The formation of a loop changes the natural modes of vibration within the loop, in the same way that you change the natural mode of vibration of a guitar string if you press on it to switch notes. After a loop is formed, only certain modes of vibration of the broader (that is, unfolded) hyper-membrane now resonate within it. This amounts to saying that only a subset of these broader vibrations 'get through' to a loop, while the rest is 'filtered out' because they don't resonate within. Even entirely new modes of oscillation, alien to the broader hyper-membrane, may be supported within a loop because of its specific topology. Similarly, peculiar oscillatory modes taking place within loops may also 'leak out' and influence the vibrations of the broader hyper-membrane. All this said, the vibrations of the broader hyper-membrane are still solely responsible for exciting the vibrations within the loops. The loops aren't autonomous. They modulate experience but do not generate it by themselves.

Given all this, think of the loops as areas of self-reflective awareness in mind, like our egos. In an earlier article, I have elaborated on this analogy between our ego-minds and a loop of consciousness. The hypothesis here is that there is only one universal fabric of mind, and the illusion of individuality arises from the formation of localized loops of self-reflective awareness on this universal fabric. You and I correspond to different loops, but we are fundamentally connected in the sense that we are made of the same continuous fabric of mind. Our respective experiences are still entirely due to the original vibrations of the broader hyper-membrane, but we also have our own modes of vibration that make the experience of 'being' a particular loop unique and dependent in part on our specific location within the broader fabric of mind.

The areas of the broader hyper-membrane that are not folded are the collective unconscious: there is experience there, in the sense that there are oscillations, but they are not self-reflective in the sense that they do not take place within a (semi-)closed loop. Some of the modes of vibration of the collective unconscious do not resonate within the loops and get ordinarily filtered out. Other modes get through either directly or by exciting some harmonic peculiar to the loops: they form a kind of shared 'data stream' from the collective unconscious that is largely responsible for our shared, consistent experience of reality. Similarly, our own egoic experiences (that is, the vibrations within our individual loops of mind) can potentially 'leak out' of the loop, through resonance, and influence the oscillations taking place in the collective unconscious.

The 'laws of physics' known to science capture certain regularities of the vibrations within the loops, since those are all that human beings can ordinarily perceive. But not all regularities are captured: only those that are shared by most loops, since science discards statistically-insignificant peculiarities. You see, every loop may close in a slightly different way, or assume a slightly different shape, so not everybody's experience of reality is identical (the supported harmonics may be slightly different). Science only captures the parts that are identical, however much that is. This way, the 'laws of nature' are merely descriptions of the commonalities of oscillation across loops.

Finally, the topology of a loop may fluctuate over a lifetime, because certain modes of vibration within a loop may interfere with its own structure, in the same way that a musical instrument can theoretically self-destruct if it plays its own natural frequency of vibration. This is what happens in altered states of consciousness: the topology of a loop is partly and/or temporarily altered, potentially allowing in more modes of vibration from the collective unconscious (that is, the broader hyper-membrane) and, thus, trans-personal, non-local experiences.

PS: The video below complements the discussion above, though it is less involved and uses different metaphors.


Copyright © 2012 by Bernardo Kastrup. All rights are reserved.

Comments

  1. I have participated over on the Skeptiko forum lately too, though I thought I would respond over here as the intensity over there can be wearing!

    I loved the video. In my youth, I wanted to be a philosopher of mind, and eventually came to some of the same conclusions, namely that the only thing we can be sure of is consciousness and that the leap to believing that such a thing as insentient matter exists and is the basis of consciousness is a very big leap.

    I thought your point about the idealist position being more skeptical since it requires only two of the four assumptions was an excellent one. Simply stated and very compelling.

    I like your idea of the hyper-dimensional membrane (though I've never been able to wrap my head around more than three dimensions). It does do a great deal of the very work you need to get done.

