What lies beneath

The vast wilderness of the real opens to view, and I am struck mute. A feeling of awe, strangeness – a disturbing discordance with all I’d imagined. And yet, it feels right. Like breathing deeply after holding one’s breath. It is belief in our ideas and knowledge that impoverishes us, cuts us off, divides us according to countless, meaningless distinctions. The values we ascribe to life are borne of our own understandings, but are not attributes of true reality. There can be no differentiation in reality – only between the concepts of our minds. Just as the eye sees shape, the mind sees distinction: close the eye, and all is visually uniform; close the mind, and reality returns to singleness.

Yet the mind is part of reality, and what the eye sees is more beautiful than darkness. The key is: what we see is not the same as what is there. For example, shape is determined by lines, and lines are perceived through contrast of color. The lines are not there, but merely observed where colors differ; when colors are similar, we see uniformity. Both distinct and uniform are merely fields of color. So it is not the presence or absence of objects that I see, but degrees of color variation. The notion of separate objects is something I perceive in the uniformity of light striking my eye. Within the varied frequencies of that light, I form impressions of the world. And just as my eye’s perception crafts shapes from light, my mind’s eye generates experience from reality. I call one thing good, another bad, and with respect to my organism, these distinctions have value. But the experiences are no more real than my perception of them. If you were to deprive my body of all sense, I would no longer experience the world.

To continue with the analogy of vision: When I look at a scene – as I am now, at a restaurant – I am both seeing and not seeing what is real. All the shapes and colors exist in my mind alone, as perceptions. The light forming them, however, exists the same for all viewers. But no amount of staring will allow me to see the actual photons comprising the image. Without them, I could not see, so obviously they are always being seen; however, since my perception is of the information they carry – and not them, themselves – I cannot ever see them. I might say I know what I’m seeing, but in fact I’ve never beheld the essence of sight, despite its being around me at all times.

Back to reality, it is similar: Something utterly mysterious underlies my perceptions, being itself always experienced and yet imperceptible. Nor do I need to know what it is to experience it. Nor can I know! Always in view, it cannot be seen; ask me, and I do not know what it is. To see is to look upon it, and to live is to know it intimately.

The upshot of all this concerns how we interact with reality. If I regard my perceptions as “real”, and disregard the significance of the unapproachable, unavoidable “real real”, I am liable to think that a memory of my perceptions is a memory of reality. But how could it be? Memory of a thing perceived – as with projections of the future – is lacking exactly that component which made it real. Memory is like a body from which the spirit of life has passed. It seems remarkable, then, that we should be standing some place and choose to dwell on memories unrelated to that place, like turning from a living person to a man made of straw for conversation. Perception may have a certain value, but it is not endowed with life. “Life” is the inexpressible underpinning of the present moment, without which perception could not be.

The value in these thoughts? To know the poverty of the mind, in conjunction with its powers; to see that some thing is making life possible, and to heed its value beyond the perceptions we derive from it; to see our perceptions as forming our awareness, but unreal otherwise, and thus not deserving of too much gravity except to a recognized measure; and to put tremendous stock in the magic represented by all that we presently experience. There is a real Spirit there; and to approach it is to be.

There was Something undefined and yet complete in itself,
Born before Heaven-and-Earth.

Silent and boundless,
Standing alone without change,
Yet pervading all without fail,
It may be regarded as the Mother of the world.
I do not know its name;
I style it "Tao";
And, in the absence of a better word, call it
  "The Great." -- Lao Tzu, *Tao Teh Ching*

To realize that our knowledge is ignorance,
This is a noble insight.
To regard our ignorance as knowledge,
This is mental sickness.

Only when we are sick of our sickness
Shall we cease to be sick.
The Sage is not sick, being sick of sickness;
This is the secret of health. -- Lao Tzu, *Tao Teh Ching*