One of my biggest criticisms of Buddhism is that it often focuses on the mind as the primary source of both experience and suffering.
This is the jist of the Buddha’s dependent origination teachings; the way that I see the world, shapes the world around me. The world is empty of inherent existence.
There is some truth in this but it is far from the whole truth.
The Subconscious & Essence
Science reckons that 97% of our brain’s processing is subconscious; our subconscious consists of lots of different aspects, including ways in which we have learned the world is over time. For example, if our parents were kind we learn to trust authority, if our parents were abusive we may believe that we are bad people.
This isn’t information that we are aware or conscious of – it is ingrained in our implicit assumptions about the world. This won’t come up unless we actively open to engaging with the subconscious emotions and instincts that are held in our bodies and hearts.
A simple illustration of this is the Rorschach test.
In this example, what you see in the abstract image is designed to show you your subconscious inner world.
An example of this is that people who have serious trauma are more likely to see scary images, whereas people who are healthy are more likely to see positive images. The reason this isn’t really about ways of looking is because the test is designed to reveal trauma that people aren’t aware that they have. Focus on the way of looking bypasses the emotional structure that exists underneath in our subconscious. The trauma is held in the body and the habit pathways that we carry around with us and requires us to engage with it on an emotional and embodied level for it to change.
Similar to dependent origination, this does still retain a level of flexibility, in that how we are shaped, shapes how we experience the world around us. But once again, this can’t be applied to everything.
Things do have some level of essence to them. Our relationship to things can change, but the thing itself stays somewhat stable. As you read more of this website, you may have a different perspective or feelings about what it is, but on a fundamental level it is still a website that I have built to share spiritual content.
Your relationship to it changes, changing how it appears to you, but its essence (a website, spiritual, content) doesn’t.
A really simple example of this is the kiki/bouba effect.
The fact that almost everyone calls the spiky one Kiki and the round one Bouba shows that there is a degree of inherent and collective nature in how we feel and experience things. That goes beyond what you as an individual are seeing in this moment.
Both of these ways of being with experience – our subconscious worlds and the essence that is present in things – could be applied to how we relate to things in life, for example, how men and women are perceived differently in our society.
Aspects of Experience
The reality that I’m pointing to with these examples, is that there is no single source of truth. There are technical and scientific reasons why this needs to be the case in order for the Universe and experience to exist, but for now I would like to focus on the human experience of these things.
Because there is no single source of truth, we cannot say that it is the way that we see things that shapes things – experience co-emerges from a number of sources all at once. In our individual experience, in our collective experience and in the Universe that exists around us.
There are probably a number of different ways that the different aspects of experience could be sliced and diced, but through my own incredibly rigorous explorations I have come up with the following aspects:
- Ways of Seeing – Mind
- Ways of Behaving – Body
- Ways of Feeling – Heart
- Ways of Believing – Soul
To illustrate these different aspects, I’d like to spend a bit of time imagining a walk-through of an art gallery.
We’re going to explore each aspect and how it constructs experience. Start by picking one of these people to be the character in your journey.
1 – Ways of Seeing
Your character (you can give them a name if you like) is stood in front of a piece of art. The way that they look at that piece of art, impacts what they are seeing.
For example, they could be an art student who is looking at it from a very technical perspective of how it has been created. This will cause them to see the materials and style of the image in a more pronounced way.
They could be a life-long lover of this particular artist, who is looking at it from a very appreciative perspective. They will notice the subtleties of the artist’s unique style.
Or they could be a tourist who is looking to be entertained by it. They will be making quicker judgements about good, bad, interesting, dull.
Which way is your character looking at the art and how does that impact it?
2 – Ways of Behaving
Depending on the person’s habits and physical being, they will behave differently.
They may spend an equal amount of time at each image, or spend the whole time sat in front of two or three paintings.
They may stand dead still and have endless capacity for concentrating or they may fidget their whole way around and run out of energy within half an hour.