    However, it also struck me as not entirely appropriate. The reason is that it's a physics metaphor being used to explain consciousness. To put that differently, it's an image of meaning-free form (vibrations, membranes, hyper-dimensionality, folding) used to explain meaning-saturated consciousness. It does the needed work, true, but perhaps doesn't strike the right tone.

    Since you're talking about consciousness, why not use processes already acknowledged in consciousness to do the same work? For instance, we know that a single mind can do all sorts of partioning within itself. It can dissociate, it can repress, to can suppress, etc. It can wall off parts of itself, parts that then function somewhat independently.

    I think the drawback of the membranes metaphor is that it can subtly send the message that consciousness, when you peel back the surface, really is just certain shapes and vibrations in form. Without you intending, it can give the impression that consciousness is not fundamental. If it is, why explain its workings in terms of something non-conscious?

    I don't know if you know what I'm driving at. And having some idea how carefully you think things through, you may well have reasons for choosing the image you have. But I just thought I would throw this out as feedback.

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    1. Hi RObert,

      Thanks for the nice words, and the critical feedback is very welcome. It helps me find the best way to put it in the book I've just started writing.

      The goal of the metaphor was to illustrate that the flow of experience -- mind itself -- seems to obey patterns and regularities. I don't see mind as a freewheeling phenomenon without any intrinsic patterns of any kind. In a way, physics as we know it is proof of that. I hold that all reality is mental, yet physics has been spectacularly successful in modelling the regularities of reality with equations.

      At the same time, I do not want to imply that mind is 'mechanical' and 'deterministic.' The membrane oscillation metaphor is not so problematic regarding determinism, I think: It does not specify what makes the membrane oscillate or what determines which specific mode of oscillation, among the many supported, actually happens. So it doesn't entail determinism. But it may convey some 'mechanistic' tone that is not appropriate... I acknowledge that.

      It is a struggle to find the right metaphors. But feedback like yours helps.

      Cheers, B.

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  2. Bernardo, thanks very much for the kind reply. I understand better your use of that metaphor. My concern was less with an implied determinism and more with an image of insentient matter and energy. But your metaphor does capture the idea of there being patterns and regularities, and now that you mention it, did set me thinking along those very lines.

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  3. Hey B,

    I find this theory very interesting (and admittedly extremely clever, kudos), yet I have a question. Do you say that these loops are the only thing that can be conscious? Or can the non-feedback flat area be conscious? Furthermore, would this not mean that there is a self, a singular reflective end point on the membrane?

    What you say here is brilliant indeed, and you have a very interesting way of thinking.

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    1. Hey Josh,
      Thanks mate!
      The idea is that the entire membrane is conscious, but only the loops have self-reflective consciousness. The latter is when you are not only conscious of something, but are also conscious that you are conscious of it. From the point of view of the ego, non-self-reflective consciousness is almost unconsciousness (imagine being conscious of something, but not being aware that you are conscious of it). The model does open the door for the speculation that the end point of the changes of structure of the membrane is a single loop of self-reflective awareness.
      Cheers, Bernardo.

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    2. Hmm, why should this state exist? I mean, in this model, "you" (and let's not get all knotted over the use of that word) would still be there, but "you" wouldn't be considering it, or bouncing it off "you". Wouldn't that simply mean that your thought has effectively ceased? I guess at the same time all pain and anxiety would too, but...

      And another question, that I more or less have my own answer to: assuming all this is true, what do you, Bernardo, think the point of it all is?

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    3. Maybe the membrane always existed and, at some point, accidentally, a small part of it folded. This was the birth of self-reflection, and allowed the membrane, for the first time, to ask: what am I? What's going on? The rest may be history: a continuing attempt to increase self-knowledge through more and more folding...

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    4. Oh, regarding the first part of your comment, a lack of self-reflection is almost unconsciousness, but not quite. Becoming self-aware of something you were just aware of before comes accompanied by the feeling that you've always known it somehow. Right now you are not self-aware of your breathing... And now you are, and you know that you were aware of it all along; somehow.

