Experience is vast, too vast to be caught in any single net of conceptual ideas. One of the defining characteristics of contemplative thought is that there is not a single truth out there waiting to be discovered or revealed. Our human obsession with simplistic, monolithic explanations of life, the universe, and everything are seen as no more than reflections of our deep desire to make our experiences understandable. We want an understanding that is simple enough we can use it to manipulate the world to achieve what we desire. In other words, we have a tendency to seek out views of existence that comfort us and then cling to those with a desperate allegiance. This clinging is the flip side of our fear that if our “faith” in our model wavers we will find ourselves swept away in the world’s raw bursting forth of chaotic, conflicting forces. Without our gods (idols) we fear the emptiness of space.
To train in holding our view of what is real more lightly, the teaching is that there is not one truth but two; the relative truth and the ultimate truth. This is not as strange as it might appear. When we use our reasoning to infer that the material world must consist of particles we are affirming that there is the truth about the world as it appears and another truth about the way the world is constructed. The contemplative traditions hold the same kind of position. There is the world as it appears and the world as it really is but these two are not the same.
It is common when considering philosophy, religion and the many sciences to assume that there is a single goal, a single truth that is being sought through the efforts of their practitioners. In the view we are exploring here these activities are seeking what is considered the relative truth. They are looking for what is valid among our perceptions and conceptions. History, for example, is looking to determine what actually happened, biology what really transpires, ecology what actually unfolds in our environments. There is a reason it is called relative truth; it is not a free for all, anything goes affair.
This type of wisdom or valid knowing is referred to as relative to keep its true epistemological status in the forefront of our minds. This is knowledge necessarily bound by the structures of our senses, the socialization of our knowledge inheritance, the dictates of logic, the limitations of language as a signifier, and the inescapably probabilistic nature of our ability to draw inferences. The contents of this knowledge are the protean objects of our experience; the ever-changing panorama of our sensory apparatus and the ever-changing inner world of thoughts and feelings.
The other truth is that which is not relative, that which is ultimate. Since we have already populated the set of relative truth so that it contains every object of experience it should come as no surprise to learn that the ultimate is said by Buddhists to be emptiness, by St. John of the Cross a holy darkness. What else could it be?
What is the foundational view? What we directly experience; that there is a real world of matter which we encounter with our minds. All that exists can be classified into one of these two categories. In western thought Spinoza provides us with what is perhaps the most adamant exposition of this position with his discussion of the god-nature in its two forms as extension and mind. There is that which has dimension or extension and there is that which does not. There is that which has a material, elemental construction and there is that which does not. This view is dualistic. It recognizes that there is a material world and a non-material world of consciousness or awareness. In the deft hands of Spinoza these two are seen to be so intermingled that the universe becomes the very body of god in a sophisticated type of pantheism.
It takes a moment of contemplation to really dig into the depths of the issue around consciousness as a non-material aspect of our experience. This is the most important point to keep in mind, namely that we experience thought as immaterial, insubstantial, and ghost-like. Descartes is the philosopher typically given credit for the most radical formulation of a mind-body split. In his late medieval view there is a gulf between spiritual reality and the reality of the world. In some mysterious fashion the immaterial, spiritual reality is said to intermingle with our own. Descartes’ speculation was that it was in the brain’s pineal gland that the two worlds interacted. This dualism is said to have haunted western philosophy and science into our own day. It has been blamed for a sense of alienation from our bodies western people are said to have. It is also blamed for setting up a toxic devaluation of all things worldly to better serve all things spiritual. Arguably this has been the most influential description of relative and ultimate reality in western cultures.
With this cultural tradition in mind it is not hard to understand why consciousness has only recently been elevated to a respectable subject for serious scientific research. It achieved this honor when theories of cognition were developed that explain thought as a side effect of the synaptic workings of brain tissue (and AI researchers tried to capture cognition in computer hardware). For the most part the hard science position is that matter is primary in the universe and that consciousness is a epiphenomenon, a fortuitous side effect of the complexity of the signal processing within the wetware of a brain or nervous system. This has rightly been characterized as The Astonishing Hypothesis by Francis Crick in a book with that title and captured more colorfully as ‘thinking meat’ in the well known science fiction short story They’re made out of Meat . This approach fails to address the central mystery of consciousness at all: that it is awake, aware of itself. Nor does it begin to explain what consciousness feels like while delivering its sense of what is really real in our environment or inferences.
