Meditating Ordinary Things – on ‘the question of Being’

Preface: what I call The Awareness Principle does not only question, as Heidegger did, the nature of Being and its relation to beings. Instead it also and above all speaks of a primordial ‘Awareness of Being’. Its principle concern and question is therefore the nature of Awareness itself.  But this does not mean that ‘The Awareness Principle’ simply transcends or supersedes ‘the question of Being’ as Heidegger asked it. On the contrary, by speaking also of an ‘Awareness of Being’, The Awareness Principle - whatever new fruits it bears from it - is a tree that will always remain grounded and rooted in the ‘question of Being’ – and therefore also in the thinking of Martin Heidegger himself. The following essay is a new reminder and expression of this truth.” Peter Wilberg 2015
We take our stand as beings within a world of beings. ‘A being’ or ‘beings’ means here - anything and everything that ‘is’. But what, asks Heidegger, does it mean for any being at all to ‘be’? What is the ‘Being’ of any being? We may see a tree, rock, paving stone or a wall of brick, a car or house, a chair or desk, and say of it that it ‘is there’ – that ‘there is’, for example a paving stone, the brickwork of a building or the bark of a tree. We may look further and say that there ‘is’ a patch of lichen on it, that this lichen ‘is’ ‘yellow’ etc.  But where, how or in what way do we or even CAN we perceive the Being or ‘is-ness’ of anything which we perceive – and so also think or say of it: ‘there is…’? Where and how, for example, on a paving stone or wall of brick - or in the yellowness of the patch of lichen we see on it - do or even can we perceive in this being anything like its ‘Being’ or being-ness - its ‘is-ness’? Is this ‘is-ness’ perhaps not something so concealed or hidden, so lacking in any perceptible qualities or faces, that we could just as much say that precisely there, where we say of something that it ‘is’, we find precisely nothing – an ‘is not’. If so, then could we not just as well say of anything that ‘it is not’ and ‘there is not…’? Could it not be that in perceiving, thinking and saying ‘there is…’,  for example ‘there ‘is’ a tree or brick, with its bark and patch of yellow lichen’ we are at the same time saying ‘No’ to this ‘is’ - which is nothing ‘there’ to be seen or perceived at all – nothing at all that ‘is’, and therefore, in the deepest sense also no ‘being at all’? Such questions offer a crude summary of some of the many deep directions in which Heidegger’s meditative questioning on the nature of ‘Being’ and of ‘beings’ led. Through them, it began to seem to him that there was a great Nothingness at the heart of Being itself - not just because Being is no ‘thing’ but because the Being of any being is nothing that ‘there is’, nothing that can be seen or heard, felt or touched in any tangible way. But is this actually true? Could it not be, however, that precisely in and through the perceptible face or look of any being, the way it comes to light or ‘appears’ to us as a ‘phenomenon’ (a word derived from the Greek phaos/phos (light) and phainesthein – to ‘come to light’ or ‘bring to appearance through light’) that its true ‘Being’ can be found?

The particular ‘look’ of a being, the way it both appears and in this way also ‘stands out’ or ‘ex-ists’  for us, was what the Greeks called its eidos. This is a word that later became reduced to a mere ‘idea’ of something. But it also gives us a clue to a new way of looking at things, one through which their Being, ‘is-ness’ or ‘being-ness’ is nothing concealed at all but stares us in the face as their very ‘look’ – not in the form of any mental concept or ‘idea’ of what they are, but as their eidos in the original sense. It does of course remain true that as a long as we perceive in the way that most people are so accustomed to doing - according to a preconceived idea of what it is they are perceiving – that then there is no way that the Being or ‘is-ness’ of anything, any ‘being’, is evident to us.  

