Experiment: Subject/Object Reversal

Background: What question or issue motivates this experiment?

This is Piet's famous Subject-object reversal experiment that started this whole thing off. For lots of background see Piet's book.

Description: What should experimenters do?

(This is copied from Piet's chapter 7)

Take a single object, preferably one that is at rest and that you can look at quietly for a while, without being disturbed. It can be anything, a cup, a chair, a tree or just a single leaf, whatever you feel comfortable with. Take a relaxed position, with the object in clear view. You can stand or sit down, or take any pose as your prefer. First spend a few minutes watching at the object as you would do normally, when you would just gaze at something for a while, without any particular purpose, the way you would look at something while waiting for a bus, or sitting on a bench in a park. While doing so, notice the subject-object polarization that is continually operative in our daily life. Do not try to change anything, but like a good observer that does not introduce upon the scene studied, pay attention to the details of how the subject-object relation plays out, in the field of daily life.

Notice how you feel yourself to be at the center of your universe, as if you were contained in your bubble of consciousness that includes all that you are aware of. You play an active role in sizing things up, even if you do not use your muscles in any particularly active role; just watching something has an emotional overtone of reaching out, grasping the object of your attention. In contrast, the object just sits there, as the passive receptor of your attention.

After a few minutes, gently switch roles: instead of you looking at the object, let the object look at you. There is no need to force any other changes on the situation. The visual scene remains the same, only the emphasis is shifted, away from you playing the active subject role, and toward you playing a more passive object role. In a relaxed way, pay close attention to what it feels like being looked at by the object that is now playing more of a subject role.

Lab reports

OK, I have been doing this subject-object experiment for two weeks now, writing reports down occasionally in my notebook. I have little of import to report, and my results seem somewhat negative. I haven't been able to locate anything different as a result of the reversal--which I still don't quite understand--from any other time I would spend time with the details in a moment, an object, a feeling. That detail-appreciation is certainly relaxing--is this the same relaxation, or surprise, this experiment is to elicit? Here is but one example:

Setting: taking a shower, looking at a bottle of shampoo.

Results: the shampoo, a blue plastic bottle, is upside down in a rack hanging from the shower head. I spend some time paying attention to it, paying attention to its context, thinking briefly that a pigeon in its place would be surprising, but that the shampoo bottle seems quite ordinary and appropriate in this context, my context, the shower context, which seems to point at me from all directions: the small enclosed space, the hot water running over my body, the constellation of other items in the shower like razors, mirrors, shower curtains, mysterious bottles of other hygiene products etc. Anticipating, I'm not sure how to transfer, or if I should transfer, the feeling of taking a shower to the shampoo. Would that be a subject-object reversal with the shower itself? OK now...reverse! switcharoo! object look at me! shazam! go! ...hm....nothing. I feel like Peter Parker in the Spiderman movie abortively trying to make his web fly out on command. This is all very nice, I could write in infinite detail about being aware, about being aware of being aware, about being seen from another perspective, but all these details all seem to devolve into the same: here! shower! nice, feel good, hello!

Discussion: Perhaps I am doing it already? I can move my attention all around, pay attention to the tactile pattern of the water on my body, feel the aspect of myself the shampoo bottle would see. Of course, "I" don't move it around, and I've long played with experience, aware that meaning no matter how dense, solid, or threatening, is a participatory production of me-already-in-the-world. I am writing this after the fact, and some of these things become visible though I didn't think of at the time. I can, for example, find the image of myself the bottle projects, that I am reaching out to grab it, as much as it is there for me to grab. Are things added? Am I just running regressions on data I've collected previously? And there is the familiar feeling that I just don't quite get it. Just what am I to be doing here? Just what is the difference between the object looking at me and letting myself be surprised at the details in a scene, discovering new aspects of "myself" and new thoughts through them? When I write descriptively or sketch a scene this also happens, and I become something of a matchmaker between the drawing and the scene, suggesting and facilitating but also quite adjunct to the magic happening between them.

