The Way of Beauty: An introduction to the nature of perception
Conventional thinking tells us that the experience of perception is divided into two essential ingredients: one, a subject that perceives, and two, an object that is perceived. This understanding is enshrined in the structure of language with phrases such as, ‘I see the tree’, ‘I hear the wind’, ‘I touch the person’, ‘I taste the apple’ and ‘I smell the flower’.
In each case, a subject – ‘I’, the self – is joined to an object – the tree, wind, person, apple or flower – through an act of perceiving. Now, in order to understand the nature of perception, we need to explore both sides of this equation: ‘I’, the subject, and the object or world.
Traditionally, mystics have explored the nature of ‘I’, the self, and artists and scientists have explored the nature of the object or world. In other words, mystics have tended to face inwards, directing their attention to the heart of their being or essential nature, and scientists and artists have tended to face outwards towards the objects of nature and the world.
At first glance it may seem that these two set out in opposite directions. However, if each party explores deeply enough, they inevitably come to the same conclusion. Indeed, it is only because, in most cases, each party doesn’t explore deeply enough that the conclusions of mystics on the one hand, and artists and scientists on the other, tend to differ so radically.
The painter Paul Cézanne said, ‘A time is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will trigger a revolution’. The revolution to which he referred is the coming together of these two perspectives – the convergence of the mystic’s, artist’s and scientist’s deepest understanding – and the implications this has for all aspects of our lives.
So let us explore, briefly, both these perspectives.
The nature of the self
Conventional thinking tells us that it is ‘I, the body-mind’ that is aware of objects and the world. However, one simple, clear look at experience indicates that we are aware of the body and mind and we can observe it, in just the same way that we are aware of objects and the world.
In other words, the body-mind is not the subject of experience. The body-mind is an object of experience that appears and disappears like all other objects. Now, what is the perceiving subject that we call ‘I’ that knows or is aware of all these perceived objects, that is, the body, mind and world?
‘I’ refers to whatever it is that is aware of the objects of the body, mind and world. This ‘I’ cannot be found as any kind of object, that is, as a thought, feeling, sensation or perception, and yet ‘I’ is undeniably present and aware.
Hence, to be present and aware is inherent in ‘I’ which for this reason is sometimes referred to as ‘awareness’, meaning simply the presence of that which is aware. This awareness that is our essential nature is like an aware, empty openness in which all experience takes place, but it is not itself an experience.
Awareness is not located in time and is thus eternal or ever-present; it cannot be found in space and is thus infinite, that is, it has no finite or observable qualities.
The nature of the object, other or world: From matter to mind
Conventional thinking tells us that an object is made out of inert stuff called ‘matter’. But what does experience say?
Take the apparent world that we now see. Our only experience of such a world is the current perception. In fact, we cannot legitimately say that we know or perceive an independently existing world, that is, a world that exists in its own right, independent of our perception. All we can legitimately say, based on actual experience, is that we know our perception of the world.
In fact, we cannot legitimately say that we know our perception ‘of the world’ because, as we have seen, we never come in contact with any such world. We only know its perception. So, rather than saying we know our perception ‘of the world’, we can only legitimately say that we know perception.
Having discovered that we never actually know, perceive or come in contact with an object or world, as such, we can now explore our experience more deeply.
Do we actually find an object called ‘a perception’, or do we rather find the experience of perceiving? See clearly that we never actually find the seen object; we just find the experience of seeing. We never find the heard sound; we just find the experience of hearing. We never experience an object called ‘a taste’; we just know the experience of tasting.
In this way, see clearly that experience does not consist of a collection of objects or nouns, known by a separate, independent subject. Rather, it is more like a flow of experiencing, in which the apparent subject and object are contained as one. In fact, in the language of non-duality we could say that there are only verbs, no nouns! It is not ‘I see the tree’ but rather, ‘There is seeing’; not ‘I hear the wind’ but rather, ‘There is hearing’.
As such, the apparently perceived object is beginning to lose its solidity, separateness, otherness, object-ness. In other words, the seen or heard object seems to exist at a distance from ourself, but the experience of seeing or hearing always takes place close, intimately one with ourself.
Thus, we have discovered that we never really know, perceive or come in contact with inert stuff called ‘matter’ but that all we know is ‘mind’. That is, all we know or experience of the apparent object or world is ‘perceiving’ – that is, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling. Now, what is the nature of perceiving?
The nature of perceiving: From mind to pure knowing
Who or what is it that knows or is aware of the experience of perceiving? Ask yourself, ‘What is the relationship between the experience of perceiving and the knowing of it?’
See if you can find these two elements in your experience: one, perceiving and two, the knowing of it. Or are ‘perceiving’ and ‘the knowing of it’, one and the same experience?
In this way, discover that experience is not actually divided into two essential ingredients. Experience does not comprise one part that knows and another that is known. It is not inherently divided into a subject and an object.
We do not find a perception and the knower of that perception. We find that a perception is made out of the experience of perceiving, and that perceiving and the knowing of it are one and the same.
In other words, perceiving is made out of pure knowing. Reach out an imaginary hand in your experience and try to touch the stuff that perceiving is made of. Try to touch the stuff that seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling is made of.
The light of pure knowing
And what is it that finds, knows or is aware of this pure knowing? Is knowing known by something other than itself? No! This knowing knows itself. This pure knowing, or awareness, never knows, is aware of or comes in contact with anything other than itself.
For this reason I call it pure knowing. It is a knowing that is not tainted with the slightest trace of subjectivity or objectivity. It never knows anything other than itself. And the name that is commonly given to the absence of an object or other, to the absence of separation or duality, is beauty or love.
Not to know an apparent object as ‘an object’ is the experience of beauty: not to know an apparent other as ‘an other’ is the experience of love.
Beauty and love are not special kinds of experience that are limited to one or two objects or people; they are the nature of all experience. From the point of view of awareness or pure knowing – which is the only real point of view – all experience is made only of beauty and love. That is, from the point of view of awareness or pure knowing, there is only itself, being, knowing and loving itself alone.
Thus, from the point of view of awareness or pure knowing, there are no finite objects or selves. It is only from the illusory point of view of an imaginary finite self that finite objects or selves are experienced. From the point of view of awareness or pure knowing, there is only its own eternal, infinite self, and all apparently finite objects or selves are that alone.
”If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.” When experience is no longer imagined or felt to be divided into two essential ingredients – a subject called ‘I’, inside the body-mind, and an object, other or world at a distance from and made out of something other than ourself – it will be known and felt as it truly is, infinite and eternal.
Everything, all seeming things, shine with the light of pure knowing. As the Sufis say, ‘Wherever the eye falls, there is the face of God’.
There is only one space in the universe, only one being, God’s being, our being. Our self is like the space in the room that seems to be limited by, and contained within, four walls. It seems to be limited to, contained within, and generated by, the body but is really God’s infinite being, the only being there is, shining in us as the knowledge ‘I am’. Allow yourself to be drawn, absorbed into ‘I am’ and rest as that. Abide in the ‘I am’ without adding anything to it, no verbalization, no words. That is the practice of the presence of God. Be still and know that ‘I am’. The being that is each of us is the same being – the essential nature of everyone and everything. In this practice, the awareness of being outshines awareness of things. Eventually, the distinction between awareness of things and awareness of being diminishes, until all experience is pervaded by God’s presence.
Great to begin with
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