May 9, 2017


This or that? The question of whether binary is the only (or optimal) option

On the eve of running a Deep Well Being workshop in Brisbane, my thoughts turn to what can I offer a room full of students. The short description of the workshop is appended here:

Many people want to experience life more fully, and feel instinctively that there is more to life than how it appears on the surface. Others find that it is difficult to be still internally, because their minds are too busy. Still others don’t understand why their emotional life is a roller-coaster!
This one-day workshop is designed to provide you with a number of tools to go deeper into the ordinary experiences of daily life, and to help you experience happiness more often – for no reason at all.

Related to this, I believe there is evidence to support the claim that many people’s minds are simple binary operators that divide lived experience: good or bad, male or female, this or that, self and other; it is an endless list (it is also a lie; more on this below). And, also increasingly, public discourse on any topic is similarly reduced to what appears to be choices between only two options.

When I talk to people (as in, How are you?), one of the most common comments I hear is “I can’t sleep (the whole night through); I wake up at 03:00, thinking about something, and can’t go back to sleep.” What is this mind that both over-simplifies and holds us to ransom?

Many thinkers over eons have tried to plumb the nature of mind; the most relevant ones here are the notions of dualism (usually credited to Descartes) and reductionism (the belief that the whole can be understood by analysing constituent parts); opponents of this view talk about emergent properties or supervenience (the focus of my PhD research; in fact, the intensive work in supervenience led directly to my re-immersion in Buddhism).

Personally, the most illuminating comment on the extent to which our own minds literally structure our experience appeared as a footnote in the preface of G. Spencer Brown’s inimitable “Laws of Form”, here paraphrased, “A universe comes into being the moment a distinction is made; distinctions are motivated. A distinction is made when the contents of the divided are seen to differ in value“. The tattoo on my arm (manopubbangama dhamma) makes the same claim: “All mental phenomena have their mind as forerunner” (some translators prefer “chief”); the point is that the structure of one’s own mind literally constructs how all phenomena will be experienced—the very objects we see have been constructed out of electromagnetic energy hitting the retina, energy that has no form in that instant. In other words, in the most fundamental sense, we construct the universe we experience.

In making this claim, though, have I simply started the slide into infinite regress, eventually being able to say anything about anything (in a “post-fact”, or ‘post-reality’ world)? Do we end up at the position taken by some late post-modernists, namely, that there are as many versions of the truth as there are utterers of it? Not at all: experience in this life is both embodied and shared—no one is an island; we are co-constructing interpretations of our experience continuously. For example, it is a matter of legal and physical safety that we understand the convention that a red traffic light means ‘stop’, yet that information is not in the light inherently. And there are brute facts about the way this world is organised: if you want coffee to stay in the cup, or kava to stay in the coconut shell, the opening had better face the sky. So, certain aspects of our experienced are shared mutual conventions about what things mean, and others are immutable aspects of Reality (gravity, for example), and about which different peoples in different places will have their own theories and attributions of significance.

Let us allow, then, that one’s reflexive responses tend towards a simple division of experience (mostly along the lines of “I want this, and I don’t want that”. If asked, most will say that this is a simple matter of preference (I prefer oranges to apples) but if G. Spencer Brown and the Buddha are right, this separation of ‘this’ from ‘that’ is done in the instants of experiencing phenomena, and is not, in fact, the product of what we would ordinarily call “thought”, or cognition, or any kind of conscious choice. And the many years I have watched my own thoughts (meditation) has shown me that this ‘pre-cognition’ (for want of a better word) is what actually happens for the most part, rather than the ‘thought’ we believe has led us to a particular position if we are asked to explain a choice. Sometimes, this pre-cognition is the first and last operation.

The reason I say that such division of experience into two parts is a lie is that the borders of the things being distinguished (or, simply, separated) are rarely the only place such division can be made. Usually, there are an infinitude of alternative locations; let me illustrate. On workshops we sometimes mention the old parable, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”. I pause, and then add, “but you can contrive to make it thirsty”. This is accurate. Myths, legends, and politics most commonly present their narratives as choices between this or that. Never is this accurate: add another factor, or take one away, and the choices multiply, endlessly. Black or white? Yes, on one simple account of division, but many shades of grey (from black to white) may a more accurate perspective. To quote G. Spencer B. once more: “distinctions are motivated”. So, the process of making a distinction can depend on what question (implicitly or explicitly) is being asked. “Black” is an answer to one question; “a very dark shade of grey” is an answer to another. Another example: to describe the environment as an “infinite sink for the wastes of production”, as modern economics used to describe it, is a motivated distinction—and the assumptions that motivate this perspective are both simple and venal.

How one might learn to see what’s really going on more clearly, and what might we need to do to fall into this trap less often? For me, the solutions were to learn to relax more in all situations (to “let go of unnecessary tension”; thus the concept of necessary tension) and to learn how to meditate.

Learning to relax connects me directly to what is happening in my body now. Why could this be important? It turns out that when you look at it closely enough, thinking (or one’s state of mind) is concerned with either what’s happened in the past, or what might happen in the future—the mind does not exist in the continuously unfolding present. Usually, the habitual mind has a preference for one or the other. The body, on the other hand, exists only in this same continuous present: the body’s sensations are momentary, ephemeral, come and go continuously and if we pay attention, we can experience this clearly. Learning how to meditate teaches you how to do nothing, and be comfortable in that nothingness.

And why would we want that? Because at some point in one’s practise, one sees clearly that the space in which thinking occurs is a relatively small one (between one’s ears); and the space in which this happens is infinitely large—that, and we become aware of the endless repetition in our thoughts, and (later, much later, sometimes!) we realise that few of them are interesting. This is liberation, in the sense of having a weight taken off one’s shoulders. As well, all creativity “comes” to one (think of the last great idea you had: it probably came when you were having a shower). Creativity comes from stillness and this is the same larger space in which thinking occurs.

In time in one’s meditation practise, and as one combines this with letting go of remaining tension, thoughts slow, and can stop completely. One is simply aware of what’s happening now. There is no discrimination and hence no filtering, or buffering, of direct or immediate experience. It is difficult to articulate the sheer magnitude of this experience but, should you have it, it will be one you will want to return to, if my experience is anything to go by. And when this experience is happening, you can become clearly aware that there are no problems in this state. Problems are created by the mind (in fact, this is what it does best). When one is not obsessed by one’s thought processes, one becomes aware that events are simply unfolding, and the momentary shape of the unfolding requires this response, or another, or no response at all.

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