Last week we ruthlessly cut off thought from things and plunged into a dualism between mind and body. Our minds are so filled with the ideas we have inherited from our culture that a necessary first step in trying to learn to think straight is a period of purifications, purging the countless inner voices that tell us what to believe. That collective consensus about what is real and what is wise is leading us all into the horrors of global civilization’s collapse. Perhaps it is high time we individuals took back the power to think for ourselves. On the contemplative path that process starts with sitting down with an object or two and digging into the existential questions as deeply as you can.
This week we continue our investigation into what the light of reason unveils when it is focused on the existential characteristics of our daily lives. Last week we relied on direct valid cognitions to observe the characteristics of sensory experience and thinking. We found the world of thought is one of unchanging, independent generalizations that seem to capture an invisible essence of the object of our contemplations yet this very move simultaneously blinds us to the uniqueness of that very object.
Now we will use the ability of inferences to carry our analysis further. We are asking ourselves what is really real? What exists beyond our own projections of hopes and fears, desires and pride, mental philosophies and imaginative artistic creations?
I am gazing at a candle flame. Yellow and orange wisps of an outline surround a glowing white core. Smoke, heat and light are all being thrown out into the air within my room. Each of these material elements have arisen from the continuous breakdown of the wax and wick as a ceaseless molecular metamorphosis. In my minds eye the imagination is able to provide pictures of the processes as I understand them; here a release of a photon, there an absorption of a carbon. The more still I become, the more open I am to a subtle awareness of the cacophony of such dynamics; the coming together of literally trillions and trillions of tiny interactions that produce the burning.
All things are fundamentally like this candle. The mountains we see as so solid and serene are no less dynamic when viewed from the geological timescale. The candle is useful because it comports with our own timescales, it’s fundamentally dynamic nature is obvious.
If we turn our attention to a single photon our imaginative eye begins to lead us down the path of all kinds of questions related to the fundamental view we are exploring. In quantum mechanics a photon is said to remain itself throughout all the transformative events it might participate in. It cannot be broken down any further; it is like a particle without parts. If it had parts we could break it down even further along those lines, into the top and bottom parts for example. On the other hand if the world actually consists of these partless particles, how do they ever congregate to create anything larger? When the imagination conceives of particles coming together they stick to one another at particular locations. Any aggregate grows around a particle on its top and bottom, front and back, left and right as it achieves extension in space. But how can this be with a partless particle?
Reason cannot see its way through the thicket of these types of questions. Like the quantum physicists we seem to be confronting a reality that includes paradox at its very core.
Instead of investigating the space-like characteristics of our existence perhaps an examination of the time-like aspects will be more fruitful. Looking again at the candle flame it is obvious that it endures only due to the fuel being supplied moment by moment. The oxygen reaction of fire is a process of energy transformations but so is every other aspect of the candle. An understanding of these types of changes would go a long way towards comprehending the larger world as well. To get anywhere with this investigation the imagination is turned into a high speed camera.
By learning from pictures such as this one our educated imagination recognizes that there might be a whole realm of experience outside of our ability to apprehend in our typical time frames of observation. Taking this clue seriously causes us to ask what is the smallest slice of time in which we might capture the essential nature of the changes taking place in our candle flame? Again, paradox seems to arise blocking our way forward. Would there be any change at all if the slice of time chosen was small enough? Look again at the bullet piercing the apple, doesn’t it seem that in the moment of the photograph time is standing still, that there is no actual change occurring at that moment at all?
In the west the calculus explains how to work with these types of paradoxes. In the limit, we say, the arrow hits the target and Achilles crosses the finish line. The calculus achieves this by summing infinitesimals but this is no more acceptable to common sense than an aggregate built from partless particles. The same opacity to reasoning is found in geometry when the question becomes how does a dimensionless point achieve extension and become a line? There is a rich and wonderful collection of western thinkers struggling with these questions. In particular the debates around the legitimate intellectual foundations for the calculus provide a fascinating set of materials for contemplation.
In the eastern world when thinkers confronted these same limits to rationality, explanations and speculations were offered by investigating an alternative model of time. The same thing happened in the western sciences when Einstein perceived that the only solution to seemingly paradoxical laboratory observations was to change the very model of time itself. To understand what this model is all about we will return to our insight about the difference between thoughts and things.
Our experience of the moment includes a sense of memory from which we derive the sense that time has been continuous throughout the past. From this sense we draw the inference that time will continue to be continuous into the future. Without giving it much conscious thought most of us live with a model of time that resembles a ribbon. In this ribbon of time one moment follows another without a gap between them; the ribbon is continuous. Time itself seems to exist independently of all those things that come and go within it, which is demonstrably false by Einsteinian experiments. This ribbon extends as far back into the past as we care to imagine and equally far into the future. By the modern cosmology the past eventually runs into the Big Bang which it said to have created time itself by creating space and by the same theory the future runs forward until the thermodynamic heat death of the universe.
