Distinctions and the Whole

I want to talk a little about giving attention as an exercise by which we see through the distinctions we make to that which makes distinction possible or, if you like, the groundless ground from which all distinctions arises or “the Mind which caused all minds to be” (T-28.I.11:3), et cetera.

It is natural to make distinctions; the distinction that we already are is very skilled at making distinctions. It is not necessary to reach the first distinction or the original distinction. It is sufficient just to notice a distinction as it happens.

sunlit-maple-treeFor example, say that I distinguish a tree. There it is – a maple tree in the side yard. In order to distinguish the maple tree, two things have to happen. The first is the positive distinction of the maple tree. The second is the negative distinction of everything that is not the maple tree.

The two distinctions go together – they arise together, they mutually specify one another – but we tend to notice only the positive one. I don’t see the maple tree and the cosmos. I see the maple tree.

This can become a useful exercise! Simply give attention to something. Observe the maple tree (or coffee mug or sleeping cat or what-have-you). Notice it fully. Then notice it has boundaries, which is how you identify it as a tree (or a cat or a what-have-you).

The boundary is a division: on the inside of the boundary, the frame the boundary makes, it’s all maple tree. On the other side, the outer side, it’s the cosmos. It’s everything but the maple tree, which thus makes the maple tree possible. Can you notice this?

I don’t mean notice Main Street in the background, or the church on the far side of Main Street, or the hill beyond the church, or the sky beyond the hill.

I mean notice the everything-the-maple-tree-is-not.

If you notice the hill, say, then you’ve just shifted objects. The maple tree is gone, dissolved into everything-the-hill-is-not, which in turn specifies the hill.

The question – whether it’s the hill or the maple tree that we are distinguishing – is can we notice the balance? Not as a collection of separate objects but as the generative stillness from which the object under consideration is abstracted?

It is possible to catch a glimpse of the cosmos this way. And even a glimpse of the glimpse can be life-changing.

That’s the first part of the exercise of giving attention.

The second part is also about noticing. It goes like this: we notice that the maple tree and everything-the-maple-tree-is-not fit perfectly together. Together they are the entirety of the distinction. Thus, when they are brought together, the distinction vanishes. There is no maple tree and there is no everything-the maple-tree-is-not.

Thus, in this perfect fit – this natural complementarity – division disappears and what remains is unity, oneness, et cetera.

Does this make sense? Can you see it that way? In the actual process of giving attention can you see the maple tree and everything-the-maple-tree-is-not which is to say, see unity, oneness, et cetera?

Perhaps it is like folding a sheet of paper and cutting a heart out. Remember how we did that as children? And perhaps later with our sons and daughters, nieces and nephews? The heart is distinguished – it is a distinction made with scissors in the paper. Yet it fits perfectly into the heart-shaped hole that remains. If you put the two together, there is no longer a distinction. There is the whole from which the distinction arose.

We call that whole “unity,” which is sensible.

However, to distinguish it as a unity, as I do here, means that there is now “unity” and “everything-the-unity-is-not.” The same logic as before applies. We bring the two together and get one. And by getting “one” we get “all-that-is-not-one.”

In our living, it seems we cannot go beyond this ongoing distinguishing, which appears as infinity because it never ends. The distinctions keep going; it is turtles (or distinctions) all the way down.

Some folks call this a vicious circle, because it is effectively a trap. It is like the sentence “I am a liar.” If it’s true, it’s false. But if it’s false, then it’s true. There is no escape.

It can feel that way when we go deeply into the distinctions and the process of distinguishing. It is a loop.

Yet note that the realization of the loop, the circularity, co-exists without conflict alongside the various distinctions we make. That is, we realize this infinity that appears like a trap but oddly enough we can still bake bread, muck the pasture, discuss Husserl, make love.

The circularity isn’t vicious; it’s fructive. It’s a functional circle. It’s creative.

So I want to suggest thinking about this less as a circle reenacting itself over and over on a plane, and more a spiral endlessly widening and narrowing and undulating. Each loop absorbs all previous loops, so it’s a new loop, but in the sense of extension. It is creative rather than merely repetitive.

Here is how mathematician Louis Kauffman puts it.

Everything is determined by the delineation of nothing. Comprehension and incomprehension share a common boundary. Any duality is identical to its fitting together into union (Constructivist Foundations Vol. 13, No. 1, p. 33).

