Words and Reality

Language is the decisive difference between us and other chimpanzees with whom we share 98% of our genes.  We can articulate and review our thoughts.  We can listen to and reflect on what others say.  This enormously amplifies our ability to learn.

But we ought to be much more wary of words.  They only point to things.  Too often we confuse the name we give a thing with what it points toward.  I’ll get to that in a moment.

First, something an empathetic friend helped me see.  She responded to my post about recognizing that I don’t exist“What you have written about your life is intriguing […] and a little heartbreaking”.  What I saw is a new level of how blessed I’ve been.

My life has never, since I started work, anyway, felt “a little heartbreaking” to me.  I’ve encountered a mix of circumstances, some quite difficult, but I was blessed to accept them and take action, not suffer.

My aim in my no-self post was to show a series of paths I took that were misguided.  My experience along that route to nowhere was a sense of adventure, though.  It was like being on a long trek through different lands.

So I’ve been reflecting on why I was blessed to feel that way.  Two powerful forces were at work.  I’ve mentioned the one known as Florence, my mother who felt there was no challenge she could not surmount.  I’ll say a little more about her, then some about the force in my father, Leonard, that I had to oppose.

Florence grew up in a Catholic orphanage.  She loved children, trained as a nanny and worked first for a wealthy English couple then in Italy for a marquess.  She loved Italy and would have stayed longer but the marquess had to replace her when he was sent on a diplomatic posting to Hitler’s Berlin.

She never said much about that time but it was evidently happy.  She explored with enthusiasm and one of her very few possessions, a picture of a chalet in the mountains on my bedroom wall, likely sparked my own Himalayan treks.

Leonard’s mother died before he was a year old and his father, Whalley, was jailed for refusing to fight in WW1, so he was raised by his beloved grandmother until he was eight.  When Whalley remarried, the three of them joined one of his younger brothers in Akron, Ohio.  Whalley, who hated the cold, was happy when he was offered the chance to operate a citrus farm in extreme SW Texas.  He knew nothing about farming and not a single citrus tree was there but he loved it.  So did Leonard but his step-mother Edith hated the heat even more than Whalley hated the cold, so after a few years they returned to Ohio.

When Whalley was unable to get a job in the Great Depression, he and Edith returned to England.  Leonard stayed to graduate from High School and the friend with the farm offered to fund his college education but Whalley sent him a ticket back to England where, not knowing British history, he did not qualify for the Civil Service as Whalley hoped.  That was when he began giving film shows for the Peace Pledge Union.

The lesson Leonard drew from all these upheavals was, the best he could do was endure.  His happy memories of the farm in Texas and of High School predisposed me to be happy in America but they compounded his yearning for stability.  He was apprehensive about new upheavals anyone with power over him might create.

What my friend’s comment about “heartrending” showed me is, I always understood more than I recognized about acceptance and suffering.

Now a more dramatic example of the power of words.  The Zen master who was my first Buddhist teacher told us one morning:  “If you really want to end suffering, stop creating it”.

Hearing that in a receptive moment, I got a glimpse of what acceptance means and that I had been blessed to practice it much of the time even though I hadn’t understood the word before.  I’ve mostly done as my mother did and my father did not, recognized negative circumstances, not felt sorry for myself and taken action for change.

Here’s a second set of thoughts provoked by a response to my post.  Richard wrote:  “The intersection of physics and psychology gets pretty strange doesn’t it? I’ve done a lot of thinking about the implications of quantum physics, and our worldview. Mostly, it’s been a bunch of circular waffling. The only thing I’m fairly certain of is that our model of reality is flawed, probably because of some version of the “you can’t see the true reality from within the system” problem.”

I circled, too, until I saw that although I have no self, I do exist.  We can discern the structure of reality from within the system even though we can’t quite see how it operates.

We manifest from an ever changing force field, as does everything we perceive, so from that perspective, we don’t “really” exist.  But  our actions change the force field, so in fact we do exist.  How to think about that?

Nothing that is perceptible to us sentient beings can be found in the force field, yet every sentient being is a point of consciousness with the capacity to act.  That means we exist in more than one way, only one of which, the form that takes action, is a form in the way we imagine.

Consciousness is the great puzzle to brain scientists.  Is it a product of the brain, or somehow separate?  I sense it’s separate but what has made all the difference for me is recognizing that we exist in a form that, because it has no intrinsic nature and is utterly imperceptible to our senses, to our way of thinking does not exist.

The reality of sentient beings takes threefold or twofold form in Buddhist metaphysics.  The form that acts is the nirmanakaya, the conscious form is the sambhogakaya, and the imperceptible one is the dharmakaya.  The first two are also thought of as one, the rupakaya, to highlight that the form with no properties is the ultimate level of reality.

There’s a vast mass of logic about why and how reality is multi-fold but it remains in the end a mystery to our intellect.

What we can be certain about is that matter manifests from energy.  We can start by thinking of matter as congealed energy and energy as liberated matter, but when we use quantum physics to examine what’s going on we see that you and I, for example, exist in both forms simultaneously.

Or perhaps we exist in three forms, the three kayas, which we could rename Tom, Dick and Harry if that feels less foreign, or Romeo and Juliet if we’re thinking about the two forms.  It’s only what the words point toward that matters.

I’ve noticed some changes since I began getting glimpses of what all these words are pointing toward, that what seem to be separate beings are not separate, that we are all manifestations from one ocean whose currents flow without boundaries, that we are all eddies in a maelstrom of pure energy.

The less separate I feel, the less indifferent I become.  My impulses are more kind, I’m more prone to compassion than anger, and I’m less grasping.

The energy flows that manifest as Martin are changing because I’m watching them, and the longer I watch, the more sensitive I become to the eddies that manifest as other beings.

Yes, the way this multi-fold reality works is a mystery but now I know how to proceed, acting that way is deeply happy-making.

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