“We live in illusion and the appearance of things.”
“Do not confuse the finger pointing at the moon, for the moon itself.”
Last fall I was lucky enough to spend quite some time at the Outer Banks in North Carolina. I quickly developed the habit of rising very early every morning to sit on our balcony and sip my cup of tea while my kitty purred happily on my lap and the blackness of the night sky over the ocean slowly turned to morning light. Each day became an exquisite experience of wonder. I came to consider the word “sunrise” and how little it either predicted or captured the mystery of each day. I became more and more aware of the ways that a word can make a little prison of actual experience. Phenomena that is ephemeral, arising and passing away in fractions of a second, becomes captured – imprisoned, really – in some symbol: a word or an image. The unique experience becomes a “this” or a “that.” Then our tendency is to become attached to the symbol, relating exclusively to the word or the image and even arguing over the words, concepts and meanings that we have formed.
“Those attached to perception and views roam the world offending people.”
The Buddha. Mangandiya Sutta
Modern scientists agree. Rick Hanson reports that the human brain is estimated to contain between 100 and 500 trillion synapses. Tim Wilson notes that about 11 million of these were firing in any given second of my tea-sipping, cat-purring and sunrise-seeing experience. Eleven million synapses firing in every second: who knew that my morning was so busy! These firings formed from the relentless contact of my sense organs with internal and external objects. Light waves touched my eyes; sound waves touched my ears; air movement and kitty fur touched my skin.
The brain has learned over so many years of practice to assemble this relentless and massive raw data of light and shape and form and color, loudness, pitch and timbre, and feedback from the body’s muscles, bones and skin in surrounding space into the practical chunks and patterns of information that are personally useful. “Sunrise.”
These chunks and patterns and the words that I use to name them, while common to my culture, are nevertheless somewhat unique to me in that they were guided by my own history of relational experiences. The internal sense of the word, “sunrise” was formed not only by my actual experience with such things, but by my repeated contact with the patterns and assemblies of those more mature beings who were close to me and with whom I’ve communicated through the years. With time, organic development, and practice, my young brain developed a kind of efficient shorthand as it formed images and, later, words which carried meaning and which I now can share relationally. “Sunrise.”
Tim Wilson goes on to note that typically, and efficiently, only a tiny fragment of this process is known by the ordinary conscious mind. Part of the rest resides in the brain’s preconscious, available as needed or when we deliberately direct attention to it, like remembering where I left the tea cup last night. The rest takes up residence in the subconscious mind, typically not consciously available, even with effort, but operating in the background to keep the organism running smoothly, like how to balance the body as it walks from the kitchen to the balcony or how to organize all the sensory data of vision into meaningful images and words. Nevertheless, even these unconscious organizational patterns can easily become triggered by even a relatively small number of similar sensory contacts. Modern neuroscientists – and the Buddha, thousands of years ago – note how such repeated and repeatable patterns of neuronal activity become the basis of our phenomenological sense of individual existence and personal continuity as a “self” in relation to an external world of “other”/objects.
All of this is valuable and necessary for my efficient human functioning. Without such organizational strategies, I would quickly become overwhelmed by the simple task of getting out of bed and wouldn’t make it to the kitchen for tea or to find the cat food or to know to wait for the light to appear. I wouldn’t be able to remember, or to share an experience with you. This capacity to represent the world allows me to develop a certain skill of functioning within it.
Nevertheless, I forget that it all is an illusion that my brain constructs. This is the basis of all of the Buddha’s teaching: that if I identify with and cling to these perceptions and words, I suffer as I try to make the world fit into the prison of a concept. I miss the actual flow of experience itself. In the process, we also miss one another.
Intimacy with the arising and passing away of phenomena, then, is the practice of meditation. We practice the capacity to know phenomena conceptually, yes, but to hold those concepts lightly. We allow the delight of a word or an image, but we cultivate a knowing of its limits. We learn to become less identified with our concepts and we cultivate a softening of our allegiance to the streams of words that make up long-held stories about who we are and how the world is. We practice coming to know directly the experience of impermanence, releasing ourselves, over and over and over again, from the prison of words and concepts. There we dive into deeper, direct experience, discovering the riches of wisdom and the profound peace awaiting us there.
Enough. These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.
This opening to the life
We have refused
Again and again