How many times in life have we come across this very familiar situation: the opinion of others is not the same as our own even as everyone seems to have the same information at their disposal. Even more, our own understanding of something shifts over time, despite us remaining the same person and without us necessarily having much more knowledge than before. In both cases, both ourselves and the object we are dealing with seem to remain the same, yet a difference in perception results. How is such a thing possible?
Often, for most of us who are lucky, the answer crystallizes itself through repetitive and sometimes uncomfortable life experiences until we reach the ripe old age. To the select few who meditate, the answer unfolds of its own accord, effortlessly, at times serendipitously, and eventually fully and regardless of one’s age.
The answer resides in understanding the phenomenon of the point of view as an integral part of the physical reality that surrounds us. Moreover, one learns that multiple points of view for the same thing can co-exist harmoniously and at the same time no matter how simple that thing is. Yet, even more, the answer has to do with the general – and very normal at that — inability of our minds to hold multiple points of view at the same time.
Take the example of two people. One is perched on top of a tall tree, while another is at the foot of the tree. As they look at the same reality in front of them, it is no surprise that the one at the top of the tree will see farther and wider than the person at the foot of the tree. At the same time, the person at the foot of the tree, will see things close nearby in more detail and may even approach (more easily than the one who is perched atop the tree) the object he beholds to touch and to gain a better understanding about it. Both onlookers may be looking at the same thing, but, due to their different points of view, they experience the same object differently. Yet the object remains unaffected by the fact that the two experience it differently. Imagine then how much more difficult it becomes when the thing that several people experience differently is not an object, but a thought or idea!
A koan is a riddle that stimulates wider awareness in the meditation practice of Zen Buddhism in an attempt to find the answer. One such koan asks: If a tree falls in the middle of a forest and no one is there to hear it fall, has it really fallen? An obvious answer is “it depends”, but the challenge is to go beyond “it depends” and come up with an answer that is complete and all-encompassing. For some meditators, it may take a lifetime or more to find the answer to a koan.
To some degree, life experience allows us to acquire over time knowledge about the same situation or object under different circumstances and from different points of view. This eventually teaches us to appreciate the different points of view. But what an arduous and long process this is!
As an example, an ordinary negotiator is someone who is very skilled at understanding different points of view and at finding a way to reconcile them not just for herself, but also for the differing parties involved. An exceptional negotiator is someone who can expand the field of vision of both parties to such an extent that a holistic view emerges, which not only encompasses the original points of view but also introduces many new ones in a way that none of the possible points of view are at odds with each other.
Once a teacher was explaining to his students the law of gravity and how it makes the planets in our solar system hold together. Otherwise, the teacher concluded, in the absence of gravity the earth would not hold and fall down. A little girl then raised her hand and asked: “But it will fall down to where?”
Jokes, the modern and entertaining version of Zen Buddhist koans, are good examples of how changing a point of view makes us experience and accept a new reality (check out the selection of jokes in the Humour section on this website for extra proof :-). Sadly enough, wars and conflicts, which are nothing but the inability of the warring parties to reconcile and mutually accept their diverging points of view, continue to accompany humans in their evolution to this very day.
Such difficulties in processing diverging points of view arise because this is how our minds are wired, naturally. Our mind can hold in its field of vision only one thing at a time, generally not for too long and not to too much depth. (Human multitasking, just like the sequential rather than parallel processing of data that takes place in a computer chip, is an illusion. Do not try this while talking on the phone, driving and drinking coffee at the same time!).
A meditation practice can exploit this human trait to a great advantage. Exercises in concentration, which is one of the first rungs of the meditation ladder, teach the mind to remain disciplined and hold for a prolonged time only one thought or one idea to the exclusion of all others. Once the power of concentration is sufficiently developed, one acquires the almost magical, yet very real, ability to go beyond the realm of the mind into a place where there are no thoughts. Thoughts, which are akin to multitudes of slippery fish, divide the reality into small chunks of mini-realities or – you guessed it! – points of view. A thoughtless mind (not to confuse with a stupid mind) is like an infinite ocean that encompasses everything, fish and all, and remains undisturbed at its core regardless of the marine life.
So, then, the choice before us is simple: we can continue experiencing life, one twist at a time, or we can engage in meditation as we experience life to expand our horizons beyond what can be seen, heard, touched, smelled or thought. Rather than just sit on a tree, let’s break into outer space for a better look. After all, there is nowhere to fall down to.
For more articles on integrating meditation into the present-day lifestyle and for more information on starting a meditation practice of your own, visit www.GenevaMeditation.ch.