version of: July 25, 2004
Chapter 14: Appearance
Whatever we may be aware of, something appears. This is the one thing that is truly indubitable. Many things may appear to us, in the form of experiences that we ascribe to objects outside of us or to our own inner thoughts and feelings, as the case may be. What those many things are that appear, and what the me is to which it appears, that is wide open to interpretation. But that there is appearance is clear. It is the one and only aspect of reality that is truly given, in advance of any type of subsequent analysis.
Experiment 2.2.: A Sense of Light
After starting again with the `do nothing' experiment for a few minutes, notice how all that draws your attention is alike in appearing. We see a wall in front of us, we remember something we have to do, we feel an itch somewhere in our shoulder: an object, a thought, an itch appear. Our whole life is made up of a flow of appearances.
Try to make a distinction between the appearing of appearances and the interpretation that we tend to give appearances. Normally we immediately fall into the meaning of whatever appears, even if we try to pay scrupulous attention: ah, a wall; ah, a thought; ah, an itch. See whether you can focus on the appearing while deemphasizing what it is that seems to appear.
When we watch a movie, we fall into the suggested meanings: we find ourselves in a city, moving through streets, being attracted by this and scared by that. But when we ask ourselves what is really real there in front of us, we have to admit that it is just a play of light on a screen, encoding the story of the movie. We have the choice to shift our attention from the flow of the story to the flow of light.
Look around you, and watch all that appears. Without straining in any way, notice how everything you see is given to you as light. Treating your whole environment like a movie that surrounds you, or a virtual reality, focus on the way the light is given as light. You don't have to deny the meaning encoded in the light; just view it as meanings that are encoded, while keeping your attention mainly on the light, as light.
When we look at a flower, we don't see an image of a flower, we see a flower directly. As a young child, we had to learn to recognize and deal with flowers, and soon thereafter we learned words to describe flowers in general, as well as particular kinds of flowers. Whatever effort we had to spend at first in order to see a flower dropped away and became transparent.
The same is true for everything that we have learned to perform well. Walking is an incredibly complicated form of locomotion, far more so than rolling. Building a robot that can walk up and down a staircase is a very difficult challenge, even though we have built machines with wheels for ages. Yet for us going for a walk is one of the easiest and most relaxing things we can do.
From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes a lot of sense: an animal that would be consciously working at walking as a difficult task would be far worse off than an animal that can go on autopilot as far as walking goes, and so can concentrate on catching prey or running away from predators.
For us this means that we have to work consciously at gaining an insight into the complexity of the many autopilots that are at work in our life. In what seems at first sight to be simple and elementary, we have to open up various black boxes in order to gain an appreciation for what is going on behind the scenes.
An example of this transparency effect is the way a blind person uses a stick. By touching objects with a stick navigation becomes possible while this person builds up a form of image or map of the environment. In the experience of someone who is blind, the presence of the stick is not normally noticed in any conscious way. The person directly seems to feel each object, even though never physically touching anything but the stick.
Similarly, we normally overlook the various layers between us and the objects we deal with. However, it is rather easy to focus on those layers, when we are asked to do so. Just like a blind person, when asked, can quickly admit to only touching a stick, so can we learn to switch from a flower as material object to the light that we perceive and interpret as being a flower.
In chapter 11 we saw how looking at a pen, and analyzing that process, led to a proliferation of different pens, all-in-one, yet different. Here, too, we can discern many more degrees of freedom. We can learn to switch from a flower as material object to the image that we perceive of the flower, to the light that makes up the image, to the light as given in our experience, as well as to the sense of material object given in our experience, and so on.
But rather than exploring all those many options, it is also important to stick with a deliberately simple experiment for a while, studying in depth what one particular contrast can tell us. Examples are switching from a painting to the paint, from a movie to the light, from content of meaning to texture of presentation.
Environment and Embodiment
As with all of our experiments, it is important to repeat this experiment a number of times in different settings. A good place to start is at home, alone in a room, quietly observing all the light that surrounds you. Repeating the experiment a few times in the same setting will give you a sense of the possible variation between sessions. It will also show the process of gaining more familiarity, something that will be reflected in your lab notes.
You can then extend this experiment while walking outside, first in more tranquil surroundings, but later also in more hectic situations, such as in the middle of a busy city. After a while, you can even do it while talking with other people, or while otherwise being engaged in more busy activities (but not while driving a car or operating other dangerous equipment).
It will be especially fun to perform this experiment while watching a movie: simultaneously you can then switch from images to light on screen as well as off screen: viewing the chairs and walls of the theater as well as other people and yourself all as given by light. And on screen you can switch between the light of the sun that is part of the movie and the light that you know comes from the projector.
