Thursday, November 6, 2014

Identification and Seeking the Subject of Experience

Here is a thing that I'm pretty sure is inappropriate for the book, but that I want to post somewhere anyway. I'm very curious to know your reactions. It's an exercise for creating enough distance between yourself and your experiences or beliefs that you can evaluate them more fairly, and maybe change your mind about them more easily. I expect it to take five to ten minutes.

Choose a thought with which you identify. It might be, "I'm a libertarian," or "art is really important to me," or even something small and silly, like the belief that "asparagus tastes awful". Something that feels like it's a part of you, like if you didn't implicitly think this, you wouldn't quite be the same you anymore.

Direct your attention to that thought. Focus on it intensely. The whole thought: not just the words representing it, but the sensations that comprise your experience of its meaning. The way you feel about it. Become completely absorbed in the thought. Do this for several breaths, until you feel like it's fully in focus.

Now, keeping that thought in sight but softening your focus on it considerably, move toward reflective attention: redirect most of your focus to the process that gives rise to your focus on the thought. Observe your observation of the thought.

What does it mean that you can do this, that you can observe yourself thinking a thought with which you identify?

Shift your focus back and forth, between the thought itself, and your attention to the thought.

Resting now on your attention to the thought, gently recall the feeling of shifting back, zooming out, to this place of attention to attention. If you need a reminder, refocus on the thought and zoom back out to reflective attention again. 

Can you imagine taking another backward step just like that one, but from here? Try it. Move your attention to attention to attention. Bring this more distant, observant state of mind into focus as your object of attention, without losing sight of the first two layers. Seeing now the thought, attention to the thought, and attention to attention to the thought.

Notice that as you step back, becoming increasingly reflective, moving in the direction of the observer, you become more distant from the original thought.

There are several things one might mean by "identifying with a thought", but when you observe the process of observation, you're pointing to a central component of any notion of identity. You are moving in the direction of where the subject of all your experiences ought to be. But you are never actually finding it, never taking it as an object of experience.

You can take this backward step many times, building towers of recursive reflection. But every time you do, the subject of your experience steps back, because it is precisely what is doing the stepping. You cannot direct your attention to it in the same way that you cannot direct your visual gaze to your own eyeballs. When your gaze moves, so do your eyes. When your attention moves, so does that which attends.

Think again that thought with which you identify.

Is that the subject of experience? Is that you?

It cannot possibly be. Why? Because you are thinking it.

Nothing you can think of, nothing that can come under your attention, nothing that can be an object of experience, can be the subject of experience. So there's an important sense in which nothing you identify with can be you

If you keep this understanding always running as a background habit, there is a limit to how intertwined with your thoughts you can feel. Even when you're absorbed in them, you know your thoughts to be ever so slightly distant, always objects of experience, never the subject.

If you find yourself struggling to evaluate an experience fairly--if you find yourself clinging to a belief that feels distinctly yours, or flinching away from an observation that threatens to destroy it--you can create a more comfortable distance by repeating this exercise. 

You can demonstrate to yourself that whatever the truth turns out to be, you will still be here, behind the beliefs, behind the observations, behind the experiences. And you will in fact be safer, armed with a better model of reality. The false thoughts that try to pass themselves off as you, those are the thoughts that will harm you most. "The thought you cannot think controls you more than the thoughts you speak aloud." This is why.

It is much easier to let go of something that you observe, than something that you are.

1 comment:

Rhaidot said...

I made the exercise with "writing is really important to me." Making one layer after another put me in a situation of increased self-awareness. I think this is how detectives should work. Well, at least the Sherlock-detectives that run freely in my mind and writing... The layers wrapped me again.

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