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Seeing Completely

We never see anything completely…. We never see a tree. We see the tree through the image that we have of it, the concept of that tree; but the concept, the knowledge, the experience, is entirely different from the actual tree.

—J. Krishnamurti

Oh, boy, this is a hard one. Our minds tell us that what we’re seeing is actually what it is. We mostly believe that the way we see things is the reality of them. Even when we recognize that we’re not certain of something, we usually think we know what the range of options is, or at least what the nature and boundaries of our uncertainty are. But as Krishnamurti, as well as many others, points out, that is not entirely true.

Here is a classic illustration—If we ask most human beings what this is--

they’ll identify it as a pen, and of course, to an extent they’ll be right. But if we throw it on the floor and a dog picks it up, throws it, chases it, buries it, to the dog it’s not a pen, but a toy. And if we stick it in the hinge of a door that keeps closing on its own, it’s not a pen, but a doorstop. And if we press it down on a piece of paper and use a pencil against it to draw a straight line, it’s not a pen, but a straightedge. One might say, “yeah, but actually it is just a pen, and a pen has many uses.” Yes, one could say that, but then why don’t we say it’s a toy that has many uses, one of which is as a pen? I get that for humans, the most common usage for that item is as a pen, and humans speak in human language, so it makes sense to us to call it a pen, even though we know that in some contexts, it serves as something else. If we look really deeply into this object, and beyond that to everything in our world, we discover that things only are what we see them as—they have no absolute, intrinsic identity of their own. We can know what something is in a particular context, and of course that’s essential to navigating the material world and relating to others, so thank goodness for that capacity. But that knowledge is limited to that particular context. It’s like the physics of Newton being true in the physical world we interact with on a daily basis, but it breaking down at the level of Einstein’s relativity and at the quantum level. And while I certainly don’t fully understand this, I’m pretty sure quantum physics and related fields are recognizing more and more that matter is not what we see it as.

Why should we care about this? Isn’t this just philosophical musing, or the musings of theoretical physicists, but without meaningful application for ordinary people in our ordinary lives? I mean, who cares what we call the object in the pic above, or Krishnamurti’s tree for that matter? I agree to a point, though I can say that having explored this concept a lot over many years, it has changed my sense of the world around me in interesting ways.

But much, much more importantly than that is how it applies beyond the realm of physical objects. When someone says or does something hurtful to me, I usually think I know what they said or did, I know how it hurt me, and I know they were wrong. Of course sometimes I may reflect on it and conclude that I’m overreacting or that I misunderstood, and that’s normal. But often the more I reflect, the more disturbed I become, because my understanding of what happened solidifies. I may even call up other instances of similar wrongs by that person or even by others. Before long, I see that the mistreatment is absolutely, conclusively, unequivocally mistreatment—that the pen or the tree really is just a pen or a tree. At that point, I’m locked into a perspective, and the only way to resolve the situation is to get the other person to see it the way I see it, or demand that they change their tune, or swallow the hurt, or, if the relationship warrants it and we’re being mature, try to compromise. All of these options—including compromise—entail believing and, in fact, reinforcing, that the way I see what happened is, in fact, what happened—that the pen really is a pen and nothing else. That sets me up to encounter the same situation again sometime in the future, which is not a happy thing to look forward to.

Applying Krishnamurti’s teaching to the situation offers a very different option. If I can recognize that the way I see what the other person said or did comes from my past experiences, the stories I carry with me from the past, that opens up the possibility of seeing it closer to how the other person meant it. I can then choose to respond in a way that serves my needs, minimizes conflict, and avoids perpetuating my perspective. I may still conclude that the other person mistreated me, and I can still stand up for myself. But the experience of doing that is very different than when I respond from within my own perspective, my own hurt. It’s much lighter, it passes much faster, and it doesn’t get repeated as often or with the same force as in the past.

Of course, many people in committed relationships with a spouse or partner have figured this out—usually the hard way—and if the relationship is good, the two parties have found a way to hear each other and resolve differences that doesn’t leave lingering hurt. That’s great when it’s possible. But it’s not always possible in other contexts, like at work, or driving on the highway and getting cut off, or when politicians make bad decisions, or in any of the other myriad situations that can disturb us. Even just being open to the possibility that our disturbance comes in part from our own way of seeing things, as opposed to them being objectively wrong from the other side, can lead to a more easeful, more contented experience of life.

Gertrude Stein famously wrote, “a rose is a rose is a rose.” Well, yes and no…

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