Figure-Ground Reversal

A rambling draft…

It is interesting to explore the flow between the appearance of I and Other and the (near) realization of selflessness, of what is with no I inherent anywhere.

It seems very close to a figure ground reversal in the visual realm. The content stays the same, yet that which is perceived as figure and ground switches.

In one case, there is a sense of I and Other, and I is placed on temporary forms. So the flow of the innumerable temporary forms and appearances is now in the foreground. This human self, sensations, emotions, feelings, thoughts, other human selves, houses, trees, stars, music – all of these are in the foreground. The Ground of space, awareness and clarity is seen as Other and in the background. We may notice the ground of space, awareness and clarity, yet it is all somehow an Other – coming in and out of focus and attention.

In the other case, this Ground of space, awareness and clarity comes to the foreground, revealed as inherently absent of any I and Other. The flow of temporary forms and appearances arises within this context of Ground. The forms now becomes more of a background, as just the dance of this emptiness. As it is sometimes expressed, it is all God appearing in various forms and God is in the foreground.

Reversal as drama

It is very simple. Yet, for understandable reasons, we are used to seeing the forms in the foreground. It becomes a habit.

And as there is the appearance of I and Other as an absolute and final reality, we make the figure-ground reversal of realizing Ground in the foreground as an Other. We distance ourselves from it for this simple reason, and bring also this into our sense of struggle and drama.

When the reversal happens, it may not be complete at first and may clarify over time. And the switch may go back and forth many times before it stabilizes more in the realization of everything absent of any I.

The consequences of each

Each of these reversals have their own natural consequences.

When there is a sense of I and Other, and I is placed on temporary forms, these forms are in the foreground. As space, awareness and clarity appear as background and Other, they appear to be more or less present – although it is really only the noticing of them which comes and goes. And as I is typically placed on this human self, “I” become finite, limited, temporary, within space and time, wanting this and not that. A sense of struggle and drama arises. There is an exclusive identification with our human self, and “I and Other” appear as final and absolute.

When the Ground is in the foreground, there is a sense of ease, flow, of timelessness, of space & time unfolding within this timeless now. There is still I and Other in a conventional sense, although revealed as just conventions with no inherent or absolute reality to them – both revealed as Ground.


  1. :: The Origin ::

    There is the Ground (space, awareness, clarity) and the play of the Ground (the flow of infinite forms and appearances of the Ground).

    :: Appearance of I and Other ::

  2. A sense of I as separate from Other arises. It arises as Ground and as one of the appearances of Ground. It is Ground appearing to itself in the form of I and Other, subject and object, seer and seen.
  3. The sense of “I” is typically placed on temporary forms. In our case, on a human self.
  4. Since “I” is placed on temporary forms, these now appear in the foreground and the Ground in the background as “Other”.
  5. As Ground can appear as Spirit, God, Buddha Mind, timelessness and so on, these now also appear as “Other”. There is the appearance of “I” connecting with God as “Other”, and this connection appears to be more or less strong, more or less present, to come and go.
  6. The qualities of the Ground – timelessness, space, awareness, ease, clarity and so on, are now brought into and out of attention. They appear to come and go.
  7. As “I” is placed on something temporary and finite, what it is placed on now takes on a more permanent and solid appearance.
  8. Placing “I” on something temporary and seeing everything else as Other, there is a sense of drama and struggle.
  9. This sense of struggle and drama solidifies the sense of I and Other, it makes the distinction seem even more real, more absolute, more final.
  10. We now either see the reversal of Ground into the foreground as (a) a fantasy, nonexistent, impossible, irrelevant or (b) as a desirable Other. In both cases, this reversal is brought into the drama.
  11. It is possible to still be caught up in the drama of I and Other, and place “I” on some (limited) qualities of the Ground. The fluid and infinite appearances of the Ground may now be seen as “Other”. This is another form of the struggle.
  12. Being caught up in the drama of I and Other, it is also possible to see the timeless and formless aspects of Ground as real and the time and form appearances as less real or illusionary. This is yet another form of the struggle.
  13. And being caught up in the drama of I and Other, it is possible to make what is without abstractions and stories as real and desirable and abstractions and stories as false and undesirable. This is yet another form of the struggle, not much different from any other.
  14. Being caught up in the drama of I and Other, we can make the reversal of I and Other in the foreground as false and undesirable and the reversal of Ground in the foreground as true and desirable. And we are still caught up in the struggle as much as in any other way, although it tends to be the final form of the struggle.
  15. When the struggle is exhausted, the reversal to Ground in the foreground is allowed to happen with more ease.

