In the previous session, I was discussing polarity and polar thinking as the key to understanding that our identity is more than the skin-encapsulated ego. Polar thinking is the crux, the essential tool for making the jump from feeling yourself to be something merely in this universe on the one hand, to the state of feeling, on the other hand, that you are this universe, focused and acting in that particular way that we call the human individual.
If you study the writings of the mystics, you will always find things in them that appear to be paradoxes, as in Zen, particularly.
Empty-handed I go, yet a spade is in my hand.
I walk on foot, and yet I’m riding on the back of an ox.
And when crossing a bridge, the bridge flows, and the water stays still.
Or when Jim drinks, John gets tipsy. Zen is full of paradoxes of this kind. Eckhart is full of sayings like this. “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me. The love with which I love God is the same love with which God loves me.” Things like that.
So this principle is explained in the sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch. You know, the famous Platform Sūtra of Huìnéng: he gives a long instruction on how to answer people’s questions about Zen. He says, “If they ask you a question about something sacred, give them an answer in terms of the secular. If they ask about the secular, give them an answer in terms of the sacred.” So if somebody says, “What is Buddha?” say, “This saucepan holds about a quart.” If they ask you about a saucepan, you say “Why is my hand so much like the Buddha’s hand?”
And so that’s the secret to understanding funny stories in Zen. That it’s the same thing that… it’s polarity. All these paradoxes are polarity thinking. Because what makes the difference between a person who has this type of cosmic or mystical consciousness—I don’t like these words, but we haven’t got a good word for this state of mind. Well, we’ll have to put our heads together and invent something better. In academic circles, I call it “ecological awareness,” because mysticism is a dirty word around the academy. So “ecological awareness” does fairly well, except again, you always have to explain to people what ecology is; they don’t know yet. Ecology is the science which deals with the relationships between organisms and their environments. Just as economics, in Greek, ecos, is the “home.” So economics, ecosnomos, is the law of the home, and ecologos is the logic of the home, and so the ecos, the home of man, is the world. So ecology is man’s relationship to the world, or a plant’s relationship to its environment. All that kind of relationship—the study of the bee and flower bit—is ecology.
The thing that is so characteristic, then, of this new or different kind of consciousness, is that it starts from or has its foundation in awareness of relationship, of “go- withness,” that the inside of a situation goes with the outside, and although you may think from the point of view of ordinary consciousness, that they work independently from each other. In this state of consciousness you see that they don’t. In other words, it’s slowly beginning to penetrate our ordinary consciousness that what any individual does—and we ascribe to him as his behavior, and praise him for it or blame him for it—everything that he does goes with what happens outside him. The behavior of the environment and the behavior of that organism within that environment is one behavior, and you mustn’t think of this deterministically—that is to say, as if the organism were something merely subservient to the environment. Nor must you think the opposite way, that the environment is something that can be pushed around by the organism. When an organism starts looking as if it were pushing its environment around, it simply means that the environment/organism, the total field, is changing itself.
So there is no determinism in this, just as there is no idea of old-fashioned free will. You learn to see that there is simply one behavior pattern working, which we will call the organism-environment. And if you understand that, you understand that you are this totality organism-environment, and so you are moving with it in the same way that all the organs of your physical body are moving together. As all the cells of the brain cooperate. You don’t have to make them cooperate, you don’t have to tell them to; you don’t have to arrange a treaty of some kind, they just do so. So when birds fly—you notice particularly birds like sandpipers, when they turn suddenly in the air, they turn as if they were all one bird. Although when they land on the sand, they become individuals, and they run about independently looking for worms. Then, suddenly, you shout at them, and they shoot into the air, and they’re all one creature, moving as if it had a single mind. You know that haiku poem:
A hundred goods from the mind of one vine.
