version of:   June 6, 2004

Chapter 4: Subject-Object Reversal

Each moment a world of experience opens up for us. We are trained from a young age into one particular way of being in which we squint at this world through a peephole, but even catching a glimmer of the possibilities of some other modes of being is already a highly rewarding experience. And it can be the beginning of an exploration that can soar far beyond the ego-centered swamps and lowlands, to wide vistas from mountain peaks of seeing the world in a more detached way as freely arising, and on up into the skies of a view of full freedom from identification of any kind.


We have been conditioned to close our eyes and minds to the many possibilities that come with being human, having a human body and mind. Growing up in a society that values practical skills above contemplative skills, as no other society has ever done before, we have become more clever in reading and writing, cunning in reasoning and arguing, and apt at using abstract knowledge to manipulate the world around us. All these skills are marvelous gifts in themselves, if we would only know how to use them wisely.

Well before leaving elementary school, we have been trained to inhabit a very small corner of the world that experience offers to us, and before long we have lost all memory of alternatives. Art and music and nature walks and other aesthetic or sensual encounters may give us a heightened sense of being alive and free and open to the world and to others. But generally this does not amount to much more than stretching our arms and shoulders and wiggling around a bit without leaving the little corner we're in.

All this is not surprising, as long as we're not aware that there is anything else in the world that we could visit, apart from our little corner. We are like the proverbial big frog in a little pond. Perhaps we have heard about lakes and rivers and dazzling concepts like oceans, but we consider those as metaphors. The very thought of an ocean, when taken seriously, would make the frog faint, and when not taken seriously, would make the frog pontificate about its theoretical existence or non-existence, depending on whether the frog is an idealist or a realist with respect to the land barrier that so clearly surrounds the frog's pond.

The Canvas of Consciousness

Close your eyes, and the world disappears. All the vibrant colors and shapes that were there a moment ago, all that is gone, and only a memory. Open your eyes, and immediately the world of visual experience is there again, in its full glory. Whatever we can say about the independent existence of the world, the way it is built up out of atoms and molecules, and the way others can open and close their eyes at different moments, as far as our direct visual experience is concerned, the world we see is our creation.

We hallucinate a visual world, each moment of our waking and seeing life. The content of our hallucinations is not at all random. Under normal circumstances at least, it is sharply delineated by the information that our sense organs pick up from the world around us. But even so, what is delivered to us, arising in our experience, is ours, and we can do with it what we want. The blue of the sky, the green of the leaves and the brown of the bark on a tree, it is our mind that is painting those colors on the canvas of our consciousness.

We are all artists, creating a fresh visual scene, more than a dozen times a second. And with the flick of a finger we can change what we see. Apart from opening and closing our eyes, we can walk around and change what we see. Without walking, we can still turn our neck, and change the scene completely. Or even without turning our neck, we can move our eyes around, focusing on different spots. We have so many degrees of freedom already under under finger tips, so to speak, and we use them so habitually, that we rarely pause to ask ourselves whether there are others, ones we haven't even begun to explore.

Degrees of Freedom

Here is a very simple example, of a degree of freedom in perception that we are normally not aware of. Perhaps you have stumbled upon it by chance, at some point, or maybe you've always been familiar with it; chances are you've never tried it. We are not in the habit of talking about these things, and so we know little about person-to-person differences. I found this to my surprise when I started reading Husserl's descriptions of phenomenology, and decided to use his methods to embark on some new explorations for myself.

Look straight ahead of you, focusing at a fixed point on a wall, say, or any fixed object. Don't move your body, and in particular keep your head an eyes fixed. At first blush, this would suggest that you do not have any freedom left to concentrate on anything else except the point you are focused on, having frozen our ordinary means of exploring the world through body, neck, or eye movements. But don't give up so quickly. Can you try to redirect your attention, if not your focus, toward particular parts of your field of vision?

While keeping your gaze and focus straight ahead of you, see whether you can direct your attention to the left. Soon you will notice that you will actually see more of what is present in that direction. Then move your attention to the right. There, too, you will see that you can become aware of more of what is there, just by mentally directing your attention in that direction, without any physical movement in eye or any other body part.

Switch a few times from left to right to left to right. Same with up and down. Then try to describe a circle with your consciousness around the center of your vision, or spiral in or out. Isn't that fun? My own reaction, when I discovered that I could flex these unexpected mental muscles, was one of surprise and delight. Your reaction to this particular experiment may differ, depending on whether you've already stumbled upon this degree of freedom in perception, but even if you're already familiar with this particular freedom, you can probably think of other new ways to experiment with ordinary situations in new ways.

Going a Step Further

Undoubtedly cognitive psychology books will give you many hints as to other ways to explore perception in novel ways, although it may be more fun to come up with new ideas for yourself, before looking at such books. But these degrees of freedom are only the first step. They do not change the fact that we keep inhabiting only a tiny portion of our experience, in a highly repetitive and unimaginative way.

Typically we take up residence somewhere a few inches behind our eyes, in an ego fortification that has been carefully built up and equipped with many fine details over the course of our lives. Like a turtle we carry this burden with us wherever we go, and it does not even occur to us that we have an alternative -- many alternatives, in fact. Even catching a glimmer of the possibilities of other modes of being is already a highly rewarding experience.

Since my consciousness is constructing a whole world around me, visually as well as through all my other senses, why take up residence only between and slightly behind my eyes, and why identify the boundaries of my sense of self with the boundaries of my body? After all, when we drive a car, we know what it means to identify with the boundaries of the body of the car, and we have a visceral reaction when we are about to hit or even slightly scratch something.