-- JL - May 26, 2004

Sitting in bed. Did subject-object reversal looking at the ceiling. Had the usual experience of the whole visual phenomenal field unifying and moving about an inch forward, and the "looker" disappearing as an isolated entity to be just a node in a flux of happenings. Now, the experiment is to "reverse" the now-subject with the subject of one day in the future. I imagine at 11AM I will be at the computer writing more. The future self is a projection generated by my mind, but so is experience of the ceiling right there. It is just presumed that these hallucinations correspond to something real "out there". Noticing this always empties out the solidity of the subject, making "reversal" easier. The future-me image isn't paying attention to the present-me any more than the ceiling is, but I can be empty for it as the object pole, the intense awareness of it directed "this" direction instead of outward towards it. Always the spine opens up and up through the neck and back of the head. Vertebrea pop. Interestingly, similar openings are happening with the future-me who is doing attention exercises. More of the future image - the desk, the wall - joins in with the subject pole, shining awareness back this direction. There is no privacy in this. (People who are neurotic about privacy probably couldn't do these exercises.) And again, the whole of subjective experience - image of future, image of ceiling - becomes a paper thin membrane and seems to move slightly forward.

Regarding the visual field "moving an inch forward", when I stop focussing on individual objects as objects, then the visual field becomes the "looker", in a way, all the visual phenomena group together and I relax enough to become aware of the outer edges of the visual field. (That is another interesting experiement: to try to be aware of the "side boundary" of the visual field.) When the outer edges of the visual field are noticed, it's like a fitted bed sheet that pops off, and also the whole visual field seems a lot "thinner" and "flatter". I think it is a visual recognition of what you (Piet) called the "screen of objectivity". When I am at a movie and absorbed in it as if it is reality, I seem to be inside it and it is wrapped around me. But when I am no longer absorbed in it (which requires the disappearing of the me-entity whose feeling of existential solidity depends on the movie seeming "real") then the edges of the screen come to attention and it is seen as just a light show "out in front", or "moving an inch forward" like I said.

-- JT - 30 May 2005

Using the computer screen as a subject-object reversal tool. Mostly, I am interested in exploring the frames that we use to define a particular entity as subject, as object etc. We routinely designate certain entities as subjects (mainly ourselves and with decreasing intensity, other humans and living beings) as objects (almost all the stuff around us, especially the human made stuff). The computer screen is an interesting entity in that it offers very fluid ways of description.

(a) I am sitting about two feet away from the screen. A window is open with an email from a friend. I am finding it very hard to see the screen as an object - I am invariably lead to associating the letters on the screen with my friend. Finally, I look at the edges of the window for a while, focusing on its shape. When I do this for a about a minute, I can more or less see the whole screen as a flat two dimensional surface with some texture. It feels very strange to see the screen that way. It reminds me of the first time I saw a dead body and the wierdness of seeing a person I had known as a dead piece of flesh.

(b) Seeing the screen as a subject. In some ways this is harder. It is so much easier to see the screen as a conduit to a host of subjects somewhere else in the world. Usually, I am more or less lost in the screen and absorbed in its ability to point to unseen subjects. Once again it takes me a while to let the computer screen stare at me. I let it take control, and I sit back, and let it shine its pale light on me. It feels like I am deep down in the ocean in a submersible and one of those fishes that emits its own light is visiting me. It feels both alien and familiar at the same time. What is this being in my presence?

-- RK- 31 May 2005

This is a collection of old lab reports from 2003 and 2004 plus a new one from today.