So just as we are organized that way, as organisms, so also we are—although not aware of it—organized that way collectively as individuals relating to each other and relating to the other forms of life, and to the geology, and the meteorological and astronomical phenomena around us. Only we haven’t come to notice it. Our attention has been so fixed upon some of the details of this relationship that we have created a system of details as if it were a separate physical system. You understand—I’ve mentioned this, I’m sure, to many of you before—that human beings have for at least 3,000 years specialized in one kind of attention only. That is what we call conscious attention, and that is a form of scanning the physical environment as if we were looking at it with a spotlight. And therefore, the nature of scanning is this: that it takes in the whole scene in series, bit by bit. Even if you don’t go in a straight line, and you scan looking around you, you have a series of glimpses or glances piled up, and that gives you the history, in linear time, of your existence, because it’s one experience of attention after another.
Now, in just the same way with all of us in this room exist totally together here and now, with all our innumerable physical organs, and every single one of our hairs, all present here. Nevertheless, we notice all this in series, and we come to imagine, therefore, that we live in time instead of in eternity, and so I have to resort to funny little tricks, like I was discussing yesterday, to show how the past is influenced by the future, because we screen that possibility out by the way we pay attention to things. We are absolutely befuddled with words. And, you see, words follow the same linear pattern, because words are a notation. Conscious observation of the world by the spotlight always is accompanied by a notation. That is to say the notation of language, the notation of written letters, the notation of numbers, the notation of algebraical symbols, any kind of notation you want to think of. Musical notes—they do the same thing. And you notice what you can notate, and that is what is notable, noteworthy: because we observe and become aware consciously only of those things that we consider important. And what do you consider important? Well, that depends on your hobby. For which for most people is survival.
But when you get relaxed, when you get into the contemplative state, and you sit quietly—you know, you should try tea ceremony for this—this is a way of noticing everything. I mean, if suddenly realizing that what people consider important is that most of them are absolutely out of their minds. They are rushing around with piercing eyes looking into the future, trying to make livings, and then when they make the living, they don’t know what to do with it, because they don’t have time to enjoy it. I mean, after all, if you’ve got a business, and you’re fleecing the public by putting out an inferior product and making scads of money doing this, then when you’ve made your money, all you have to buy is the inferior products of your competitors, and you’ve cheated yourself, because you didn’t know how to live.
I’m getting ready to do a new television series on the contributions of Asia to the leisurely life and the good life. It’s going to be about things like Chinese and Indian cooking; Japanese bathtubs, how to install one in the American home; how to do Japanese massage; how to make up your wife like a Hindu dancing girl; how to dress, what Asia has to contribute to comfortable clothes; all kinds of things like that. How to be civilized, yes, because we’re telling the American public that they’re the richest country in the world and they don’t know how to enjoy themselves. Really, the things that we are told are enjoyable, aren’t, really. It will discuss, for example, things like the snow treatment, which is four couples—or four of anybody, for that matter—it’s where an evening is set aside for one person to serve the other, wait on them hand and foot, and deliver them a glorious evening of dining, dancing, hot tubs, massage, lovemaking, everything, and you really knock yourself out to do something beautiful for another person. But people don’t do that sort of thing. I don’t know why not, it’s tremendous fun for both parties involved. “Snow” is slang for heroin, and is used in this case as a joke, that this is the ultimate pleasure. So we say to “snow” someone is to give them an absolutely royal time.
But this incapacity for—well, we could call it an incapacity for pleasure—and this tremendous preoccupation with time and with rush and with getting there, is a result of overspecialization in linear consciousness. Now, linear consciousness is indeed remarkable, but it is something in a way aggressive. Just as the sword, the cutting edge, is an aggressive instrument, as distinct from the total skin. With the total skin, you can feel all over, and in this way you embrace life. When you get into a hot tub, it goes all over your skin, and it’s a type of diffused thing, what Freud called polymorphous erotic feeling; all over. Whereas conscious awareness is like the point of a pencil: it jabs, and it writes down precisely what. And so those people who are all conscious attention are sort of intellectual porcupines. They’re all prickles into things, and that gives them an essentially hostile attitude toward life, because, of course, conscious attention is a troubleshooter. It’s the radar in the human organism to watch out for changes in the environment, just as the radar of a ship is watching out for icebergs, and an airplane’s radar is watching out for thunderclouds. So in the same way, our thing is going around like this, and it’s serving a very valuable function. But if you identify yourself all entirely with that part function, then you define yourself as being in trouble, and looking for trouble, and you become unaware of your generalized relationship with the external world.