As long as we only perceive something as a ‘car’, ‘chair’, ‘desk’, ‘house’, ‘tree’ etc., then whatever its particular, distinguishing features, we see no more than a particular instance or example of what is not more than a general or generic idea of what it is, and not its ‘is-ness at all. The entire realm of our sensory experiencing and perception takes the form, not of immediate ‘sensory perceptions’, but of what I call ‘sensory’ conceptions’ – perceiving phenomena as ‘this’ or ‘that’. Our lives do not begin in this way. An infant for example - meaning someone who has not learned to speak (in-fans) and to name things in language - can hear just as well as an adult. Yet, lacking any idea or concept of ‘a car’, ‘a train’ - or ‘a Mozart symphony’ - cannot possibly hear such a thing as a ‘Mozart symphony’ or even simply ‘a car’ or ‘a train’ passing by. Instead the infant ‘simply’, but in some ways more deeply, and inwardly and tangibly than an adult – is touched by the felt tone and timbre of the sounds they hear. But what would happen if, like infants, we were able to not or to stop perceiving things in a pre-conceived way - ‘as’ this or that and according to a learned word for and idea of what they are? Then for example, a paving stone with its patch of yellow lichen would no longer be seen simply as ‘a paving stone’, the ‘lichen’ would no longer be seen as ‘lichen’. In fact, even its colour would no longer be perceived merely as some shade of what we have long learned to call ‘yellow. Instead, our experience of perceiving any phenomenon would be transformed into what, in my Memoirs and other essays, I have called ‘Sensuous Awareness Bliss’. By this I mean a concept-free and purely sensual and aesthetic experiencing of sights, sounds, shapes, tones, textures and colours etc. Yet this is a type of experience  that most people only have - if they are not on drugs like LSD - when, for example, they come to appreciate and enjoy a supposedly ‘abstract’ painting or sculpture, one in which they cannot identify anything in the artwork as some nameable ‘thing’. It is also an experience that some – but not all – people have when they listen to a piece of music. That is because music, by its nature, offers us a direct feeling and sensual experience which is innately free of ideas or concepts - which does not ‘represent’ anything, and is not even reducible to any ‘emotion’ we can  label in words. If it were, it would be enough to present a description of the music and the things or ideas it represents - and there would no need to actually listen to it and feel it at all! In this sense, all music – and not just modern music of a sort that is seemingly abstract or ‘atonal’ music – is essentially abstract, and is so however deeply and intensely it touches and moves our souls. Of course there are pieces of great classical and romantic music which also seek to ‘tell a story’, ‘paint a picture’ or convey the atmosphere of a particular country or landscape. Yet does this imply that the music could just as well be replaced by a story, painting or walk in that landscape? Certainly not. The question is - why? My answer, as the reader will come to see, is that the composer works with and from the very same tones and colours of feeling that find expression in the story, painting or landscape itself. These tones of feeling are nothing visible or audible in the story, painting or landscape itself – and yet  they constitute its very soul – made up of feeling tones that, if the composer is in resonance with them, can then wordlessly ‘resound’ as audible vocal, instrumental or orchestral tones.

In contrast, a great piece of clearly non-abstract or ‘figurative’ painting, may, of course, seem to clearly portray or ‘represent’, for example, ‘a tree’.  But the greatness of the painting lies first of all in the way in which it reveals or ‘discloses’ the unique shape, form and colouration of the tree something as a phenomenon that is - in itself - something entirely ‘abstract’ - no more ‘concrete’ or ‘figurative’ than an ‘abstract’ work of sculpture. For a tree itself, with all its many unique features  does not ‘re-present’ any ‘thing’ – and certainly not a mere ‘idea’ or ‘concept’ of what it is. As a result, no matter how naturalistically painted, the painting cannot merely ‘re-present’ a tree. For how can something that does not itself ‘represent’ anything be represented?  Both the ‘actual’ or ‘concrete’ and artistically ‘represented’ tree therefore essentially represent ‘nothing’ – ‘no-thing’.Yet perhaps we can rephrase this understanding and say instead that a tree, whether it stands before us in nature or in a painting, even though it ‘represents’ nothing, does indeed present something to us. It presents ‘nothing’ but what it itself is – its ‘Being’ - but only and precisely by not representing itself to us simply ‘as’ what we call ‘a tree’.

