On Awareness, Doubt, Socratic Dialogue, and Love

As human beings we are aware and we are aware that we are aware and this reflects a single unified awareness. Your awareness of a tree and your awareness of your awareness of a tree are the same awareness.

To some people this seems obvious. But I think it’s actually not. We have – as a consequence of our physical and cognitive structure – a sense that our “awareness of awareness” is actually a durable tangible self who happens to be looking at a tree. And we are very attached to that self, and our attachment is consequential. It begets a lot of distress and anxiety (and aggression) which, as A Course in Miracles suggests, need not be.

The suggestion here is that the tree and the self are similar phenomena appearing in the same awareness. That is, they are both just images in awareness and neither is more dynamic, valuable or complex than the other. That one feels more dynamic, valuable and complex is simply an aspect of appearing (sort of like how some stars appear brighter than others, or some ice cream flavors taste better than others).

“But wait!” you might say. “What about my past? My preferences? My desires and aversions? My hopes and goals? The tree doesn’t have them – I do.”

Actually, no. They, too, are appearances in awareness – albeit subtle appearances (sort of like noticing wind because of how the tree moves – wind itself is invisible). Describing goals, preferences, histories et cetera as our own – as if they are attached to a discrete self – is part of the confusion. It arises from – and reinforces – the underlying mistaken belief that there actually is a discrete self that can be threatened or rewarded, lose or win, live or die . . .

It’s a bit like how we cry when Bambi’s mother dies. We know that nothing actually happened. And yet, we are invested in the illusory narrative to the point that it evokes a powerful emotional response. I’m suggesting that Bambi isn’t the only narrative we’re falling for; we’re falling for the “me, myself and I” narrative, too.

“Okay,” you say. “But if I cut myself, you don’t bleed. If you eat some bread, my hunger doesn’t go away.”

While that argument feels dispositive, it’s actually not. Its premise assumes the point it aims to prove – that is, that you and I are separate beings having separate experiences. It’s a slightly subtler version of saying “water is wet because water is wet.”

Investigate the premise: if you are just an image appearing in awareness, and I am just an image appearing in awareness, then our various professions of experience are merely professions. They are merely appearances in awareness, which includes the sense that some are mine and some are yours. But if “me” and “you” are just images, then a compare-and-contrast exercise isn’t going to prove one is more “real” than the other.

For example, you wouldn’t compare a speech by Macbeth to a speech by Banquo in an effort to prove that one of the speakers wasn’t a character in a play. You wouldn’t compare the acts those characters take to suggest one is more real than the other. It’s the same with “you” and “me.” And you and me, too.

“Fine,” you say. “But you keep talking about ‘I’ and ‘you.’ Isn’t that hypocritical? If they’re not real or actual, why do you keep talking about them?”

Obviously language and communication appear, and obviously language and communication denote stuff. The word “tree” doesn’t just float in the ether – it directs us to a specific experience of a specific appearance. It’s relational, which is what makes it communicative.

But ask: how would dialogue function if I beat my chest and hopped around like an amped-up silverback gorilla? Or stood silently in place all day with my face turned to the sun, slowly rotating like a sunflower? What if I use semaphores? What if I invent a language, a la Tolkien?

I think the answer is that while meaning in those instances would shift – become more or less clear, more or less helpful, more or less intelligible – communication itself would still go on.

That, in turn, suggests that language, too – notwithstanding its complexity in signification – is an appearance. Of course I use language that reinforces the split in awareness that human beings experience. I appear as a human being. When “I” appear as a silverback gorilla or a sunflower, “I” do something else.

It’s all an appearance. Yes, some of it feels more personal and intimate – more sensuous – but so what? All that really shows it that language appears and sensuality appears and sometimes they coincide.

The suggestion I make is that we investigate this, and see what happens when we do, and in the interim just keep on keeping on. Do what is natural. Sleep when you’re tired, eat when you’re hungry, laugh when you’re amused, dance when the music says dance. Be in dialogue with life, rather than lecturing it and insisting it conform to this or that expectation or opinion.

One of the things I often point out is that when we come to the insight that “it’s all awareness,” is that we go slowly with any conclusions we might draw from that. There is a sense that we’ve reached the summit of the mountain and our search is over, dissolved in the pure light of God/Source/Etc.

Well, maybe. But maybe not, too.

Mountain summits are not our home! They are part of what comes and goes – part of the experience that is never still but always shifting and shading. Each time I reach the top of Mount Ascutney, after refueling and giving a good hour or so to sitting quietly with the western view, I hike back down.

It’s not unlike when Jesus and his disciples meet Elijah and Moses at the top of a high mountain. The disciples want to set up tents and who could blame them? But Jesus does not cling to the peak experience. It passes. He descends from the summit and returns to the ordinary ongoing rhythm of living in the world.

I read that scriptural text as suggesting that summit experiences can be helpful and exhilarating but are not in and of themselves the end of seeking and uncertainty.

It is possible the insight that “it’s all awareness” is simply a clear seeing of the human experience of cognition and perception. That is, we have a particular structure and it brings forth a particular experience that appears dual but is actually non-dual. It appears singular but is actually shared, collective and inclusive.