This position differs from Spinoza in that it cannot see how these two elements of our primary experience might be given equivalent primacy. In my opinion this is another instance of that desire for a single truth when the data indicates that there are at least two. Instead of matter preceding and causing mind there is the possibility that the relationship is more nuanced; that causality might run both directions, that mind precedes and causes matter (mind of God in theology), or perhaps both the thought and the neuron firings are reflections of a third thing of which we see two parts. Earlier we looked at how even the single celled animals display an awareness of their environment and respond to it (see also this page). Shifting the scientific framework just a little, it is not at all difficult to present the whole of material existence as an embodiment of information. From this point of view the universe is everywhere alive with mind. (Note the great difference between this dynamic, embodied mind and our human experience of conceptual thoughts. This has not been a popular view in the western tradition with our Faustian commitment to what conceptual thought can obtain.)
So the foundational view asserts that there is mind and matter. Often the equal armed cross is seen to symbolize this; the horizontal arm the world and the vertical arm consciousness. Like the insight of Spinoza and Descartes these are seen as two distinct features of the rational analysis of our immediate experience. What kind of a universe do these ideas expose?
In some presentations of the Buddhist teachings the universe is ultimately meaningless. By this way of thinking this provides the maximum possible freedom to sentient beings aka beings who are capable of awareness of objects and acting on that awareness. The freedom being characterized in this way is very real but the descriptive meaninglessness is easily misunderstood. The question about what the purpose of life on earth might be or even of the whole of existence might be presupposes there is something life or existence will do or does that will cause all of this to make sense, to provide the final justification. What if there is no doing necessary on our human part? No act required – not progress, salvation, enlightenment or anything else you might want to place on that throne – because the answer to the riddle of existence is found in its being, not its doing. The paradox is that this ongoing sustaining of existence is itself an act, an act of love.
There is no point to evolution, for example, in the sense that it is leading somewhere other than where it is right now. On the other hand you could say that manifesting the myriad forms of consciousness we see throughout the planet is the point, and it is doing quite well thank you. From this point of view every tree is vibrating in the shimmering, less than substantial nano-moment where existence bursts forth ever fresh and new with a loud TA DUM! Everything around us, if we could sense it, is playing in the same orchestra. Watch children at play; they are twirling orchestrations of TA DA and TA DUM and can you tell me just where the dancer ends and the dance begins?
In this view a radical, frighteningly vast freedom is inherent in our nature. With it we learn as we grow in our experiences of cause and effect. Our wisdom grows as we encounter evidence and contemplate its meaning. In this view the psychological paybacks for good are just as real as those for evil, which implies that the ultimate states of being it is possible to achieve are quite high indeed. In other words what the saints of every tradition are talking about is grounded in something more than just wishy-washy feel-good fantasies.
An example from this week’s fallen-world news will clarify things. I choose a subject wrought with suffering to remind us the questions about what is valid and real in human experience are more than just intellectual games. A man who chooses to commit an act of rape has sown the seed of payback by his own ignorance, a deep inner blindness to the reality of things. The most joyful, ecstatic and comforting sharing available to human bodies can only arise from sex that is freely given as a gift, not taken. By the very act of taking they cut themselves off from all this. By that very act they place themselves into a dark prison fortress as strong as their ignorance. They remain free to choose otherwise, to sow seeds that will lead to healing but there is no escaping paying the costs of the actions taken. Their twisted desire lacks the ability to remake reality in its image.
In this view there is a weighty validity to the actions taken in the real world that is not shared by what we might think about them. In this view the ultimate reality is the world of things and relative reality is the conceptual labeling and inference of our thinking mind. The relative reality is said to be made up of generally characterized phenomenon whereas the ultimate reality is said to be made up of specifically characterized phenomenon. We will unpack one way of understanding what those mean next week.
For this week if you are playing along take a careful look at just where consciousness of a sense comes into the picture. Perhaps, take sight and examine how part of the cause of seeing is the material world of color and form that is being perceived. Then consider how the eyeball, an equally physical phenomenon, reacts to the light waves by transforming them into cascades of chemical changes and electrical signals. The senses are transducers. Trying to teach a robot to see we have learned there are stages of emergent properties along this processing system; first come the perceptual primitives which are gathered into object primitives which are aggregated into objects you and I would recognize immediately with a conceptual label. Investigate how much of this process, if any, can be observed by a one pointed, quiet mind. How different would the seeing be if you were a frog or a spider? Earth is eyeing you, sharing the eyeing process with you. Can you sense earth eyes?