Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Consciously Conferring Reality

I've been rather busy, and a bit too active on the Forum, but there's a comment from Aurelius that I should respond to:

You went on to say, “One thing to notice is that we choose which objects to our awareness we confer the status of "reality" to. We can call our dreams at night real or unreal, depending on our perspective, and we can call some things in the objective world real or unreal, depending on our disposition towards them. We can call some memories real, and some false. In all cases, we decide what is real, and reality is conferred upon the world by us, not by the world itself. If we choose to decide that our own consciousness is unreal, and the objective world is real, that is the reality we will live in.”

How does this work out practically though?

We decide what is practical based on what we have already conferred reality on. Things that we don't think are real, we don't consider practical, and vice-versa. Some people, for example, don't consider the imagination to be real, and so they don't have any. Some people don't consider self-image to be real, and so they don't cultivate one. Some people don't think money is real, and so they don't pursue it. Of course, for most of us these things aren't black and white. We have a sliding value system by which we confer reality on things, and this changes all the time, and some things seem to have a lot of value to them, and thus reality, while others do not.

If I you met a mother who just lost her son in a motorcycle accident and whose 8 year old daughter is suffering from a large brain tumor – would you say, “it is real if you decide it’s real”? That would leave me cold and empty, reminiscent of the scientific answers we get about life that are purely materialistic. (Perhaps I am just prodding you a bit here – sensing that you have something interesting to say.)

In the first place, I'm not about to tell a mother who just lost her child and has another with a fatal disease anything at all. What words of mine could possibly help her at that point? Why would I intrude on someone's tragedy? To preach some ideas of mine? That would hardly make sense or show any sensitivity. Even if I knew this mother very intimately, I'm not about to argue philosophy with her. So the question, taken literally, is kind of a setup. Anyone who answers it directly is a fool. I don't suggest that Aurelius is trying to set me up, I understand it's just a rhetorical question, but the emotions involved pretty much negate any point I might want to make.

From a distance, however, viewed as a rhetorical situation, we have to see that the mother has already decided what is real to her, and what is not. As someone who has had children near death's door before, I can say from personal experience that it makes clear to a parent how unreal so many things in life are that we normally consider real, and how real our love for our children seems to us then. A mother in this situation doesn't care about the laws of science and medicine, the physics of motorcycles, the theology of advaita, how much money she made last year, how beautiful her house is, what a nice car she drives – her child is dead, and another dying, and that's all that's real to her right then and there. Whatever we love, that is what we consider real, and only to the degree that we love. If the mother doesn't love her children, which happens now and then, their death doesn't matter to her very much. If she loves her house and car more than her children, she would get upset at their lose more than losing her children.

As for what I would say to her, I can't possibly change her values, her sense for what is real, what she loves most, etc. Those things are already part of her before I say anything, and her ability to deal with loss will depend on how she views reality, what she has conferred reality on, and it won't change by my saying anything about it. Perhaps if she had thought long and hard about death and loss before, and realized something about the nature of consciousness, she would be able to do more than just mourn her loss. She might understand that even her children cannot truly die, that the body can die, but the life and spirit go on. Some people understand this intuitively, and even though they mourn the loss, they also feel the spirit continue.

Death often forces us to re-evaluate what we think reality truly is, and what is truly important to us. I'm reminded of one of my favorite poems by John Keats:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact'ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And feel that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;--then on the shore
   Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,
   Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.
The flip side of this is that we also confer reality on whatever we are attached to. Love is not the whole picture here, even with children. Mothers not only love their children, but they are attached to them, and that is not always the same thing, and it even presents conflicts to the mother. Love recognizes the spirit of the child, which goes on beyond death, but attachment tends to focus on the body, which does not.

Likewise, if the family bread winner loses his/her job would it be best to “do nothing” and wait for another job to “arise” – or first to wait and listen to the native consciousness we all possess, or assume there is a certain level of “apparent” cause and effect and try to increase the probability of getting another job by applying for a new position somewhere? Finally, how does your statement above differ from the spate of “positive thinking authors” and “preachers of affluence” that we hear from today?

Again, this depends on what the person considers real. Sometimes, losing a job is a good thing, it makes a person re-evaluate their life and discover what is real to them. Sometimes the challenge represents a test of their faith. One has to consider what is real to us, and proceed on that basis, consciously. The problem with many of us is that we are not even consciously aware of what we have conferred reality upon, and just act and react unconsciously. We merely assume that we consider things to be real because “that's the way things are”, when in fact it has been a conscious evaluation process of our own that has determined these things to be real, and conferred that status upon them. If we consciously inspect this process of how we came up with these evaluations, and ask ourselves how real these things really are, we might change our views, our actions, our relationships, on that basis. We will begin to see that we are not stuck with the reality we thought we were in. We have a much greater flexibility than we sometimes think we do. 

