Friday, January 26, 2007

Shakespearean non-dualism

"We are such things as dreams are made on."*
-William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Much about the character of Prospero in The Tempest persuades us that he is the closest thing in the plays to autobiography. Generally it is inappropriate to read a fictional character's ideas and opinions as being those of its author, but here there is a case for doing so. For example, both Prospero and Shakespeare renounce 'art'. Prospero gave up illusionistic magic, and The Tempest was the Bard's last play. So when Prospero speculates about the nature of reality, it is tempting to read these thoughts as Shakespeare's own. Shakespeare is like an Avadhuta - a sage dedicated to dispelling human illusions such as 'I'-consciousness. It could be objected that if 'I' and 'you' are no more than dreamstuff, then love between two people is meaningless. Miranda and Ferdinand ought to call the whole thing off. But to the non-dualist Prospero real love is a state in which there is no other ('Ananya' in Sanskrit). This is how it is possible for him to forgive his evil brother Antonio - there is no other to forgive or not forgive.
"Avadhuta (अवधूत) is a term from the Dharmic Religions of India referring to a somewhat eccentric type of mystic or saint who has risen above bodily-consciousness, duality, and worldly concerns and acts without consideration for standard social etiquette. Such personalities are considered to be free from the consciousness of the ego, and to 'roam free like a child' over the face of the earth. An avadhut does not identify with their body or mind. Such a person is said to be pure consciousness in human form. Avadhuts play a significant role in the history of a number of Yoga, Vedanta and Bhakti traditions."

*Sometimes this line is rendered as: "...dreams are made of"

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Einstein on the Illusion of Discrete Selves

Escher, 'Relativity'

"A human being is a part of a whole, called by us 'universe', a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison..."

-Albert Einstein

On Having No Head

Tang Dynasty Statue
"The best day of my life- my rebirthday, so to speak- was when I found I had no head. ...
It was when I was thirty-three that I made the discovery. Though it certainly came out of the blue, it did so in response to an urgent inquiry; I had for several months been absorbed in the question: WHAT AM I? The fact that I happened to be walking in the Himalayas at the time probably had little to do with it; though in that country unusual states of mind are said to come more easily. ...
What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: just for the moment I stopped thinking. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. I forgot my name, my humanness, my thingness, all that could be called me or mine. Past and future dropped away. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough. And what I found was khaki trouserlegs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in - absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not in a head.
It took me no time at all to notice that this nothing, this hole where a head should have been, was no ordinary vacancy, no mere nothing. On the contrary, it was very much occupied. It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything - room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snow-peaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world."

- D. E. Harding, On Having No Head-
Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious.
London, Arkana.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Bushfire Photo

Here's a photo my sister Karen took of her street yesterday during the bushfire. Temperatures were up near 40 degrees Celsius across the city. Luckily the wind was not blowing towards her place. A helicopter, ('Elvis') dropping water bombs, saved the houses at the bottom of the street.

Zhang Ziyi Presneeze

"All this nature stuff is playing havoc with my sinuses!"
-Zhang Ziyi in still from 'Hero'; a truly exquisite movie, if somewhat confusing in plot.
Attending to the colour-coding of the cinematography helps though.

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."

Feeling a bit inclined to shuffle off this mortal coil,
Maggie Cheung exposes herself to a rain of arrows
shot by thousands upon thousands of Qin archers.
But somehow they all miss.

The Ultimate Ideal

"This scroll of Broken Sword's isn't about sword technique but about swordsmanship's ultimate ideal. Swordsmanship's first achievement is the unity of man and sword. Once this unity is attained even a blade of grass can be a weapon. The second achievement is when the sword exists in one's heart when absent from one's hand. One can strike an enemy at ten paces even with bare hands. Swordsmanship's ultimate achievement is the absence of the sword in both hand and heart. The swordsman is at peace with the rest of the world. He vows not to kill and to bring peace to mankind. Your Majesty, your visions have convinced me that you are committed to the highest ideal of ultimate swordsmanship. Therefore I cannot kill you."
-Jet Li's character to Emperor Qin Shihuangdi in the film 'Hero'.
Some say that the film is apologistic to totalitarianism. This is a facile reading.