How then does the tree present itself? Not as a ‘figure’ representing anything but rather a unique ‘gestalt’ or configuration (‘con-figuration’) of purely sensory or ‘phenomenal’ qualities - qualities of the sort we can but need not represent in language as the sculptural form of its ‘branches’, the shape, density and colour tone of its leaves or ‘foliage’, the height, thickness and sensed weightiness of its ‘trunk’ and the particular texture, more or less smooth or rough, of its ‘bark’ etc. Yet to use what we call ‘a tree’ as our example here is all too easily misleading. True, we have shown that a phenomenon of the most supposedly ‘concrete’ or ‘natural’ sort – like a tree - is, in itself something that is as abstract as any supposedly ‘abstract’ work of art of the sort - which also only presents us with a un-nameable ‘configuration’ of sensory shapes and qualities. But great art or music is also and above all felt as meaningful - even if we cannot reduce this felt meaning or ‘sense’1 to an ‘idea’ or represent it in words, even if, to use the English phrase we cannot ‘make sense’ of it?

So what sort of felt meaning or ‘sense’1 is it that presents itself through the sensory qualities manifested in the look, face or eidos of any sensory phenomenon at all - whether natural or man-made, artistically crafted or purely utilitarian, that we do not reduce to some ‘idea’ of what it is? Is it not the same sort of pre-conceptual and wordlessly felt meaning that we experience in listening to music? But perhaps it is also something else – similar to the sort of ‘felt meaning’ we experience  whenever we perceive the ‘look’ or eidos of another human being - both the look of their bodies and, in particular, the look  in their  face and eyes. For such looks are no mere ‘object’ of our own visual perception, but reveal to us something very different – their own way of looking out on, seeing and feeling the world around them. This, in turn, is  something tinted or toned by  a particular way of feeling themselves – which also lends the look in their face and eyes a particular ‘mood’ or tone of feeling.  

The body of a human being then, including and in particular, their face and eyes, have a ‘look’ that is not something we simply perceive as a thing or ‘object’.Neither is all that presents itself to us as the bodily shape, look and face of a particular human being something simply ‘there’ or ‘present’ for us to be or become aware of. Instead, and as a ‘phenomenon’ in the root sense, it brings to light and brings forth - it presences - the unique qualities, tones, shapes, colours and textures of that particular human being’s awareness, in particular their wordless feeling awareness of themselves and the world. Are not such qualities of awareness that which most of all tell us what, who and also ‘how’ that human being ‘is’? For surely, what a particular human being ‘is’ cannot be separated from how and who they feel themselves ‘to be’? And is not this feeling awareness of themselves something which itself tones and tints, shapes and colours, the entire way they feel, sense and perceive other people and the world around them – that world in which they first come to ‘stand out’ or ‘ex-ist’? It seems, then, that there is an intrinsic relation between ‘being’ itself and feeling. Here we find ourselves ‘at one’ with Martin Heidegger:

“Feeling is the very state, open to itself, in which we stand related to things, to ourselves and to the people around us … Feeling is the very state, open to itself, in which human being hovers.”

“Every feeling is an embodiment attuned in this or that way, a mood that embodies in this or that way.”

“A mood makes manifest ‘how one is’ and ‘how one is faring’. In this ‘how one is’; having a mood brings Being (Sein) to its ‘there’ (Da).”

Heidegger also remarks:

“The bodying of life is not encapsulated in the ‘physical mass’ in which the body can appear to us …”
But is ‘life’ and its ‘bodying’ restricted to the human being? Not at all. The light of awareness that is visible in the look of another human being’s eyes – whether it be a darkly inward-looking or brightly outward-shining light – can reveal countless possible shades of both light and darkness, as well as countless possible tones and colourations of awareness. In the light of this understanding, we can return to the ‘yellow’ of the abstract patch of ‘lichen’ - whether on a rock or  the bark of a tree, on the paving stones of a stree or brickwork of a man-made building. We have suggested that this yellow patch of lichen is not something that ‘is’ - in the sense of being simply there or present. Instead, we must concur with Heidegger in understanding that in everything ‘there is…’ - from a human being to a machine or motor car, from a rock, plant or animal to an armchair, table, desk – is something that is not merely ‘present’ but ‘presences’. But what exactly presences in and as the Being of any being or phenomenon?

