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Piet/Steven Dialogue

Easy, Hard and “the Self” #2

Steven: One thing “direct experience” could mean is “experience of something.” The discussions you and I often have instead emphasize what I call the full dimensionality of what is directly given or present, and only that. Usually people ignore the “directly given,” or the directly “so” … they understand getting direct experience as getting something new, either a different object of cognition or a different type of cognition, or both.

An example would be to focus strongly on thoughts, sensations and feelings etc., in “the present.” This has been a common misunderstanding of traditions like Zen, for instance … a misunderstanding because in such cases we would still be importing an “experiencing self” and related baggage, while trimming away other important facets of what is always truly present.

I think that when real insight does arise, a deep appreciation or understanding, it involves not picking up this limited logic and habit of structuring things in terms of either getting something new, or obsessively and narrowly focusing on the ordinary notion of the present. This may be true even in the practice of science. A theorist who is struggling with some cutting edge problem, trying to reach a better understanding, may sometimes be stuck in the approach I’m claiming to be limited, encumbered. But when s/he actually does enjoy understanding, especially if it's a really deep, beautiful, economical, maximally comprehensive insight, s/he has probably dropped some of that restrictive logic, perhaps without realizing it. Contemplation specializes in this art of “dropping.”

Of course science and contemplation may still not seem the same, because in the science case the theoretical point being considered is likely much more specific and technical than in the contemplation case, and further removed from any ordinary notion of what is perceptibly “present.” We can address that concern later. But I think there are common features in the basic character of insight in these two disciplines.

In both cases, there’s an insight that isn't owned by the putative self and is important not because it's merely a clever way of solving an abstract problem, but because it's an entry into something of the way things are. I’ve claimed more, that it might even participate in what is so. But leaving that aside, it's still more than just getting an ordinary solution to a problem, something sought by a narrow form of “self,” with its typical expectations and blinkers.

Piet: Just picking up on this last point, I really don't know what the self is … actually from the beginning of reading books about contemplative practice and views, I liked some of them very much, but one of the things that puzzled me is this: I know this is an arm, and this is a head, but I don't know what the self is. So the whole question of the self has been this little thorn in my flesh from the beginning.

So you … when you … both in writing of some of those books and in the talks you give when you explain this, either in your Ch'an weekend retreats or to me in private, you sort of assume that there is a self or ego which I know, and then the issue is … how to get rid of it. But I really don't know! I can say a lot about objects, but I really don't know what the subject is, so I would rather start there before trying to get rid of something. I presume that I have bought into things, so other people tell me, but do I honestly know? I'm not sure. Let's be rigorous and really do research with all the elements of the situation.

Steven: so you were talking about this triangle with the three vertices … can you remind me again about that?

Piet: though they were not so important … it was just a picture to get started: there was intuition, and then a theoretical understanding of the simplicity of things, and finally a theoretical understanding of the complexity of many different practices. So there was an intuition poles and two contrasting theory poles.

Steven: oh, I see … I just ask because I thought one of them was a sense of difficulty or at least a question about why the “easy” hadn’t turned out to be readily achievable. This was your “complexity vertex.”

Piet: yes. But for now, my point is that whenever I'm doing research, I put a few things on the table and then I'm like a little dog sniffing at a pole here and a pole there, so I walk from one to the other and I focus on different things, and while I'm doing that, I'm not frustrated—there's no difficulty, I don't know the answer but I know that a gestalt will emerge … it's like rubbing a crystal ball—something will come out. So here I put intuition and simplicity and complexity on the table, just to start somewhere.

Steven: OK. None of those seem to have a “self” lurking somewhere … but I still think there is one.

Piet: oh no, but …

Steven: I think there is one, even if at first glance that isn’t obvious. That’s one place I’d look for the complexity or “difficulty” side.

Piet: Well … I feel a bit bad, pushing my model on you. But my model of doing research is that I start with an empty slate, and I put a few things on there and I try to look at them and ask “who are you?” repeatedly. “Who are you? What are you? What do you imply?” And I walk from one to the other and maybe I put another in there, or maybe two or three or four, and then I see new things arising, and then again I ask “What is arising out of you? What is there? What is here?” And in this kind of conversation, things come out.

I complete trust that this works. I don't know why, but it's the only way I could do research, and it’s the way I have always done it from the beginning. So I just threw out these three, because if you throw out only two, intuition and theory, that is too meager. Or the theoretical idea of simplicity and the theoretical idea of complexity, that's too meager. If you have these three, then you start to have a more interesting sample … my playing field, I realize, has to be two-dimensional. If it's one-dimensional, then you just get oppositions and fights and tensions. A six-dimensional thing I can't imagine. So if I were in a six dimensional space, I would have to take two dimensions at a time.

So the table surface, either a blackboard or a table, is my image of … it's funny to talk about this, it's very interesting to make this explicit because it has always been tacit, I now realize. So, you need minimally three points to span the plane, so I generally throw out three or four things, and then I can walk around. In the plane you can go in circles, in a line you cannot do that. In six dimensions you can also go in circles, but you only need two. So I want to go in circles, and go out and then go back in circles, and go at right angles, and all of that you can do perfectly well in two dimensions. Maybe that's why the complex numbers are so fundamental, it's effectively a two-dimensional system. Where you have winding numbers etc.

So I start by seeing that I have an intuition, and I have an idea … of theory. And I know that intuition alone is not enough, and that theory alone is not enough. In that playing field I'm now going to walk around, like a dog who is being let out of the house and just makes his way through the world … of practice. So you say a few things about these three items, while I'm looking at them too, and one of the important points you made is that when we think about it, we use a self, and this and that, but then I think “well, but what is a self?” See that is my one tool … with everything I see on the table, I ask “what is it?”

Steven: okay thanks. That’s a helpful clarification, and that part at least is exactly the same in contemplative training. People need to emphasize it, rather than taking anything for granted, even from the previous day. So you say “what is it?” but then I’d want to ask what sort of answer would be provided in response to that question.

Piet: but that's more a philosophers' question.

Steven: no, sorry. I didn’t mean it in that way at all. I mean it as a meditation question. So, you're asking a question and I want to know what kind of answer, just in the most fundamental sense, what kind of thing do you expect to come back?

Piet: it could be anything, words are just …

Steven: Yes, I think I’m agreeing with you! See my point is that this self is an example of a thing that won't be fully captured in an account—what you’re calling a philosopher’s approach. So if the question is “what is the self thing?” and if I provide some kind of definition or account, like people often do in answering questions, that's not going to help. The whole point of bringing up this belief in a self is that it's important for us to see … only see. So our “answer” has to be something that aids or invites direct seeing.

Piet:umm hmm. And that is exactly what I want. In research … and I realize I have to say much more about that, it's an extremely interesting area …

Piet & Steven, recorded 5/10/05, posted 6/29/06

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