Subjective Consciousness

The Subjective Frame
The concept of the Real is the notion of a self-conscious mind. The category of the object arises in subjective consciousness together with its polarity, the subject. The story of the Real, therefore, is bound up with that of the self, and begins with the fact that you and I are conscious beings aware of our own consciousness.
Cognition is an instrument for monitoring the world and shaping appropriate action upon it. The world must therefore figure prominently in experience. Yet we all know that much experience consists of sensations, thoughts and feelings that cannot be identified as elements of the external world. These incongruous elements appear to constitute a realm that is parallel to the objective one, if not quite on an equal footing. The outward orientation of mind tempts one to objectify this realm as a kind of rarefied mental substance awkwardly sharing the cosmos with its material counterpart. But subjective awareness is a mode, and not a content, of experience. Even when the content of awareness is the physical world, we may still have the sense of this awareness as experience happening in the mind, in much the way that news footage happens here and now, on the flat screen of your TV, even though it depicts three-dimensional events somewhere else.
Self-consciousness is the awareness of experience as subjective. It is precipitated by the presence of the subjective frame that bounds primary objective reality. This frame is some cue in the experiential field, an element of experience that does not appear to be part of the objective world. You are not normally aware of the outline of your visual field, for instance--the easiest part of which to see is your nose. But sometimes this jumps into awareness, reminding you that your own existence is as plain as the nose on your face! You may then have the self-conscious experience of looking out of your eye sockets at the panorama of the visible world-- which includes parts of your own body such as your hands. Alternately, you might become aware of some bodily sensation as a subjective artifact.
Irregularities or breakdowns in normal perception are cues that place a frame around experience in such a way as to identify it as subjective. Thus an inner realm of experience is implied by optical and other illusions, hallucinations with psychotropic drugs, various conditions of neurologically injured patients, normal imagination and memory, dreams, somatic sensations, after-images, etc. These diverse experiences all appear to be not perceptions of anything physical, even if caused by physical stimuli or referring indirectly to physical events. Perceptual anomalies betray the mediating presence of mind, just as the waviness of old glass in a window betrays the existence of the intervening pane.
Self-consciousness is a special instance of self-reference, the paradoxes of which are essentially boundary skirmishes between categories or logical levels. Just as death frames life, the subjective frame is the boundary of the primary objective world. Everything within this boundary is received as real, logically prior to the subjective frame, and no doubt historically prior to subjective consciousness. A border to the Real implies that the Real is not all that exists, that something else must lie beyond this frontier. Before the appearance of this boundary, there can be no subjectivity-- indeed, no self. But once a cognitive system can self-refer, it is bound to find an element within itself that is incongruous with the objective world. A limit to the objective world implies the subjective one that contains it, and the self that framed and found that border. One's consciousness itself becomes an element of an expanded domain of self-conscious experience. This development may be likened to the discovery of irrational numbers, which did not fit into the domain of rational numbers. In order to accept and use them as legitimate numbers, mathematicians were forced to expand the domain to include them in a broader definition of number. (The expanded continuum then included the rational numbers among all possible decimals). Similarly, the recognition of elements of experience, that cannot be considered part of the objective external world, led to an expansion of the human cognitive domain. The domain of the world was forced to include such elements in an expanded domain of experience. And the category of experience implies a subject, an experiencer conscious of its role in relationship to objects of experience, both physical and mental. This is the split of subject and object.
In the beginning was the world. Just as our eyes cannot see themselves without the aid of a mirror, the pre-subjective mind could not have figured within its own experience, or known its role in producing and regulating that experience, without the reflection of self-consciousness. All that we moderns call subjective would have appeared to it unquestionably real. The development of human consciousness, as inferred from ancient myths, seems to have passed through stages similar to those through which the consciousness of an individual develops. The earliest human psyche, like that of a newborn child merged in an undifferentiated unity with the world, would have distinguished poorly between inside and outside. From our current subjectified perspective, we call this projection. But from the perspective of the pre-subjective mind, everything we would presently describe as taking place within the self must be experienced as external objective events. Without a self, only the world exists.
Just as the maturing child is ambivalent about its dependency, the rise of subjective consciousness must also involve a conflicted struggle to break away from the garden of unreflective being. The child begins to assert its will beyond the sphere of voluntary bodily movement, through experimenting with objects and testing itself against other wills. The young ego begins to disengage its own identity and exercise itself through interaction with the world, rebelling against its helpless dependency. And like this budding identity and competence of the child, the subjective consciousness of mankind has learned through its interaction with the physical world-- an interaction including rebellion against mother Nature, against the instinctual body-mind, against controlling father and mother gods, and even against the concept of reality.
The development of subjective consciousness depends on the ability to observe and manipulate internal mental objects as well as objects in the environment. Conscious control of the mind means wresting oneself from possession by its contents. To this end the relation to instinct is loosened, distance is acquired, and something purely cognitive is distilled from compelling emotional contents. In our present subjective and over-mental society, it is difficult to appreciate what must have been the very different situation at the dawn of humanity. While we long to recapture some instinctual vitality, in pre-subjective times the great task must have been to tame the mind's terrors, to gain freedom from overwhelming perceptions and feelings experienced as apparent reality.
Subjective consciousness achieves a more flexible mental instrument-- yet always in the service of the body. Possession by a mental content means seeing the world through it, so that it is experienced as a feature of objective reality, absolute and imbued with self-evident meaning. Subjective consciousness is the capacity to take such contents back into the psyche where they can be directed by a conscious will, appropriated as palpable tools of the self. Through the awareness of awareness, the organism is able to change its internal structure, to voluntarily retool itself.
By experiencing its own experiencing, mind can transcend its rigidity, stepping beyond its habitual categories, perspectives and assumptions to see them as such. It is then in a position to modify them from a new foothold of relative detachment. Such a foothold is only relative-- a movement from lesser to greater objectivity, not a static quality or thing. The paradox of objectivity is that it is only attainable through subjective consciousness. As new truths are conjured from this vantage point, they in turn must be relativized.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Forbidden Planet

