we don't need to change how we do conservation, we need to change why we do it

Young Buddha leaves Home, Part-5: Trouble with ‘Visionary’ Philosophies

A short selection from Essay Forty-four in Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice. [YOU MIGHT WANT TO SKIP THIS ON A FIRST READING OF THE TWO BUDDHAS SEQUENCE]

The subtle source is clear and bright; the branching streams flow in the dark. To attach to things is primordial illusion; to encounter the absolute is not yet enlightenment. —Shitou Xiqian, eighth century poet and Zen ancestor [1]

Image and motor function are certainly connected in very subtle ways (much like synkinesia connects hand and mouth ‘gestures’ [2]). Take for instance the dramatic effect of resolving composite stereoscopic images, those fuzzy two-dimensional pictures that leap into three dimensions when you look at them just right. This is often cited in dharma circles as an analogue for enlightenment experience, but since the trick (easily learned by those who study overlapping aerial photographs for relief detail) is to independently control the focal movements of eyeballs and lenses, and this is the outcome of slowly unfolding body awareness, then if we extend the analogy this implies that learning the body’s subtleties is the natural path of enlightenment in our everyday lives. All absolute insight grows out of some kind of training in intimate discrimination, so a common practitioner of bodymind meditation can expect to resolve many things deemed mysterious in purely ‘visionary’ philosophies.

I have observed (see the problem?) in essay 43 that my ‘field of feelings’ related to visualization, which involves the rapid and highly coordinated activity of eyes, and the fine focal adjustment of lenses (the action of pupils is involuntary), seems to be ‘fleshed out’ in a dedicated (closed field) kind of way by the exceptionally complex musculature of my standard issue human face. I might in fact feel many sensory shadows arising involuntarily, but I am organizing them with subtle but voluntary ‘mental operations’ in my face. This makes good evolutionary sense for a daydreaming species, simply because, if planning for the future and recalling the past is “all in the head”, this leaves the rest of the body free to do everyday chores.

Thinking ahead while you work is of course the simplest level of multitasking, and I suspect it’s been one of those necessary evils for our species from the very beginning. However, for the sake of other species, and for the appreciation of our own animal natures, and indeed for the hope of achieving those depths of imagination that require a non-conflicted subtle body, our ‘skill’ for distraction should not be taken lightly. Alarmingly, a willful ignorance of this delicate evolutionary compromise appears to be the norm in today’s consumer culture, where continuous distraction is accepted as an ‘economic reality’. Surely financial systems based on more believable life-patterns are also more creative? And stock markets that value time out, less mass-hypnotically soul-sucking?


Because reading ‘feels like’ thought itself, we mistake seeing for knowledge; a relatively new mix-up that comes on top of our more primitive ‘facial displacement’. (And even yet we haven’t plumbed the depths of illusion: see next essay.) No wonder many well-read students of pure or applied science, who must hold thoughts in mind for extended periods, have trouble re-ligating (the literal meaning of religion) their bodies, when they are routinely experiencing a naturally lifeless facial ‘medium’ with the same musculature they use to re-live its meaning. This isn’t such an issue with the pure throat and mouth activity of speech.

It’s a matter of proverb, at least for the layman, that being ‘stuck in your head’ is a big problem for the literate mind; but it may be that with every ‘outering’ of imagination in human history there comes a further fragmentation, and a more serious effort is needed to keep our abstracted imaginations in touch with the wholeness of our being.


1. Glassman, Bernie. 2002.  Infinite Circle: Teachings in Zen. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., p. 86.

2. Ramachandran, Vilayanur S. and Edward M. Hubbard. May 2003. Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes. Scientific American, vol. 288, no. 5, pp. 53-59. “…a kind of spillover of signals occurs between two nearby motor areas: those that control the sequence of muscle movements required for hand gestures and those from the mouth. We call the effect ‘synkinesia’. As Charles Darwin pointed out, when we cut paper with scissors, our jaws may clench and unclench unconsciously as if to echo the hand movements. Many linguists do not like the theory that manual hand gesturing could have set the stage for vocal language, but we believe that synkinesia suggests that they may be wrong.” —p. 50, in box: The Puzzle of Language. Also see Rosenblum, 2013; and Sacks, 1995, pp. 227-228.

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