“Thoughts may arise like bubbles in a stream of water, but we are intent on entering the thought’s ‘bubble world’. From within that world we can no longer ask where the bubble comes from or goes to, nor can we challenge the substantiality of what appears within the bubble.” Dynamics of Time and Space—Transcending Limits on Knowledge. Tarthang Tulku. Page 53.
The perspectives that emerge in TSK writings are not the familiar ways of looking that we’ve encountered in school, great literature, water cooler talk, or even in the sacred texts of the world’s religions.
It may be that the mystical writings of world religions contain similar insights. People who have studied both TSK and the Dzogchen writings of Tibetan Buddhism see a comparable depth of understanding in both. But since I only know something of TSK, and that only in the way that I appreciate mist rising off a lake in the first light of dawn (and then may not think of those impressions for the rest of the day), I don’t have anything useful to say about what TSK might resemble, or be indebted to, among the world’s venerable spiritual traditions.
What is clear is that the TSK way of exploring those familiar companions of consciousness—time, space, and knowledge—are both radical and comforting.
Reading the TSK texts, I often feel like a student in grade school struggling with the words in an Einstein passage; then the teacher comes up to my desk, picks up the book, and remarks “This is a little complex for this class, but let me read it out loud for you: ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’”
Sometimes, we feel a rush of recognition because we have just seen a remedy for a problem we didn’t even know we had, and then we experience a desire to benefit from this deeper understanding in a more deliberate way. Just as a child in grade school might feel recognized by the teacher and from that moment on become determined to not only learn to read but to develop the capacity to understand the new vision that he has just glimpsed.
In imagination, I can see myself sitting at my small school desk, as the static forms of my childhood fall away–the school building, the city and the terrain with its rivers and mountains receding into the miniaturized features of continental America. But this shift in perspective doesn’t obliterate the feeling of still being present in a body and a mind. Quite the contrary: our body and mind become more spacious when we include the invisible.
In my experience, it feels quite outside the norms of education, of science and literature, to encounter a way of looking which does not require us to abandon what we already know, but simultaneously allows us to see the range of knowing active at the edges of our lives. We are free to resist the habit of crawling inside the contents of our thoughts, of pronouncing them a reality, and then feeling obliged to spend our time there. Instead we can embrace the invisible beyond that is always with us.
I am able to continue writing this sentence as a plane flying overhead draws my thoughts to an imagined conversation in the cabin with the captain’s voice announcing their approach to Albuquerque airport and giving the temperature on the ground; while drops of moisture blowing off the silver wings are watched by a passenger, flying alone, uncertain of her future, through the small cabin window.
There is no problem in living in a mind that wanders, combines and adjusts. There is no problem when we adopt our characteristic perspectives and positions. But these structures and engrained operations are far more useful when we are able to recognize our mind’s tendency to treat them as a fundamental anchor for all the positions we adopt. When we view our limited perspectives as more than a point of view but as the essential center of the world, then we build up, out of our life-long series of observations and conclusions, a belief that we inhabit an established reality that is beyond our capacity to influence in any meaningful way. Why do we keep living in a ‘world’ whose ‘reality’ we don’t question; and why do we scarcely ever notice that all the acts of knowing that have been sewn into this tapestry of speculative artistry have one common characteristic? They are all the result of a subject observing and commenting on one object of interest or another.
When it is pointed out to us that the knowledge we derive as a subject facing off against an object at a distance must produce perceptions that are inherently partial and biased, we are likely to reply, “Tough luck. That’s the way it is when you’re in a physical body, observing with eyes that only see things separated from the position occupied by that body, and which only see objects that radiate electromagnetic wave lengths to which we are sensitive. And, indeed, who would be so ungracious as to complain about the body we have been given?
But these physical characteristics of our embodiment are not the end of the story we can tell about human intelligence and the heart-centered concerns and interests that employ that intelligence. The limitations of our physical embodiment are not insurmountable. Indeed, considering that there are no birds on the top of Mount Everest, perhaps feet are a better vehicle for some journeys than wings. We can feel grateful that we have them to place one in front of the other on the journey of our lives.
We’re an evolving species, but most of us feel trapped in societies made up of objects that we either fear or covet. But these polarizations are not an inevitable determinant of our world’s future, any more than we are unable to work with our own habits and conditioned reflexes.
Most of us are familiar with this kind of critique of self-centered motivations and of the poisonous rule of addiction, hatred and ignorance. But how often do we relate these behavior patterns, sweeping through our world like a tsunami, to how we ourselves are conducting our experience at a fundamental level?
