On Descriptions of Spiritual Awakening

Heinz von Foerster once said – here paraphrased – that complexity is a consequence of language; it does not inhere in the world. I want to extend his insight and say that complexity is not a property of experience but rather is a property of descriptions of experience.

Basically, I am suggesting that experience happens – clear and simple to the point of purity – and then we describe experience and our descriptions are partial and relative to the individual observer and are thus complex. Often, what we say is literally incomprehensible to others, if not to ourselves, and vice-versa. It is like smashing a crystal, distributing the pieces, and then trying to describe how the shard fits a (now gone) whole.

Take our experience of a tree. Go sit by one or take a long look at one. Is there any ambiguity in the experience? Is there anything that is unclear? Even if you evoke gaps in understanding – “I don’t know what kind of tree this is” – the gap itself is clear. You know something is missing and how to describe its absence.

This clarity – which is inherent in experience – is often overlooked. Or perhaps I speak to my own confusion. But it is helpful to see that whatever is going on is always clear and direct: it is this experience, “this this” as I like to say. It is deeply present: utterly whole unto itself.

And then we go and talk about it! Then we describe our experience of the tree. We take the clear simple direct experience and atomize it in order to make a copy. That is what a description does: a bunch of details reassembled as a copy of the whole for purposes of dissemination.

If you are a professional forester, your description of the tree will be one thing. If you are a botanist, another. If you are a poet who has been writing under that tree for decades, another. If you are a photographer, another. If you are a squirrel, another. A nuthatch, another. And so forth.

Some of those descriptions will overlap but not always.
Some of them will be contradictory – the forester and the poet might vehemently disagree about the tree. Bipedal descriptions will necessarily be differentiated from those of quadrupeds or birds.

Perhaps the biggest impediment to nondual experience is the fact that a word and the object to which it refers are not the same thing. The word “tree” does not in any way look or act like a tree. Language always dropkicks us into this basic dualism. Indeed, we are only able to speak about nondualism by taking as our premise this basic division between word and object.

But maybe experience and description are in fact a nondual unity albeit without coinciding. Perhaps it looks like this:

Experience => Description / Experience => Description / Experience => Description / Experience => and so on . . .

That is, all description is an experience but is not a description of the experience it seems to describe. In other words, we experience a tree and then we experience describing the tree. Our descriptions are experience which are descriptions.

Once we no longer insist that description and experience align perfectly or truthfully in a static way, then the incoherency subsides. The description is not the thing. Yet it is a thing which may itself be described. In this way, description and experience flow with and into one another as a seamless whole. Maybe.

Often, when we give attention in a sustained way, we end up giving attention to attention which, in a certain sense, closes the loop, somewhat the way a serpent swallows its own tail. One catches a glimpse then of what perhaps cannot be spoken of in language and yet – oddly – longs to be spoken of in language. Else why would this very paragraph exist? Why would you be reading it?

(And what loop have we closed – me writing and you reading – here?)

So we hold description loosely, as we hold experience loosely, and give attention in gentle and sustainable ways. We see what we see: we extend it: extension becomes us seeing what we see.

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