I began to weave this thread of thought in the post New Threads.
We don’t consciously experience reality directly, we experience the firing of neurons in our nervous system. Our retinas detect patterns of light and color and movement and angles. This information is then sent to our brain to be processed. Our nervous system figures out the boundaries of the various objects in our visual field, how big they are, how far away they are, and most importantly, what they are…for the objects are then given meaning (e.g. that object is a chair, that one is uncle Ralph). Our conscious mind then experiences the end result of all of that processing. We look around and see chairs, and friends, and computers, and so on. We think that we are perceiving reality but we are actually experiencing a representation or interpretation of reality that has been constructed by our brain.
The distinction between reality and our experience of it would be unimportant if our brain was actually creating an exact replica of reality in our head for us to experience. This, however, is far from the case. Our neuronal representation of reality is as different from reality as a road map is from the actual world, as a description of a strawberry is from an actual strawberry, as a photo of your loved one is from your actual loved one.
Let’s consider the road map analogy. Road maps do correspond to the territory they represent (otherwise they would be useless), but consider the immense differences between the map you have in your glove box (or on your phone) and the actual world in which you live. Before continuing with this post, I invite you to spend a minute thinking of all the aspects of reality that are missing from road maps.
The processes that go into making a map, transforming the world into paper and ink, are the same processes our brains use when transforming reality into the firing of neurons (I will be describing these processes in Thread B). These processes involve both the hard-wiring found in our sensory organs as well as our concepts and beliefs, for what we pay attention to (of the myriad of things we could pay attention to at any one moment), and how we then interpret what we attend to, are dependent on our values and beliefs and the concepts we have about reality. The resulting interpretation of reality is what we actual experience, and we naturally mistake it as being reality itself, much like a person who walks around their whole life with a road map in front of their face would think that the map is reality. Reality itself, however, is inconceivably greater than our brain’s representation (map) of it.
Our maps generally work so well that we think that our concepts about reality simply reflect concepts that somehow exist out there in reality. Our concepts, however, are purely mental, they are part of the map-making process, they don’t exist in the reality from which our maps emerge. Even really basic concepts, such as the existence of time, and the idea that the world consists of separate objects, are just (massively) useful concepts our brain uses to help us navigate through our lives. Time and objects are concepts, they don’t exist in the reality that lies beyond all of our concepts of it. So what is out there? What is reality like beyond all of our concepts about it?
We will never know, if by “know” we mean know conceptually. There are many things we do know (e.g. the earth is round) and there are many things we don’t know yet but will eventually know (e.g. whether there is life on other planets) and there are things we can never know (e.g. the true nature of reality beyond all of our thoughts and perceptions).
But there is a really big but here. There are ways to dampen, or even turn off, our mind’s map-making process. When that happens we experience reality directly, outside of any concepts. We pull the map down from in front of our face and experience…the ineffable mysteries that are the Cosmos and our existence within it
Beyond all concepts…there is a field. I will meet you there.
Sufi mystic Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273)
This field beyond all concepts has been known by many names in many places across time. I list a few of the names below.
I often refer to the field as “the other side of reality”. I first heard this term from don Americo. I don’t know if this is exactly what he means by the term but it is exactly what I mean by the term.
In Buddhism the essential “suchness” of reality, which exists beyond our thoughts, is called “tathata”. I rather like calling it the “suchness of reality”. I first encountered the term in the book Nature, Man, and Woman by Alan Watts, which I highly recommend, particularly pages 1 – 69.
A reference to the essential nature of reality appears occasionally in poetry and literature, as “things as they are”. The phrase does not always have that meaning, but at times it does. The anthropologist Gregory Bateson refers to this usage and explains its significance in the essay “The Creature and Its Creations” in his book A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind. This is an amazing essay and I plan to draw from it again in a later post (please see the subsequent post The Creatures and Its Creations).
According to the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, the “yonder realm” or “the far away land” visited by the hero in many of the world’s mythological stories refer to the other side of reality. The hero returns from that land with a boon for her or his society, after an adventure that is arduous with many perils. The essential nature of this journey was laid out in Campbell’s landmark book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The book was written in 1949 and is a little too Freudian for my tastes, but he returns to the basic theme in many of his later (and more palatable) books, including The Power of Myth.
And then there is “the land of Faërie”. Fairy-tales have been around as long as mind and language. The tales have changed dramatically in our culture with the advent of the industrial revolution, being delegated to children and rewritten in the (often mistaken) adult perception of what appeals to children’s tastes. In his remarkable essay On Fairy-Stories, J.R.R. Tolkien, an Oxford professor of philology and of ancient European literature, describes the land of Faërie in the following way. “I will not attempt to define [the land of Faërie], nor to describe it directly. It cannot be done. Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible.” Tolkien then describes the old fairy-tales as being stories of humans who enter that territory or journey along its borders. I plan to return to this idea in a later post as well.
The idea that there is a layer of reality that exists beyond all of our concepts goes back millenia, and perhaps much further. At some point we evolved the ability to think rationally, to analyze the world (i.e. break it into separate parts), and conceive of ourselves as being separate from the rest of Nature. Are the ancient myths about the Fall of humankind, when we ate of the tree of knowledge and were ejected from the garden, an echo of an ancient, ancient, memory of what things were like before our rational mind arose? I find this fascinating to ponder, but as there is no answer, I ponder only for a little while. In any event, I don’t want to take this metaphor of The Fall too far, for I consider our ability to think about the world a wondrous thing, and certainly not the original sin.
By whatever name we refer to that-which-is-beyond-names, there exist well-established paths that head towards that field (although the paths are long and not without peril). But the endeavor is not really about reaching a destination, it is about walking the path, and that I have done to a sufficient degree to share the following. Just walking the path opens me up to having my experience of the world, my map, shaped and informed by the other side of reality. Information flows in that does not fit my existing concepts and beliefs, and I change. Into my map flows more joy and love and a sense of meaning and belonging in the Cosmos. As near as I can tell this is the underlying nature of reality.
Walking a path into the other side of reality, however, is not an easy task. It is an adventure, and an endeavor, and at times a trial. Looming before for us to block our path as we begin, and appearing over and over again as we proceed, is The Guardian at the Threshold (next post).
- I would like to end the post with a link to more information on my book The Andean Cosmovision: A Path for Exploring Profound Aspects of Ourselves, Nature, and the Cosmos.
- The Salka Wind Blog is where I publish the rough drafts of material that may become my next book. While I have worked and worked this post it still seems rough, please look for diamonds in the rough.