The Physical Zendo is currently closed until Monday, July 1st

There are no arbiters of reality Barry Magid February 27th 2021

Download Talk

Caught in a self-centered dream only suffering
Waking to a dream within a dream

I’d like to say something about these verses as a way of building a bridge to our discussion later this morning about empathy and self psychology. But we’ll start with this idea of a self-centered dream. A dream is something insubstantial, a fantasy. It says that we’re all caught up in the midst of a particular kind of dream, a self-centered dream. What does that mean?

To put the self at the center of things is part of a way of being in the world that’s organized around, let’s say, control and autonomy. To be self-centered is to try to set up a particular kind of boundary between self and the world, and we may try to be in control of everything inside that boundary and make ourselves invulnerable to the changes that go on outside that boundary. That means both not being affected by those things and not needing anything that comes from the outside.

And the wish to do that is a dream, a particular kind of fantasy that is trying to imagine something we think is ideal but is impossible. And it’s impossible not just because we can’t quite manage to do it. It’s not a technical or pragmatic failure to make it happen. It’s more that it’s an illogical impossibility. It goes against the very nature of what a self is and what the self’s place in the world is. The self, by its nature, can never be separate or autonomous, the way it is in that fantasy. That’s not what selves are.

So in that first verse we get the assertion that to believe in something that’s not only impractical but logically impossible is to keep us in a constant state of suffering. We’re always going to be beating our heads against reality. But what’s the alternative to that? Waking to a dream within a dream. It’s saying that in a sense we wake up from one dream only to find ourselves in the midst of another dream. We want to create a kind of sharp division between waking and dreaming but that itself is problematic.

One way to describe that is to say that our original self-centered dream is a dream of permanence and autonomy, of separation. That’s an illusion. The world just isn’t like that. So we wake up from that dream, but into what? A dream, by its nature, is ephemeral, impermanent. It displays in a strange sense all the properties of what we call the real world. It has no unchanging solid ground under it. It has no unchanging permanent essence, it’s just all these fleeting images one thing after another. And the verse tells us that what we wake up to is a realization that reality is like that. It’s not just the quality of dreams, but the quality of life as it is, to be insubstantial, impermanent, ever-changing, no fixed boundaries.

Now, some of you may be familiar with contemporary versions of stoicism, which seem to be popular now. Stoicism was a classical philosophy of the Greeks and Romans associated with Zeno, Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and it had as a core idea some things that were very valuable lessons. They attempted to say that we should concern ourselves only with what is under our control and not essentially make ourselves crazy by trying to control the uncontrollable. And in their way of looking at things, the outside world was a world that is outside of our control, but the inner world, the world of our own assent, our own way of being and seeing things, that was an inner world of potential self control and mastery. And so they would, I think, come up with a very useful ethical formulation such as, What’s important is not what happens to you but how you respond to it. Your responsibility is to behave well when you’re treated badly. That’s the essence of an ethical life. And that way of thinking is an extension of Socrates’ maxim that a good man cannot be harmed. He tried to model behaving well, being a teacher, no matter what was happening to him and around him, not reacting even when he was unfairly tried and put to death by his fellow citizens. Even in the midst of that injustice he could behave well and maintain that kind of control.

So there are very valuable lessons to be practiced from that perspective, but from a contemporary, particularly psychoanalytic point of you, we no longer think that the inner world is a world over which we have more control than we have over the outer world. We could say that the whole notion of the unconscious means that there are realms of the mind, realms of who and what we are that are out of our awareness, out of our control, and in a sense we have to be able simply to watch them arise in the same way we watch things arise from the outside. We can no longer maintain this fantasy of internal autonomy.

See, that means also an awareness of interdependence and the notion that the self is not something that resides deep inside, that is private to each of us, over which we have deep access to this inner world, but rather the self exists at the boundary between us and our world. It’s all our actions and relations, the world in which we’re embedded, the relationships that define us. So who I am is not a private inner experience. Who I am is a teacher, a father, a partner, a New Yorker. I’m all these relational constructs. And part of waking from our dream is to acknowledge that who I am is inseparable from all these relations that we think are going on around us.

One of the innovations you’ll see in the paper we’re discussing is Kohut’s invention of this strange word, selfobject. It looks like two separate words glued together. Originally he put a hyphen in between them but eventually he dropped that hyphen and typographically inserted the inseparability of self and other, or object in psychoanalytic lingo. It is an unfortunate word they use for other people, objects. Originally I think it had to do with the idea that objects are the desires and attachments we have for others. We can just think of it as other, since self and other are not separate. They’re glued together from the beginning, and in a way it’s a psychoanalytic version of the Hegelian idea, I can’t be myself by myself.

