In whitewater streams and rivers, when the water flows with a steady force over a particular geometry it forms what is called a standing wave. This wave is stationary in the stream and maintains its form as long as the river flows with sufficient force. I think the mind, in combination with its environmental context creates a similar phenomenon which we know as self. Just as the standing wave in a stream is always changing, the water droplets are constantly being replaced, so too our sense of self is constantly in flux. The sensory input is always changing, as is the chemical balance that forms the ground for the neurons and synapses that constitute thought. Though there is constant change, there are patterns that repeat over and over again with perhaps very subtle variations. The patterns are taken to be real and substantial, though they are really as impermanent as the sensory input that activates them. For most creatures, the patterns can’t be modified consciously. Even for humans this is a big challenge, but our self-reflecting nature does make it possible. To me, this is really the essence of the insight of the man known as The Buddha which is that we are processes and have the capability of altering ourselves for our greater happiness and that of others. All we need to do is wake up.
Standing waves are great for kayakers and canoeists because they can be played with. A good kayaker can hold his position relative to a standing wave for quite some time. Standing waves aren’t perfect though. There is a natural component of chaos in the system that makes it particularly challenging for the kayaker as they have to make minute adjustments to stay with it. This is where the danger is, but it’s also what makes it fun. Sometimes standing waves intersect with others and the junction between them produces more chaos, but sometimes also a whole new wave when the forces are in harmony. Selves are like this too.
Eventually the stream stops flowing with sufficient force to keep the wave’s form and it collapses. In the following season, when the water attains enough flow, the wave is ‘incarnated’ anew. It’s a different wave, with different water droplets at every moment, but it has a similar form and beauty. In this way there is life after death. The selves that are re-created by the next season’s combination of sensations and neurons are thought to belong to the bearer of the new brain case, but they are no more the property of that brain as they were of the brain in the previous season. Life isn’t really ‘ours’ at all. When we fully realize that, we are truly wise.