Field & Functional Abstractions

I seem to arrive at the same insights over and over, in slightly different ways.

Saturday night, after a regional gathering for the Northwest Earth Institute in Portland, my partner and I went to an Ethiopian restaurant. While waiting for the food, I noticed how obvious it all seemed…

There is this field of experiences, of everything happening in the present. This field is empty of any information about “me” and “you” etc., and it is empty of any separation or difference between experiencer and experienced. All there is, is this field of what arises in the present.

I have to add a layer of abstractions to this field to create any me and you, and experiencer and experienced. And when I do this, I see that this is only for functional reasons – it helps me navigate the world.

There is nothing “spiritual” about this, nothing special or unusual. It is just how I always experience the world. First, this immediate field of what arises in the present. Then this layer of abstractions added to it to help me orient and function in the world. It helps me sort the world as it arises to my human self in the present.

It is how we as babies (apparently) experience the world. First, just as a field of experiences. Then, by gradually adding this layer of abstractions and differentiation onto it. If we didn’t, we would still be helpless and nonfunctional as older kids and grown-ups.

Of course, the problem is if we take this layer of abstractions as gospel truth. If we somehow gives it an added significance beyond mere functionality. Then, we act as if there is really this human self existing separate from anything else, and that “I” am limited to this human self. I pretend I am somehow “inside” this one part of the field, looking out of the rest of the field – and I see the first as “me” and the rest as “other”.

From being whatever arises in the present, the whole wide field of it, I narrow my identity down to just one part of it – this one human self. There is no wonder we find ourselves so screwed up if we trick ourselves in this way, pretending this layer of abstractions is something more than just pragmatics.

From being the field, I become just a small part of it and the rest becomes “other”. From sorting this field for only functional purposes, the sorting takes on added significance. From seeing the boundaries as just abstractions layered on top of the field, they appear substantial and absolute. From being whatever arises in the present, I now match it with an abstract “identity” – and spend effort defending and maintaining this exclusive and rigid identity.

It is an interesting process. And it can also be incredibly embarrassing to see how simple it really is. Simpler than simple. Naive and child-like.

One tradition says that the reason Buddha Sakyamuni waited after awakening before bringing it to others, was because of embarrassment. It is almost too simple.

This is what we all know as babies and young children. It is what science and common sense tells us. And it is the most intimate of our experiences in the present.

And yet, when we awaken to this – and live from it, it can have profound consequences for how we life and experience life. It opens up for a sense of ease in daily life, and for effortless compassion.

In the case of the Ethiopian restaurant, I found myself as the field of what arises – the room, lamps, the couple across from where I was sitting, family behind, the waiter, the food, the changing tastes, the coldness of the water, the voice coming from my human self, my partner across the table, her voice. I am all this – arising in the present. And I am as functional as ever, finding a table, sitting down, looking at the menu, ordering, eating, talking, paying, interacting with the waiter and the owner, listening to the baby crying at the other table. And there is an enjoyment in the richness of it all.

If I had added importance to this layer of abstractions, beyond mere functionality, the experience could be quite different. Now, I have something to defend. It is me, as this human self with a particular and exclusive identity, against the world. I find reasons to be upset about the prices, about the waiter trying to discourage us from a less expensive option, about the baby disturbing me. A neutral situation now becomes a cause for suffering, just because I took this layer of abstractions as gospel truth. I find myself ensnared by my own creation.

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