Merely "thinking positively" or "creating our own reality" cannot work unless we are aware of our own unconscious evaluations and the way in which we have structured what we think is real.Some people who practice "positive thinking" are in fact engaged in some kind of deeper inspection of themselves, and if they are, they will often get good results, and it will help re-arrange their own view of reality, and thus re-prioritize their life and their purpose. Others do not, and merely engage in a mental exercise of repeated affirmations, which end up creating an inner conflict as they rub up against our own evaluations of what is real. This is why people get varying results from these kinds of approaches. If a person remains unconscious of their own internal process of conferring reality on the world around them, but tries to change their thinking to something more positive in order to become successful, they won't do much more than frustrate themselves, and not know how or why. Often, they are simply not willing to pay the price of examining themselves deeply in order to effect real change, and instead just want a quick or superficial fix that will leave their deeper structures intact. This won't work, and the person will usually give up after a brief and fruitless period of effort.

Others may persist in their efforts, thinking there's some magical power in positive thinking that will, all by itself, change the world around them, and help them win the lottery or something like that. I've actually had unemployed friends who tried to do just that, and I couldn't help yelling at them when they told me their plan. It's hard to explain to these people the error in their approach, because they consider that "negative thinking". But there's nothing wrong with being critical of oneself or others in the process of changing. In fact, it's absolutely necessary. If we want to change, we really do have to examine our own unconscious negativity, which is really just a form of reality evaluation. We are negative about things we consider unreal, and so we have to examine those things we have negative feelings about and find out if that evaluation was correct or not. Often, we find that we have created a false evaluation based on some emotional reaction, and we have to correct that, and adjust our lives accordingly. 

There's some truth to the magical aspect of this, in that even the events of the world tend to occur in harmony with our deeper evaluations of reality, for better or worse, and that if we can change these deeper evaluations, even the events of our life will tend to change with them. Even so, a lot of things are simply unchangeable, and it's merely our attitude that needs to change to recognize the worth of things we previously considered worthless or harmful. But all of that requires a genuinely deep self-inspection and revaluation of our lives, such that we genuinely re-consider what is real to us, and what is not. Without that, any efforts we make will be in vain, and even counter-productive. There are no painless fixes.

“…What must be said loud and clear is that being the conscious observer is how we participate in life, it's how we experience everything directly, and how we act directly. If we don't live as the conscious observer, we are separating ourselves from life through concepts and interpretations that render us as "third persons" to our own experience. This is why we feel separate and apart from our experience - because we are not being genuinely related to it, we are instead conceptually related to it, identified with objects, even subjective objects, rather than knowing ourselves as the conscious subject, consciousness itself…”
I have had different experiences here. Not identifying with mind and body – and just resting the conscious awareness – truly allows me to experience what is happening: to feel deeply – whether it is joy, fear, outrage, love or whatever. On the other hand, sometimes there is still a sense of dualism and separation here. There is the conscious observing of (the object of that observing). Any comments?

You are describing exactly what I refer to as “conscious awareness”, tacitly free of identification with either mind or body. This is a basic state of receptivity, of simply being aware of whatever we feel or think or experience on all levels, without making a distinction between them, or between ourselves and them. And yes, this is not the end of all dualism by any means, but it is the beginning of a conscious life that is truly connected and related to all things, internal and external. It's a basic way of being true to oneself and to one's experience, and it makes possible the resolution of our conflicts, both internal and external.
“…Light does not actually do anything to darkness. It merely makes light obvious. It does not cause the darkness to "die". Similarly, consciousness does not come about through any cause, and it is not a cause in relation to anything else...”

I once read a western mystic who said darkness manifests the light - as need manifests supply - as fear (the sense of separation) is the venue to manifest faith (oneness knowing oneness). The universe is a loving relationship. Is this what you mean here?
No, not really. He is basically describing how opposites create one another in turn. That is how dualism works. I am not referring to the dualistic light that is the opposite of darkness. I'm using light as an analogy, in which light represents “non-dual reality”, and darkness represents “ignorance of reality”. When we live in ignorance, in duality, light and dark seem to be opposites, and sure enough, one creates the other in cycles of birth and death that never end. But the “light of reality” dispels ignorance, and when ignorance is dispelled, reality is simply obvious. One sees that there never was any such thing as “ignorance”. In our ignorance, we thought ignorance was a real thing, something to fight and do battle with, something to defeat using the forces of light, etc. But when ignorance is lifted by the light that is our own real nature, we don't find the street littered with dead dark things. There is no dark at all once the light is seen. And we see that there never were any dark things at all, it was merely something we imagined in our ignorance.

The difficult part is recognizing this while our ignorance is still partially present, when we have begun to see the light, but aren't sure if the light is real, or the ignorant visions of dualism are real. We seem to have two possible realities before us, and they are completely incompatible with one another. Which one do we choose? This question can only be answered by our own conscious awareness, which is able to surrender to the reality that we are already in by either faith or insight, or a combination of both. In so doing, we see that even the sense we have of there being a choice between these two was itself a product of our ignorant. In reality, we have no choice.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In an earlier post (December 2009?) you mentioned the narcissistic danger of many neo-advaitists in identifying with the mind-created "spiritual self". As an antidote you talked about having a healthy relationship and identity with the body. You even quote Freud and others in the post to support this position. However, in the posts you have written in the last month you talk about not identifying with the body which is more in line with traditional Advaita teachers. Can you explain the difference between healthy and unhealthy body identification (or at least the discrepancy in your positions here)?