I’m going to tell you a story. That doesn’t mean I’m being dishonest. I’m being as honest as I can, but the first honest thing I’m going to tell you is that the Truth is beyond my grasp.
Well, it’s not so much a story as a description of a place I visited: Picture a funnel, like the inside of a tornado. We’re looking down into the center of the funnel. In the very center is an empty place. I’ve colored it white for contrast, but it’s more like a black hole. Or call it the “still point in the turning world.”
The sides of the funnel are thoughts, feelings, interpretations, stories. The whole of consciousness, what I’ve been calling positively oriented perception, spinning in a vicious circle. Human consciousness only? I don’t know. Perhaps the section of the funnel we can see is human consciousness, but that may change farther down the funnel, or farther above our position. There appears to be no end to this funnel, above us or below. We’ll come to that in a moment.
We’re staring down into the funnel. The farther down the funnel we look, the closer the walls of the funnel seem to get to that empty spot in the middle, and also the more refined become the interpretations, stories, and ideas, all that positively-oriented perception.
But subtle and intricate ideas are no less rigid, sticky, literal. They are sneaky that way. You can have the most elaborate notion of the Tao, but the thought will remain an analog, solidified into static words and images. And these still stick to the sides, unless, unless…. And we’ll come to that “unless” later.
Effort of any kind moves us to one side or another. Why is that? Because at present we tend to zero in on graspable realities. The walls of this funnel are graspable realities flung from the empty center by efforts. However, what we mean by “effort” could change….
See the center hole is what German physicist Hans-Peter Dürr calls (following Meister Eckhart) Wirklichkeit (similar to “actuality”), a liveliness that can’t be pinned down, an unmolested potential, as opposed to a Realität (from the Latin “rea” meaning “thing), which has been grasped.
I’m thinking here of Schrödinger’s Cat, even though I know nothing of physics. But from what I understand in passing, this is the reality that emerges out of an infinite potential (or Wirklichkeit). As Hans-Peter says, “we experience more than we grasp.” Actuality is larger than reality. Reality is a derivation or perhaps a condensation of actuality.
So the walls of this funnel are reality, the hole in the center is actuality.
That center is what some might call a meditative place. It’s a “mindful” place – but in fact a place where we “don’t mind”, an empty-minded, open-ended, still and sensitive place — an infinite potential from which the origin of all realities can be sensed in their germ stage; but not as individual seeds already formed. Picture, instead, a primordial soup of active (actual) potentials stirring constantly towards inception.
Every metaphor for this empty spot gets splattered against one wall of this funnel or another if you try to grasp them too solidly. You can’t speak of what is happening there perfectly clearly, but it’s not harmful to try and fail, it’s helpful. The failure of a metaphor, an encounter with its limits, are what leave hints of something larger and different than we imagine.
There is joy in the center, unending creative freedom from any of the small certainties and limiting conclusions that hang from the sides.
Along the walls there is a kind of movement that gets mistaken for progress. We seem to move closer to the balanced center, towards coherence, as our ideas move down the walls. They seem to narrow towards that still point. Is this an illusion or not? Is there progress or not? I think it depends on how this metaphor is really translating.
In some sense it’s an all or nothing plunge into the still point. However, we can plunge in and out of that place a dozen times in an hour, or more. So it’s also not that big a leap. What we can’t do is make a mission out of reaching that center. If we climb down the walls towards more and more precise language, yes, the language improves, but we don’t get closer to the infinite center.
So, if we think of it as progress, yes, the sides do indeed become increasingly subtle. But they remain oppositional ideas no matter how far down the funnel we go. It isn’t really a funnel, but a tube that seems to narrow as you look down. So it gives the impression of a funnel. But the harder and harder you fight your way down the sides of the funnel or leap back and forth from one side to the other in a frenzy of desiring the all, rather than the nothing, attempting to get a fuller picture of actuality, it always ends up a static reality clinging to walls, or arguments bouncing from wall to wall. That’s why the walls, in other words, do not actually get any closer to that infinite emptiness in the center.
In other words, we can’t gradually approach infinity. Full stop. So this is just a travelogue, an encounter to some extent with an infinite limit. At the moment, I don’t know what to do with it either, except enjoy the view.
We can, however, enter the center in a strange, backward way. We can’t enter the center through positive effort. But there are all kinds of practices that can awaken an awareness of the evasive, “negative” nature of the center; practices that tickle to life a genuine interest and alertness to that evasive, mysterious center.
And in the center something very interesting happens. We end up suspended in a metaphoric mentality. From here both sides of any issue are visible. The limits of every movement are visible.
And here’s the strange, backwards things: What the mind does in that center space is constantly fall, constantly fail, and in the very act of perceiving these subtle limits and failures, larger questions bloom and momentary images and metaphors erupt, each also in its turn failing and falling away.
That’s how we learn by moving from question to question, without landing on answers. Everything leaves itself open-ended, at loose ends, and these loose ends are pregnant with more meaning. It’s the failures that in-form us. The Center is a place where we are “in-formed” – shape-shifted by constant correction.