LW - Report 1, 2003-05-2

Me watching the cup as an object. My mind is very busy. At first I cannot help but think of the occasion when I got this cup - a recent staff appreciation event that was somewhat poorly organized and where I actually was handing out cups like these to other employees. I cannot help but read several times the words that are printed on the cup: LABORATORY MEDICINE IN APPRECIATION. And I am thinking, we all are not so sure how much they appreciate us really. (This latter is like a reflex: we all have been saying that so often in conjuction with that event where we received ). Then I notice the reflections on the cup's shiny surface. They are all distorted. In the center there are my own hands, and they look a little like a woman with no head and no feet. There are objects to the right and left of this image, and without really meaning to, I try to figure out what they are - there is an image of my mouse pad, an image of a stack of paper, and a small black one that I cannot identify, which bothers me for a moment. I think: Typically human, must have identified everything. Then I tell myself, now, just let that cup be without doing so much work in your mind. And simultaneously, something in me is looking for instructions, for a clear guideline on how to look in order to do the exercise right. I get tired of that (after all, I have seen this type of grasping for instructions many times before in contemplative exercises) and decide to switch over to having the cup watch me. The cup watching me. I tell myself, now the cup is watching me. And immediately I start trying to find in the cup something or somebody that might be able to see me. There is the woman with no head, who is actually my hands - what does she see in me? And inside the cup, perhaps there could be a watcher hidden inside the cup - I can only see its outside right now. I get a little embarrassed about this activity of trying to give some life to the cup. Instead I tell myself to focus on the seeing. And what happens? I start paying attention to myself (after all, the cup is supposed to watch ME) and I notice several things: tension in my upper back, a tingling sensation in the balls of the feet, a place where a strand of hair tickles my jaw bone. Well, these are all things that only a very sophisticated watcher could actually perceive - I have met only a few people who can see such things in others (say, as energy patterns). All the while, I am staring at the cup and somewhere at the back of my mind there is still the idea that it is supposed to be watching me, but really, what I'm doing is watching myself; and on top of that, having a meta-conversation with myself on the possibility of some other subject perceiving something of these sensations that I perceive in myself.

LW - Report 2, 2003-06-04

I decided to do the first experiment a couple more times before trying a new one. It was much more difficult the second and third time. I did it again with a cup, but a different one with nothing written on it. Both times, my mind was wandering a lot, and though I was kind of staring at the cup, I did not manage to pay attention to it at all times. Once I actually fell asleep over it (I'm known to fall asleep over things that are a little difficult to follow). The second time I was really fidgety. When trying to behold the cup as a subject that sees me, I was thinking about Piet's comments from last week. I was trying to figure out what it could mean that my cup can be a subject if I realize that the experience of it is my mental content. I could not much any sense of it, and somehow over all that hard thinking, I forgot to continue watching the cup and observing myself in watching. Also the following thought came to me several tines: maybe the point of the exercise is siiimply to see what the mind does when confronted with a task it cannot fulfill?

LW - Report 3, 2003-06-15

I decided to do the first exercise with one object one more time. I used the same cup that I had the first time – the one that says "Laboratory Medicine in Appreciation" on it, and I did the exercise in my office at work (hoping nobody would walk by). The first thing I noticed: I automatically put the cup at a certain angle that is comfortable to look at. The writing is in full view, and the handle sticks out exactly to the left. I felt compelled to turn it that way before settling into observation mode. A few minutes into the exercise I felt this was so silly that I turned the cup around into a position where only some of the writing was visible. I forced myself to look at it this way, and it was not so bad after all. By that time I was getting preoccupied with the rim and the interior of the cup anyway and they are symmetric. (Funny to read that SC also felt a need to rearrange objects, although she did it when she put them in the subject role). I noticed that I was talking to myself all the time, and I remembered that Rajesh had described doing this in a different exercise. I wanted to make myself stop talking, but it went on anyway. I think I know why: I was feeling very anxious about how well I would be able to remember my experiences to write them down afterwards. I tried to hold on to everything that was going on and tie it down in language that I might be able to remember. I told myself that this wasn't necessary but couldn't manage to change it. Towards the end of my practice session I actually took out a notepad to jot things down and it made me feel much better and I could add another minute of more peaceful practice. When I was trying to see the cup as an object, I was quite distracted for much of the time (thinking about the latest e-mails from you guys). I kept telling myself, "look at the cup as an object, see it as an object," and I realized that I could not say this to myself and at the same time actually do it - the doing had to wait until after I was finished expressing the order. I found that the way to make myself concentrate on the cup as an object was to pay attention to its shape in space and its physical properties. I would follow its shape with my eyes, take in the curves, as if I was mentally either forming the cup or painting the cup. I found myself thinking of how the cup's surface feels to the touch and in the mouth. I think I was "swimming in" these experiences only for short moments before stepping out again and reflecting on what I was doing. I was thinking about the many different things we could do that could be labeled as objectifying the cup.

