We exist in relationship and relationship is process.
This is in contrast to our prevailing perception of existence which suggests that we are separate entities and that even relationship itself is a separate entity. “I” am “friends” with “you.” Or “you” are “my” “child.” Et cetera.
On this “traditional” view, separation abounds. We are parts having a relationship with some but not all other parts.
Thus, in order to know the peace that naturally attends that which cannot be differentiated or fragmented, we have to invert our perception. We have to reverse the order we impose on our living. Paradoxically, the way we accomplish this inversion/reversion is by doing nothing.
In a very real and pragmatic sense, the work, spiritual and otherwise, is simply to not be in the way.
My own preferred way to invert perception and perceive this relationship and its process-like nature is to go outside and give close attention to something in the world. For example, if you look at the picture, you will see moss growing on one of the maple trees in our front of our home.
The moss requires light and moisture in order to grow. Thus, absent the sun and absent precipitation, it cannot exist. It also needs a surface on which to grow. Thus, absent the tree, the moss cannot exist. The tree – in addition to needing water and sunlight like the moss – needs soil in which to root.
Thus, the moss is in relationship with snow and rain, with the sun, with the maple tree, and with the soil in which the maple tree grows. In a different but significant way, it is in relationship with me, who finds its vivid green a solace in bleak winter and so seeks it out, camera in hand.
One can extend this interconnectedness apparently infinitely. What does Sean need to grow? Who made the camera he uses? What do they need? And so on.
I find these connections – and making them explicit – a deep and abiding comfort. I always have. It makes clear that when one node falls away, the whole does not also fall away. It makes clear there is no center or, if you prefer, that the center is everywhere.
Franz Brentano, who was Edmund Husserl’s teacher, and is thus in a nontrivial way the grandfather of phenomenology, pointed out that our thinking is invariably “about” something. We call this “intentionality.” Our thoughts are “about” our children or the sentence we are writing or the state of gun violence in the United States or what-have-you.
It is not necessary to take a stand with respect to the reality of these subjects – whether they actually exist and what that existence means and so forth. Nor is it necessary to indulge the (not-uninteresting) exercise of finding out whether it is possible to distinguish thinking from thinking’s subject.
Rather, it is simply helpful to note that these subjects arise in synchronous relationship with thought, with thinking.
“Thought” in this instance is approximately synonymous with “mind” or “awareness.” Our mind is not alone or singular, like a bright sun suspended in a void. It is more in the nature of, say, Boston – that is, a vast city teeming with activity.
I find that analogy – mind as a vast busy city – helpful, but it does need some explaining.
Our language is primarily denotative. That is, the words we use point to things in a seemingly precise and accurate way. “Apple” means that red globular fruit you’re slicing up for a pie. “Son” means the young man to whom you gave birth, griping about being asked to wash the dishes. And so forth.
Thus, we say “Boston” and think it means a particular city. There is only one Boston. It can only be found in one place.
But of course that is incoherent! In fact, there are countless Bostons and many of them have no material qualities at all. My Boston is not your Boston and never will be. You didn’t wander through it desperate, drunk and alone in your early twenties. You didn’t visit Fenway Park and the aquarium one day as a young child, a morning and afternoon forever cementing Boston as the world’s singular wellspring of joy and amazement.
“Ah,” you say. “Of course our mental constructs are different. Of course the narrative glosses are not identical. Your Fenway and my Fenway differ based on our histories and preferences and all that but they’re still Fenway. That is, there is still a static discrete object out there called Fenway Park to which we are both responding. The responses may differ but that which calls them forth does not.”
To which I say: are you sure? If you are sure, then how did you become sure? Would you stake your child’s life on that certainty? If you are unsure – which I find a more helpful posture – what does that uncertainty mean? Can we become sure? How? And if we can’t, then what does the ongoing uncertainty mean for our living going forward?
These are important questions! Lesson 32 of A Course in Miracles takes a stab at answering them when it states that “I have invented the world I see.”
You are not the victim of the world you see because you invented it. You can give it up as easily as you made it up. You will see it or not see it, as you wish. While you want it you will see it; when you no longer want it, it will not be there for you to see (W-pI.32.1:2-5).