Walter Pidgeon - "Stop it, Robby! Don't let it in! Kill it!"
Leslie Nielsen - "It's no use. He knows it's your other self."

The Sci Fi movie Forbidden Planet is based on Shakespeare's play The Tempest, which is full of
deep philosophical ideas closely parallelling those of the Avadhutas of India.
The deeper ideas didn't really make it into the film, but it reminds us how universal Shakespeare's work is that it can be adapted into such a different genre.

I love the way the Krell (aliens a million years ahead of us technologically) clung nostalgically to pre-digital ammeters (see background of poster). Perhaps this was their undoing.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Ownership of Consciousness

"The ego is not the owner of consciousness;
it is the object of consciousness."

- JP Satre

Sartre like Heidegger uses phenomenology to attack the Cartesian ergo sum. There is no "I" that thinks, but only thought and reflection upon this thought. With Sartre the dissolution of the Cartesian egological self initiated by Nietzsche reaches its climax. There is no entity that is original, no basis for a reality of ego. Indeed the self only succeeds in reaching authenticity through the act of evacuating into the world. Solipsism becomes unthinkable from the moment that the "I" no longer has a privileged status. Philosophically Sartre stands in opposition to Hegel's absolute idealism, but the ego follows again the same path in the process of exposition. Having established an understanding within holistic practice their thesis suffers complication via the reintroduction of the will. First Sartre contends that "there is no 'I'" on the unreflected level. The act of directing ones consciousness towards the world of objects Sartre describes as intentional but is itself an unreflective noetic act. Reflection upon it produces a new object which did not exist before the act was grasped - the ego. Hence this reflected consciousness generates the "I". This becomes the transcendent object of the reflective act but is not in itself a part of that act. Thus this reflection not only discloses objects, but produces and constitutes them. Sartre goes on to state that we have no privileged access to our own ego over and above "the ego of another". The ego cannot belong exclusively to itself. Sartre refers instead to consciousness to instigate beings freedom because the ego's relation to the world is patently a fabrication. For Sartre, the self is an object constituted within the phenomenal field. "The ego is not the owner of consciousness; it is the object of consciousness". Consciousness is a kind of pure transparency, a mere openness to a world to which it adds nothing of its own. Against this Sartre conceives the character of "authenticity" whereby consciousness is able to make itself free because every intentional act is self-originating, self-determining and "absolutely free". His only reconciliation with holistic meaning rests in his joining Marx, for he says the whole problem of recognising ones own, and others, authenticity, must be shifted to the domain of concrete social and political action.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Real

"Only by letting go can we truly possess what is real."

