Self-Representation and the Path of Dharma Art

Happy New Years. I’m continuing to contemplate the path of Shambhala Art and the weekend training with Acharya Arawana Hayashi last year. Specifically, I’m considering the message of “appreciating the nature of things as they are”. The path of dharma art is a way of perceiving the world based on inquisitiveness rather than fear and desire, seeing without pushing away or pulling towards. This way of perceiving is contrasted with a process that colors and edits our world to reinforce the ideology of self.

In a series of four lectures, Professor Christopher Peacocke at University College London discusses the nature of self-representation. Although his own position on self and self-representation doesn’t easily coincide with the view outlined in True Perception, Peacocke’s lectures are a thorough overview of several philosophical theories related to self. The example he uses to analyze his theory is especially revealing:

“That thing is coming towards me.”

According to Peacocke, this statement is self-representation at a level more basic than conceptual representation. Experiencing a ball coming towards me ? doesn’t require a social or cultural context. There is no judgment or reason at that level. Furthermore, the statement is stronger than the type of representation that happens when one sees oneself in a mirror. The process of coloring and editing our world discussed in True Perception can also be illustrated with this example.

On the surface, the statement seems to be a declaration about the thing ? but is actually about the self making the statement. The thing ? is implicated in representing the self. The difference between what the statement seems to say and what it actually says is how the self-representation slips in under the radar, so to speak.

Peacocke offers several possibilities for that thing ?: that ball, that predator, or that friend. The strength of the self-representation is proportional to the strength of the attitude toward the particular thing. The strongest self-representation happens when we perceive a thing we strongly desire or fear. The self-representation weakens as the attitude of desire or fear diminishes; ultimately, a thing that is neither desired or feared, that is wholly inconsequential, is not perceived.

True Perception identifies three types of experiences that reedit our perception. Passion colors our perception; we see what we desire. Or, we reject with aggression, pushing away and avoiding what we don’t want or what we fear. Ignorance, when we don’t know whether to desire or fear a thing, results in a state of panic. All three experiences occur as sub-radar self-representations, such as the example given by Peacocke.

The view of Shambhala Art is not grounded in self-representation but inquisitiveness. The world is not divided into categories motivated by self-representation. Instead, every experience is a phatic message, an absolute symbol of itself:

“That thing is moving in space.”

Habitual self-representation is often overwhelming and difficult to detect. We can’t simply deny what we desire or embrace what we fear without falling further into ignorance. True Perception warns of too much philosophy, and points to meditation practice is a technique for developing this new sight for ourselves. This week I went to a meditation talk at Boulder Shambhala Center, and the speaker addressed this very topic. The instruction was clear:

“Don’t stop passion or aggression or ignorance. Just notice.”

I find appreciating the nature of things as they are extremely difficult, especially when I don’t like how things are. In those moments, I can appreciate the not liking ?, really notice how it feels. It feels good, I’ve noticed, to let myself not like something I don’t like. It reminds me of a quote, attributed to Clarence Darrow:

“I don’t like spinach, and I’m glad I don’t, because if I liked it I’d eat it, and I just hate it.”

In the second lecture, Peacocke quotes Daniel Dennett on the role narrative has with self-representation:

“Our fundamental tactic of self-protection, self-control, and self-definition is not building dams or spinning webs, but telling stories ? and more particularly concocting and controlling the story we tell others, and ourselves, about who we are”

Bennett’s theory is that we use narrative to construct ourselves, specifically to construct in the minds of others the self we want them to think we are. Self-representation, then, is a useful tool. He compares it to the concept of center of gravity, a useful fiction used by physicists. It would be incorrect to claim there is no self, but it would be correct to say the self doesn’t exist. To quote Roland Barthes in The Pleasures of the Text: “…the subject [self] returns, not as illusion, but as fiction.” Like the physicists’ tool, a self is only useful in some situations; when self-representation becomes the only available tool, our world becomes very small and full of pain. Dennett continues:

“…we (unlike professional human story tellers) do not consciously and deliberately figure out what narratives to tell and how to tell them; like spiderwebs, our tales are spun but for the most part we don’t spin them; they spin us. Our human consciousness, and our narrative selfhood, is their product, not their source.

Creative writing has the potential to consciously and deliberately use narrative for other than self-representation when writers are inquisitive about how stories are concocted and how they are told.

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