Our living, as such, is both infinite and finite, and this is not a problem unless we start trying to use one of the poles to obviate the other.

In this way, we are neither one (unity) nor two (multiplicity). We need a new logic, or a new sense of our living.

It is in this sense that I suggest that A Course in Miracles does not go far enough. It remains firmly in the “one with God” camp, which is useful – profoundly useful in my experience – but not dispositive.

It is in this sense that I was called to explore other approaches to understanding this living experience that is so rich and vivid and joyful but also sometimes confusing and painful and even mysterious.

I do not suggest anybody else has to wander – or wonder – as I do, though I am certainly grateful for the company.

Once we realize that we are an observer within a system, the limits of which exceed our capacity for observation, but which do not disallow our ongoing observation and exploration and play, then a lot of our living simplifies. Free of the need to be “right” in an absolute sense, we are empowered to be creative, which is a synonym for loving.

As I have outlined above, to “be creative” is simply to give attention to the circularity naturally comprising our self, other selves, and the countless worlds our mutuality bring forth.

Donald Hoffman’s work exploring the world as a perceptual interface related to fitness rather than veridicality suggests that we take our living seriously but not literally. The world we bring forth – that we experience – is our reality but is not the reality.

A lot of stress and anxiety and discord dissolves once we see and accept this.

Yet I do not assert that this insight is the end of our shared work (or play, perhaps). It needs to be understood, applied, integrated and expanded. There is always more to learn and we can always be more skillful in our loving with others. In this sense, the work and play as such exceed us. But that, too, is a comfort.


  1. I really liked that exercise! I used a decorative plate on the wall. At one point I had the oddest teared-up response. Trying not to think about it too much (!), later I imagined it came from not being able to give “reality” to the inner parts of the plate. The circumference being just the boundary and not a “real” aspect OF the real plate, the figures and geometries in the plate were no longer comfortably embraced by the plate to be safe in their reality too! I guess this came from the “contrary” nature of the the skillfull divisiveness of the distinction “me”, that by your instruction was not able to escape outwardly into objects out there! But I had my experience realizing the equality of the instructions in the (not) inner. And this was only after a noticing of the “bucking” of attention at the “training” of it on the boundary! One thing I already “know”, was that the assumption “I” am not included, will NOT be able to even relate to suggestions such as yours or will mis-hear them or argue, etc. I do briefly accept that “what” is seeing is being seen, or “held” too, that then “i(t)” can even adopt the tears of the “diminished” viewpoint. A reality and “the” reality, make for Escher-like very different realities! Thanks for sharing such a beautiful excercise, of how distinctions are even included. It’s just that distinctions need not worry that they’ve extinguished their embrace.

    1. Thank you Mike for actually doing that. It was interesting to read your response.

      The interior of anything is a black box, in the cybernetic sense. I can’t speak to it – whether it’s a human or a plate. The vast appearance of the sensual world – arising with its almost impossibly complex entangled narratives – is itself a black box. It’s interior or other side is a mystery, an inference I make.

      George Spencer-Brown indicates that experience – which we take to be so central, so foundational – may be quite peripheral, tangential, even unstable. And Amanda Gefter has suggested that experience – all this – may simply be what nothing looks like from the inside.

      Deep thoughts! And ones that I never quite escape, being given to the wordy and the intellectual, however poorly and ineptly!

      For me – in this experience – the world seems to arise as a singular process with component parts which are in the last analysis indistinguishable from one another. I think this is Kauffman’s – and Spencer-Brown’s, too – ultimate point: there is neither something nor nothing; there is only void. Yet even to call it “void” is to step back into Creation, which forever mars the perfect stillness of void.

      I experience these exercises and ideas as prompts to deepen my reflecting, which in turn informs my experience, wherein I am given to bringing forth love in a collaborative, cooperative, communal way, which presents itself as a learning experience that transcends the apparent structural limits of bodies.

      The “beyond” as such is speculative at best, yet, oddly, when I venture in its direction it yields and responds in creative ways that reflexively enhance my ability to be patient, kind, thoughtful, generous in the context of the structure and the world is brings forth.

      Escher is always a helpful model for thinking some of this through, albeit in a visual rather than linear way. I particularly like the lithograph “Drawing Hands,” which I think speaks neatly to the loopiness of creation, and the impossibility of “knowing” in absolute or final ways, as opposed to “going with” currents or processes that are mysterious but benevolent, like dolphins.

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