It’s not just that we are physical beings who feel obliged to relate to everything else as being near or far from us. It’s not just that we have needs, interests, and vulnerabilities that cause us to explore, desire and fear whatever arises into our awareness. It’s that we project our perspective into a world view that we hold to be unquestionably real; then we find ourselves stranded in the bubble world we have projected, unable to even notice that our bubble is bobbing and swaying in a vast ocean full of unknown knowables. We have cut ourselves off from this great variety of possible experience and the great symphonic richness that is going on all around our own personal bubbles.
We are also missing the experience of the whole of this living potential, beyond the succession of events, perspectives and experiences that we winnow out of it. We can’t feel at home in our lives, on our planet, or in our own minds, because we only see the surfaces of the make-believe puppets dancing on the strings of our expectations, which we have carved out of the primal underbrush all around us.
A problem with living in a bubble is that the inner sphere that constitutes our perceived reality is a distorting mirror for the light that is everywhere and an echo chamber for the songs of angels. Everything we experience is composed of echoes and reflections bouncing off the walls we construct out of our past through memories and feelings. Our words and our concepts are all past-centered and so–even if we were to see another life-form peering through our floating bubble from the other side—that memory will fade as an anomaly unrelated to the rest of our experience. If our thrill was great enough, we might even remember it for the rest of our lives and wish we could return to that feeling of openness and greater potential. But such momentary experiences will soon be subject to a reality-test based on words and concepts which were used in the construction of our bubble world. And in this world there are no exotic creatures peering in from outside. In fact, since we call this bubble world the ‘cosmos’, the ‘universe’, and ‘God’s Creation’, we probably don’t even believe there is an outside. And if we ever allow ourselves to ponder whether there might be anything outside– such as a time before the beginning of time–we find that we lack the intellectual or imaginative tools to take that question very far. In fact, we usually bottom out with an axiom that asserts that, by definition, there can be nothing outside whatever we have already determined to be the cosmic body of our known ‘reality’.
Just as we can’t say much about what might reside outside the time and space we consider to be our cosmic universe, so we can’t leave our bubble worlds as long as we are stuck with the mental tools that we have used to construct that bubble reality.
Our very thoughts use the concepts and language we have used to define what we consider ‘real’. And consequently, in order to hold any image or insight for more than a moment in our minds we need to relegate it to a place in our past-centered, past-certified storage cabinet, which is organized using a system in which each element is defined in terms of everything else. Our sense of the whole is built up by our need to find a place for each individual idea, thought, experience, belief, identified object, feeling, instinct or perception.
So how do we escape our bubble world? Can we dissolve its boundaries and let them melt into the oceanic realm beyond? Can we transport ourselves across known space into another way of relating to our daily lives? Or are we prevented from enjoying the warm spring showers by an umbrella we don’t realize we have unfurled above us; while all we have to do is collapse the canopy and let it become our walking stick?
But, if my own experience is any indication, sometimes the canopy we have erected over our heads—a kind of partial bubble that is a private version of what confines our entire species living on Planet Earth at this time in history—needs a change of scene, in order for us to dislodge the inertia that has kept us stuck where we are. And we may need the intervention of other people who are willing to share their own discomfort with us.
That’s the role that literature can play when an author speaks of his own journey and private pain, as Robert Pursig did in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”
Remembering that month I spent in Lunenburg, NS, when I slept in a hilltop cemetery and ate at the local diner at the bottom of the hill, I also remember a man who made me an offer which linked his own psychological issues to mine, in a way that made it a profound and lasting gift.
It’s interesting what you remember years later, isn’t it? It’s as if there are different levels of mind and only some incidents manage to reach the level where we remember things for the rest of our lives. I no longer remember what I ate for breakfast all those mornings. I can’t bring to mind where I showered and shaved in that small fishing village for an entire month. But I can still remember the man who offered me the use of his land and teepee tent. He was probably under six feet tall, since he was about to leave the next morning on a two week scallop trawling run—and I can’t imagine that anyone would spend two weeks crouched over, scalloping out scallops from their shells, for long, exhausting hours on a constantly pitching deck.
We had talked in the dinner previously, but this particular day he told me that he trusted me and that it was unusual for him to meet someone he could trust. He used an image to describe the personal, psychological issues he carried around with him. He told me that he carried around a heavy barrel on his back and that one day he would just lay it down and then feel a great freedom.
Perhaps this was not an image that meant much to the men he fished with. Perhaps part of what made me a good listener to his way of talking is that I had recently escaped a life in which I was carrying my own barrel, with a weight that I had not left entirely behind, by simply jumping on a train and heading east to the Maritime provinces.
I had recently had my face rubbed in this recognition– that I didn’t trust myself to be reliable or the kind of person I admired.
So it was a blessing to meet a man who wanted me to live on his land while he was out at sea. And the reason he gave was even more welcome: that it meant something to him to meet someone whom he could trust with something important to him. Perhaps an inability to trust was one of the heavy burdens he carried around in his barrel.