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    5. Thanks for the reply, I see what you mean... I always say that life is about exploration, and I guess this would go all the way to the ultimate principle.

      And on the side: you do an excellent job of moderating your site, and your analogies are nothing short of masterful

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  4. Hi Bernardo,
    What do you make out of this article? http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn22205-location-of-the-mind-remains-a-mystery.html?DCMP=OTC-rss&nsref=online-news

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    1. Hi Sante, very interesting article, thanks for letting me know about it! It appears to confirm the notion that the brain we perceive is merely a kind of representation of a meta-structure beyond ordinary perception. I commented about it at the end of my "hyper-dimensional fantasies" post below, and in accompanying video. Cheers, Bernardo.

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  5. Bernardo,

    The discussion over at Skeptiko had a big effect on me, and I haven't really been able to stop thinking about things (not as if I've wanted to, mind).

    You may recall we talked about presenting your ideas in a different format--using a different metaphor or perhaps story.

    Just prior to posting this, I stumbled across a sequence of 9 YouTube videos, around 3 hours in all, about Tom Campbell's ideas, which utilise the metaphor of virtual reality.

    I think much of what he says is consonant with your Idealism, but found his metaphor easier to grasp. He's also a great communicator and I was entranced for the whole 3 hours. I think he's one of the sanest people I've ever listened to.

    Here's the link for the first video in the series:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=fT8LaMrn_MM

    I'm kind of hoping you haven't seen it before or heard of Tom Campbell, because if not, you are in for a treat.

    Michael Larkin

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  6. BTW, Bernardo, there's another series of 9 videos by Campbell starting here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFpT9TbiMNM

    This seems to concentrate more on the science--I haven't listened to it all yet.

    Michael Larkin

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  7. Hi Bernardo. I find your work fascinating. I've offered a critical response to some of your ideas at the Skeptiko forum, and would be delighted to get some feedback:

    http://forum.mind-energy.net/skeptiko-podcast/4050-mind-vibrating-hyper-membrane-11.html#post113771

    See also my previous post regarding the notion of presenting your model in a more narrative format.

    -Jan

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    1. Jan, I finally replied to you in that thread! Thanks for commenting. Cheers, Bernardo.

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  8. Bernardo,
    You might be very interested in the following link:

    "Here, we have a patient who is missing all the areas in the brain that are typically thought to be needed for self-awareness yet he remains self-aware," says co-corresponding author Justin Feinstein, who earned his doctorate at the UI in February. "Clearly, neuroscience is only beginning to understand how the human brain can generate a phenomenon as complex as self-awareness."

    I don't buy the word "generate" but none the less,this seems like a blow against physicalism and the so called 'NCC'.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120822181228.htm

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  9. I was very interested in your speculative hypothesis. My gut feeling is that the reality is somewhere along these lines.

    I am interested in your discussion regarding 'unlooped' consciousness. You suggest that the 'great ocean of consciousness' may indeed be conscious but not self aware. You reckon that without self-awareness, there can be no experience of consciousness.

    I'm not so sure. Up until recently, it was thought that animals have no subjective experience, but any pet owner would have to take issue with that, as it is possible to observe cats and dogs dreaming, and what could be more subjective than that?

    Also, I believe that is possible to still have an experience of being consciousness without being self aware. Think for example when you become totally engrossed in a film. You forget who you are completely, you essentially have no self reflection but instead live the film, however you still experience consciousness, without self awareness or self reflection.

    Channeled sources, like Seth and Elias, offer interesting ideas in this area. For them, ALL consciousness is subjective and self-aware, that is, self awareness is a fundamental property of consciousness. So the great ocean of consciousness that you speak of may still hold its own subjective self awareness to an extent, however this is explored by creating individual focuses of attention, or knots of consciousness as you call them, to explore the limitless, myriad manifestations of self.

    I'm not saying who's closer to the reality here. Nobody knows, but perhaps it’s somewhere between these two visions.

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    1. Hi Douglas,

      >> You suggest that the 'great ocean of consciousness' may indeed be conscious but not self aware.

