Observation and Description of Phenomena

In a way, the so-called spiritual process is akin to noticing – and then sustaining in awareness – the distinction between what is happening and an observer’s description of what is happening. The description is not the thing.

observing rocks and glass culled from an earl morning walk on the river

Say that I am sad. You say, “Sean is sad. I can tell by the tears flowing down his face and the way his body sags as if burdened by a great weight.”

Your description of my sorrow is not my experience of sorrow. It is not even close to the feel of wet tears on my cheeks, the salt as they reach my lips, the sagging of my skeletal frame, the mental struggle to put words to emotion, the desperate longing for relief . . .

Moreover, your description of sorrow is relatively simplistic relative to the sorrow that is actually occurring. The occurrence is complex to the point of ineffability. To truly accurately describe sorrow you’d need to evoke biology, chemistry, physics, human history, linguistics – literally the whole cosmos.

This is a simple point but we overlook it constantly: descriptions are not the processes they describe. And since the world is made of processes – everything is changing, shifting, moving, even if at scales that are imperceptible to human observers (plants growing, say, or the sun burning out) – our descriptions are at best pale imitations with limited utility. At worst, they actively confound and misdirection our living, making us unhappy, unhelpful and unproductive.

In a sense, there is no way out of this. Human observers describe what they observe. Everything is given a name and categorized accordingly. Everything is ascribed motivation, rationale, history, goals. Everything is placed in relationship with everything that it is not it. Human observers build a world this way. Their living constructs their living.

Description is also a process, albeit one that implies a stable central describer – a self who faithfully report what she perceives, whose perceptions can be trusted. But as we all know, upon investigation and inquiry, that “self” cannot be found in an objective sense. The concrete narrative center it implies is an illusion.

And yet life goes on. The world goes on.

But “goes on” is a description according to an observer.

But the observer is a process that is being observed “going on.”

It is as if no matter what path you take, you end up at the same place, which is neither a beginning nor an end but merely a realization of circularity and recursivity.

This is maddening at first – as if we are trapped in a maze. One temptation is to spiritualize it – call the recursivity “infinity” and “eternity” (which are descriptions 🙂 ). Another is drain it of joy through reduction by saying it’s just atoms and quarks and what not (but see how “just” is a description 🙂 ).

The important thing is to see that we are not excluded or separate from the process. It inheres in us, the way blue inheres in blueberries. We are one with it. And seeing this – the simple natural fact of it – then it becomes a source of peace and joy and service.

So the point is not to cease describing, which is not possible anyway, nor to undo or end or amend observation which is also not possible.

keeping a place to sit with one another . . . under the apple trees, watching the horses

Rather, the point – or practice, if you will – is simply to give attention to the descriptive process while not conflating it with what is being described. It is a bit of tightrope walking; a delicate balancing act.

But it is helpful because it loosens our sense that there is something at stake here – a life, a self, other selves with whom we are in relationship. Relieved of this ontological burden of defense, we are free to be happy and serve others, which extends our happiness.

Or that is one way to say it. There are others.

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  1. Great point, to notice describing as its own process. In Spanish the dual verbs estar/ser maybe are (or could be) seen as a language attempt at this. To be, or to “to be like”, is the question! And to noticie the (non)translating I will be observing with interest. Thanks.

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