– We cast a shadow; do we therefore exist? –
We were on a long-distance hike somewhere in the remotest corner of the Sierra Nevada when a lunar eclipse occurred.
In the third week out in the high-country, with more than 250 miles of hiking through lonely mountain wilderness already behind us, we didn’t have the slightest clue about such an event coming up. We had camped for the night on a high ridge, far away from city lights or anything man-made. I knew it would be a full moon because I watch the moon all the time – out in the wilderness one gets super sensitive to any changes in the natural environment – and I knew by the time of its appearance, a little bit past sunset, that it was going to be full. So we sat in the dark and celebrated its rising.
A strange cloud seemed to block part of it. But, gee, there were no clouds; and the shade didn’t move at all. “Someone bit off part of the moon”, we joked and drank from the bottle of wine we had actually carried all this time and saved for the full moon. We pretended to clink glasses and an hour later the shade was not only still there but larger. “Looks like a lunar eclipse”, I joked again, (we had seen one, years ago in Canada). We kept making fun: “Imagine we would run into a lunar eclipse just like that by accident! Ha ha ha, wouldn’t that be something!” And the shade grew and grew, and gradually an eerie brown color spread over the rest of the moon.
After a second round of sipping from the precious wine we found it hard to change the subject: “you know, imagine this would really be it, I mean really …” A very strange feeling came over us: “For heaven’s sake, this is a real one!” We hadn’t heard any news for a long time. “Have we stumbled into a full-blown lunar eclipse by accident? But what else could this be?” We had no way of asking for verification, so we just kept watching and filling our dirty mugs again and toasting on our luck and ignorance.
Soon the night got dark, just a silly full moon hanging there, very dim and spookily brown, totally unreal. The mind gradually manufacturing the perceived reality from this direct, objective observation, editing it with the vast reservoir of stored, memorized so-called intellectual facts. The mind constructing a mental picture. There always comes a point where you start believing this construct, often in a split second, sometimes after years of doubt. And each time, once the mental synthesis is finished, we immediately forget that that’s what it is, a construct, that we made it up in our mind; we conclude and embrace it as the truth. Eventually we did not wonder any longer, we believed and moved on and enlarged the picture and reveled in the sense it all made.
The earth casting a shadow out into space. Suddenly, it almost felt as if we had physically touched the moon so far away. Our presence in space – in spite of all intellectual effort somehow inconceivable – was suddenly visible. There was this feeling of awe when you suddenly see an unexpected proof for something you were never quite sure about. We really do exist, we cast a shadow. Like when we stand on a mountain and see our own shadow on a cloud below, giving us this somehow reassuring proof of our self.
There was the shadow of the earth on the moon – our shadow. If the earth casts a shadow we must too. Theoretically we could see our very own shadow far out beyond the abyss of empty space on the moon. From deep inside, like a hopeless dream suddenly come true, a quite unexpected miraculous feeling of relief came over me: I cast a shadow, therefore I am. Against flimsy but nagging evidence to the contrary, against incessantly persisting doubt, there suddenly was this precious confirmation that we are really there, we exist… This one sensation we long for more than anything else and feel permanently threatened with every breath we take, was renewed, this sweet security that we are for real.
Not that we ever openly doubt our existence – I’ve met very few people who were courageous enough to do that – but what are we? Are we a physical body that somehow learned to think, or are we indeed a thought that identified with matter and managed to materialize into a body? Are we matter that can dream, or are we a dream about matter that came true?
The first is what we mostly find overwhelmingly obvious, however, at times, the second – as crazy as it may seem – cannot be ruled out either. Both, modern science as well as ancient cultural, spiritual wisdom keep telling us that reality is not what we think it is, that matter is not really fixed and solid, that thought does indeed affect matter. So are we just made up, just imagined? Are we only a dream? But who is the dreamer? Is there one? Are we both, the dreamer and the dream at the same time?
I assume that deep inside we probably know the truth of the second possibility, an unthinkable truth, a truth far beyond words and concepts. We know it, not in our mind but in the hidden fibers of our heart. It keeps seeping out as faint memories and manifests as a vague nagging fear. A fear that it may actually be true that everything what we perceive is only real because we want it to be real – everything, including our sense of self – that it is all nothing but a dream. The lifelong struggle for self-preservation: just a silly game with an idea. And, with this fear in our blood, why should we seriously investigate our ultimate identity? We rather continuously look for confirmation of the status quo, for affirmation of an idea that we once made up and wanted to be true.
I always suspected that Descartes was wrong when he claimed: “cogito, ergo sum – I think, therefore I am,” leading people the wrong way for hundreds of years (including myself). He was the guy who committed this grandiose error that the world could be comprehended by cutting it up into manageable fragments, understand those, and then put it all together again to gain the complete meaning of the whole – like a clockwork that makes sense when you understand the parts of it. He was the one who encouraged us to believe what we think.
My buddhist friends smile their wonderful wisdom-smile and say otherwise. They urge us to be careful with the use of our thinking organ, to be aware of its profound unreliability, and to be cautious actually believing what we think. And my Buddhists – as well as my equally admired physicists – also say that casting a shadow is no conclusive proof of my existence. But something in us craves this assurance and needs it as much as we need air to breathe.
Later the moon crept out of the shade again and resumed its glorious bright performance. We slept like babies that night, carefree and in unspeakable harmony with the Universe.
written and revised between the 1990s and Dec. 2010