Inside the Bystander Self.

As bystanders, we start from a position of not-knowing and never really advance beyond it. Situated at a distance from what needs to be known, we cannot wholly bridge the gap.” Dynamics of Time and Space, page 173.

We usually think of ourselves as being located inside our body and its perceptions: the ultimate insider of our own experience. Yet we seem to only know the world in terms of spatial distances which separate subject from object and along a span of sequential time that keeps the present observer at one remove from events which have already happened.

Humanity is wedded to a sequential view of time and everything ‘real’ must be located on a line that runs through a vanished past, a moving present, and an inaccessible future.

We may think of ourselves as residing inside an awareness that makes experience possible, but once we identify ourselves as a self who is located in a single moment of linear time–facing off against objects at a distance–we become bystanders to the inner rhythm of time as it dances in space.

Franz Kafka put it this way: There is a point when the current catches you up. That is the point that must be reached.”

But the bystander in us has no desire to be swept away and ardently avoids any misstep that might endanger its familiar constructs.

When everything that arises has an already-catalogued identity, we are like coin collectors at the entrance to a toll bridge. Limited to a form of knowledge that only accepts images of the already known, fresh insights can only peek through gaps in the constructs we have carefully built around us.

If we try to sustain a state of wonder, before we pigeonhole our experience into pre-established categories, we will soon discover that the very language with which we encourage this aspiration reflects the polarity of a subjective self and its objects of interest (subject, verb, and object) and a linear, sequential version of time (past, present and future tenses).

So what can we do? Or not do? One thing is clear. As long as our looking is the act of a subject observing objects, we will remain in the perspective of a bystander, sidelined at one remove from the dynamic coherence of a greater time. Perhaps in order to sink back into an all-embracing wholeness, we will just have to “be”—prior to language and before the imposition of our temporal and spatial categories.

Once we become acquainted with this quality of “being”, we may find that our sequential journey is sheltered beneath a canopy in which the branches of past, present and future are entwined and a greater knowingness animates every gesture of our individual knowing.

3 comments to “Inside the Bystander Self.”
  1. I enjoyed this reflection Michael. Yes, we seem so inured to our “sequential journey” as you put it, ‘this’ then ‘that’, ‘I’ vs. ‘it’. So what are we to do in order to taste that “greater knowingness” that can enliven our perception?

    I notice there are times I enjoy being engaged, the focus and absorption in doing. There’s a pleasure in the loss of normal thinking, the often incessant cycling of self-concerns. Then there are times when I am aware that I am aware of my mode of processing, as though I have just embodied my way of separating from my engagement, that is, the way I am conducting my “sequential journey” becomes transparent. I can see through my separation, and merge with what I have separated from, while all the while being aware that this ‘modulation’ is happening. And it isn’t a big deal to do this, it’s just a subtle shift, but an essential shift me thinks, because without being aware of its importance we condemn ourselves to that flat “sequential journey” you describe. You know, like remembering to brush your teeth, if you don’t do it regularly those pearly whites will rot. And so will a life-journey solely focused on myopic, subject-object concerns.

    • Dave, well said and well thought. At present I am teaching the Time section of Dynamics at Nyingma Institute. Last night our focus was on Exercise 14, the first of the Pain sequence. Mostly we shy away from these practices or treat them clumsily- think of the mantra of coaches: No pain, no gain. Practice yesterday opened up the alongside-ness that I think you are getting at. For me, it showed up as sort of a cartoon drama. I was involved in an out and out tug-of-war with Knowledge. I insisted that awareness was mine. Perhaps awareness simply is, no need to own it or grip it, no need to defend our hold on it. No need to try to persist as stuck beings, and stuck we surely seem to be most of the time. By witnessing the machinery of our stuck-ness, perhaps there can be, as you suggest, a liberation from unneeded effort, and then knowledge will step forward as a gracious provider and not an unwilling servant.

    • David,
      Which do you think comes first: pleasure (in being engaged, focused, and absorbed in what we are doing), or a quality of awareness that isn’t captured in sequences or mechanical repetitions?

      “No pain, no gain” doesn’t seem like a real law,does it? Seeing through pain would be a good trick to learn, since pain arises, but seeing seems more valuable than inflicting pain on ourselves in an attempt to gain something (strength, character, etc)
      The short end of the stick pulled alongside Knowledge, and peeled rubber as the light turned green. Somehow Knowledge was waiting at the next light, as if it had always been there. Then the short end of the stick happened to notice a rubber turtle dangling from the rearview mirror on the windshield. “No wonder”, the stick said, “everyone knows that the tortoise always wins. Just ask Achilles, just ask the hare. Anyone who keeps putting one foot in front of the other three, already lives inside time and space. Where or when could some other reality break through that isn’t also already inside?

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