So then, you don’t see that other things are important, besides those things which are “practical.” Nobody takes time off to look at these things, and Nan-sen, the Zen master, said “most people look at these flowers as if they were in a dream.” That is to say, they were not awake, not looking at it at all. And people think, “Well, they’re pretty; they decorate the room; they have green leaves, and that’s nice.” And once you get them to draw what they think it looks like, it doesn’t look anything like it. You know, you draw a leaf, you make an outline like this, and you fill it up with green paint. But these aren’t green. They’re every color of the rainbow. If you look at any single leaf of this plant, and you look deeply enough, you will see the reflection of every color in the room in it. And you will begin to realize that if you contemplate long enough on the leaf of the flower, that it involves the whole universe.
You should watch for things like this, it’s fascinating. Don’t dismiss reflections as things that aren’t there. When you walk into a room, you can see that not only do the windowpanes, and polished furniture, and people’s spectacles, and people’s eyeballs, not only do they reflect everything going on around you, also things pick up color. What color is the carpet? It depends on the light. You say, “Well, it’s a white carpet.” That’s only because the windows aren’t colored. If the windows were blue, it would be a blue carpet. “But,” you say, “a transparent window is of course a truer and more correct window than a blue one.” But is it? Why should it be? Why should so-called white glass be more real somehow than blue glass? Nobody ever answered that. So it’s just that white glass is what we use most of the time, so we say that’s more “real” than what we would only use occasionally. But then in a dark room, the color of the carpet changes. When it’s got shadows on it in a certain way, any painter can say, “That’s no longer a white carpet. What color are these shadows? I don’t know. Some of them look gold.” So then you begin to realize through reflection that in a way, everything is reflection. That’s quite a thought. We all feel that there are substantial things. The feeling of hardness I get when I shove my fist against something is exactly like the feeling of light when I meet something with my eyes.
The point is that the eyes are so sensitive that they can realize the concreteness of light. The ears are so sensitive that they can realize the concreteness of air vibrations and turn them into sound. The fingers are less sensitive, and they realize concreteness—that is, reality—in terms of touch, in terms of hardness. But all these things are reflections. That is to say… Well, let’s ask the question: is a rainbow real? Well, it fulfills all the categories of being there, because it fills all the categories of public observation. It isn’t the hallucination of just one observer, because you can stand beside me and see the rainbow, too. But you just try to get a hold of that rainbow, approach it. I remember as a little boy, I’d ride my bicycle around chasing rainbow ends, and believing there might be a pot of gold at the end of it. But the irritating thing was, you could never catch up with the rainbow. Well, was it there, or wasn’t it? Well, everybody saw it. But you see, it depends on a kind of triangulation between you and the sun and the moisture in the air, and if that triangulation doesn’t exist, and of those three functions don’t exist, there isn’t any rainbow. Just like if I hit a drum, and I pound the hell out of it with no skin on the drum, it won’t make any noise. In other words, for the drum to beat, needs both skin and a fist. If there’s no skin, the drum doesn’t make any noise; if there’s no fist, the drum doesn’t make any noise.
So, in the same way, exactly, the hard floor made of stone is like a rainbow. It is there only if certain conditions of relationship are fulfilled. Now, we like to think, you see, that houses and things go on existing in their natural state when we’re not around looking at them or feeling them. But what about the rainbow? Supposing that there’s nobody to see it; would it be there? Or let me put it in another way. We’re supporting the myth that the external world exists without us, but let’s ask the question in another way. Supposing I was there, capable of seeing a rainbow, but there wasn’t any sun out. It wouldn’t be there, would it? Let’s put it another way. Suppose the sun was out, and I was there to see it, but there wasn’t any moisture in the atmosphere. It wouldn’t be there, would it? So equally, it wouldn’t be there if there was no one there to see it. It just as much depends on somebody to see it as it depends on the sun and it depends on the moisture.