    :: Reversal to Ground in the foreground ::

  16. The reversal to Ground in the foreground happens on its own, although we can practice and train in ways which makes it more likely to happen. It can happen suddenly, out of the blue without or with practice. Or it can happen gradually, over time. The reversal just happens. As a master of reversals said: the reversal it is an accident, and practice makes us accident prone.
  17. When the reversal happens, it seems obvious. It is all Ground. There is a sense of ease. There is still the conventional “I and Other” and the conventional “I” can be placed on our human self used to navigate in the world, but it is not taken as anything final or absolute, just as the play of Ground.
  18. When the reversal happens, there is still a functional connection to a particular human self. There is even the conventional “I” placed on this human self, although it is recognized as just another temporary form and appearance of Ground – no different from any other.
  19. When the reversal happens, there is the recognition of everything – of the flow of forms and appearances – as happening within the timeless and eternal Now and Present. Everything is always fresh, always new, always different. God never repeats itself.

    :: Both reversals the play of Ground ::

  20. And when the reversal happens, we see that it was all the play of Ground. Both reversals are the play of Ground, in one instance with the forms in the foreground and in the other instance with Ground in the foreground. And in one instance with the appearance of drama and struggle and the other with the appearance of ease. Both are fine. Both are Ground. None are inherently more preferable than the other.

3 thoughts to “Figure-Ground Reversal”

  1. I have enjoyed your ramblings, and would like to also explore figure-ground reversals in the realm of creativity. It seems to me that every new creative idea stems from some sort of perception that began with a figure-ground reversal. My hero inventor is Eli Whitney, and his invention of the cotton gin was novel because he did not try to pick the seeds from the cotton, he reversed figure and ground and had his invention pick the cotton from the seeds. When I am landscaping in my yard, I find that each novel idea manages to utilize a figure-ground reversal. I dig sod from a future garden spot and use the sod to replant grass on a hilly slope under some pine trees. The hole becomes a channel for storm water to collect and soak into the ground. I also needed to remove some shade on some newly planted trees which was caused by some overhanging American Hornbeam trees on the fence property line. I did not cut them down, rather, I cut them at ten feet high, allowing them to bush out and form screening for the property, and used the cut tops for a broken fence barricade. In each instance, I used something that did not belong to me and in one motion, I solved three problems. The history of Gestalt Psychology seems to have stagnated in this development of figure-ground themes. All I can find about it are a few prints of black and white images that are over 150 years old. MC Escher prints also are referenced.

  2. I really appreciate your article. Thank you. My experience of figure ground reversal has followed a slightly different course. Here is the sequence:
    1) usually after a quiet heart opening retreat or spending time with an awakened teacher I experience perfection in everything. And astonishment. And gratefulness. How could this container of shampoo be so PERFECT?!
    2) following that.. a way that everything seems to be in a bubble of gigantic time and space. I began a habit of whenever I walk into the hardware store I ask, ‘if I really didn’t believe time existed, what would this be like?’. And there it is, everything here for me, without a story, all perfect, touching the underside of my belly.
    3) there then began times where the switch happened. It became tied to particular places. Like parking lots. A mystery was added. As people and animals moved within this huge timeless space there was a mystery to their perfection. Like a strange dreamy story. The woman that picked up a piece of paper, walked to the man, petted the dog…what was that? Oddly perfect. How did you come to this right now, just like this?
    4) Now in meditation there is the spaciousness an experience of an empty space observing the room, or the darkness of closed eyes.
    5) At times the big shift happens. I’m no longer a blank spaced observer watching everything, but I’m in it. My being rides in the back. I can get up, have a thought, try different thoughts, or pet my dog. Is my dog in this too? Noticing this. Are we in oneness together? I’ve been here forever. It will never leave. .. And then another time, like now, it’s a memory.

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