Saturday, June 22, 2013

Little Universes

     One peculiarity of human nature that struck me even as a child is the fact that we can accept as reality the events in a movie that, upon a moment's reflection, we must know full well is just make believe. We get excited during the exciting parts and get scared during the scary parts, even though the movie might be a fantasy about King Arthur, or about hobbits and dragons. We may even feel tense watching a television show, when we must know the hero isn't going to die, as he has to star in the same show the following week. Our heart may beat faster when the bad guy is pointing a gun at the hero's head, despite the fact that his adventures in next week's episode are already described in the TV Guide.
     Some people are more susceptible to this than others. My father evidently had some resistance to it; my mother once told me that Dad could completely wreck a movie for her when, during a really exciting part when she was gripping her seat, he would casually make some remark like, "They didn't have guns like that in those days." On the other hand, he would get choked up and leave the room during a scene in the old movie Gone with the Wind where a man has his leg amputated without anesthesia—he had had to participate in the same thing as a combat medic in World War II. (I have been inclined to get caught up in movies if they are interesting, although I detach myself from scary or icky parts by reminding myself that it's only a movie.)
     This acceptance of sounds and images flashed on a screen as Reality is not due to realistic acting and expensive special effects. Four hundred years ago people were just as caught up in staged plays in which the actors declaimed in verse, with female roles played by boys in drag, and on stages almost devoid of scenery or props: one might know that it was supposed to be night only because one or two actors were carrying torches, or one might know they're supposed to be in a forest only because one actor said, "Well, here we are in the forest." For that matter, one may be just as caught up in a novel, which is obviously just black ink on paper.
     This phenomenon has sometimes been attributed to an intentional suspension of judgement on the part of the viewer; but it seems to me that a more precise explanation is that we effectively narrow our attention to the limits of the fictional world we are observing—we focus on it to the exclusion of outer details that are incompatible with it (going with the example of Gone with the Wind, we exclude the fact that we are not in 19th-century Georgia, and, of course, that the whole thing consists of actors and props portrayed on a screen, with recorded sound coming from a speaker). A similar phenomenon takes place when we dream at night.
     It seems to me that such exclusive focusing on an engaging, miniature world applies to much more than fictional drama and dreams. For example, playing a game, be it dominoes or a complicated computerized role-playing game, becomes our world so long as we are involved in it. It becomes a very simplified, yet interesting, version of reality, a miniature universe with its own coherence and set of rules. Music can be another sub-universe. Some kinds of intoxication could be likewise: for example, a psychedelic high. If we restrict our focus to a more or less self-cohering scenario with its own laws, that scenario may temporarily be our "world."
     The potential benefit of this is fairly obvious: if the big outer world is too overwhelming for us, or irritatingly complicated, or just boring, we may get some time off by focusing on a simpler version, one in which we personally are less threatened, or ineffectual, or mundane, or whatever. It gives us a chance to relax, or forget. Plus it is interesting.
     Some samatha meditation techniques seem to follow this same principle. By focusing on one engaging object, to the exclusion of all else, we experience tranquility. This may be invaluable for relieving stress, for clearing the mind, for developing mental discipline, etc., but it also has limitations. So long as we are excluding all that is not the object of meditation, nothing "external" to it comes up, like latent tendencies (anusaya in Pali). So these kinds of meditation, or playing games for that matter, are of very limited value beyond the scope of their own little universe. Kamma that does not integrate with the miniature reality has little potential to arise; and so long as it doesn't arise, we may not know that it even exists, and thus it is hardly likely that such unresolved issues will be resolved. Until, that is, we are out there somewhere in the "real world" and something happens to trigger it.
     Even the state of unenlightenment itself can be viewed as focusing on a kind of symbolic, fictional world to the exclusion of all else, including our own subconscious mind. Whatever the ego cannot or will not focus upon, for whatever reason, is left out of the picture, which presumably includes the majority of everything. And just as a person considering what he sees on a TV screen to be the only reality would be considered delusional, for us to consider our own perceptual world to be the only reality is equally delusional—and that doesn't mean simply that we should include other people's perceptual worlds too, including scientific perceptions of "reality," but even what we cannot perceive or imagine at all, if we would be enlightened.
     And so, continuing with this idea, an enlightened person would not exclude anything. Krishnamurti called this state "choiceless awareness." Not excluding means not focusing, because when we focus on something we necessarily exclude what we're not focusing on. The choiceless mind becomes like a mirror, or a cheap camera, with everything equally in focus: the person standing before us, her voice, the hum of the refrigerator, the chirping of the cricket behind it, our own breath, the touch of clothing on our skin, the pressure of the floor against the soles of our feet, the off-color thought that just arose…etc. etc. We don't necessarily respond to it, but we don't exclude it either.
     So with mindfulness meditation, in contrast to a samatha practice like mantra, we may start the practice focusing on whatever is conspicuous that arises, like the breath, and even label it at first; but as the practice develops we gradually use words less and less (perhaps letting go of labeling the primary object to start with while still labeling other phenomena that arise), and as it develops further we focus less and less, until meditation becomes mirror-like, or cheap-camera-like, and we attend to nothing, yet everything is clearly there. Then we learn to maintain that state even when we're walking around making noise. 
     If a samatha technique is a deep one it may lead to the same state, so I'm really not knocking samatha. It tends to be more difficult for Westerners though.

At one level: Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara
At another level: Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh
At many other levels: nobody


  1. Ah, my friend, such a joyful post! I had just signed on to write one similar to this. It occurs to me that anything the awareness can become aware of, is already in the past. Thoughts, perceptions, emotions, sights, sounds, etc. All are in the past. Since one cannot think about the future, but rather can only imagine it and then think of one's imaginings, then becoming the mirror to reality is the only method that one can experience reality.

    I plant a seed with a colorful coin I frequently carry: With it I can prove to some that all memories are inaccurate at best. If I hold the coin up and show one side to the other and then put the coin away, we both can then say that we saw the coin. Yet when we go to describe, I describe one thing while the other describes something almost totally different. Neither describes the coin from the sides or from the inside out. This indicates that the best one might hope for is to see a one-sided (one-D) version of reality. This, if one has a photographic memory and can recall without emotion, opinion, or preference.

    I then ask if one can see clearly while in the midst of emotion; say, anger. Can one see clearly when angry? Thus far, no one has seriously suggested that they could. What this indicates is that the emotion is selecting the information that is useful to it's growth and discounts that information that doesn't promote it's growth. A great many long-term memories are there due to an emotional tag. The same is true of opinion or preference. If we have an opinion or preference about anything, then our mind will hold some information to be more valuable than other information and that "more valuable information" is the information we remember. That is how the rest of our long-term memories come into being.

    I've been thinking about you, my friend. Our very short time together was very pleasant. Your experience with "reality" and intellect (ah, using words for the indescribable: "And they call that a "tree.") appears to closely resemble mine. There are times when having someone to check our understandings with comes in useful. Being in the monastic community, I would suppose that you have that opportunity somewhat frequently, at least, in theory. Not so, in this little observed section of reality that I call my life experience. So, I resort to the same method I have heard H.H.D.L. uses, to share the secrets of state with the floor sweeper.

    Well, I suppose that since I did sign on to write in my own blog, perhaps I will do so.

    May you remain aware of your reality and may it appear pleasant.

  2. This is a great blog U. Ponnobhasa, can you please e-mail me the day you make another blog for me,