Starting with a movie theater, or simply a television set, gradually extend this sense of all-as-light to your own presence as well, wherever you are and whatever you do. How does this change your sense of embodiment?
Why should one spend the time and energy to do these kind of experiments? There are at least three different reasons. The most straightforward answer is that we are engaged in a scientific exploration, as amateur scientists in a quest of pure research. And the first rule in pure research is to explore new and unexpected angles on reality, just to see where that would lead you, independent of any particular expectation of benefits.
A different way to phrase this first answer is to point out that it is fun to look at the world with new eyes. Independently of what we may or may not conclude about what the world is really made off, and what our own status as subjects may turn out to be, the very fact that we have the freedom to view the world in fresh and unexpected ways, can offer satisfaction to someone with enough curiosity.
The second answer is a bit more practical. We all have had occasional experiences of suddenly seeing mundane things in a new and fresh light. Even if we don't have a particular artistic talent or background, such moments have inspired and energized us, but typically in a haphazard way, coming unexpectedly and vanishing soon after. Our current experiments can give us a key to explore the dynamics behind these inspiring moments in a much more systematic way.
The third answer goes deeper than this, and is far more radical; instead of enriching our life significantly, it is more akin to waking up to a whole new way of being and responding. Where the second reason leaves our lives basically the same, although much richer, the third reason shows us and our lives and our world as actually being very different than we have thought thus far.
The Second Reason
Let us look more carefully at the second answer. How can you explain that you may stand somewhere in a dirty and grimy place, and suddenly you are struck, almost viscerally, by the beauty of a piece of garbage? Perhaps a ray of sunlight touched it unexpectedly, or maybe there was no discernible trigger at all.
Suddenly there is this immense sense of beauty, well-being, harmony, grace, bliss, whatever words we may try to put on it, or we may simply be at a loss for words. A poet like William Blake may express such a moment as `seeing a world in a grain of sand,' but for most of us, we have no easy way to express what just happened.
Unfortunately, the structure of our memory, based as it is on concepts and existing classifications, is ill fitted to store the type of felt epiphany. Like a computer programmed to store only particular types of data, storage and retrieval in totally unconventional data format is highly problematic. A few hours or days later, if we haven't forgotten our epiphany completely, whatever memory we may have retained is likely to pale in comparison with the immediate experience.
Artists, with talent and training, may be able to intensify and trigger such experiences. But without clear insight into the underlying dynamics, such attempts are likely to remain unreliable. Our goal is no less than finding a more scientific insight into this type of dynamics, through a combination of direct experimentation and appropriate theorizing, whatever form that may turn out to take. The fruits of even partial insights of this type are fantastic: techniques to deeply enrich our lives in reliable ways.
In part 1, our main motivation has been to start a new type of scientific exploration, as amateurs dedicated to begin a search in new directions that will undoubtedly be investigated in much greater depth in the future, when science will have matured to the point of being ready and fully equipped to address topics like subject-object interactions in ways that don't reduce everything to a mere play of objects.
While this initial exploration was a lot of fun already in itself, it also gave us some handles on enriching our experience, providing a fairy tale dimension to life for grownups in a rigorous and systematic way. Here in part 2 the emphasis will be more directly on this process of enriching our life.
This is not to say that a scientific motivation is diminished in any way. As has always been the case with science, the best payoffs have come in unexpected ways, from pure research that was not undertaken with any specific goals in mind. But while we will continue to stress this pure search for deeper insight, it is also good to note the benefits when they appear.
The essential point is that we should not let these benefits warp the pure science impulse that we started out with. Instead, we can feed back our delight with the benefits into an increased motivation to follow the path of pure research, given the accumulating bounties it provides us with.
In part 3, we will encounter even more radical benefits, but even so, our strategy will remain the same: to investigate the structure of reality more widely and deeply, as the only guaranteed way to reap more benefits. And while doing so, we wile need to keep an open mind, without limiting ourselves beforehand.
Specifically, we should not try to circumscribe what `benefits' may mean. Waking up from a dream or illusion can be seen as a benefit after waking up, but that type of benefit by definition cannot be described in terms of the elements of the dream or illusion. And also it is not the dream-person who will reap those new benefits.
However, within part 2 we will not yet attempt to ask these more radical questions. At this point it is good to be aware of an impending move to question everything, and in fact this was our motivation to switch from a world of objects and subjects to a world of sheer appearance. But there is no sense of rushing things.
For now it is most important to explore carefully what is entailed in this switch for experience to appearance. By getting sufficiently clear about this type of switch, experientially as well as reflectively, we will be much better equipped to enter the radical challenges that we will pose in part 3, and that correspond to the third reason mentioned above.
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