The other important issue that’s raised in these verses has to do with the appearance and reality distinction. In the ordinary way of thinking about things, we sometimes imagine that we have our own particular perspective on things, our way of seeing them, and that we represent the world to ourselves by creating an inner picture of it. We gather all this sense data about the world, how it looks and feels and sounds and tastes, and we gather all this information that our senses give us, and then our brain inside assembles that and creates a picture, a representation, an appearance. And then we want to know, How well does that picture actually correspond with the reality out there? And we immediately run into a difficulty of how do we test one of our representations? See, if we know the world only through building up internal pictures, how can we compare the picture to the world? Because we only know the world through pictures. If we get more and more data, what we’re doing is creating a different and we hope a better picture, but there’s no way in which we can ever take the picture and hold it up next to the world and see how well it matches because the world is available to us just through a picture. We never are able to access, as Kant said, the thing in itself.

Part of what Hegel suggested about that dilemma, was that reality is a kind of logical construct that we need in order to make sense of the notion of perspective. Once we start realizing we have a different perspective on things, once we realize that I see things a little differently than you see things. When I see a stick in water and it looks bent, and I take the stick out it’s straight, I realize that looking through the water has done something to my perspective. And so in engaging the world, we’re always engaging it from one perspective or nothing, trying to improve that perspective, but the whole notion of perspective, in a certain sense, is parasitic or logically dependent on the idea of perspective on some thing. So we create the notion of reality as it is in itself in order to have the idea of perspective on something.

The way this gets relevant to Buddhist practice and how it’s linking up to the empathy paper, is that it's built into our language and our way of thinking about things that somehow we should be able to have a perspective-free view of reality just as it is, that we think of, say, our self-centeredness or our ego as a set of rose-colored spectacles through which we see the world. Right? And there’s the promise at some level that we can take them off, that through some kind of practice or experience we’ll get rid of this ego-centric or self-centered distortion about what reality is and finally get to see things just as they are.

Now seeing things just as they are, is a certain kind of fantasy of objectivity. And it plays out in religion as a fantasy about the nature of the enlightened master having thrown off the ego, she’s able to see things clearly, directly, without distortion. In the Western model, this is an objectivity that’s attributed to the scientist. The scientist is going to look at things objectively, just the facts. No subjective perspective imposed on the facts. No personalized story imposed between me and reality. Part of what Kohut was doing was dethroning the analyst from the position of scientist who presumes to say how things really are.

See, in a classical model, the patient's transference or just their neurotic personality, is presumed to distort reality, in the sense of I’m going to see everybody just like my authoritarian father, and I’m always going to be on guard against that kind of abuse of power, and I’m always going to be in a conflicted relationship with envy and resentment and competition. And I’m going to bring that to all sorts of relationships regardless of who the other person actually is, so I’ve got this built-in perspective through which I see you. And perhaps there’s going to be a way through the course of the treatment to drop that, but the analyst, from the beginning, looks at the situation and can see, because he’s seeing objectively, that this is a distortion. It’s something that you’re bringing with you and imposing on the situation that is basically not true.

So the analyst is in that sense in the mode of the scientist. He’s going to be the arbiter of what’s a distortion and what’s real. And by and large the course of the treatment is to get you to drop the distortions and to see things as they actually are. Now that description, transposed into a religious context, is not so different from what some people expect the teacher to be doing. You’re coming in with all your ego-centric self-centered distortions, but the teacher is free of all that and clear-eyed, so they too occupy this quasi-mythical position of seeing things objectively, seeing things just as they are.

The other way this plays out in meditation practice is through the fantasy of pure awareness. This is a kind of practice that aims to purge consciousness of its contents, so that you no longer have contaminants of thoughts or feelings or perspectives, and you get down to just awareness. There’s no awareness of anything. There’s just awareness. Clear blue sky, nothing in it. And sometimes that pure awareness is described as a mirror. Everything that comes in front of the mirror is perfectly reflected without distortion because the mirror is now wiped free of dust. And some of what the teacher’s role is described is to be this perfect clear mirror in which students see themselves reflected back.

Now what I would like to suggest is that the fantasy of pure awareness, of a perfectly clear mirror, of the teacher who is free of ego and therefore sees reality directly, just as it is, without any imposition of some false representation -- all those things are culturally the mirror image of scientific objectivity, and the view from nowhere, the view that we can have a kind of God’s-eye view on reality just as it is, without our personal perspectives ever getting in the way. So part of what we’re going to see in our empathy paper is a gradual abandonment of that particular kind of fantasy, and a recognition that when we start trying to understand things from a patient’s point of view, use empathy as vicarious introspection, we can never do that in a perfectly clear way in which our own perceptions, our own personality, our own point of view, is completely swept away and kept out of the picture. It’s not ever going to be this view from nowhere. It’s always going to be a view by somebody situated somewhere.

All right. I see I’m out of time here, so I will stop now, and we can continue in the discussion.

Previous Talk

Barry Magid February 20th 2021 One moon in the sky

If you found this talk helpful, consider donating to Ordinary Mind

This talk was brought to you by the generosity of people like you. Ordinary Mind Zendo is a non profit organization that depends entirely on the generosity of people like you for its continued existence. If sitting with us, listening to our talks, or supporting a Zen center in New York City is in line with your values, you can make a donation here.