Recognize what is going on? This ribbon exists in one place only: our imaginations. All we have ever known ‘in the past’ is the current moment; all we will ever know ‘in the future’ is the current moment. This ribbon is a thought, nothing more. Accepting this with all its ramifications leads to what has been referred to as Buddhism’s radical momentariness. What is really real, according to this view, are only the moments. Instead of a ribbon as the semi-conscious model of time, this view teaches a mandala. In the center of the mandala is the nanosecond of the current moment, the very edge of its existence, disappearing as quickly as it arose. Radiating out from this inconceivably small moment are the time periods we can perceive. Each moment is supremely new and fresh. Existence is supported on an ever changing, blink-of-an-eye out flowing.
Like all models this one offers some insights and some problems. The problems include deep questions about just what is cause and effect if there is no past. Hume in the west recognized that what we call cause and effect is nothing more than a habitual tendency to experience repeating configurations of things. The mandala view of time is similar in recognizing that all that appears is nothing more than the configuration of the existing moment. How do they explain that configuration?
Here again ancient contemplative wisdom and modern sciences have some harmonious teachings. In the ancient view there are said to be three moments involved in our conscious experiences. In the first moment the senses process direct intermingling with the world. In the second moment it is said that mental cognition begins. This is not yet thought but the building blocks of what will become thought. In the third moment a conceptual thought arises and with it a label; we think ‘that is a lit candle.’
Neuroscience has discovered the same thing. More accurately, one of the models for how cognition arises in neuroscience includes a three stage process that shares numerous aspects of the old phenomenology. At the lowest level of processing in our nervous systems the sensory signals are known to be recognizing what are called the percepts. These are the low level characteristics of the environment each sense is capable of noting. For the sense of sight, for example, the percepts are those that communicate form and color: edges, contours, hues and such. These percepts are then gathered into bundles. Instead of a set of disconnected edges the nervous system now recognizes a full shape; say a 90 degree angle. In the final, third step these bundles are compared with the store of experience and best guess associations are made which are delivered into conscious awareness and we think, “oh, there’s a corner.”
This great illustration is found on pg. 344 of the most comprehensive yet approachable coverage of systems science I have found, Principles of Systems Science by Mobus and Kalton. Note how the concept is able to occlude the perception, illustrating the power of the conceptual mind to filter our experience.
I’d like to play with a more ancient symbolism on which to hang our model, one more in keeping with the origin of the view. It has been my experience that most people in the west do not have associations with what mandalas might be said to teach. I offer this set of interpretations as an introduction to the types of things these mind palaces can be about.
We don’t see it this way, with that ribbon of time so dominating our minds, but in this view of radical momentariness existence is a fleeting, tiny moment in which all things are hanging together. In this exquisite moment, 1/64th of a finger-snap the teachings say, appearances arise interdependently. Everything depends on everything else right down to the smallest conceivable partless particle and smallest increment of time. We perceive objects as independent from their environments but in this we are mistaken. This sense that objects have some inherent existence, some essence stretching out over time, is exactly what they lack – that is the exact space taken up by the complete and total interdependence of all things dependently arising together. Arising in this moment.
When we analyze how a perception must come about we encounter a model like these three moments. There is the point of contact where the physical world sends a physical signal to the sense. Then must come the stage of transduction of that signal into information where the physical medium is converted to electrical impulses, the lingua franca of the nervous system. Finally the information is classified within the conceptual world of consciousness. What the mandala is teaching us is to set aside our ribbon models where these moments follow one another sequentially and consider them reverberating simultaneously…timelessly.
By another reading the mandala is teaching us how time has lags built into it. In the center of the mandala the moment flashes, a spacetime event – say our toes encountering the warm wet sand of a beach. Sensors send electrical signals much like the next ring of the mandala, from the point of view of consciousness this information seems to surround the event, engulfing it whole. There is a finite amount of time required for the expansion to occur. It can take up to 300 milliseconds for the electrical pulses leaving the toes to reach the brain and be registered. This is the outer ring on which consciousness depends and which consciousness cannot transcend, it can get no closer.
The concept when it appears does so full-born, cutting a sharp edged outline making it distinct from everything else, like the square in the mandala. In this third and final ring is a clarity as awareness of the event arises, as we relish the sensation of the earth intimately touching us. That clarity is held in a space that cannot be collapsed; the concept is a box we cannot penetrate with further concepts. Again, this is the outer ring on which conceptual consciousness depends and which conceptual consciousness cannot transcend, it can get no closer.
The outermost ring of the mandala is the whole universe as it appears to us – every conceivable bit of it that seems real to us. Now with conceptual mind we are able to navigate the world of ten-thousand things, the world of relative reality. The question becomes, will we navigate it skillfully or ignorantly?
As we learn to respect the reality of interdependence we naturally take responsibility for the well being of all the other sentient beings we find ourselves sharing this moment with. I would suggest we can take a measure of our wisdom by asking ourselves just how much of the interconnected world we are cognizant of as we go about our daily activities. Do we sense the workers in the field that provided our fruit or the young person putting in long hours on the factory floor that made our shirt? These are the types of levers deep in our minds by which we can move off our default positions of fear and isolation and open up to the wide open spaces of the magical world around us.
This is the model of the view I wanted to share. It says let’s take things just as they appear to us; think very simply but rationally about what we find. It is of no small import that the conclusion from these basic investigations involves the interdependence of all things.