version of: August 1, 2004
Chapter 15: Open
In a totally open dimension, appearance appears. There is nothing substantial to this appearing, and there are no subjects experiencing objects. There is only appearance. Within this open dimension, anything is possible, including an apparent polarization into a subject-object structure. This polarization can be playful and shimmering, and it can also appear to harden into something quite definitive. When this apparent hardening goes far enough, the objects begin to reflect this tendency toward concretization, taking on shades of solidity. One extreme play of appearance is to present a world that appears to be completely solid, providing what seems like a firmly existing backdrop for subjects to play their own tiny games within this vast nexus of apparent limitations.
Experiment 2.3.: Matter, Experience, and Appearance
Look at a big and solid object, such as a wall. Feel its heavy and sturdy material presence, its carrying capacity, its unmistakable physical presence in front of you. Then switch your attention to the fact that both you and the wall are given as experiences within your consciousness. Feel and taste the way everything is present on the stage of your experience, as experiences, all part of the same `stuff' of experience.
Perhaps you consider experience as something that is generated by a human brain. Whatever image or ideas you may have about how that occurs, try to put those stories on hold, and just be attentive to experience as experience, as a careful experimenter who does not want to let theoretical prejudice intervene with the experimental setup. It may help initially to view experience as software that can be studied independently of whatever hardware may be used to run it on, but make sure to then drop that particular analogy as well.
Now switch your attention to the way in which both you as an experiencing subject and the wall as an experienced object are given within experience. Notice how subject and object appear together, and how you can question their fixed roles with respect to each other, of a dominant subject sizing up a passive object. Repeating the subject-object reversal experiments will be helpful in loosening up this rather arbitrary fixation.
Continuing to question the rigidity of the subject-object polarization, try to see whether you can release the polarization altogether. Just as it turned out to be possible to release the felt materiality of the wall, as a thing, to a felt materiality, as an experience, it may be possible to go yet one step further, and to release both you and the wall, letting experience dissolve into a sheer appearance of you and wall, and world as background.
At this point, we are not attempting any interpretation. It is enough just to notice the fact that we have the freedom to deal with our environment and with ourselves in these three, quite distinct, ways. Without going anywhere, we can effectively travel to different realms.
Starting with the realm of matter, we can visit the realm of experience, and then we can visit the realm of sheer appearance. As in a fairy tale, our wish to land in a different world can give us wings, and quickly we are where we wished to be, ready to explore that new world.
At first it may take some time to get familiar with these type of shifts or switches, but with some practice it will become easier, almost second-nature. After a while, you may wonder how you looked at your way of being in the world before you started these experiments.
As always, keeping a trail of lab notes, on paper or electronically, is essential, and is what makes these explorations experiments. Without those, you would soon forget how you got there, and you will lose out on a whole dimension, the time dimension of your progress. Experimentation means to be meticulous about all the details of what is going on, not only about reaching some sort of result.
After experimenting with these two switches for a while, in the order given, we can add two more switches in the backward direction. After moving from a world of matter to a world of experience, and then on to a world of appearance, we can next move back to experience, and then back to matter.
It is important to do this slowly, and to keep track of subtle changes in your thoughts, feelings, sense of embodiment, unexpected memories that may pop up, and so on. Right from the beginning, make sure to keep some notes, since what happens will quickly change when you do these experiments more often, and later you won't be able any more to reproduce your initially fresh and tentative steps.
Notice in particular the difference between visiting the realm of experience while entering from the realm of matter, and then again visiting this world of experience while entering from the world of appearance. Most likely, it will feel quite different. How, in what way? Can you describe some of the salient differences in feeling tone, in what jumps to your attention?
Similarly, visiting the good old realm of matter, that is so familiar to us, at the end of a round trip to appearance land, you are likely to undergo an inverse culture shock. Like traveling to a strange land, and upon returning seeing your own surroundings in a new light, notice what is different, and how, and make notes about that.
We are still not attempting any interpretation. Perhaps only one of the three worlds is `real', and traveling to the other realms is merely a form of fantasy, a mental exercise. Perhaps more than one can be meaningfully be said to be `real' in some sense or other. Or perhaps it would be incorrect to label any of them as `real'.
Could it be that the notion of reality is a concept appropriate to a particular realm, for internal use only, and not appropriate to judge the ontological status of that realm, independently of the logic that is in use within that realm?
The point of raising this type of question is not so much in order to answer it. We would be hard pressed at this stage to come up with a clear and convincing answer. The point is rather to be aware of the fact that this question can be raised, and that it is not so easy to find a good answer.
Certainly the standard answers that carry weight and authority in one realm, like that of matter, begin to look suspicious when you carry them over without thinking into another realm. They seem out of place there, like someone stumbling into the wrong movie set.
This kind of reasoning does not imply that we drop our usual sense of values, of responsibility for ourselves and for others. On the contrary, when done properly and carefully, it will heighten our felt sense of humanity, in a more direct way.
Instead of following ethical rules, based on reasoning or custom, our experiments may uncover a more direct way of seeing into what is really appropriate, in any given situation. When we clear out more of the underbrush in terms of interpretations, we can focus more directly on what needs to be done.
When we study the behavior of matter, in experiments in physics, we can gradually uncover laws of nature, and these laws in turn can be seen to be aspects of more unified laws, the deeper we can see into the heart of material reality.