So I gathered up my backpack and duffle bag, added two weeks’ worth of groceries and hitchhiked inland to where there was a lake with his property at the edge. There I found a house under construction which didn’t have a single piece of metal in it. All the beams and planks were held together with wooden dowels, and all the lumber was hand cut and planed.
Perhaps if, back then, I had read the Buddhist tale of Marpa teaching Milarepa—by assigning incredibly difficult tasks for him to perform–this house and its owner would have come to mind. Looking back, it was as if this man, unable to find his own teacher, was striving to fill that role in himself—in his search for something he could count on in a world where the trust-worthy is so hard to find. I hope he got to lay his barrel down and walk free for a while. I also hope he realized that he gave me a great gift when I most needed it.
I think there is an important clue in noticing the role we are playing, when we conduct our experience according to predefined expectations and concepts, and when we don’t know what to make of what appears unless we label it as an instance of something we have previously encountered. This is like dealing out a hand of cards and –although the possibilities appear almost unlimited—everything we experience is a combination of those 52 playing cards. We can add the jokers and name ‘Two’s’ and ‘Jack’s’ as wild cards—capable of assuming the characteristics of any other card. But that’s a bit like calling an experience, which we can’t account for in terms of our well-defined world view, a “mystery”. That merely maintains our predictable world with a wild card we call ‘mysterious’, but which still operates like all the other cards in our hand.
Surely we need a different approach than giving the pet name of ‘mystery’ to anything that slips into our bubble through a rip in its fabric. But how can we respond to the unprecedented in an unprecedented way?
Perhaps we can take a clue from the religious belief in a greater, higher power. Perhaps we can inquire into this belief, even if we ourselves are non-believers, and explore what it has to say about a beyond that is not confined to our own predefined, substantial and inescapable ‘real’ world. In fact many of us do already suspect that the invisible is connected to our visible, embodied reality; but we just can’t give a good account of the nature of that connection.
It seems that care is needed before unquestioningly adopting the promise of a greater reality, since we may saddle this greater reality with the task of magically releasing us from the obstacles and frustrations we experience in our familiar bubble reality. It is a great temptation to invoke the image of a shining reality, lying beyond the pale of this familiar realm, but then have trouble relinquishing our self-serving desire for personal gain. And, indeed, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could import the beyond to where we need it—right here and now where we are obliged to live; and do so with modesty and an understanding that we are sharing a gift that is not ours to own?
A promising approach might be to place our heart in the field of awareness that contains both our current interests and our sense of being an embodied entity living in a greater field; a field that is not limited to what we happen to presently know and care about. Even to aim toward appreciation of a more inclusive presence, that is inviting us to shake loose from the shackles of self-interested partiality, is a notable aspiration.
We will have to be wary of our own tendency to declare that we have now found the answer, and have already crossed over to the side where the world is rolling at our feet (although, in a sense, it is). It’s useful to remember that there are no sides and no barriers to cross. There is no ‘promised land’, other than our ability to recognize that we are already living in a land full of promise. Another word for this ‘promise’ is the ‘future’. And we can notice that the ‘future’ is never inherently, irrevocably absent for us. When we call the future ‘the promised land’ or ‘the hereafter’, we capture something about its infinite and magical nature—the quality of the future that it is not staked down in the corral of the ‘already happened’ as it is when our ordinary expectations and dreams look to the future to produce more of what we already have. When we look to the future as a portal into infinite possibility and into vast fields of shining being, it seems we are on the right track. I have nothing to say against people of faith who think in terms of the guidance and aspirations articulated by the world religious teachings and institutions. I just prefer the prospect of the future telling us more directly what it is and what it has to offer us beings living on Planet Earth.
TSK does not provide articles of faith or even a cosmology to guide our explorations. It simply invites us to be aware that we live in time (that our lives are time), that a fundamental spaciousness permeates all we encounter (inside, outside, and in between all the bubbles that carry us along) and that since everything is knowable for some perspective, some interest or some organic process, we therefor live in a realm that is knowable; indeed everything we can ever encounter is woven from, in, and out of this knowable knowingness.
Our bubbles are not the problem. They are just the bicycles we use to go about our daily rounds. We just need to be aware that there is more to see and engage than the handlebars that let us steer along our chosen bike paths.
That’s what I find in the TSK vision and what I hope to share with like-minded seekers: a more fulfilling way to live in this madly spinning bubble world, which is our home under the stars, and where we are not obliged to remain stuck indoors.
“Could we unknow the knowing of the known to know anew?” Dynamics of Time and Space—Transcending Limits on Knowledge. Tarthang Tulku. Page 57.