The View from Here

“‘Everything exists’: that is one extreme.
‘Everything doesn’t exist’: that is the second extreme.
Avoiding these two extremes,
The Tathagata teaches the Dhamma via the middle…”
Buddha

 

In wrapping up our whirlwind tour through the foundational view I would like to share a sketch of how these ideas might be helpful in understanding our times, like an impressionist painting in words.

First here is a reminder of why any of this is being discussed. We are trying to find a way to live knowing all the detailed horrors of our ecological circumstances yet still be joyfully appreciative for life just as it is. The paradoxical nature of this agenda is leading us throughout. Earlier posts have already addressed that this joy we are looking for is not the happy face, Pollyannaisms of popular feel-good society but recognition that in order to be of benefit to those we come into contact with, being suicidally depressed is less than helpful. If you are in a relationship, celebrating your loving bond involves being happy to be alive in the circumstances of that relationship. If you are a mother or father, inspiring your children with the best of your love entails showing them how life can be lived well. If you are a teacher or a nurse or any of the countless other professions that seek to serve the needs of others your effectiveness involves the ability to share an appreciation for life. Basically we are trying to understand how in spite of it all, being aware and awake to the exquisite highs and lows of life is worth the pain involved.

The pain is unavoidable, the suffering is optional. That is one way to summarize the teaching the view is trying to convey. It is a tricky thing to communicate and a tricky thing to grasp because it is looking to navigate a middle way between the two extremes of what was known classically as eternalism and nihilism or what might be more readily understood today as idealism and realism.

On one side there are all those thought systems that claim some aspect of our experience touches upon eternal, unchanging somethings. Platonic forms, deathless souls, mathematical truths and gods as popularly understood are a few of these types of thought systems that entail some aspect of eternalism. More pedestrian, yet perhaps more relevant in the final analysis, the same tendency is found in our social and political realms when the value of justice or freedom or other ideals are held up as more than guides amidst ever changing conditions. Ideas and ideals are meant to serve the needs of living, breathing beings – not the other way around.

The other side is populated by all those skeptical thought systems that wield a deconstruction of those eternalisms that are taken so far only confusion and meaninglessness remain. There are fewer widespread instances of these thought systems since they do not compliment our egos but they remain as undercurrents in much of what passes for normality today. The suspicion that mortals with conscious awareness is a joke at our expense or as H.P. Lovecraft had it most colorfully; that the universe might have a blind, gibbering, idiot god at its heart, the conviction that love is nothing more than chemical reactions and chemical reactions are somehow less worthy of holding such an elevated emotion is more of the same.

It is easy to understand the attractiveness of the eternalism position. Our ego would like to build a castle in the air and then move into it and thereby avoid death. The defense against this danger is the advice to always ‘take your body with you’, advice familiar to anyone practicing mindfulness. Our elaborate religious and philosophical systems all seek to identify a truth that will stand for all time, outside the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. If we can just find the right combination of conceptual details the puzzle of existence will be unlocked and then we can proceed with life fearless and free of suffering. It is our happiness project.

When the happiness project falls apart, which it inevitably must if in fact all compound things are impermanent, the ego falls not to the ground of the particulars but into the hells of the nihilists.the-towerThat this is the usual way of things is well known yet resisted, feared. We see this in the religious fanatic quick to kill anyone who might threaten the legitimacy of their particular castle in the air. Just living in a way different from the fanatic’s choice threatens to be the lightning strike that will bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. The same dynamics play out in the political realm when war is justified not because a physical threat to communities has occurred but because belligerents have dared to question our castles. Those of us old enough to have lived most our lives under the shadow of the Cold War between the United States and Russia are all too familiar with how these seemingly philosophical differences get translated into very real policies and actions. More recently all the rhetoric about ‘they hate our freedoms’ used to turn attention away from historical grievances and injustices between East and West is more of the same type of air-castle defense.

The classical presentation of the middle way between the extremes of eternalism and nihilism uses the idea of self and the possibility of an afterlife. The eternalism position is found in those that teach the self exists now and will continue to exist after the body dies. The nihilism position is found in those that teach the self exists now but will not exist after the body dies. The middle way between these two is held by those teachers that teach that the self does not exist now nor will it in some afterlife. This is the teaching of selflessness within the Buddhist traditions.

The idea of selflessness is important because relief from suffering is related to how well we understand it in our heart-mind, yet it is easily misunderstood. I recently completed Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation and Philosophy by Evan Thompson and can recommend it to those interested in the contributions neuroscience can make to our understanding of these things. The summary is that there is no self as an entity but only as a process; life lives us. We could say there is indeed a center to the mandala but that it is occupied by centerless space.

By the way, speaking of the afterlife, this middle way view is the root of the contemplative recommendation to call to mind one’s own death every day. While our feel-good, all is awesome in consumer-land culture sees only depression here, it is actually a way of staying in touch with what is most real and important, as well as cutting through the fog of habit that so easily blinds us to just how precious each and every day actually is.