When they stop at the cafe for lunch, they may wolf down their food in two minutes or they may linger and spend an hour nibbling their way through a salad. This isn’t a conscious decision that people make, it’s habit energy that is stored in how they naturally behave in the world
Their behaviour will also be impacted by the physical design and constraints of their environment. For example, how much time they have to spend there and what the layout and features of the gallery are.
Imagine the layout of the gallery and the way that your character moves through it. Notice how this will shape the experience.
3 – Ways of Feeling
This is the subtle emotional aspect that your character brings to the time in the gallery.
When they are stood in front of one of their favourite paintings are they allowing it to impact the depths of their being. Perhaps they are moved to tears or laughter by some of the artwork.
Or are they curiously open to being drawn to the subtle details that attract and interest them.
Or are they disinterested in the mood of the paintings and more interested in the shared emotional experience of being in a gallery with one of their loved ones and what this feels like.
Or are they emotionally closed and purely there for the conceptual understanding of the images.
All of these will impact their experience of the gallery.
Imagine which way of feeling your character is engaging with the gallery experience with and how that shapes their experience.
4 – Ways of Believing
This is about our fundamental beliefs of who we are, who other people are and what the world is. In most people their deepest held beliefs are subconscious but they will still drive the way they behave and the way they see and feel about everything.
Is your character there because they believe that art is a sacred aspect of experience and they want to feel deeply inspired and connected to the sacred in life.
Are they there because they are a consumer and they believe that this is a good way to entertain themselves for a few hours.
Are they there because the mysterious synchronicities of the Universe happened to draw them in to show them something important.
When they are there, do they assume that this environment is welcoming and hospitable to them. Or do they believe that they are an outsider, who has to fight for their place to be there.
This points to the fact that other people’s ways of believing and the collective conscious also impact what we believe about ourselves.
What beliefs does your character hold about the art gallery and their experience of it? What beliefs do other people at the art gallery hold about this person?
How does this fundamentally shape their experience?
Why This Matters
Hopefully this example has shown how the way that people experience things is not solely created by the way that they look at things.
This exercise may have also highlighted the way in which this understanding is important.
Our beliefs, behaviours, feelings, environments and cultures dictate our experience as much as our minds. Would a different character have experienced this differently? What if they were in a different gallery?
An outcome of this exercise for me, was thinking who the hell decided that all galleries should be designed basically the same and primarily for white middle and upper class adult tourists?
Probably all the white upper class people with lots of leisure time who designed them.
Off the top of my head, why aren’t there serious art galleries designed primarily for kids that are laid out like a fun assault course that you have to find your way through. Or pop-up street galleries in under-privileged neighbourhoods. Or gallery buses that can tour around the world and visit people during their lunch hour or in schools.
Who says that art needs to be something we look at, rather than something we interact with. Who says that it needs to be purely decorative rather than something functional. Couldn’t we turn our bridges and public spaces into pieces of artwork, for example?
What are the fundamental beliefs about what art is, what its purpose is and who it is for that we can shake up?
What physical infrastructure needs to be put in place for people to have the time and space in their life to be able to appreciate and engage with art?
When we embrace and connect with all these different parts of our being we open to a whole new world of possibility. One that is spacious, heartful and ineffable, but still grounded in reality.
Closing Disguised As Opening
Awakening is really all about opening to experience. To be meeting more of it directly as it is.
One of my biggest frustrations in life is a ‘closing disguised as an opening’.
It’s the teachings that on the surface seem as if they are opening things up for people, but are subtly shutting the door to lots of experience.
Dependent origination – how I see the world is what creates is – is a very good example of this.
You will have a subjective preference for one way of experiencing, most likely seeing, and it’s fine to embrace this and explore it, but it’s important to recognise that it isn’t the single source of truth. Even if it can feel like it is.
This can be a hard thing to get your head around and the best way is to come back to these questions. What lens am I seeing through? What habits, behaviours and physical environmental factors are here? How am I opening to feel this experience? What are my fundamental beliefs?
‘Closing disguised as opening’ comes from subtle narcissism and I write more about this in a later post. It is the desire in us to pick a single source of truth, rather than to be present with the fact that experience and reality can’t be pinned down to a single system, belief or perspective.