-Li Mu Bai (Character in the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)

Chih Kuan

"a fixed mind that cannot stray is like a bound monkey...the causes that create phenomena are ownerless and empty."

-Chih Kuan

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Self is not an Object

The 'I'-thought is a mistaken assumption which has no real existence of its own. It can only appear to exist by identifying with an object. When thoughts arise the 'I'-thought claims ownership of them - 'I think', 'I believe', 'I want', 'I am acting' - but there is no separate 'I'-thought that exists independently of the objects that it is identifying with. It only appears to exist as a real continuous entity because of the incessant flow of identifications which are continually taking place. Almost all of these identifications can be traced back to an initial assumption that the 'I' is limited to the body, either as an owner-occupant or co-extensive with its physical form.

- Advaita philosophy

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Subject and Object

The great realisation of Non-dualism is that the concept of subject and object is erroneous. In other words, there is no "I" and no "other". Self and world are not separate things.

When we talk about the Non-dual tradition, we usually refer to the Advaita philosophy of Sankarachara and the teachings of the Buddha, but Jesus' statement in the Gospel of Thomas: "There is no inner and outer", seems to be echoing the basic truth that subject and object are one.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Free Will

"a human can very well do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants."

Einstein, among others, found that a comforting idea. "This knowledge of the non-freedom of the will protects me from losing my good humor and taking much too seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging individuals," he said.

The implication of Einstein's statement (paraphrasing Schopenhauer) is that the only way to have 'free will' is to be desireless, to give up wanting. This was also the conclusion reached by the Buddha and many others.

One would imagine that a desireless state would be completely inert. Surely one must desire to act before one can act? However, if the desire is the ownerless pure desire of the Self, one can act dynamically without the obstructions of the limited 'I' consciousness.

The Dignity of the Entity

Though there is no such thing as an 'I',
the uniqueness of the individual is real and dignified.
Though there is no such thing as 'we',
the creative power of collectivity is real and dignified.

Ownership of the collective entity ends in dictatorship
and the death of the creative power of the people.
Ownership of self kills the uniqueness of an individual
because it is a form of dictatorship
and, as Hanah Arendt observed, dictatorships are

A collective entity has no owner
but this need not make it less powerful;
great collective movements are not always led;
sometimes they ignite spontaneously by themselves.
An individual entity has no owner
but this does not detract from its dignity.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

"There is no me"

“There is no me.
I do not exist.
There used to be a me
but I had it surgically removed.”

-Peter Sellers

Naturally he is only joking in this quote; however, there is an element of truth in it -Like many actors he did actually feel as if he didn't quite know who he was outside the personas of the fictional characters he created. He was one-off, unique. So it seems odd to us that he should have felt that he did not really exist as an individual, in a sense. Uniqueness is a quality bestowed by the Self, not by the banal ego.

Monday, January 08, 2007


"Even after resorting to lake of utmost tranquility
I fail to annihilate my ego and superego.
The harder I fight them, the stronger they become.
Now they are even visible as these lumps on my head!"

Friday, January 05, 2007

Mindless Jest

Excerpts from the Edinburgh Fringe 2005:

The right to bear arms is slightly less ludicrous than the right to arm bears.

My dad is Irish and my mum is Iranian, which meant that we spent most of our family holidays in Customs.

Is it fair to say that there'd be less litter in Britain if blind people were given pointed sticks?

I saw that show, 50 Things To Do Before You Die. I would have thought the obvious one was "Shout For Help".

'Employee of the month' is a good example of how somebody can be both a winner and a loser at the same time.

I like to go into the Body Shop and shout out really loud: "I've already got one!"

If you're being chased by a police dog, try not to go through a tunnel, then on to a little seesaw, then jump through a hoop of fire. They're trained for that.

The Parentless Self

What surname has salt
which like the parentless Self
dissolved in the Sea?

Haiku by Graham Brown

The Wall of Bright Cloud

The wall of bright cloud
is both a veil and a door
to Reality

Haiku by Graham Brown

The Synaesthesiac

Painting by the mystical Lithuanian artist and composer Ciurlionis (died 1911).
He felt that he was a 'synaesthete', meaning he perceived sounds as colours and vice versa.