By Adam J. Pearson
“I see nothing as it is now.”
~ Helen Shucman
As I was looking at my charming cat, Thumper, today, some interesting questions arose: how do I know what I’m looking at when I look at him? How do I recognize him? More generally, how do I perceive an object as an object in the first place? Is there a way of seeing in which the apparent boundaries that seem to divide one object from another fade away? Can we come to see oneness in the absence of separation? If so, then how exactly? The answers to these questions took me to some pretty deep places.
How do I recognize an object in the first place? It all starts with the senses. Light bounces off of an object and electromagnetic signals strike my retina and get converted into nerve signals that my brain processes. Prior to this processing, I have no idea what I’m seeing.
When I look at an object, a person, or my delightful cat Thumper, I only begin to recognize what I am seeing when my brain retrieves past knowledge that I have previously learned and memorized. For example, I need to draw on past knowledge to be able to recognize the furry form before me as a cat. When I see this fuzzy form with his soft tail and big black and green eyes, the neural-synaptic patterns in which my brain has stored past images of cats and the concept of a cat are activated. This neuronal activity makes me recognize that the form before me is not a pencil or an armadillo, but, in fact, ‘a cat.’
Here’s an interesting point that follows from these considerations, though: If I am fully immersed in the present, and not drawing on past ideas to help me make sense of my surroundings, then I can have no idea what I am seeing at all. If I don’t draw on past knowledge, I cannot recognize anything. I see the scene before me, but I don’t know what anything is. To recognize something in my environment, I have to relate it to a concept I have acquired in the past or a past experience of a similar object. In truth, I don’t actually see the object at all; what I see is my idea of it, which frames it as something that is distinct from everything else in its environment.
To illustrate what this means more concretely, before my brain retrieves my knowledge about cats and this delightful cat in particular, I have no idea what I’m seeing. The seeing happens, but there is no recognition. As soon as my idea of ‘my cat, Thumper’ is activated, then, like magic, Thumper jumps out of background as his wonderfully affectionate self. Now that I’ve drawn on my past knowledge, I see him. I recognize him.
These considerations bring us to an interesting twist, namely that the need to use past learning to recognize objects applies even to the way I perceive my own body. For example, to recognize the fingers that are typing these words and the palms that are pressing against my desk as ‘my hands,’ I need to activate my past knowledge about what hands are. I need to use my concept of a hand to recognize a hand. If I don’t use the concept, I don’t see a hand at all as distinct from the rest of the scene around it. I have no idea what I’m looking at. I see no separation.
Even if I close my eyes and just feel the proprioceptive sense of where my hands are and what tingles or warm sensations may be pulsing through them, if I don’t draw on the concept of ‘a hand,’ I don’t feel any sense of these hands being separate from the background of my room. I feel no separation.
You might be wondering at this point that if there is no separation ‘out there’ prior to the activation of my ideas, then why do I perceive separation at all? To answer this, let’s consider another example. Take a look at the computer or cell phone in front of you. When I look at this computer before me, I notice that it seems to be phenomenologically distinct from everything around it. As I focus on an object, it becomes a figure against the background of its surroundings. However, here’s a crucial point: the apparent limits of the object that I see are not out there in the world; but in here in my mind.
The apparent separation of the object is simply a reflection of the separation of my ideas about it. For instance, I have an idea of a computer and an idea of a turtle. Because I have these two ideas, I perceive one as separate from the other. It is these ideas that allow me to recognize the turtle and the computer as distinct forms. Without the ideas, concepts, and past experiences in my memory, I cannot have any idea of what I’m looking at. My eyes are open and receiving signals, but I see nothing. To see something, I need to have the knowledge of what I am looking at. When I draw on this knowledge, I seem to see an object, but what I’m really looking at my own ideas mapped onto reality.
This leads us to a fascinating point about the apparent separateness of the things we see on a daily basis and that point is this: The apparent separateness that I seem to perceive is not physical, but mental; it is a function of distinguishing one idea from another. The scientific truth of the matter is that the separation that I seem to see between this computer and the wall behind it is not an accurate representation of the physical reality of the scene that I am looking at. As we know from physics, the apparent boundaries between any two things are porous, somewhat indistinct, and ever-changing; at the borders of their fluctuating peripheries, particles appear and are annihilated, chemical reactions take place, and electrical charges shift.
In the mind, boundaries appear sharp; in the physics, they are blurry. When I start to understand that the apparently sharp separation that I seem to see is only in my mind, not ‘out there’ in the world, something interesting happens; I begin to see through the illusion of separation. If I don’t resort to my past knowledge and remembered experiences, the perception of separateness falls away like a curtain or a veil, exposing the full splendour of the scene behind it. It is as if my attention shifts away from the fleeting shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave and towards the vast, robustness of reality that reveals itself in a tremendous explosion of perception.