- possess it with your senses - attach a history and symbolic meaning or sentimental value to it - commodify it (how much is it worth and to whom, how is it useful) - acknowledge its exact appearance, position, relation to other objects and to me in space and time

When switching to the other half of the exercise, I gave myself orders again - "now relate to it as a subject". Something interesting happened that was quite out of my control and that had happened before when I used the same cup. My attention was drawn to the opening where you pour the liquid in. The cup is dark blue and the opening looked almost black and it was like a big dark mouth that would want to swallow. I kind of felt a pull by that dark mouth as if it wanted to swallow me. I tried to tell myself that I should also focus on myself as an object, but that failed - I remained a subject for myself, and I was thinking that for the cup I was definitely a subject also. Actually, I think what I did was remain a subject and trying (awkwardly) to relate to the cup as another subject that "relates back to me". So, instead of reversing the subject-object relation, all I managed to do is de-emphasize objectness altogether.

LW - Report 4, 2003-10-13

Here's my report of the experiment of doing an subject-object reversal first with an object I'm touching, and then with the haptic sensation itself.

I take a roll of duct tape into my hands. First part of the assignment: Feel my grip holding the object. This is easy, this is the normal way. Second part of the assignment: Switch – the object is now touching me. What effect does this inversion have? It shifts my focus. Previously, I was mainly aware of the ring-shape of my object, the rippled rubbery surface on the outside and the papery smooth surface on the inside of the ring. Now, after the inversion, I am aware of my own skin being affected by the textured surfaces of the object, and the alignment of the bones and muscles in my hands being affected by the curvature of the object.

This switch is much less dramatic and much less mysterious than it was in other exercises where I was contemplating objects without touching. After all, it is within our ordinary experience that an object that we touch necessarily touches us, too – even though we tend not to focus our attention on that. All I’m doing right now is noticing that I am not only a doer and perceiver here, but also a recipient – the object, when I hold it, very clearly “does” something to me. It makes me hold my hands and arms a certain way, it gently scrapes the skin on my fingers. All very normal. No need to ascribe to the object intentionality.

It occurs to me that I could have done the earlier experiments from the spring in such a simple way, too. Instead of wondering how it is for an object to be vis-à-vis me, instead of searching for traces of intentions in the object, I could have simply noticed how the object has the power to effect changes in me: it makes my eyes move; it makes my mind move, it makes me feel a certain way.

Then I start wondering: Is this really a complete reversal? Well, perhaps I have managed now to put myself into the object position. I can experience myself as being manipulated as an object by another object. Yet I don’t think what I am doing amounts to giving the duct tape subject status. The roll of duct tape still just a bit of matter and it has no subjectivity. It is, let’s say, an “effector”. Also, even though I just said I am in an object-position vis-à-vis this effector, I still have experiences and interpretations and a drive to ponder the situation – I have not lost my subjectivity, just as little as the duct tape has gained any.

(Still, a reversal has taken place, but it is at a more superficial level than I was originally looking for.)

Anyway, time to write about the third part of the assignment: feeling the haptic sensation (as opposed to the object). At first I have no clue how to switch over to that. How do I make contact to the sensation rather than the object? As I am complaining silently to myself how difficult this assignment is, I inadvertently begin to play with the duct tape. I wrap a bit of it around my index finger, then take it off again, put it on, take it off again. I run my thumb over the rippled surface of the tape. And as I am doing this, the sense of a compact and coherent object disappears and I find myself just with sensations: stickiness, smoothness, roughness etc. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say simply: sticky, smooth, rough. These are not entities, and it may be counterproductive to use nouns. Now, how do I invert that (fourth part of the assignment)? How can those sensations touch me? Again, I can shift my focus and notice that, for example, the stickiness does something to me and leaves my finger feeling funny. But if I do it that way, am I not back at the level where I contemplate an object (stickiness as a quality of an object), rather than a sensation? I want to play with the sensation “sticky”. I don’t want to interpret that as the stickiness of an object (which is a mental construct, an interpretation of the situation, rather than a sensation). But how can I invert the subject-object relationship between me and the sensation? The sensation is already mine, it is part of me. It is my percept, or even my “construct” if I take a Kantian or post-Kantian position. It is my "suffering" or my doing. Probably there is no subject-object relation in the first place. And so, trying to invert it would be futile.