Taking in the last few hundred years of philosophy in the west allows us to use reason to illustrate the middle way. I think for many people this resonates more deeply than speculations about selfhood. This is all about the role of science, the inheritance from the age of the western enlightenment and how we justify our educational and political institutions today. The Descartes – Locke – Kant traditions have placed reason on a pedestal as the means by which we might grasp the eternal truth and the really real. They would like to have the certainty deductive logic provides extended to inductive logic. Recognizing that inductive logic can only provide insights of a wholly different type the skeptics rise and in their deconstructions soon give rise to nihilism. The Hume – Nietzsche – Derrida traditions have been interpreted this way. The Bayesian approach to reasoning sketched out earlier is one way to navigate the middle way between these two extremes by recognizing that reason is a useful tool, thereby avoiding the nihilism and yet it is not some sort of direct line to cosmic truth central, which avoids the other extreme of eternalism.

It is worth returning to the point made earlier. The middle way is not meant to be a final answer, an alternative air-castle. The wisdom it embodies is that the answer to the riddle of life is to be found in the living of it. What it offers is an alternative lifestyle which satisfies the existential longings and conforms to the existential circumstances of a finite, conscious being. This contemplative lifestyle is the alternative to dogma and any conceivable conceptual-only system claiming to be or represent the final truth. It offers an ever changing process instead of fixed structures, relationships as primary instead of things. It teaches us to train in seeing that right here and right now is an ever new and fresh moment – open, spacious and relaxed, even while being in the midst of all these appearances that are so luminous, vivid and clear.

Ecological issues today also illustrate the three positions people can take regarding what is really real. The eternalists assure us there is nothing to worry about. The nihilists are sure the end of the world is just around the corner. The middle way between these extreme sees a collapse of fossil-fueled industrial civilization as inevitable but not fundamentally different than the collapse of previous civilizations in the past. Can you see how each of these positions will lead a person into distinctly different lifestyles? Can you see how accepting finitude might lead one to be able to let the huge cycles of history unfold as they will, while we carefully tend our gardens and take joy in their harvests?

The Imaginal

“So it is best to think of moral progress as a matter of increasing sensitivity, increasing responsiveness to the needs of a larger and larger variety of people and things.”
Philosophy and Social Hope, Richard Rorty, italics in original

 

The map is not the territory, the menu is not the meal, and the thought is not the thing it refers to. Yet these representational images are not nothing; they have power.

MagrittePipeIt is true what it says; it cannot be filled, it cannot be lit, it is not a pipe.

The modern human environment is one saturated with images, representations created by, for the most part, advertising agencies and their clients. They serve a single purpose, pursue a single goal: to convince people who already own a lot that they need to have more. In the world they craft it is sensible that those well off should occupy themselves with increasing their store of goods and services the planet has to offer as opposed to doing something else with their current abundance.

It is a bit astonishing. Studies show how short-lived the buyer’s high actually is and supporting the consumerism habit is an all encompassing endeavor requiring full time jobs and all the rest. You would think numerous dissenting populations would be found scattered throughout our society but we do not see that. This mono-myth has captured the social imagination. Even while running faster and faster just to stay in place and seeing our very earth-home being poisoned and mangled species after species, mountain after mountain, and sea after sea it is impossible for us as a society to imagine any viable alternative to business as usual. The economic growth paradigm by which we have organized our fossil-fueled industrial civilization no longer serves the interests of our species but we are unable to voluntarily replace it.

It is not replaced because by and large the great majority of the members of these societies do not really object to the agenda being promoted by the advertisers of business as usual. The economic growth paradigm allowed increasing numbers of families to find relatively secure circumstances. Among our deepest human needs are those that seek to provide for and support those we love, our family and friends. Humans have always sought these things. So the advertising art did not need to invent its seductions out of whole cloth, the ingredients were handed to them ready made, as it were. Their art consists of hijacking our empathy that leads us to provide for one another.

The mono-myth works through an obfuscation. As our societies grew ever more secular they became prey to various attempts to move heaven to earth, to re-clothe the old religious imagery in more mundane garb. We see this in the gladiator games, sex gods and goddesses, heroic quests and always, always either explicitly or in the background, the implied belief that somewhere there is a charmed circle of “beautiful people” for whom life on earth is perfectly satisfying. They own all the right things, look the right way, know all the right people, and do whatever is exciting, dangerous, sexy, cool or otherwise awesome about being alive. This is our consumer paradise. It is what we see when we pull back the veil on our worlds of television, movies and internet.

This is the power of images.

