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Piet/Steven Dialogue

Easy, Hard and “the Self” #1

{This is the first of five segments drawn from a dialogue recorded in Berkeley on May 10, 2005. Piet and I explored what "easy" means in both science and contemplation, and in segments "#2 through #5 this led us almost immediately to a long, sometimes comical discussion of "the self" as it's seen in contemplative traditions. If we just summarized this dialogue, it would look very tidy and succinct, but I think much would be lost in the process. So even though this presentation seems spiralic at times, for that very reason it reveals more about what is really at issue, and also how peoples' minds work when trying to grasp new insights ... it was a sort of "I don't get it, I get it, I don't get it" dynamic, for both of us. Points made in the segments of this dialogue will come up repeatedly in others to be posted later.}

Piet: the last few days when I've been practicing, I oscillate between … something like the different vertices or maybe the three edges of a triangle, pulling me. It's like I'm moving around them over and over. On the one hand, there is my intuition of what deeper insight could be, that is one vertex. The second vertex is the notion that everything is extremely simple, that it actually has to be extremely simple, otherwise it couldn't be true. There are also some insights I have about what you’ve called the Ch'an mirror and things like that. And the third vertex is my more habitual sense that it can't actually be really that easy, otherwise why would I not have seen it?

In the third vertex is my lifetime store of what I have read about, experienced, etc. So on the one hand, this intuition keeps coming up that it's just a matter of holding back a little more, becoming more quiet, seeing a little bit through all the handicaps … and then things should become a lot clearer. And that goes together, hand-to-hand so to speak, with the notion that everything is really very simple. But this complexity vertex tells me that well, just entertaining the notion that things are simple is also a notion, and it may not be so simple to get rid of the notion. And then I start thinking about practice in terms of the do's and don'ts, etc. Am I making any sense?

Steven: yes. It's a good topic, all the more so because it comes up so often these days in physics particularly and possibly in other sciences … this notion of simplicity, elegance, beauty of theories—those kinds of considerations. They're becoming more and more the basis for evaluating theories, or things that might lead to a theory. They may end up being the future of physics for all I know … if experiments get harder and harder to do. Anyhow, it's certainly true that at least in the traditions I've studied, and perhaps in others, there is agreement that the final face of things, basically, is simple. Maximally simple, in fact. It's the ultimate in economy, elegance and simplicity.

But again one has to remember that physics is a special kind of enterprise. Often, it really has to do with a high-level take on things. So provisional theories may be messy but they’re eventually replaced by some super simple elegant equation, something that says a great deal in a very little space … it's beautiful, it's extremely simple, you can write it down in a second, but it involves higher-level terms than what it replaces.

Similarly in contemplative studies, you've got a challenge that is maximally simple, but involves a higher-level perspective than the ordinary concepts and meanings etc. that we use to understand things. It's not really where or how we're normally looking. If we do actually see it, then we can say it's very simple, but since it’s so different from the usual way of seeing, it also presents a challenge.

Piet: yes, that's it. And I’ve experienced this kind of thing many times.

Steven: On the other hand, getting back to your triangle, the challenge is of a peculiar nature … I think a uniquely peculiar nature, because here it's not just another instance of the usual question of how we are going to find something that’s currently unfamiliar, which is what I guess a challenge would normally involve. Here the issue is really unfamiliar to us, because it bears on our way of being as well as our way of seeing. What we are most of the time, at least what we allow ourselves to be explicitly seen as or explicitly enacting, is this kind of narrow project-and grasping-oriented mind dealing in “thing” terms and “existence” terms … and related ordinary time notions. And that picture or ordinary way of being and set of tools, etc., can't possibly ever get to the “simple” appreciation that I'm talking about. So in that sense the challenge would be particularly great.

However, in another sense it's very easy, coming back again to your point, because for reasons I just mentioned, it's already “so,” it has already been accomplished (in the sense that it’s already present). Understanding this is yet another level of the challenge. Anyway, this is something that should either allow us to totally relax, or that will perplex us more than anything else possibly could, because what we going to do with that “already so” idea?

This immediately leads to a final, also interesting point—“higher level” doesn’t always mean “abstract” or “removed.” In contemplation, the highest-order insight is connected to what is still directly with us and actually perceptible in some sense. This is what I call the “full dimensionality” of what is present. And it may be one way in which contemplation is quite different from the physics and science case, or not … a subject for another discussion!

Anyway, as you were mentioning, it's very simple, although it may not be very “easy,” as the traditional texts often remind us. But whether it's easy or not really doesn't matter much in the end. This is a puzzler, and yet it's also something we don't need to worry about. Really economical traditions, like some schools within Zen, for instance, have sometimes emphasized that notion—that we don't need to worry about this or try to figure it out. But that too is just an ordinary level interpretation. Contemplative traditions and I are not saying “don't try,” nor are we saying “try hard, continuing to push!” If we just leave it at that, then I think people will feel perplexed. There is something left out of those two options: either seeking or giving up. So we could go further and discuss the alternative. This, I think, is what you are getting at with your “easy, not easy” triangle picture, and your comment about the complexity vertex and “notions—what I usually call embodied presuppositions.

Piet: Yes, it's that area. Well let’s do it! This is our “direct experience” session.

Piet & Steven, recorded 5/10/05, posted 6/27/06

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