LW - Report 5, 2004-05-15

For some reason did not quite stick to the description. I felt that, instead of sitting quietly to contemplate a non-moving object, I wanted to do the reversal with objects that I am already doing something with. Interestingly, that seemed to have quite profound effects. I started with something complex: I had a pair of tweezers around and started pulling out a few small hairs from my skin with it. Letting these small hairs become the subjects was a strange experience. If they are subjects, it suddenly becomes a matter of serious concern that nobody cares that they are removed from their “home”, that they will die unceremoniously, that nobody cares to track where they end up. At the same time, if I am the object (from their perspective), my own concern that is now awakening counts for nothing. I am just a thing that performs a pulling action, and on top of that, has some mental activity going on. But I am not a somebody whose concern could touch somebody else. I briefly tried letting the tweezers become the subject. That was very difficult. Something that’s being used as a tool is being pushed so deeply into the object-realm of reality that it is very hard to let it come out of it and to the other side. I decided rather quickly not to pursue such a difficult cases tonight. After that, I turned my focus to the backrest of the chair I am sitting on. It’s a cheap folding metal chair, and I sit on it often, but I normally don’t pay much attention to it. If I let the chair be the subject, then the situation is that it is giving my body support (with emphasis on giving). I was feeling very supported in that moment, and I suddenly felt much gratitude for that support. At the same time, since I was supposed to be the object from the perspective of the chair, I was wondering if I should think that my gratitude would not be able to “reach” the chair. I feel this is the first time that the experiment really began touching the issue of relaxing the ordinary subject-object relationship for me. I started out with objects to which I had a rather definite relationship. When I decided to turn this relationship around, I experienced a clear shift to something new. My role changed, their role changed. This is very different from last year’s experimentation, when I had some weird experiences (like a cup sucking me into its dark interior) but never really shifted away from the old familiar set-up. This was the first time I had a conscious experience of the separation caused by the subject-object structure: I could not “touch” or “reach” the hairs and the chair, the way people can “touch” or reach” other people’s hearts and minds in good moments. This separation does not really have anything to do with the reversal of subject and object: No matter whether I am the subject contemplating an object, or the object being contemplated by a subject, I am cut off from the other in a certain way. Up to now this separation was mainly an abstract notion for me, but the experiment made me feel separated for some brief moments. Actually, I don't know for sure if the separation I encountered is really that big gap caused by the subject-object structure. But I would like to believe it.

LW - Report 6, 2005-06-01

It’s been about a year since my last subject-object experiment. I always quite disliked doing this experiment, but I am curious how it will turn out today, so I do it again. I sit on the floor and put a saucer in front of me. I am a subject, and I watch the saucer, which is an object. Thoughts float through my mind, related and unrelated to the saucer. The saucer is round, perfectly round. Suddenly I can’t help thinking of the mathematical concept of a “ball” which might, but does not have to be round. One of my classmates laughed today when he found a drawing in his calculus book of a square object that was labeled “ball”. This occurrence is conjured up by seeing the saucer’s round shape. I put mathematics out of my mind, almost forcefully, and then I imagine what the smooth surface of the saucer feels like when I touch it. After that I imagine what sound the saucer would make if I dropped it on my hardwood floor. In between, I say to myself, this exercise is boring me. And I have no doubts about my role: I am the subject here, the saucer is the object. Then it’s time for the reversal. At first, I feel helpless, as I usually do with this exercise. Become an object? How? After a few moments I start feeling really powerless. After a few more moments, I start feeling how small I am compared the hugeness of the universe and how all kinds of forces around me can do all sorts of things with me. Suddenly, I feel very much like an object, an object that is manipulated by things other than itself. But now I have lost connection to the saucer. The saucer has not become more subject like, the saucer has simply shifted out of focus. As I try to shift it back into focus, I immediately feel that I am back in the role of the subject myself.