But we try to pretend, you see, that the external world exists altogether independently of us. That’s the whole myth of the independent observer, of man coming into a world into which he doesn’t really belong, and that it’s all going in there and he has nothing to do with it, but he just arrives in here and sees it as it always was. But that’s a joke and people could only feel that way if they felt completely alienated and did not feel that the external world was continuous with their own organism. You bet you the external world is so continuous with your own organism: the whole world is human because it’s human-ing.
There was a superstition in the 19th century to think of it some other way. Because, for example, when it was found out that the Earth was not the center of the cosmos, but that we were a small planet in a rather insignificant solar system, way out on the edge of a galaxy that certainly wasn’t the biggest galaxy there was in all space, and people began to say, “Oh, dear me. Man is nothing. He’s merely a fungus on this little rock that goes around the sun, and nature couldn’t care less.” And so all the poets of the new 19th century philosophy of science said “Man is nothing.” But at the same time, man was saying he was the spearhead of evolution, the farthest that life had progressed, and he was going to conquer nature, because he’s just a poor little accident, and if he’s going to make his way of life successful, he’s got to fight all this nonsense around him, all these other creatures that aren’t even civilized, and beat them into submission so they’ll be civilized.
Well that’s a big story; that’s a fairly tale. You could equally say man is a mighty atom, tiny, way off in some funny corner of the universe—but don’t forget, the universe has no corners. Everywhere in it is the middle, or can be regarded as such, just as I pointed out to you that any point on a sphere can be seen as the center of the surface of the sphere. So, in the same way, anything in curved space can be seen as the middle of it all. And here in the middle of it all, once again, the Earth has become the center of the cosmos. The infinitely mobile central point of all possible orbits. That was a joke phrase invented by Franz Werfel in his book Star of the Unborn. But it really is. You can regard anywhere as central. So, here in the center is this extraordinary little being whose importance is not in his size—that’s no criterion of value—but in his complexity, in his sensitivity, in the fact that these little germs, these tiny, tiny creatures we call people are, each one of them, essential to the existence of the whole cosmos. That’s the sort of relation we have here between the great and the small, the macrocosm and the microcosm.
But, you see, we don’t think about it, because of a way—we are all brought up within social forms which denied us. “Little children should be seen and not heard.” When children come into this world, we put them down. You get used to that in infancy, and all your life through you feel vaguely put down by reality. Government gives itself airs and graces, even in a democracy. The police are superbly rude to everybody else, just because they happen to be the instruments of the law. Incidentally, there’s a very amusing article in a periodical called the East Village Other, on policeman-ship, and what to do if you’re detained by one of these officers of the law; how to behave. You must be respectful, that’s the main point. You see, that attitude—that you are here on probation, on sufferance, that you don’t matter, that you’re not important to this whole thing at all, and that you could be wiped out any time and no one would miss you—is very, very deeply pushed into us by social institutions. Because we’re afraid that if we taught people otherwise they would get too big for their boots. Well, of course they might, because they would be reacting against the old way of doing things. If you tell a person who’s been put down all his life that he is in fact the lord God, he’s liable to go off his rocker.
But the problem is that we have got a certain criterion of what to experience, and what to look at, and what is important, as a result of specialization of conscious attention alone. And with that goes the idea that the most important virtue in a living organism is aggression. We’re terribly anxious if our kids aren’t brought up to be aggressive. You know? You get a report about your boy from the school teacher telling you that Johnny’s not aggressive enough. Well, you thought he was supposed to be integrated with the group, that’s what they were talking about some time ago, and now they say he doesn’t show aggression. Because the culture is aggressive. It’s based—for example, you can look at our taboos: we have no taboo against pictures of people being tortured and murdered, which are very unpleasant, but we do have a taboo against pictures of people making love. Why? We have the feeling, you see, that everything to do with the glowing, flowing, glorious, warm participation of life is slightly sickening. Whereas where life is not participated in, but where there’s kind of a sharp contact, why that’s real. A lot of people don’t really know they’re here unless they hurt. And if you have any doubts in your conscious as to whether you’re all right, so long as you’re in pain you can be sure you are. Suffering is so good for you, because it builds character, and above all it tells you that you’re here. I know people who like going to the dentist, because they get a great sense of reality from going to the dentist.
