Nanjing 1992. Behind us, a group of Japanese tourists, many of them probably the sons and daughters of the perpetrators of the 1937 massacre, created a great fuss when they came late into a performance at the Chinese opera. Seemingly oblivious of the fact that the orchestra suddenly modified its playing to contain a lot of jeering ‘raspberries’ they got out their video cameras and saw the whole performance through a little spy-hole.
For around sixty years I have been philosophically attached to the idea that we invent the world we imagine we live in. We have pictures of things—we work with, think through, feel the pictures, rather than operating with and on actual experience. Mental constructs take the place of actual experience. The result of this is that ‘Because we have a picture, we neglect to experience…’ (Lord Pentland)
Perhaps we are always too close to actual experience—it overwhelms us with its immediacy; so we take refuge in pictures, simple caricatures. Because we put a frame round what we imagine somebody is saying, for instance, we work with that rather than with what they are actually saying beyond the frame. Pictures of things derive from imagination. Everything we experience becomes a mental construct tinged with various degrees & qualities of feeling, stimulating the imagination as a substitute for real thinking.
To achieve a measure of control over our responses to things as they really are rather than to the way imagination constructs reality for us, we need first of all to be fully aware of the picture-making process.
How can we do this?
It’s easy to offer a prescription; entering into the spirit of it requires a little effort.
First check the pictures, observe how we work with them, how they relate to what’s really there in the world outside of us. Chuck away the video cameras and all the other e-technology, everything that we’ve invented and come to rely on to distance ourselves from the experience that can overwhelm when we choose to let it. Let us learn to know that we are able to work without pictures.
My wife & I live in the country in the back of beyond, more familiar with grass and trees and sky than concrete space-age jungles. Getting around London for four days this week, it seemed so easy simply to hail one of the hundreds of taxis cruising the streets and to let the driver get us into expensive traffic jams by using his map of reality rather than trust ourselves to buses on which, being old people, we can travel for free. Eventually we realised that it didn’t matter what bus you got on you could always board another one that would get you where you wanted to go. The way out of confusion is to begin anywhere and just proceed. We began to trust ourselves to get on one bus in the firm expectation that others would take us back to our temporary home in Bloomsbury eventually, a great network of possibilities. One result of this was that we became more alive to what was going on around us; not pictures or maps but real events, people, patterns of being.
It was something of a shock to realise how identified we were with a picture we had of London being so complicated to navigate compared with our simple country pleasures that we had to trust to somebody else’s map of reality. We had forgotten our selves, our own ability to make sense of things for our selves.
One evening we had booked to see a play in St Giles, Cripplegate. Even the taxi-driver didn’t know how to get there but he took us a certain way. People we met in the streets, clearly daily denizens of the new glass towers in the area, didn’t know where the church was—what they did know was only the picture of their reflection in the glass and the way from the underground station to find it. We eventually arrived at the church by following our own nose.
How can we possibly separate our selves from our mental constructs in order to rediscover our true selves as persistent bold explorers of the mazes of the universe, not living out of pictures? It is all too easy to identify with the pictures of thoughts, maps, habits and forget our true selves in them.
What we could do is this.
We have three Centres of activity inside us: the physical centre, the emotional and the intellectual centre; the centres are not entirely separate one from another nor are they exclusive of other distinctively human functions. But when we get a balance between the work of the three main centres we can be more at home with ourselves in all situations.
First, spend some time fully appreciating all bodily sensations, put attention alternately in little finger, big toe, buttock, left shoulder, lips; become aware of attention moving round the body. Be more sure of how you move in relation to the outside world in your physical centre.
After spending some time at this, abruptly shift attention to outside things (leaves, sky, movement of birds) and stay there for a while. Then keep deliberately shifting attention from one to the other without naming anything. Do this many times so you come to know for sure which is which without thinking about it. Gradually emerges a feelingful relationship between your self and the outside world. When you are confident enough, you can call this ‘spirit’: spirit is an emergent something or other that comes from this system.
Then do the same with thoughts. After letting the inner voice babble away for a time about ‘spirit’, say, shift attention to what’s out there, stilling the inner voice—not talking to yourself about what you see/hear/feel; do this several times so that the inner voice begins to silence itself.
Then just be still with what’s out there just being (person, place, event…) and allow intellectual centre to think about the whole process. Repeating it several times in the next few days, becoming familiar with the felt differences, will enable us not to rush about frantically waving at taxis but just get to a bus-stop prepared to wait calmly for the next bus only to find right by it a shop you hadn’t been expecting to find that sold something unique that you had been in search of for years.
Now, instead of just having a picture of what you wanted you have the real thing.