      Yes, correct.

      >> You reckon that without self-awareness, there can be no experience of consciousness.

      Not sure what exactly you mean by an 'experience of consciousness,' since consciousness is defined as experience. But based on the comments you made next, I think you misunderstood me! I think there CAN be experience WITHOUT self-awareness. I think cats and dogs have experience, though they are not self-aware. I think ALL of existence is experience in consciousness, whether self-aware or not. There is nothing but experience in consciousness.

      >> but any pet owner would have to take issue with that, as it is possible to observe cats and dogs dreaming, and what could be more subjective than that?

      Yes! As a proud pet owner, I agree! :-)

      >> Also, I believe that is possible to still have an experience of being consciousness without being self aware. Think for example when you become totally engrossed in a film.

      Again, I agree completely! I see self-awareness as a particular type of experience, but not the only one. All oscillations of the membrane of mind are conscious experiences. But only those vibrations within folded-in loops are self-reflective experiences.

      I reserve judgment on Seth and Elias.

      Cheers, B.

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  10. Hi Bernardo,

    Thanks for the reply. I think I may have misunderstood you, although I was pointing towards one of your comments, rather than the post itself.

    In one of your comment replies, you say 'a lack of self-reflection is almost unconsciousness, but not quite'.

    Bringing up the topic of animals again, we often say they do not incorporate self-reflection, but when observing an animal it's difficult to see how they are 'almost unconsciousness, but not quite'.

    Animals still appear to have a subjective life and to make their own choices. Think of a cat, as you own cats you will know what I am talking about here!) when it is stretching out in front of the fire; it is quite obviously enjoying the sensation of the heat and receiving a subjective sense of that, so if animals are indicative of the type of non-reflective consciousness you are talking about, then it may be quite far from what you describe as 'almost unconsciousness'.

    Of course, this isnt a problem for your theory, as actually it's pure speculation on our part the entire premise that animals are not self aware or that they do not incorporate any sense of self reflection. Actually we don't know that. We actually don't really know what or how animals really perceive their reality.

    Perhaps they DO incorporate a degree of self relfection or self awareness, but to a lesser degree, or different quality, to our own.

    Btw on the topic of animals, recent research is beginning to shed light on the fact that their mental processes may be a lot closer to our own than previously thought.
    Recent research on crows has shown that they have the ability to problem solve; other animals have also been shown to display this ability. I think we are at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to researching animal awareness.



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    1. Oh I see where the misunderstanding is coming from. Yes, I think all human mental processes that do not fall inside our field of self-reflective awareness become nearly as good as unconscious. But this holds only for humans, or entities that have a field of self-reflective awareness! I see self-reflective awareness as amplifying mental contents and obfuscating everything that does not fall within its field. Think of it as the way the sun's glare obfuscates the stars at noon: The stars are all still there, and their photons are still hitting your retina; yet they are obfuscated beyond recognition.

      But if we assume that animals do not have self-reflective awareness, then there is no obfuscation. It's like looking at the stars at night: You see them clearly! So when my cat stretches out in front of my fire place, I am convinced that she is very aware of the warmth of the fire, in the same way that I am aware of the stars _at night_. For the cat, non-self-reflective awareness is not at all like unconsciousness because it's all it has! But for me it is, because it gets obfuscated by whatever falls within my field of self-reflective awareness.

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  11. Got you. Thanks for your clarification.

    I noticed you also mentioned in your earlier reply that 'you reserve judgement on Seth and Elias'.

    I don't blame you. I'm not sure what to make of these channeled sources. I have read a lot of the Seth material and I find a lot of it seems to chime with me. I think there are a lot of insights there, but at the same time, I'm not sure how much of it is due to sub-consiouss assimilation of previous material in Jane Roberts's mind.

    Of course she would reply to say that the distinction is largely false, as for her, the sub-consious mind is itself the gateway to other higher realities, along the lines of her 'personality matrix'. My gut feeling is that her general framework is soemwhere along the right lines, but there's a lot there that may come from her own speculations - something that 'Seth' readily admits. Seth states that all channeled sources are subject to distortion.