That ‘something’ is, of course ‘no-thing’. Yet this does not mean it is ‘nothing’. In my books and writings (in particular The Qualia Revolution) I argue that in every sensory quality or feature of every experienced phenomenon, what is constantly presencing - coming to light or coming to presence – are innately sensual and feeling qualities, not of ‘physical matter’, but of awareness itself. The particular yellowness of the yellow patch of lichen lets a particular colouration of feeling awareness shine through – come to presence before our eyes. The lichen is alive with the light and colouration of awareness that its ‘yellowness’ allows to shine through and come to light  – even though the light and colouration of awareness cannot, in itself be seen – but only felt through its visible manifestation  and embodiment in the colour of the ‘lichen’.

Science recognises the lichen to be ‘alive’ in some way, just as it recognises life in a tree. But the rocks, bricks, roof tiles, paving stones or any surfaces on which the lichen may appear are not something ‘dead’, ‘inert’ or ‘insentient’. To believe this is to restrict not just awareness but also the meaning of ‘life’ – and with it the entire ‘meaning of life’ - to the realm of ‘biological’ entities or beings. This is a restriction imposed by the ideas and preconceptions of a ‘science’ which studies beings of every possible type – but, as Heidegger pointed out, without for a single moment questioning what it means for any being to be – for this is a type of question which ‘physical science’ - in the way it defines itself today - can perform no possible experiments to answer. The question itself transcends the bounds of this ‘physical science’. The question is by nature, and as already Aristotle recognised, not a ‘physical’ but a ‘meta-physical’ question. This is a type of question which modern scientific thinking in general not only does not even ask – but also has no possible way of answering in its own terms and through its own methods.Science also reduces the ‘presencing’ or ‘coming to presence’ of phenomena to mere chains of cause and effect. It has nothing at all to say of the Being or ‘is-ness’ of those phenomena: ‘the Being of beings’.

In the language of everyday life, however, we may say of a particular individual that he or she has a strong or powerful ‘presence’. What is meant by this? That through this individual being something comes to presence - something ‘presences’. The distinction between what is merely there or ‘present’ and what ‘presences’ or comes to presence through it goes back to Heidegger – as a fundamental clue to the relation of Being and beings. ‘Being’ is thought, not merely as what is present, but as what presences in all beings. It is also thought  by Heidegger as a clear and light-filled open space or ‘clearing’ (Lichtung) which first allows beings to be – to appear or come to presence. This open space and light are thought, in the terms of The Awareness Principle, as an open space and light of awareness. Hence what presences in all beings – and not just a human being with a particularly ‘strong’ presence – is awareness.

The solid mahogany desk at which I write also has a strong, weighty and powerful presence. But to be open to feeling this presence means being open to sensing what is presencing through its presence. The sensory qualities of the desk are clear for all to see and therefore also to sense – for example the symmetry and curvatures of its shape, its heavy solidity,  the deep brown colour, graining and sheen of its surface etc. But to be open to feel, sense and resonate with what presences through these qualities – the ‘Being’ of the desk - is another thing entirely – and no thing at all. It means feeling the ‘body’ of the desk not merely as some material body separate from my ‘own’ fleshly body but in a similar way to how I experience that body from within – which is not as a watery conglomeration of tissue and organs but rather as a configuration of actual and potential densities, weights, shapes, textures and colourations of feeling awareness itself. All of these qualities are sensual qualities – which is why through them I can come to strongly sense and resonate with the qualities of awareness that come to presence through the visible sensory qualities of the desk. The same thing applies to the body of any other thing around me - no matter how small, insignificant or lacking in presence or prominence it may be to those who enter my room. Even if they take time to survey the room as a whole, and all that is contained in its space - all they would probably think is ‘Oh, there is ‘a desk’, there is ‘a sofa’, there is a ‘picture on the wall’, there is ‘a curtain’, there is a ‘laptop’, there is ‘a bookshelf’, there is ‘a statue of Shiva’. 