Similarly, when we study the world in terms of experience and appearance, rather than viewing the world as matter, we can gradually uncover other laws of nature, patterns and principles that bear directly on ethics. Many cultures have words and expressions that capture some of this, but in Western civilization these notions have been pushed to the background, labeled as outdated forms of superstition or folk psychology.
There is an ongoing tendency to interpret everything in terms of matter and material properties. When referring to thoughts and feelings, we think about the brain and about hormones, in terms of electrical and chemical signal processing. We even talk about whether or not there is good `chemistry' between two people.
And this way of thinking has grave consequences. Our children are given all kinds of drugs in order to make them behave better in school. We are increasingly told that we are not responsible for our actions; ``my brain, or hormones, or whatever body parts, made me do it!''
This is a shocking development, and one which is often portrayed as if it is sanctified by science. Nothing could be further from the truth, and yet this message seems to carry weight, exactly because so many scientists endorse it. Can they all be wrong?
Yes, they can. They have been before. A couple hundred years ago, most physicists told anybody who wanted to hear that the world is like a clockwork mechanism, reliable, reproducible, completely deterministic. Yet quantum mechanics showed this picture to be fundamentally flawed.
I have a vivid memory of an encounter with the modern material mindset. After my mother had suddenly died, from a heart attack, a colleague of mine tried to comfort me, telling me that I should be prepared to face a period of a few months of grief. He had been through that process himself, he added, after his father had died.
That was sensible advice, and I appreciated both what he said and the way in which he sincerely tried to help me. But what he added then, equally sincerely, and with the best of intentions, made me feel like my hair standing on end. He said that it was okay to feel grief, since medical research has recently shown that after a family member dies, the chemistry in your blood is measurably different for a few months.
The implication was: if you just felt grief, you might wonder whether you were not indulging yourself, and perhaps you should just shape up. But because science has shown there to be a material component, now it is suddenly okay to feel grief, you don't have to feel ashamed about it, or try to deny it.
He meant this totally seriously, and I still appreciated his intentions. At the same time, I saw another implication, that hit me on the head. This was a recent scientific find. The conclusion then had to be that all humans who have lived before, and who have lost close family members, have been grieving in grave uncertainty, not sure yet whether they were allowed to grieve, since they did not have the knowledge of whether their blood had been affected or not, materially, by their grieving.
In periods of great elation or deep sadness, there can be moments in which we suddenly see through the whole structure of labeling, of using conceptual overlays and identifications, which form the scaffolding of what keeps our normal world view propped up. The sheer joy or sheer sadness that we feel can sabotage the engine of identification that is normally purring away in the background without us noticing it.
In the episode that I just described, it was the combination of deep sadness and the shock of the unexpected reaction that was doubly powerful in letting me see through some of the many layers of sedimented meaning, as Husserl called it, that cover the bedrock of a more authentic way of being in the world.
There are other ways to prepare for these kinds of insights, or at least to make these insights more likely to happen. Long periods of prayer, chanting, meditation, or contemplation in various ways have been used traditionally in order to quiet the mind sufficiently to give it more of a chance to see through the layers of habit.
Upon sufficient practice of those traditional types, something trivial, like the sound of a pebble falling, might be enough to tear through a huge number of layers of sedimentation. We will have a look at these types of approaches in part 3. For now, the important point is to know that it is indeed possible to look through the convincing propaganda of one way of viewing the world, so that other ways can become available again.
We have an alternative. In fact, we have many alternatives. We don't have to view ourselves as being at the mercy of the pattern of nerve firings in our brain. Nor do we have to release our sense of responsibility to the network of chemical reactions in our bodies. We can also stop blaming our problems on evolutionary pressures of natural selection.
Of course it is true that our thoughts correlate very precisely with our brain activity, that our moods correlate with chemical changes in our bodies, and that our reactions are strongly patterned by our whole evolutionary history. All of that is true, it is fascinating, and it deserves a lot more study.
What is not true are the implications that are often offered: that we are helpless puppets, a type of ghost in the machine; that our bodies are somehow more real than our experiences or appearance. Not only is such an unwarranted step not true, worse, it is pernicious and harmful, on many levels.
What we are doing in our experimentation, here in part 2, is to find ways to counterbalance those harmful tendencies, by taking the pure-science approach of starting with an unbiased observer without an agenda to push. Without prejudice or any type of forgone conclusions, we freshly explore the realms of matter, experience, and appearance.
Paradoxically, by postponing any direct attempt to be ethical, we create room for a more natural and balanced type of ethics to shine through. And by refusing to buy into the story of a reductionist ethics, shadows on the walls of a limited materialistic concept of reality, we don't have to pick up another story to buy into.
Instead, we can gather a collection of stories, explore them all, move around in them lightly, while keeping our common sense and refusing to be seduced by any of them. This is another example of how pure science gives the best long-term guarantee of profit, exactly by not intentionally searching for any profit at all.
Searching for insight is the best long-term investment. And true insight cannot be rushed. We may try to pull young grass, to let it grow faster into a lush meadow. But if we do so, we will only manage to tear the leaves from the roots. What we need is to provide sunlight and water, and the growing of the leaves will occur by itself.
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