-- LW - 01 Jun 2005

Setting: in a sea kayak on the rocky coast of Maine (Acadia National Park)

Results: Every night as I have drifted off to sleep I have heard the harbor bells ringing in the waves. A few days ago I walked down to the lighthouse--a gray and rainy fog--and looked out to sea. There was nothing to see, only the clanging in the fog, although every once in a while a shadow emerged from the mist. Today it was a bright blue day, clear and dry, and we have set out from sea-wall beach to paddle around to the lighthouse, which is interestingly a longer paddle than a walk from the campsite. Along the pink granite coast, through the rafts of ducks and seals looking up and around, we made our way, strange aquatic centaurs half-human half-kayak cruising through the cold blue sea.

When we came to the lighthouse, there were several people on rocks, and I experienced an inadvertent subject-object reversal because I had been standing on those rocks a few days before, looking out to sea where it was too cold, too wet, and too impossible for anyone to be, and now I was looking back from that place.

I paddled closer to watch the ocean on the rocks as there was very little wave action, and it was calm like a lake, serenely mismatched to the jagged wave-lashed shore. I watched one small area where the small waves came and went over the rocks, and especially one area in which a little eddy formed when the waves washed in but then disappeared; it seemed like so much thought, and so much human history, this forming of shape and structure so present and identifiable, but which just fades away when the energy flows change. I think I'm starting to understand what it means to let the environment be a teacher, as these sorts of patterns suggest themselves; there is some continuity between what I see outside or anywhere I am paying attention, slowing down to notice, and in more abstract scientific papers and books I read.

I noticed that most of my group was starting to head back, but I first wanted to visit the bells. I paddled out to the buoy with the bells, the most prominent sound over the background of my paddles in the water and the occasional flight of ducks. I spent some time with the buoy, which struck me as quite beautiful, and almost alive. There were four gongs hanging on long, thick threaded bolts, one on each side of the bell suspended in the middle, and they swung lazily back and forth as the buoy rocked on the waves, striking the bell in a somewhat complicated pattern (as complicated as all the superimposed waves the buoy was riding on, I suppose). The nose of my boat was almost touching the bobbing base of the buoy, and I was enjoying quality time with an "inanimate object," which seemed nevertheless alive, at the same time aloof and autonomous but also inviting, enticing me to stay with it. I thought that this might be a good "object" to do the subject-object reversal with, but as I started down that path, paying attention to its details, trying to break out the subject and object poles, I had an eerie sense that the buoy was saying, no, you don't need to do that, just stay here and float with me. And that's what I did. We rocked back and forth on the waves, the gongs clanging, my paddles absently skulling, the wind gently blowing. It was very peaceful there, and I felt I could spend much more time, but I felt a tug from behind, from the other paddlers growing farther away, from my place with my people far away. I turned my boat around and set off. The bells grew fainter in the paddling and finally disappeared.

-- JL - June 7, 2004

I did the subject-object reversal a couple of times on two different days with a vase of flowers on my dining table.

Setup: The first time I did it, I note that my mood is not entirely content or relaxed. I'm a little stressed about an upcoming conference. When I looked at the flowers in the traditional subject mode, I noticed that they had become quite shriveled and dry (I'd had them for a couple of weeks). I noticed the different angles of the stems and how they pan out around the perimeter of the vase. The water at the base has become muddy and I notice a faint smell also. There are leaves that have fallen off on the table from the bunch of flowers.

When I let them look at me, I feel I should have taken care of them better. Even though I'd watered them regularly, not a lot of light enters my room, so perhaps they dried up more quickly because they didn't get enough light. Also, I realize that I should have cut the stems more frequently. So, I cleared out the flowers and leaves that had fallen on my dining table, and cut the stems of the flowers that were still fresh and watered it again.

The second time, I did it in the afternoon a couple of days after the first time. Now, when I look at the flowers in subject mode, they do appear more beautiful to me. Even the dry and withered aspect seems artistic, and I'm less critical of this aspect than I was the first time. I notice in particular the way the leaves brush against the petals of the flowers. I know I'll have to throw them out soon.

When I let the flowers look at me, I do not feel chastised in the same way I did before, but I do feel a need to make them more comfortable. I certainly do not feel bad for them because they've become withered as I felt before.

-- SC – June 29, 2004

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