In this way, the course is inviting us to invert our understanding of perception (seeing) and perception itself. The traditional mode assumes the world is real and we are in it and subject to it. Our thoughts and feelings about the world, and our response to it, are logically connected to its actual existence. The one precedes – or causes – the other (indeed, the course makes clear that this sequence of lessons isn’t about “reality” so much as “cause and effect” (W-pI.32.1:1)).
But A Course in Miracles asserts that this traditional mode of perception is literally backwards. In fact, we invented the world we see, and our invention obscures the real world, and thus obscures joy and peace and love. We live in a dream of our own making; our sufferance on its behalf is entirely optional. We are the cause of the effects we experience.
It is not necessary to agree with this position, nor to understand it in a rational way even, in order to be helped by it. It is sufficient to merely be open to the possibility that it might be helpful, to take a position that “I am not truly happy or at peace and so perhaps there is another way.”
This is what I mean by epistemic humility: the willingness to consider a way other than the one to which we seem congenitally assigned.
So the suggestion I make is that we give attention to our experience as it arises or appears to us. This is the essence of Husserl’s “phenomenological attitude.” Give attention to your first-person experience – explore it, describe it, dialogue with it – and see what happens.
Jan Koenderink, a physicist who makes a strong case for the inclusion of the phenomenological attitude in our living and thinking, makes the following observation about “what happens.”
there is visual awareness
though there is no one that sees
nor is there something seen
We can edit that little poem to account for “auditory awareness” or “tactile awareness” and its fundamental point remains intact.
there is auditory awareness
but there is no one that hears
nor is there something heard
Again, one doesn’t have to accept this or agree with it or even fully understand it (it is admittedly a big leap) in order to be helped by it. It is a fascinating aspect of this particular learning experience – whether one sees it as spiritual or scientific – that it basically teaches unto itself. It’s like dropping a flower petal into a stream – the petal is borne along without any contribution of its own.
Thus, we become interested in inner and outer peace, and give attention to it, and to what apparently obstructs it in our living, and . . . peace takes over and produces itself. It is self-generating and self-sustaining. It turns out that we – literally our very selves – are simply part of the active obstruction. And obstructions cannot de-obstruct on their own, but peace and love – or God or Jesus, if you like – can. And do.
I made up the prison in which I see myself. All I need do is recognize this and I am free (W-pI.57.2:2-3).
That is, we see the nature of the prison (which is our confused, or upside down, perception) and the prison is thereby undone. “We” don’t undo it because “we” are the prison. But the undoing still occurs.
So we give attention. We just gently give attention to life – what works, what doesn’t, past and future, hopes and dreams, fear and gratitude, other people, plants, rocks, stars, rivers and lakes. All of it; the whole welter. That is literally all we have to do. Giving attention in that way – not judging what occurs, merely noticing what occurs and not resisting what occurs – is what the course means when it instructs us to forget everything and come empty-handed unto God.
Simply do this: Be still, and lay aside all thoughts of what you are and what God is; all concepts you have learned about the world; all images you hold about yourself. Empty your mind of everything it thinks is either true or false, or good or bad, of every thought it judges worthy, and all the ideas of which it is ashamed. Hold onto nothing. Do not bring with you one thought the past has taught you, nor one belief you ever learned before from anything. Forget this world, forget this course, and come with wholly empty hands unto your God (W-pI.189.7:1-5).
In my experience (and returning to our analogy), it was helpful to see Boston not as a place but a process. Not as a static object encased in space and time like an insect in amber but as a process. That is, I saw it as a network of relationships folding and unfolding into and out of one another, which no discernible start or end point. Seeing it that way made clear the value of “holding onto nothing” and “laying aside” all my thoughts, beliefs and ideas. What could possibly hold them but other thoughts, beliefs and ideas anyway?
Seeing life as relationships which are process-like gently undoes my faith in separation. Giving attention becomes the teacher and the student. Self and world fall away, save as appearances. Confusion abates and the peace and love that is our nature and our living comes forth of its own sure accord.
There is always more to say about love – our home and fundament – but this post is already too long. Thank you, as always, for reading. Happy holidays.