Whether they ‘like’ the room and things in it or not, all there is in their awareness of these things  is some mundane ‘there is…’. They see things that all have a clear function and use – even if that use appears as just ‘decoration’ or ‘symbolic’ in some way. In other words, they see nothing, because their mode of seeing is entirely and purely to see what is there ‘as’ this or that – ‘as’ a desk, curtain, laptop, chair, sofa etc. So however much they may ‘like’ some particular thing – for example my desk or fireplace, the matching colours of a lampshade and curtains, what they actually see is still just ‘a desk’ or ‘a fireplace’, ‘the colour’ of ‘curtains’ or of ‘a lampshade’ etc.  Their senses are in this way dulled if not blind to all that presences through the features, shapes and qualities of things, which is also all that – in this way -  constitutes their very ‘Being’ as beings. That is why most people (except perhaps at rare times when they might be entranced by a river or mountain while on holiday, or a work on display in an art gallery) live in a world which - though ever fuller of colourful, nicely designed and useful ‘things’ - is in fact a world of sensory deprivation and impoverishment. So let us be perfectly clear. 

It is not the ‘domination’ of awareness by  sensory awareness that is a ‘spiritual’ obstacle to ‘enlightenment’ for anyone, but the very opposite - the dull superficiality of that sensory awareness of the world.  This dulling of sensory awareness is a ‘spiritual’ one only because it closes off awareness to a deep and even bliss-filled sensory appreciation of the very Being of the things around them, no matter how seemingly ordinary or mundane. To be sure, there are many who can still take great pleasure or even experience a moment of bliss in not only seeing but feeling – with and within their whole body – the beauty of a single small flower in a garden or meadow. If only they had the awareness to feel the same type of sensory pleasure or even bliss from fully feeling other things too, including man-made things that they take as so ordinary that they do not even pause to look at or really see them at all – like a patch of yellow lichen on a paving stone beneath their very feet. If they did ‘see’ in this way however, then all the world and everything in it would become like an ‘art gallery’ or a vivid and life-filled ‘lucid dream’ for them – and not merely a collection of ‘things’ pretty or ugly, mundane or extraordinary, practical or decorative, ‘liked’, ‘not liked’ or ‘unliked’.  They would also experience no need to have their senses artificially hyperstimulated by simulated sensory images of things and places on electronic devices such as computers, smartphones and televisions - or by addiction to the overwhelming variety of commodities, offered in countless gaudy shapes and colours, in supermarkets, shopping malls and other temples of consumerism. 

My suggestion for such people – all people:

·         Take time to be more aware of anything around you in a sensory, feeling way.
·         Take time to frequently pause for a while and stop seeing some thing, however ordinary, merely ‘as’ this or that well-known type of ‘object’.

Instead, and in this way, begin to use your own sensory and feeling awareness to truly meditate ‘ordinary things’. This means seeing, sensing and resonating with those unique and blissfully sensual qualities of inner feeling awareness that they bring to presence - in and through their outer, sensory form. How? Perhaps, to begin with, by taking time intending to ‘see’ any seemingly ‘material’ thing as a type of solidified music – not just seeing but sensing, feeling or even inwardly ‘hearing’ it as an ‘inner sound’ - one that gives perfect sensory form to those uniquely shaped tones, colours, textures, densities and intensities of feeling awareness that are what it most essentially is. Remember above all  what ‘The Awareness Principle’ teaches us - that awareness itself can be sensed as having a rough, jagged or smooth, angular, rectilinear or rounded nature, a vertical and horizontal nature, and as having a weight, density and intensity, brightness or darkness,  lightness or heaviness, texture and tone - all of its own. How do we know? Because it is constantly presencing and made manifest in the sensory features of all the most ordinary things around us. Because it is the constant presencing or be-ing that is the very essence of their ‘Being’. 

