(Note: all photographs these days are taken by my daughter Fionnghuala)
It can be helpful to see the way in which everything is given equally (or appears equally), and how the extent to which there appears to be inequality is essentially a function of our narrative impulse.
Imagine someone places on the table before you a chocolate cupcake with lemon frosting, a pocket atlas of the United States, and a severed hand.
After you’ve given them a little attention and judged them – cupcake tantalizing, atlas meh, hand gross – you are told that the cupcake is actually hand-carved, hand-painted bamboo from an artist whose subject is food and whose mode is realism. The pocket atlas was used by a white supremacist to locate black churches in which to plant and detonate bombs. The hand is a remnant of an emergency surgery that saved a child’s life.
So maybe now your judgment goes like this:
Cupcake: still beautiful but less accessible (can’t eat it, probably can’t afford it);
Atlas: Frightening, offensive and sad; and
Hand: Still gross but very grateful a child will live.
Our sense of things is different when we have a story to go with them. In a lot of ways, the story supercedes the image. We tend to trust narrative more than the perception – the images – out of which narrative rises.
We really like a good story.
It is helpful to see this clearly and, with respect to how it plays out in experience, to have some intimacy with it.
Basically we can ask these questions: What is given? What is narrative – how is it given? And what is the relationship between narrative and what is given, if any?
The focus in these questions is on experience – on what is here. We are looking at the moment and the way it is showing up.
I said earlier that everything is given equally. Consider the cupcake, the atlas and the hand again. They all appear in the same way – are held by the same gaze – and subject to the same perceptual process. That is what I mean by “given equally.”
It is like saying that a rose and cat litter box smell different, but smelling itself is not different based on whether you’re sniffing a rose or a litter box. In that sense, the rose and the cat litter are “given equally.”
Two observations. First, you might say okay, they may be given equally, but roses and cat litter are waaay different.
That’s a fair point we’ll get to in a second.
The other observation is that science makes clear that, in fact, with respect to our senses that everything is not given equally. Our senses, in conjunction with our fast-processing brain, overlook stuff all the time.
And even with respect to what we are aware of, it’s not actually a cupcake, atlas and hand – in truth, it’s just a bunch of atoms.
Those are also good points but at this juncture they are actually distractions. They imply that we are pursuing truth or reality – that we want to be right about what we see and how we talk about it.
But the point of the exercise is not to be right – it’s simply to be aware of experience as it is given, as it is showing up. Even if it is a lie, or an illusion, or somehow other than how it appears, it is still here. It is still what is showing up.
We are giving attention to experience as experience is given. Just that.
When we do this, sooner or later, we are going to have to wrestle with the appearance or presence of narrative. That’s the first point mentioned above – that cat litter and roses are two totally different things. Narrative does that – gives these two appearances names, judges them, and so forth. There is whatever is showing up – whatever is given – but it includes (or sure seems to include) narrative.
In other words, how can we see a tree apart from – or prior to – all our ideas about a tree? In what way are the stories we tell – or that are being told and of which we are aware – separate from what else appears?
Is it not all one movement, one flux, one welter?
Seeing the way narrative and observation appear intertwined is the point of the exercise. Narrative does change what we see. It is entangled. But how? To what degree?
We really have to answer these questions for ourselves. When we look at a tree, what happens? Where and how and when do ideas about the tree show up? Where do they come from? Is there some agency involved – some “self” that is making decisions about what to think?
Is someone or something in charge? How do we know? How can – or should we even – talk about this?
Reading about all this stuff is fun and interesting, and I do it a lot, but it’s also important to just hunker down and give attention, and find out for ourselves what’s going on, what it means, and where we are in all of it.
When I began to study giving attention – when I was unexpectedly made welcome at that strange little school – that was really the first lesson. In some respects it’s the only lesson: “nobody can do this for you, so get cracking.”
Spiritual paths can become crutches very quickly. A Course in Miracles functions this way for many students, me included. The going gets tough for whatever reason and we default to course lingo and ideology. “This is an illusion,” “bodies aren’t real,” “sickness is wrong-minded thinking,” et cetera.
And, when we do that, we tend to invoke our preferred spiritual teachers, parroting their words as if they are our own. Ken Wapnick, Tara Singh, Sri Aurobindo, Thomas Merton . . .
To the extent there’s anything “wrong” with this, it’s that we stop looking at our actual experience in favor of a model of experience built by thought. Confusing models for that which is modeled is akin to confusing the map for the territory. It leads to incoherence and conflict.
So a point came – for me, a little over eighteen months ago – when it became necessary to “let go” of the course in order to see (or begin to see, maybe) that to which the course was pointing. The practice was no longer to study and apply a particular method, but to simply give attention in a sustained and gentle way without worrying about what attention was being given to.
Eventually, all this “giving attention” or “noticing” arrives at a basic question: who or what is giving attention?
In a lot of ways, that is the whole game. That is the question. Answer it – or see why it cannot be answered – and that’s it. Game over (or game dissolved).
In my experience, that inquiry (who or what is giving attention) is easier to handle when approached slowly and with care. I think of it like this: the morning of my wedding, I shaved more attentively and carefully, than on the morning before (or after).
That is the kind of care and attention to which I am referring. I want to bring it to the inquiry, and this means that I want to go slow enough to notice when I am parroting Ken Wapnick or Tara Singh. Am I just repeating what someone else said?
I want to notice when I am trying to sound slick and smart. Am I using phrases like “the divine et cetera” or pretending Nisargadatta’s insights are mine? Am I giving up under the guise of science – “well, it’s all atoms and algorithms and I can’t do math, so screw it?”
Those are clues that I am not earnestly looking at at what is given. I’m in denial and on repeat.
This “giving attention” thing is not easy. A lot that masquerades as insight is just the same old same-old wearing a new mask. And it’s not a problem really. It, too, is given. But there is a tendency to use it as a form of consenting to distraction. It’s good to notice what thought is up to, but it’s not good to get so invested in it that we don’t notice anything else.
The inquiry is more important than what shows up. Even the many insights that arrive – and there are some lovely and helpful ones, like bright stars in the sky – are going to pass eventually. So we just sit and let them pass, and notice their passage.
That is a nice metaphor, actually. We are just star-gazers. We’re just sitting quietly letting the sky be the sky. And soon enough, realize we aren’t looking “at” the sky – we are “in” the sky.
And then realize that there is nobody looking – there is only looking. There is only this. This this.