The whole world has become bewitched by this tantalizing chimera. The vision of the consumer paradise convinces its acolytes that pursuing it will provide them with a meaningful life. Our communication devices have indeed brought us closer together than ever, sewing opportunities for compassionate understanding everywhere but they are also a Pandora’s Box. The unleashing of the consumer paradise meme from within the nexus of our societal self-reflections as found on all our screens, which Michael Greer aptly dubbed our prosthetic imagination, diverted the care and concern once expressed towards family, neighbors and neighborhoods into alienating narcissism. Shorn of the intimate ties to people and place that once provided meaning and security the naked consumer is born. Stripped of the compassionate tenor of interpersonal interactions in a society that places competition above all other values, getting ahead becomes the one sanctioned activity.

Looking at how many billions of dollars are spent annually on the advertising that props up this world view I cannot help but entertain some deliciously subversive thoughts. It looks to need a serious effort to co-opt these altruistic tendencies we find among friends and family. Helping others, being of benefit to others is obviously a viable alternative world view. Many people over the centuries have formed meaningful lives in the service of others instead of shopping. Those billions of ad dollars providing content for our prosthetic imaginations basically drown that signal in their barrage of hymns to the consumer paradise.

I have had moments where the whole PR-drawn cognitive environment in which we live suddenly looks both starkly manipulative and tawdry. At those times it seems obvious to me that we have a freedom to choose to extend the same efforts towards teaching and promoting empathy and compassion that we currently invest in teaching and promoting violence, competition and narcissism. I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again – what the human mind creates the human mind can undo.

There are two points I’d like to make and then will wrap up on a practical note. The first point is that as our growth paradigm continues to stumble and fall on its way towards tomorrows defined by limits to growth, the societies that have taken the vision of the consumer paradise to their bosoms will be facing more than just a crisis of infrastructure and energy delivery. A loss of faith is an equally devastating feature. There is a real danger that the cognitive dissonance that propped up this vision in the teeth of all the evidence to the contrary will collapse, leaving people feeling like they wasted their lives pursuing the wrong goals. They will also react with a disproportionate anger to the loss since it involves religion as much as Wall Street.

The second point is more personal. We live in an age of decadence where everything goes. It takes but a few clicks to access any perversion, absorb images of any conceivable violence and generally saturate oneself in the hyper-real. Parents have been warning their beloved children about ‘those parts of town’ forever. Today the parents – inner and outer – are stunned and mute as that part of town became town. Cutting at the fiber of the intimate relations of conscience and concern has poisoned the strength of human dignity. Dignity comes from respect; respecting what it is to be a human being, respecting the earth by whose bounty such being is possible and respecting one another as equal in this being. With dignity we are able to face into the winds of change from the storms of the age and not flinch. No shallow, manipulative self-esteem program is going to deliver the goods if this fundamental respect is lacking. We cannot stop the billions of dollars being poured into catering to our basest desires and spreading traps for the unwary who are ignorant of just what is at stake here. We can however choose not to participate in the worst of it.

Which leads to a practical point: Learn to fear becoming desensitized! Only partly tongue in cheek: save the splattering of brain pans and the chopping up of bodies to the shamanic visualizations and save the sexually charged images for making love or other moments of non-dualism. Then they remain effective tools of the psyche’s transformation. If the salt has lost its flavor, with what will it be salted?

The contemplative is learning to tame the mind. Time spent with the mind brings profound respect for the power of its various states. Most of those states are mediated to consciousness through images of one sort or another. Images can drive a jealous person into a murderous rage or trap a fearful person in their paranoia. They can drive people crazy and, it is taught, they can lead to the very edge of enlightenment. Taming the mind begins by recognizing its power and evolves to involve working with its images to ultimately transcend them. Last week we looked at a mandala and I offered a few suggestions about how it might be seen to be expressing something meaningful. Here is another one. Those gates on the square have guardians in them. These guardians of the thresholds protect the treasures that lie within. The gates are our senses. Remain watchful over what images you allow to penetrate your inner sanctum.

Like all things, even the actions of these protectors is best in moderation. There is no wisdom in going overboard and cutting off all contact with the imaginal discourse of our societies. Nor am I suggesting you expose yourself only to what the ego finds most comfortable. Our social nature is nurtured through our socio-linguistic and imaginal games. We reach others’ hearts using them. What I suggest is we train in picking and choosing them skillfully.

Radical Momentariness

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.

BulletAppleBy 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.”

ObjectIdentificationThis 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.

mandalaWhen 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.

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. 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 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?

Two Truths

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 obsession with monolithic, dogmatic 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. The dogmatic 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 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 to be emptiness. What else could it be?

The two truths can be understood along a sliding scale of realization. That the ultimate truth is emptiness remains true even while different views along the way incorporate this after their own fashion. The Hinayana view has one explanation of emptiness as the ultimate truth, there are others.

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. 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 asthinking 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. 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 alive with mind. (Note the great difference between this dynamic, embodied mind and our 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. 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 is very real but the descriptive meaninglessness is easily misunderstood. The question about what the purpose of life on earth 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? 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.

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 there is no sin, only ignorance. 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.

An example from this week’s samsara 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. 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.

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?