Language is froth on the surface of thought. John McCarthy. (Father of Artificial Intelligence)
I have always been fascinated by the existence of a world behind words. As an English and Psychology major at UCLA, I wanted to explore that feeling I had when I wanted to tell a friend something and I struggled to find the right word. How did I know what I wanted to say? The look of recognition on a friend’s face when I found the right word was revealing, as if something clicked. Sometimes it took more than a word … it took a word picture, a description. Getting information from a nameless place in me to a nameless place in someone else. From my ‘right brain’ to my ‘left brain’, out to the other’s ‘left brain’, then to the other’s ‘right brain’ for recognition. The long way around. Talented artists take a short cut, ‘right brain’ to ‘right brain’. The direct approach. A viewer is attracted and may not know why.
These days, the biology is aligned with the physics. The scientists are telling us there is nothing without the observer. How I see things, what they mean, is up to me … up to the person I have learned to be. During my time in the Northwest, I began to see the side of a cliff as the face of millions of years. It isn’t just the vastness of space that makes me feel small, it is the vastness of time. What do ‘things’ mean, in terms of millions of years? Every time, in every place, what life comes down to is right here, right now. There is nothing else.
Nobody wants to limit his or her experience of life to words. The label is not the thing. The map is not the territory. The most common 100 words in the Oxford English Dictionary have 14,000 ‘meanings’. The same word can have many different ‘meanings’. It’s a wonder we get anything done. Over these last fifty years, I have come to see how I project ‘meaning’ into an objective world that is basically just being there. Things happen. A person has to be there for it to ‘mean’ anything.
All I ever see is the surface of something. What it means is what that pattern implies to me. Words are like waves on the ocean. Experience is what lies underneath.
When a friend sees my face, it is a surface of many complex patterns for him or her. When you touch a favorite object … when you hear a favorite song, it is the surface that touches your senses and it is your mind that recalls the patterns. The greatest art points to the greatest patterns. Like the proverbial Zen finger though, all any art can do is point. Same thing with words.
The patterns themselves are only in-visible. Can you point to how you get through the day? Can you point to a partner’s devotion? Loneliness? Love?
The world is the surface of things
A surface results from the presence of a pattern. It can have no thickness, no mass at all. Unless it is perceived, it is not even there. I make surfaces when I measure and count … when I am looking for things, pulling pieces out of the flow.
Whatever is going on, I will not be aware of it, unless I sense a surface. I am usually seeking an object of some sort, but it may be a feeling, bubbling up. I navigate by choosing some surfaces over others. Sometimes I get the implications wrong. I learn.
As I get older, I am discovering that I can change the implications themselves … instead of forever seeking the right ‘thing’ or the right ‘place’. Surfaces are everywhere, depending on how I look. A critical step in my own growth is to make the effort to navigate by the in-visible patterns that resonate with a deeper feeling, rather than the shiny surfaces designed to catch the eye.
I’m not sure I will ever get the bits and pieces right. By ‘right’, I mean that state where everything fits. The wisest of us say that this moment … now … is perfect, just the way it is. Everything else is nonsense. I have had that experience, but for me, it doesn’t last. What I have done is simplify my life as much as possible, but there are always tires to be fixed and dues to be paid. Being in a body has consequences. Those not paying attention do eventually get run over by a bus. That has nearly been me, many times.
What is coming clearer is the effect of living closer to my spirit … that is, my tiny share of spirit. Business being done, it is so much easier to feel connected in the woods of the Northwest. The light. The smells. The laughing of the rushing streams and the singing of the early morning birds. Life has been that way up here for millions of years. Everything fits. A volcano erupts and changes the entire landscape. Nature adapts. A miles-long sheet of earth tears through the surface and a mountain range is born. Nature incorporates.
