This thing, right here

“The objective level is not words, and cannot be reached by words alone. We must point our finger and be silent, or we will never reach this level… A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness… two crucial negative premises as established firmly by all human experience: (1) Words are not the things we are speaking about and (2) There is no such thing as an object in absolute isolation.”
Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity


Using reason to look carefully at our experience has shown us the fundamental distinction between mind and body or thought and matter. The exact relationship between them has puzzled thinkers since time unremembered and we will have a chance to take it up again down the road. What concerns us now is unfolding the implications of this foundational view, using it to investigate what is really real.

You are walking down the sidewalk and see a brown cylinder with a wide green top. Your mind notes, ‘there’s a tree’ and moves on. Minimum sensory signals arrive in consciousness, which is all that is needed to recognize the perceived object. Another brown cylinder with a wide green top appears and it too is labeled tree at the speed of thought. What is this concept of tree? An internal set of attributes we maintain that consists of what all trees have in common. Using our mental labels we are able to filter what would otherwise be an overwhelming sensory field. There are numerous other benefits bestowed by this ability to label phenomenon yet this characteristic of generalizing is shared by them all. We can’t see the trees for the forest.

We are dangerously susceptible to confusing the reality of a specific thing or event with our thoughts about it. No matter how many times we remind ourselves that the menu is not the meal, that the object is not the word we use for it, we continue to confuse the two. What is evil about the racism that has been in the news this week, for example, is how it encourages us to see and react to a label instead of the actual person in front of us.

Alfred Korzybski proposed a model for this abstracting character of conceptual thought he called the Structural Differential (picture). In it he attempts to capture the role of the nervous system and other non-verbal levels of processing involved in our awareness. He also recommended adopting a few grammar tricks to remind us of our true situation. One of these tricks is to at least mentally include ‘etc.’ whenever we describe something. This tree consists of a brown cylinder with a wide green top, oozes golden sap, drops its leaves in the winter, etc. etc. Always there is more to any event than what we can include in our descriptions so our attitude should be one that recognizes there is always an implied etc., and etc. and etc. This is similar to systems thinking teaching us to always ask ‘and then what’?

Another trick he recommended was to enumerate nouns. If our problem is that we tend to not see the trees for the forest it would help to at least label each tree specifically: tree1, tree2, tree3, etc. Can you see how this would defeat mental mistakes like racism? It is hard to maintain that all Jews are evil rats if you insist on thinking about every encounter you have ever had with someone from that race as: Jewish person 1, Jewish person 2, etc. Some of these encounters might have been wicked, whereas other encounters were kind and others indifferent. These are the differences that make a difference. These are the types of training in wisdom that encourages us to not lose sight of the actual world we are in with all its specificity due to our tendency to only remain aware of our world model built from our generalized conceptual categories.

It helps to be as clear as possible about the position being taken here. By just observing and not presupposing anything we are aware of the world of things and the world of thoughts. In this system thoughts play the same role for the mind as objects do for the senses. This is the point of departure: you are expected to test every assertion being made against your own experience.

The world of things is encountered directly through our sense faculties. The idea is to sit down with an object in front of you and use reason to investigate it thoroughly. We use shamatha to quiet the mind and one pointed concentration to stay with the subject of our enquiry. Classically the objects chosen for this investigation are the candle and its flame for the inorganic world and a flower for the organic world. All of one’s scientific understanding should be brought to bear. For the candle flame the wonderful Christmas lecture by Michael Faraday, The Chemical History of a Candle, is suitable preparatory material.

What are some of the characteristics of these objects that we encounter this way?
Here are a few:

  • They are aggregates. Everything is made up of combinations of other things.
  • The aggregates can be broken down into their constituent elements, at least in theory. It is reasonable to assume that there are a finite set of variable types of elements that go into the construction of these aggregations we call objects.
  • To analyze what a collection of one of these pure elements would consist of we break it down until it cannot be broken down any further and arrive at the idea of a particle. This particle embodies the pure atom of that type of element.
  • The aggregates consist of enormous collections of these particles.
  • Every object, from the level of particle interactions on up, are always changing. You cannot step in the same river twice, nor do mountains remain.
  • Things are compound objects; constructed from a set of pure types coming together. All compound objects are impermanent; the compounding was produced at a point in time and will be dissolved at a point in time.
  • The objects we encounter are systems. By naming a thing we define boundaries. We find that there is no thing anywhere that is isolated from its environment. There will be inputs and outputs that permeate the boundaries. Everything is connected to everything else.
  • Each and every object is unique, specifically characterized. At a minimum any two actually existing objects must occupy different locations and be constructed from different sets of elemental particles. Each thing is caught up in its own particular set of causes and conditions.

It is interesting that while these characteristics of things presents themselves rather directly to the mind with some analysis, this is not the way we tend to relate to objects. Our default interpretations of objects include a sense that the object at hand is permanent, singular, isolated. Observing a candle I think that there is some ‘flame’ that stays the same as I watch it moment after moment. I think it is nothing but a flame and that the flame exists separate from the space and all the other things in the universe surrounding it. This is what we mean by a ‘thing’ when we are not applying any analysis.

Why does our default interpretation of objects differ so radically from what we understand they must be when we reason about them? The key to understanding this is to appreciate the role of language in our conscious awareness. Even though we are sitting in a state of mental quiet and remaining focused on the object of our investigation, that investigation includes words. We label the object flame or flower and by so doing mix the mind’s cognitions with the sensory perceptions encountering the specific object that is sitting in front of us.