How about taking a particular object, and handing our active subject role to that object? You can look at a stone or a tree or whatever object you choose. Instead of you looking at the object, just relax and let the object look at you.

Quick Results

One of the surprising, and frankly rather shocking, aspects of this maneuver is that it works! Unlike the philosophical frog pondering and pontificating, letting an object look at you is guaranteed to shift your world, to shift your way of being. You don't have to sit in a cave or on a cushion for days on end; this experiment generally works in a matter of minutes or sometimes even seconds. It works, that is, if you do it, if you actually let the object look at you, instead of analyzing the notion of what it would be like to let the object look at you.

Avoiding that last trap may be a bit tricky, especially for intellectually trained individuals, but my experience is that most people quickly `fall into' the reversal experience. Once you have experienced it a few times for yourself, you can ask others to do the same. And you don't have to ask them whether it `works', whether they experience a shift. You can tell from their eyes, or perhaps from their smile and other reactions. Whether they show a sense of delight or initial apprehension, it will be clear when something has started to shift.

Many people's first reaction will be: but that stone doesn't have eyes, how can it possibly look at me? In that case, you can say something like what I described above, that we don't have to give eyes to a rock; for starters at least, we can just explore our own consciousness differently, off the beaten track. We are free to let our experience of the stone look at our experience of our body. We can keep our felt location inside our body; all we need to do is to play a more passive role, like that of an object, while handing over the more active role of a subject to the stone.

Typically a little nudging will be enough to let someone make the shift from analyzing to experiencing what it is like to let an object look at you. Each one will then provide a report that differs in its details, but that is recognizable in its similarities. People may talk about a sense of the world expanding, feeling more openness and relaxation, or they may describe a sense of initial unease at being looked at, something that typically transforms and melts into more of a sense of intimacy, when the experiment is continued, or picked up again a little later.

Easy and Profound

There are all kinds of variations that we can apply, making this experiment more complex and inclusive, and shifting emphasis to different aspects. We will investigate some of those in greater detail in Part 1. But for now, isn't it nice to know that an entry into a richer world of experience is so easy, and so close at hand? You don't have to pay for entering a monastery or meditation retreat. And once you've become familiar with this type of shift, you can share it with others -- at a party, if you like, or when walking on a street with someone, or sitting in a cafe. If you can let someone be quietly absorbed in the initial try for a few minutes or more, so much the better.

Definitely, don't do this while driving a car or operating other dangerous equipment. And you probably shouldn't ask someone to do this experiment if you know that they have a tendency to mental instability. But apart from such common sense precautions, the experiment in itself seems pretty harmless, according to my experience and of that of other people I know who have worked with it.

With harmless in this context I mean that it is unlikely to let you freak out or cause accidents. But in another sense it may be harmful in the sense that it may affect your sense of being an isolated self, locked up in your very own ego-fortification. That sense of isolation may be harmed significantly. Bricks may fall out along the narrow slits through which you tended to look out and line up the arrows aimed at the world around you. The world may begin to open up more to you and you to the world.

The Galilean Vision

Children, artists, and fairy tale tellers are generally comfortable with subject-object reversal. After all, pots and pans and rocks and stones may talk and look at you in fairy tales, and young children have not yet learned to delineate and freeze their sense of self the way older children and adults have. But my aim here is not so much to explore the aesthetic or therapeutic aspects of these experiments, significant as they are.

My aim is to use this simple experiment as a first entry into what I indicate with the notion of `life as a laboratory.' Just as Galileo explored simple phenomena of falling objects in order to come to a deeper understanding of gravity, we can explore simple phenomena related to the subject-object structure of experience, in order to understand experience, and ultimately reality, better. In Part 1 we will go deeper into this, in a more systematic way.

What was special about Galileo was not that he let objects drop to the ground. Anyone before him could do that and had done that. What was remarkable about him is that he had a vision of the world as being understandable. It is impossible to overestimate the significance of this shift.

A New Vision

Imagine yourself to live in a time and place well before science took off. Look at leaves blowing in the wind and slowing falling down, scattering here and there. Look at waves splashing onto the shore, clouds forming and dissolving in the sky. Sure, there are general regularities that can be discerned, but the details seem highly chaotic and unpredictable.

Who could have seriously thought that human beings could ever penetrate into the secrets of the details of the behavior of the world around us? Even if we would restrict ourselves to the insentient world of leaves and waves and clouds, the project would seem ridiculous. Whether the world would be truly chaotic in its details, or whether a hypothetical supernatural mind could somehow have access to such detailed knowledge, for sure such knowledge would be out of the question for mere mortals.

And yet Galileo made that utterly unreasonable idea his starting point. His working hypothesis was that the world of objects was understandable. Using this as an act of faith, he dedicated his considerable talents and energy to the project of uncovering the knowledgeability that he had posited to be there to begin with. He did not live long enough to see how very far we have come, amazingly far, with the program he started. He did live long enough, however, to see the first significant results, which must have greatly encouraged him and strengthened his belief in his vision.

We can follow in Galileo's footsteps, by taking up a new vision, with the working hypothesis that reality is understandable in a more radical way. Instead of just positing that the world of objects may be understandable for a subject, we can posit that reality is understandable period. Sure, we can start with a subject understanding objects. But why stop there? Been there, done that. Yes, that clearly works, and we'll continue to find a lot more surprises and insights there. But why not go a step further? Could it be that reality is understandable by itself, beyond a polarization into subjects and objects? Part 1 will begin to explore that hypothesis, and part 2 and especially part 3 will follow that line of investigation where it will want to go.

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