The spirit I feel personally sometimes is the same spirit that resonates throughout the magnificence of Nature. It is the same spirit that great art points to and great music sweeps into being. The same spirit awaits athletes in triumph and monks in meditation. We all have had that experience, esp. as children. Usually we are trained to associate that experience of no boundaries with winning and losing. That scares many of us off.
As adults, we learn that wonderful as it may be, dwelling in non-duality does not pay the bills. When taking care of business is the priority, spirit can be a distraction. When wanting to be the best or the biggest, spirit can be a distraction. When not wanting any thing, spirit is all there is.
So many people know much more about these realities than I do. All I can tell is my own experience. As I blunder around the Northwest, I see life, larger than me, at every turn. I am so small, but my experience is that I have something in common with the universe that bursts into view in the night sky … something in common with the millions of years that are wrapped up in the ancient landscape that glows a soft white under the starlight of billions of galaxies. My body is made up of the same stuff. It sings the same song. For a moment, here, now, I belong to something absolutely inconceivable. It is a chord that cannot be captured, because it is everywhere, all the time.
These will always be only moments. For the longest time, I held on to the notion that once I got it – joy ever-lasting … communion with the universe … would stick. Now I know that as long as I am in this world, there will be stuff that is not I that I have to deal with somehow. Last year, in the wilds of the British Columbia woods, it occurred to me that I chose this … that if the whole deal were up to me, this is where I would want to be … in the middle of the mystery.
If I had the choice, I would not want everything to be settled. The person I have learned to be wants a perfect world. In a perfect world, I would lose consciousness and stop making an effort. Being perfect is fine, but there would be nothing to do. I am learning that the experience of what lies behind the veil of words is part of a cycle, not a goal in itself. It can be too much of a good thing and distract from organizing the bits and pieces around the body. Being in both worlds is what it means to be human.
In the Northwest, the powerful presence of the landscapes extracted my mind and shook it up. I saw what the mystics tell us, how it’s all perfect, just as it is. That is not where we humans fit. We come from the perfect, into the bits and pieces. Our purpose now is to restore the awareness of the spirit that is being hammered out of our lives. Spirit should flow through people like it does through the rivers and the trees. It will leak out when the observer loosens up the punctuation of his or her experience.
I interrupt the flow by trying to keep the good feeling that comes with belonging to everything, worrying it will leave, forgetting that is who I am and where I come from. I want to manage the world. Another misleading consequence of imposing grammar on the flow of being is that the world appears to be linear, one thing after another. Subject-verb-object. I do this to that. This allows me to believe I am in control. In reality, ‘that’ also does something to me. When the bat hits the ball, the ball also hits the bat.
The sentence structure that I have learned to think with implies that I am running the show, that the world is at my command. As a kid, I was taught to take control, to get a handle on things. Emphasis on sentence structure stifles the power of the imagination to reach beyond the grammar machine, but it puts the rush of information that assaults my senses at every moment into an order that is manageable.
We are deceived into thinking that life is all one way. I do this to that and that doesn’t do anything to me. Growing up, we discover that real life is reciprocal, although we have a hard time thinking about it. There are two sides to every thing. Right does not exist without wrong. There’s no good without bad, no here without there, no now without then, no me without you.
In the business world, they plan for “unintended consequences” by keeping a reservoir of resources, just in case. This is an acknowledgment that when you act on the world, the world acts back. This is true down to the level of perception. Perception, picking one thing out of all things, is an act, not a passive receiving. As an act, it has consequences. How you see is who you are.
I get carried away with all the mystical mumbo-jumbo, but I feel strongly that this position has to be advertised. The confusion in the brain about what’s going on can be a serious problem, in terms of long-term health, when we stick to perceiving everything in concrete terms and deny responsibility for what we assemble as reality. We ignore the ocean below the waves at our own risk. It is the ocean that heaves and swells, moving the whole world here and there. It is the ocean we come from and return to … while the words flap about on the surface, whipped around by the current weather. It is the ocean that runs through us, when we let things be and look from the heart.