But, in the history of mankind there have been all kinds of perfectly viable and successful cultures which didn’t buy that story. The famous matriarchal cultures were always different in their attitude. They weren’t afraid of pleasure. They wouldn’t say that ecstasy was enfeebling. This is a system of values based on people for whom the object of existence is survival and conquest, and they say, “Well, that is important,” and they cannot understand that survival might not be that important. Survival only seems to you that important when you think that your particular death is curtains. But if you see that the world goes on anyhow, and even supposing we were to blow up this planet tomorrow, completely, it’d be a matter of time, but the whole thing would soon be going again. Might not be in this solar system, or even in this galaxy, because simply what happened once can happen again. And it may take billions of years, but what’s that in cosmic time? It’ll go on. And if people see this, they won’t blow it up. What will make us blow the planet up that the competition for survival is our anxiety for the whole thing. “Oh, let’s blow it up, because we can’t bear sitting around wondering when it’s going to happen. Get it over with.” And this is our difficulty.
So if you understand—let’s carry this further now—that you are really the cosmos, and that you can’t die in that sense of “you:” you can disappear as an individual organism, yes, but that’s only your surface. The real you can’t die, so stop fooling around as if you could. You’ll be relaxed and you’ll be happy, and you won’t start this tremendous project to assert your individuality over everybody else, just to tell you that you’re really there; that’s all they do. I mean, a person who goes out for power, who wants to feel that he’s in control of all the things that are happening around him is simply somebody who is in a state of terror.
I was in a club in Dallas a few days ago, and I met a man who’s alleged to be the richest man in the United States, and he looked miserable. But boy, does he have power. And, of course, he’s spending his life trying to prevent other people having any, especially his competitors. But he’s miserable. He looks as if he had ulcers, and just terrible.
So this is a question of learning new values and learning them by letting up on this tremendously frantic kind of consciousness, which jumps from one thing to another and says “What’s next?” Now if you do this, for example, if you get out of that bind, you can take—I seem to be facing the carpet, so it forms a natural illustration—you can take the carpet, and in the ordinary way you would look at that and say, “Well, it’s a nice carpet, it’s all right, but it’s mighty disorganized.” You know, all the hairs in it, and the tufts go this way and that way and so on. But if you see it the way I’m looking at it at the moment, it’s not disorganized at all, because this is not chaos. This is—I don’t have any preconception about it, that it should be this way or it should be that way. This looks to me as beautiful as patterns in foam, or the way bark grows on a tree, or the way leaves scatter themselves across the surface of a pond. You see, we see all those things are beautiful, because the painters copy them and the photographers enjoy photographing them. They never go wrong in their formations. Nor do you—except from a certain point of view. Yes, I mean, when we don’t know that we don’t go wrong, then we go wrong, because we get in a panic about what’s going to happen to us. But if we do know that we don’t go wrong, then we don’t get in a panic, and we can live harmoniously.
But we’re afraid, you see, to know that we don’t go wrong, because we think that if we do that, we will lose our morals. But the only reason why people lose their morals is that they’re scared. They can’t trust life, or they can’t trust others. They think that if you die or something like that, it will be terrible, it will be awful, it will be the end. So the fights. So the desperate efforts to make it all in one life. And that’s greed. That’s excessive protections of one’s security. But if you are really open, and you start looking around, you suddenly see that you’re in a world where everything is absolutely incredible. Not simply lovely things like these blossoms here, but also the dust on the floor, little wiggles, cracks, and the quality of light in things. That’s what’s so fascinating, the reflection of light on everything, because everything that exists is really a reflection of everything else. Reflection is ultimate. The reflection is a mirror, here, and when the curtain is drawn, it suddenly looks as if the Chrysler building is across the other side of the East River. You say, “Well, it isn’t really there, that’s just a reflection.” But the Chrysler building on that side of the river is a reflection. Some reflection, but that’s what it is. The whole world is just energy bouncing. What exists if it’s not reflecting? That’s the clue: reflection. The reflective life—the contemplative life—is, therefore, wisdom.