The more I see that the lines that seem to separate things are not physical, but drawn by my mind, the less real they seem to be. Without using the idea of a computer to perceive the object before me, the computer ceases to stand out from its background. It blurs back into it until I don’t know what I am looking at anymore. I cease to see the computer. Its seemingly separate existence begins to fall away as the ideas that define it are gently dropped from the mind.
As I continue with this way of seeing, I begin to perceive more and more clearly that even the boundary between my body and the world is perceived only through the lens of ideas. Without the ideas of ‘body’ and ‘world,’ I can trace no dividing line. I cannot recognize the world without the idea of ‘the world,’ or my body without the idea of ‘my body.’
Now, you might ask: how does dropping the ideas we use to see the separations between things reveal oneness? The answer is that as I cease to see the separations, oneness is what remains in their absence. As my awareness focuses on the present scene of this room and I cease to rely on past ideas to perceive the present, I find that what remains is a seamless oneness. Without resorting to a past idea, I can find nothing that can be a second to this oneness. Nothing is broken away from it like a piece of ice chipped off an iceberg. Without drawing on past knowledge, I cannot perceive separateness.
When I say that oneness is revealed when we cease to draw on ideas to break up what we see into ‘separate’ objects, here’s what I mean: When oneness is revealed, what I am really seeing is the absence of separateness. We cease to see separateness when we temporarily drop all ideas about what we are seeing because it is our ideas that generate the perception of separation. We perceive separations between our ideas, not separations between objects.
This is a subtle point, so I’ll repeat it. It’s not like we look at the world and think “Oooh look, there’s oneness! I recognize that!” What we see is the absence of separations. When I don’t draw on past knowledge to interpret what I see, then my mind is in a state of not knowing what it is seeing. It’s not calling on separate ideas to distinguish one thing from another, so it doesn’t see separate objects at all. It doesn’t recognize anything. In simple terms:
When I don’t recognize anything that I am seeing, it means that I’m not drawing on ideas to separate the world into objects. When I’m not drawing on ideas to separate the world into objects, then I don’t see separateness. When I don’t see separateness, then oneness is revealed.
Here’s the crux of the matter: If we don’t draw on ideas to identify what we’re seeing, then there is no perception of duality. This is what the mystics from the world’s religious traditions are talking about when they speak of “mystical union” or seeing the world as nondual. Ordinary seeing through the lens of ideas that divide the world into distinct objects is called dual seeing. Seeing without drawing on these ideas and not seeing separateness as a result is nondual seeing.
What do we see in nondual seeing? If don’t call upon past knowledge, then I literally don’t perceive a single separate object. There is only a vast field of present reality in which all forms are One, all apparent differences are unified, and even the boundaries of my apparently separate self have dissolved. Nondual seeing offers one way to experience firsthand what the Buddha meant by anatman or his teaching that nothing (and no one has) a separately existing self. When the mind isn’t clinging to the ideas that carve up oneness into apparently separate objects, we literally can’t perceive a separate self. In nondual seeing, there is no perception of a ‘me’ and no perception of a ‘world’ separate from that me.
Photography: Murad Osman
In truth, of course, the oneness is always there, never dispersed into separateness. Dual seeing doesn’t banish oneness; it just covers it up with ideas. Remember that it’s our ideas about distinctions that make the oneness appear as a world of separate objects. Nondual seeing reveals the oneness that is always there regardless of what objects we may normally see when we’re looking through the lens of ideas.
Is the state of nondual seeing permanent? In my experience, as we go about our day, it can be hard to abide in the state of nondual seeing for a very simple and practical reason: we need to know what we’re looking at to go about the daily business of living. To navigate work and social situations, we need to recognize people, draw on ideas to converse with them, and use our past knowledge and experiences to inform our actions. As a result, I would say that there’s value in dual seeing, even if it’s ultimately illusory; there’s value in being able to shift into seeing objects through the lens of the best of our knowledge. The value lies in the fact that it helps us survive and effectively live out our day-to-day existence.
Photography: Murad Osman
However, it can nonetheless be helpful to remember that we see things as separate and distinct only when we look through the lens of distinct ideas about what we are seeing. We may forget this as we get carried away by our thoughts during the day, but dual seeing or the way of seeing the world as a set of objects by drawing on knowledge is not the only way of seeing. Nondual seeing is always accessible to us whenever we are free to gently drop our separating ideas and see the oneness that reveals itself in the absence of ideas that chop it up into ‘separate objects.’ To see separate objects, we need to draw on past learning, knowledge, concepts, remembered experiences, and names. In nondual seeing, we don’t see a world of objects at all. What remains is only the seeing itself without a ‘seer’ or a ‘seen’ And in that nondual seeing, there is peace.
Fun Fact: this post is the 555th post since Words from the Wind began.