On that view, the insight simply allows us to be happy in a serious, natural and sustainable way. Since “the other” is also our own self (or, better, is our self seeing itself another way), then patience, kindness, and inclusiveness naturally arise. We become creative and compassionate rather than competitive. We don’t wait on invitations to be helpful and we don’t get worked up about accepting help. Mutual aid and recognition abound. We become loving, or we become love itself, where “love” is understood as processual, flowing, relational. The rigid poles of subject/object, observer/observed dissolve because we understand them not as laws binding us to separation but as pointers to our fundamental unity.

However, I do not argue that this is absolutely the case! I merely point out that it’s as valid a possibility as positing “it’s all awareness” as tantamount to a radical spiritual awakening and enlightenment.

Nor do I suggest that those two possibilities are the only ones! Critical to my personal experience of spirituality – which is to say, of love – is an ongoing willingness to accept the possibility of other possibilities, including those I of which I am not now and may never be, aware.

In a sense, by not allowing ourselves to reach a conclusion, we sustain a kind of unknowing. We don’t ever reach the summit and set up tents; we hike and go on hiking – up and down, here and there, peak and valley, village and forest, desert and sea. I think of this approach to awareness and awareness-of-awareness as kin to Socrates’ insight that human beings cannot ever be wise, let alone “wisest of all.”

Here is how Hannah Arendt puts it in her essay “Philosophy and Politics.”

. . . only through knowing what appears to me — only to me, and therefore remaining forever related to my own concrete existence — can I ever understand truth. Absolute truth, which would be the same for all men and therefore unrelated, independent of each man’s existence, cannot exist for mortals.

Socrates insisted on epistemic humility – on doubt – but also on dialogue.

Arendt again:

Socrates therefore must always begin with questions; he cannot know beforehand what kind of dokei moi, of it-appears-to-me, the other possesses. He must make sure of the other’s position in the common world. Yet, just as nobody can know beforehand the other’s doxa (opinion), so nobody can know by himself and without further effort the inherent truth of his own opinion. Socrates wanted to bring out this truth which everyone potentially possesses. If we remain true to his own metaphor of maieutic, we may say: Socrates wanted to make the city more truthful by delivering each of the citizens of their truths.

“Maieutic” refers to the art and craft of midwifery. Socrates wasn’t trying to persuade anyone of his truth; rather, he was trying to help others give birth to their truth. As Arendt puts it, “the maieutic was a political activity, a give and take, fundamentally on a basis of strict equality, the fruits of which could not be measured by the result of arriving at this or that general truth.”

That is a beautiful and nontrivial point. We are apt to think of our seeking and pursuing nonduality in a spiritual context or frame, which makes it personal. Ascended masters appear to me and not you, Marianne Williamson is more spiritual than I am, Thomas Merton was closer to God than all of us, et cetera.

But the suggestion I make here – tracking Arendt’s insights – is that our seeking and pursuing nonduality is actually political, in the sense of bringing folks together in a consensual collective way.

That is, we are entering into dialogue – image unto image – in order to learn that we are images, and equal, and so learning together what our equality and togetherness mean.

On this view, the end of the self, as such, is actually the opening out of the self into Love, which is all-of-us, which does not exclude the inanimate or non-sentient. The self melts; the collective, too.

I hint here then at the possibility of a structure in or to awareness that is premised on love. And what I intend by that is to notice that meaning is inherent, and that it’s relational. Or perhaps, even simpler, just noticing that there is order – something rather than nothing, meaning instead of no meaning, order instead of chaos.

Humberto Maturana noticed this – and reflected on it more deeply and helpfully (often collaboratively with women like Ximena Davila and Pille Bunnell, which matters) than any other writer/thinker to whom I’ve given attention. He and Bunnell wrote:

Love expands intelligence, and enables creativity. Love returns autonomy, and as it returns autonomy, it returns responsibility and the experience of freedom.

In his work, Maturana frequently returns to the following definition of love: “Love is the domain of those relational behaviours through which another (a person, being, or thing) arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself.”

The suggestion I am making is that the relations implied here – the mutuality, the acceptance, the arising – is the order that grounds awareness, and thus becomes the fundament, the ground of our being.

That is, we are loving animals who are aware of love and of loving and of ourselves as love and loving and that clarity about this is what brings peace, happiness, cooperation, consensus, compassion and all of that. Indeed, upon seeing this clearly, nothing but “peace, happiness, cooperation, consensus, compassion and all of that” can arise because that is what we are. We love; we are loving.

I started this essay building a fairly traditional case for “there is only awareness.” I do that because a lot of folks whose work I admire have that insight as their goal, or reach that insight and have as their goal transmitting it to others. I appreciate that.

Yet I think that insight is not an end but a beginning, and that we can still reflect and observe and re-reflect in wake of – in the light of – this insight. And, further, I suggest that what we learn is that we love and are loving and in that sense Love is all there is.

Nor do I relinquish the Socratic impulse – to go on doubting and in our doubt to be in dialogue with the other. So I am always in a state of remembering, recovering, recognizing, relinquishing, relishing, reveling . . . There is no end to it. Nor can I say where the beginning is, or was.

It is like I stand on that line where the sea is always meeting shore. Each wave dulls then obliterates the messages we leave, topples then erases each castle we build. Yet the sand remains and the desire to communicate and construct remains, and so we – like the sea and the shore – go on, forever together as one.

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