Have we then completely solved ‘The Question of Being’ in the way in which Heidegger – and Heidegger alone, was the first to pose it? Are there no further questions to be asked or yet to be found? By no means. We say for example that we ‘recognise’ a person by their ‘look’ or eidos, or else by the sound of their voice - or, in the case of the blind, by the felt shape of their face. And yet the look in a person’s face and eyes, like the tone of their voice can not only change over time but vary at any time – even to the point that we no longer ‘recognise’ them at all. Perhaps to simply ‘recognise’ someone for who they ‘are’ is by no means the same thing as fully and deeply cognising them through their (changing) features, figure, expression and tone of voice. If so, what is it that still somehow remains ‘the same’ amidst this changeability? Wherein lies the oneness in ‘the many faces’ of the soul?  The same question can be asked of the many symphonies or works of a composer or artist. Here the question of what is ‘the same’ is a clue to its own answer. For the words ‘same’ (selbe) and ‘self’ (Selbst) are, in German at least, cognate – sharing a common root. That is why Heidegger spoke less of any fixed ‘self’ than of ‘the Same’ (das Selbe). By this he did not mean the pure ‘identity’ of any thing or ‘self’ with itself, as expressed in the logical formula ‘A=A’. Instead he understood ‘identity’ as a belonging together of the self with itself - to which we could add also, the belonging together of its many aspects or looks, features or faces - these being many different faces and personifications of what we can call the ‘soul’. One need only think here of the many and varied life forms to be found in a sea or ocean, which are but manifold expressions of the life of the ‘self-same’ sea or ocean itself and as a whole.

Perhaps it is no accident then, that the German word Seele derives from ‘sea’ (See). In which case however, to speak of ‘soul’ in the terms of any other language would not be to speak of ‘soul’ in this specific meaning at all. Thus the Greek and Latin words for ‘soul’ hint of the element of air rather than water – of breath or wind (Greek psyche/pneuma) and Latin spiritus – from spirare, to breathe or ‘respire’. The same applies to the Sanskrit  word normally translated as ‘self’ - atman. This word is echoed in the German words for both breath (Atem) and breathing (atmen). Is there a basic ‘elemental’ difference or contradiction here to the word ‘soul’? By no means. For do not all beings, whether of land, air or sea, breathe? Indeed is there not even a way in which seemingly insentient things breathe. Lichen for example – lives on nothing but the very light and air around it. And both land and soil too – even porous rock - can be said to breathe, absorbing and emanating gases or vapours.  

To breathe a combination of gases such as ‘air’ is one thing. But why is it that we may feel a particularly strong urge to take a deep breath just at times when, for example, a wonderful vista open up before us or we see, hear or read something extraordinary.  Is this not in order to help us to fully feel and inhale – breathe in – our awareness of an extraordinary phenomenon. Is not ‘in-spiration’, particularly of a ‘spiritual’ sort - first of all an exhilarating in-breath of awareness itself – as when we open ourselves to fully take in or ‘absorb’ the bodily presence of another being – whether in the form of a human being, an extraordinary landscape, a great tree or mountain, or a man-made being such as an extraordinary house, car or work of art?

But then we must also ask what first makes the difference between something ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’? Does this difference even lie in the thing or being itself, or does it lie in the fact that anything can become ‘extraordinary’ if we are fully taking in or breathing in our awareness of it – and in particular our direct sensory awareness? Art is clearly the expression of what might be called the ‘aesthetic inspiration’ or ‘aesthetic experiencing’ of the artist. Yet no work of art is a work of art unless or in so far as it can also be aesthetically experienced by others. In other words, behind all art and all modes of active aesthetic expression lies something more fundamental - a capacity for aesthetic experiencing.  But even to speak of ‘aesthetic experiencing’  is to forget the Greek meaning of the word ‘aesthetic’ – which means simply and purely a  contemplative or meditative awareness of sensory experiencing in general.  All talk of ‘aesthetics’ as “a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of art, beauty, and taste” or as "critical reflection on art, culture and nature." (Wikipedia) forgets this - and replaces meditative or aware sensory experiencing itself with mere ideas about it or criteria for making judgements on it.

Peter Wilberg Feb. 2015

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