The balanced center is actually a sensitive attention, in other words, to imbalance. Here we immediately feel the over-reach of every positive proposition. This has been called by others, too, a “negative” state of mind. Every thought carries a negative charge – a corrective, balancing recognition of the limits of the positive propositions of thought and image. One doesn’t get stuck on anything in the center. That’s why I say it’s a state of constant falling. Just as when we stand still, there are constant subtle adjustments to the start of a fall, to the imbalance that is the beginning of falling.
In other words, balance is sensitivity to imbalance. Anyone who tries to stand perfectly still on one leg, for instance, will need to be alert to the first inklings of imbalance. And that relationship to Imbalance is what balance feels like. This awareness is not primarily cognitive, but physical. The Tao is a physical insight.
This center movement can only happen when there is no denial of imbalance. That’s why the direct, positive attempt to remain perfectly balanced will not work; that is, if it implies any attempt to eliminate imbalance or ignore it or repress indications of imbalance. Balance only happens by attending to imbalance.
The Center, in other words, is the absence of any resistance to error. And a very remarkable thing happens in that place. This sensitivity to over-reach, limitations and imbalance becomes so subtle and fast that language stops being necessary, and becomes, in fact, much too slow to keep pace with the shifts in meaning that occur. Imagine if you had to narrate every shift of your body in standing still. It’s not possible. Likewise, it stops being necessary to think. Meaning is faster. So thoughts stop flinging themselves against the sides of the funnel in that frenzied search for a conclusive purchase, (and often only to bounce back to the other sticky wall). The shifts of attention occur without any such wastage of energy.
In other words, there is a super quick recognition of over-reach in every oppositional point of view. It’s a very fast balancing mechanism, which isn’t a reaction, but simple restorative awareness. We feel the limits of every point of view in every movement of thought itself (not as an external perception, but as an internal, bodily, proprioceptive presence). And this happens at the movement’s primordial origins. Perhaps even prior to the origin of pain and desire.
And in a very quick instant, the understanding of a complex series of subtle imbalances in perception can be read (felt, lived), which would take words pages and pages and still never quite manage to say without misleading distortion. It’s a magic spot. A new human potential barely showing itself.
I saw this metaphor very clearly the other night. Meaning was moving rapidly, subtly and deeply, and no words could possibly follow. But in essence it was nothing more than a constant movement towards equilibrium from always slightly imbalanced perceptions. A constant movement of seeing through one’s own perceptions. Not seeing through to some solid ground of truth, some answer, but seeing the loose ends that hint at larger and larger questions. It was a healing, un-sticking movement, which did occasionally heave up a thought on the walls of consciousness, but only things that were ephemeral or metaphoric, and which disappeared when the context changed; which did not stick around to become an ideal or article of faith.
And it was astonishingly fast. I was at a library meeting the other day and the presenter was showing the latest page reading technologies for the blind. And he said you can’t believe how fast people can “read” pages when they get used to this technology. And he said “this is how fast they read a page” – and it was an unintelligible blur of sounds that they somehow learned to decipher and follow at an unimaginable speed. That’s how it was.
And every balancing shift delivered a charge of energy. Whether that charge carried a quality of restorative humor or healing remorse, depended on which side of the wall it came unstuck from. Sometimes it was a repressed pain that unleashed healing sorrow and sometimes a delusion that came to light in a flash of comic insight. And sometimes one got the full charge of that humor or catharsis without being able to explain it an instant after — a laughter busting seemingly out of nowhere, because it was all too fast for the stodgier brain to register.
This is available to anyone who happens to find him or herself in a meditative state of mind, falling into that hole between all opposing perspectives. It’s a quality of that condition, not anyone’s intellect. And I never expect to know it or explain it clearly enough to avoid causing some oppositional confusion. It confuses me also. This funnel vision is only a metaphor that can disappear now. It’s not a belief, a metaphysics. It may be a helpful way of countering other more sticky ideas, that’s all. So you may never need this vision.
But one last thing. I also noticed how this moment of stillness vanished. It vanished because I am simply too slow (and I don’t mean this as a put-down, but as an honest recognition of limits) to keep my hands off the sticky sides of the funnel. I try to keep them off, and this effort is what splatters me in a sticky mass against one side of the wall or another. I end up with an answer, a conclusion, even though that centered point of view had no interest in such a thing.
And I also noticed that my personality and capacities changed according to how “far down” the funnel walls I ended up splattering. The walls are incredibly sticky, luring us to them like Lorelei’s, involving us in the most seductive arguments that promise great insights, but only lead to intellectual sticking points. And I hardly notice it happening. I become drugged by the Lorelei’s. It’s like moving into a state of sleep. I can’t tell when it happens. But I know it’s characterized by a fear of failure, by a longing for success and balance.
And that’s not what that center was like. I can’t say what it IS, but I can say what it’s not. It’s not a fear of failure, it’s not a serious-minded effort that tries too hard to maintain clarity. Those are Lorelei’s putting me to sleep. It’s more forgiving, loving and light-hearted than that. It dosen’t mind what happens. It’s always there waiting for us to come home.