    I think that, ultimately, I treat her work as a speculative hypothesis, not a bad one in my view, but a speculative hypothesis none the less. Like all such speculations, they should not be set in stone, but they can form the basis for future discussion.

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    1. It is an interesting question to what degree it even makes sense to ask whether the source of so-called 'channeled' information is the channel herself or a separate psychic entity. As an idealist, I see a single fabric of mind as the substrate of all reality. From that perspective, it may be arbitrary and irrelevant to try and define what is a complex of one's own psyche of a separate psychic entity... Cheers, B.

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  12. I tried to think of the cosmic consciousness as an infinity of thoughts, or at least potential thoughts, that created clusters of limited thoughts, that were created by some sort of gravity. :P
    Let's say that all of this is true, how come I seem to experience my life, and not yours?

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    1. Needless to say, the answer is both in Why Materialism Is Baloney and Brief Peeks Beyond. ;-) But here is a brief overview:
      http://www.scienceandnonduality.com/the-true-nature-of-the-unconscious/

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    2. I don't quite get it. Sure, I get the idea that some of my thoughts get more of my attention, and some get none at all, but that doesn't explain why I am me, you are you, and my dog is her. Will I experience your lives after (or before?) my present life? Is my consciousness jumping between every body in the universe trillions of times every second?
      I'm reading your latest book, so maybe you're explaining it more in it. :S
      Thank you for taking the time to reply to my thoughts and comments, by the way!

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    3. If you were aware of all my thoughts, perceptions and emotions, and I of yours, we would effectively be the same person, wouldn't we? There would be no difference between our inner lives. The fact that we would still have two bodies would be entirely analogous to having two arms, or two legs, without that making us feel that we are two separate entities. So why do we feel like we are different people? Because your inner life is obfuscated from my point of view, and mine from yours. This is how obfuscation leads to dissociation, just as in people with Dissociative Identity Disorder, who have multiple 'personalities' in the same body.

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    4. Yeah, but why do I experience this life, and not yours, and vice versa? Some of my thoughts are less obfuscated, sure, but why I not have your non-obfuscated thoughts instead of these thoughts that I have?
      But people with Dissociative Identity disorder don't experience all their identities at the same time, right? :S

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    5. I guess my original comment makes it make more sense to me; if the mind at large has an infinite amount of thoughts, or potential thoughts, it could possibly create clusters of thoughts, that are obfuscated from each other. I need to think about this a little bit more.

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    6. Think of it as Dissociative Identity Disorder in space, as opposed to time: alters are distributed spatially, instead of taking turns in time. Space and time, after all, are one holistic identity called space-time.

      If you experienced my inner life and I yours, then you would simply be me and I you. And then, I would be asking the same question you ask above: why do I not experience your inner life, Sebastian?

      Do you see that the question makes no sense?

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    7. I realize that this has no bearing on the validity of your thoughts, but don't your ideas mean that everyone we love are just us? I mean, doesn't this mean that there is fundamentally only one person out there, and all friendships and relationships are just illusions?
      Thank you for taking the time to answer!

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    8. There is only mind-at-large, and we are all it, yes. Our inner-most sense of "I am," before any personal identity arises in thought, is mind-at-large. But mind-at-large isn't a person; it isn't an individual. It doesn't have the ego-motivated desires and fears of people, i.e. of dissociated complexes immersed in the illusion of separation. As such, it isn't correct to say that there is just one person out there, for mind-at-large isn't a person. As for your love, why is it an illusion? Why can't it be a reflection of mind-at-large's archetypal recognition of itself? Why is the archetypal desire for re-union, completion, be an illusion? I believe it is a true feeling; perhaps the truest of them all, since it is the one thing that drives us away from the illusion of dissociation, back to wholeness.

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    9. But isn't this "I am" the most essential part of a person?

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