So we need to take a look at thoughts, the objects of the mind’s perceptions. Just as we did when we set an object in front of us we now set a thought in front of us as the object of our analysis. What do we find?

  • Awareness is always the awareness of something. The content of thought is always a specific thing.
  • The thought itself does not share the fundamental impermanence that things display. Thoughts do not break down over time the way things do.
  • Thoughts have an element of permanence about them. What I mean by ‘flower’ today is the same as what the word label ‘flower’ meant for me yesterday.
  • Thoughts generalize. While the content of a thought is a specific thing the thought itself functionally groups that specific thing with its class.
  • Thoughts are not things, they are non-things.

Things are impermanent, interdependent, specific and unique while thoughts are permanent, isolated, generalizations. We are tempted to identify with our thoughts, to become dogmatists hoping we too can become permanent. To give these differences their maximum analytical contrast thoughts are called non-things. In this difference the first glimpses of how this view can relieve suffering begins to make its appearance. Do you remember growing up when some wise elder helped you deal with your fear or anxiety by pointing out how those were just thoughts in your head? All of us at some time or another have been grateful that thoughts are not things and, the obverse, learned the tough lesson that our deepest wishing does not make it so.

This is a bigger deal than it might at first appear. There is tremendous psychological relief made available by familiarizing ourselves with the difference between what is going on right here and now in the real world and whatever thoughts we might be entertaining about those events. There is also tremendous inner freedom that arises from recognizing that not all thoughts are sacrosanct but instead that many are mistaken and of no actual consequence in the bigger scheme of things. Also, the ability to see through our thoughts about something to the actual object in front of us brings with it a profound gratitude for the opportunity to share in its fleeting existence. Be it a person or a mountain, a flame or a flower, there is a uniqueness to every moment in which things have come together just exactly as they are, a uniqueness never to be repeated. Mindfulness recognizes this uniqueness and naturally celebrates it.

Ask anyone who has learned to play with stretching their comfort zones and they will agree there is always some element of needing to learn how to feel the fear but do it anyway. Public speakers and performers no less than skydivers and blushing teenagers on their first dates all juggle these things. In times like these our thoughts concoct a whole host of scary scenarios that would debilitate us if they could, yet we push on through since we are familiar with the fact that our thoughts often do not reflect reality well at all. It might seem to us the whole world will fall apart if X (fill in your fear du jour) but experience teaches us it does not.

Those of us who have been touched by deep concern about the ongoing collapse of industrial society and the damage it is causing the earth’s ecosystems well know how anxious thoughts can feed each other until visions of doom and gloom grow to epic proportions. This is in part why it seems so hard for people to recognize the reality of the social and ecological collapse unfolding all around us today. Our minds have crafted Hollywood style apocalyptic dramas full of breadlines, Mad Max hoodlums in the streets, droughts and floods killing billions at a time, and political leaders taking to the airwaves to comfort and strengthen their populations in the face of what is obviously history’s most dramatic chapter. Then we look outside our windows and this is not what we see among all the very specific things and events we experience, so we miss what our analysis can teach us about current events.

Or our ever spinning thoughts and concerns about collapse get into a feeding frenzy and lead us into depression. An accurate analysis of the most probable future is bleak, as we saw when we examined the ecological reality of our times. Too many people have committed suicide from within this very depression. The view here is meant to remind us to seek a balance, to set aside our involvement with these thoughts, these non-things for a while. If we can do so, it makes space for more pure encounters with the wonderful things our planet has to offer. In a renewal of our awareness of things we find refreshment for our hearts. Being quite we can listen and hear the specific things still hum with joyful raw existence, the TA DUM of things mentioned last week.

It may well be that within the next few decades upheavals for the record books will come to pass. Perhaps the worst nightmares of pollution and extinction will become the reality of the future. Perhaps. Only the ego that has been somewhat tamed can admit all these results of its most careful scientific analysis can never be more than perhaps, a probability. In the meantime what is outside your front door today? Who is in your life right now? Globally, what is actually in the headlines? Even when the headlines are full of horrors notice how they are dispersed in time and place; there is no unrelenting, non-stop suffering since all these events are as impermanent as everything else. It is worth recalling that even in the midst of a war zone the number of minutes in which violence occurs is a small percentage of the time.

Breaking out of the ecocrisis depression or waking up in the age of limits involves turning the right key. In this case David Bowie gave us the key in Up the Hill Backwards, namely, “It’s got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it.” Flipping the awareness off the ego and its concerns and onto the outer reaches of your awareness of all life is like taking a fresh swim in a cool creek. There are energy flows through the ecosystem that surrounds you right now that are enchantingly complex and can become transparent to your understanding. All it takes is a shift in the center of gravity. That is talking poetically but really there is a growing enchantment with the ways existence unfolds on the earth; as you study you see and seeing, feel… You need to ask yourself where the greatest value ultimately lies; is it with yourself alone or with all the other sentient beings partaking of this self-same life? When it is the later you revel in the sacredness of the world, you finish turning the key with the mantra, “yes and thank-you.”

To play along this week just sit with a flame or a flower, spend some focused time with it. This specific thing has just as much existence as you do. Ask yourself just what is it you think is going on here?

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