When Brutus stabs Caesar, is this the same event as when Brutus kills Caesar?
That’s a classic philosophical question used by thinkers studying the question of whether and how events are individuated – that is, separated from one another. Is it a question of time and space? Intention? Changes in the states of the actors/objects? What?1
The value of questions like these lies not in answering them correctly, but simply in asking them in a serious and care-filled way and then seeing what happens. In my experience, attention given to good questions deepens and enriches – and thus stabilizes – present moment awareness.
What if I reframe the Brutus/Caesar question: is the blue jay flying through the backyard a different event from my observing the blue jay flying through the backyard?
Let’s say it is different. After all, the blue jay’s flight is not contingent on my viewing it. Blue Jays can fly hither and yon without any consideration for what I’m looking at or even whether I’m present at all.
The blue jay doesn’t need me to see it flying in order to fly.
Moreover, observation isn’t contingent on what is observed. Looking is looking, regardless of what is seen. Observation doesn’t change because the observed object is a blue jay rather than a chickadee, or a chickadee rather than a pickup truck.
I don’t need a blue jay in order to observe.
Thus, there is a pretty good case to be made that the blue jay’s flight through the back yard is different – is separate from – my observing the blue jay’s flight.
Now let’s say the blue jay’s flight and my observing the blue jay are the same event. The argument might go like this: where is the space between the flight of the blue jay and the observer watching the flight?
It’s important to understand that this question is not about the space between the observer and the blue jay. That space is part of what is observed. It is included in the image.
Even though space appears empty – and essentially invisible – it is still there. Distance is observable.
So the question is, in the given moment – me sitting on the back porch and a blue jay is flying through the back yard – is there a gap between the observed and the observer? Does the observation include any perceptible separation?
Focus on the experience as it is given: where is the gap? What does it look like? Feel like?
Isn’t “the gap” – if it exists – an idea? Isn’t it a concept?
Direct experience permits no boundary between experience and experiencer. It’s all one movement or flux. It’s just experience: this experience.
But at the level of idea – or concept – separation enters.
Most of us – faced with the blue jay question – experience no separation but mentally insist on separation and then try to force that concept on experience which is fundamentally not amenable.
It is like going to the movies and seeing Jaws. Fifteen minutes into the movie we start telling the people around us not to go swimming. “But we’re in a movie theater,” they point out. “It’s just a movie.”
And we point smugly to the screen where yet another attack is taking place. “See?” we say smugly. “Stay out of the water.”
It is important to see disconnect (or incoherence) and – even more importantly – to ask what its effects are, whether those effects are helpful or unhelpful, and what – if anything – can be done with respect to them.
Separation is a mental response to unity. That’s all it is. And the more seriously we take it, and the more ardently we defend it and attack those who don’t buy into it, the more “real” this unreality seems.
Put A Course in Miracles aside – put every teacher and spiritual method aside – and just look into this. Just give attention.
Can we see the way that Life is whole? And can we see the way that “me” or “I” as a separate entity is just bad logic enshrined as truth?
Thought isn’t the problem. The body isn’t the problem. Time and space aren’t the problem. Our spiritual practice or lack thereof isn’t the problem.
The problem is we are buying into bad reasoning. We are buying into it and doubling down on it. We are a major investor in a bum deal and are ignoring literally everything that suggests we might to cut our losses and try another way.
So that is the suggestion: to give attention, see what happens and – as resistance arises – simply ask: are we happy with the results we’re getting? Is it perhaps not time for another way?
1. I am not really going into this question. I am using it to springboard into an overall attitude towards questioning as spiritual practice. If you are interested in studying the individuation of events, this is a good overview of the field and fresh approach to thinking about it.↩