Musings on the geometry of selfhood
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This essay will be exploring the connection between space, and the objects within it. For centuries, philosophers and scientists believed that space was a static, and absolute container. Objects inhabited space, but they were ontologically separate entities. Yet as science progressed, it was definitively shown that objects fundamentally alter the space they are in, so much so that conceiving of them as totally separate things is untenable. This connection is shown brilliantly in Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. An even more fascinating notion, is how conscious entities are affected by the spaces they inhabit. How does the way in which we orient ourselves, affect the way we perceive ourselves? This idea is explored in the Proulx et al., 2016 paper “Where am I? Who am I?”. Finally, when it comes to living the good life, what orientation should one take towards the world? In answering this I will assess notions put forward by Dogen, founder of the Soto school of Zen, in light of the preceding discussion on spatial cognition. Firstly, let us establish the empirical relationship between objects and space.
Mass, Energy, Space
Our most advanced theories tell us that gravity is not a force in the normal sense — but a consequence of the dynamical curvature of spacetime. Gravity is due to the geometry of space. Fig.1 paints a simplified picture of how gravitation might function — it shows the smaller sphere orbiting the larger sphere due to the distortion the large object has made in a field.
Mass-energy distorts the fabric of spacetime.
Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity helped to replace the archaic notion of a static backdrop of space, with the dynamic, relativistic notion of spacetime. In spacetime, objects and space are fundamentally connected. Where an object is, determines the strength of the gravitational field at that point (and in turn the geometric structure of the field). We can infer the curvature of spacetime through a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing. When making astronomical observations, photons from distant objects must travel large distances to reach us. If the regions they pass through are distorted by the presence of large amounts of mass-energy, then the photons trajectory becomes warped. This leads to highly distorted optical images, and can offer us important evidence as to how much matter this photon passed through on its journey to Earth.
It is from this powerful insight, that gravity can be understood geometrically, that we can infer the existence of the Dark Matter. To learn more, read on: https://bit.ly/30MS9Js
Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form
The notion of objects effecting space has been grounded empirically — yet it has been known for much longer. One need only look at the skillful play of black and white in old Zen paintings. The white space is not thought of as a static precondition for the foreground, but as integral to the painting itself.
Social and Spatial Cognition
Spatial analogies are everywhere in modern language. Abstract hierarchies (such as power, status, competence, etc..) are conceptualized as spatial relations (being higher status, having higher levels of competence). We speak of our friends as being close or distant (Proulx et al., 2016). When teaching others, we bring them closer to understanding certain ideas. In the paper “Where am I? Who am I?” — the relationship between spatial and social cognition is explored. Several very insightful definitions of personality are given throughout the article, and I’ve laid them out below:
“dispositions through which an organism perceives and interacts with the world, and as such provides a framework for the mind to operate within”(Ferrari and Sternberg, 1998)
“dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determine his characteristics, behavior and thought”(Allport, 1937)
“A reference frame, via attentional prioritization, of what is valued and therefore attended to in the environment” (Anderson et al., 2011)
Through inherent biological factors (genes) and the external environment we grew up in — we develop a certain lens through which we see the world. This lens pre-specifies information that is assumed to be relevant to us, and thus restricts what we can attend to. Personality here, is different from Self.
Our notion of Self is described as emergent. It is a “reference frame of the mind derived from the interaction between personality dispositions and the environment” (Lewin et al,. 1936; Wayment et al.,2015). This reference frame can develop in different ways — some being ultimately better for sense of well-being.
Egocentric vs. Allocentric
The differentiation between these two spatial reference frames is outlined plainly in this quote:
“An egocentric reference frame is where one denotes the location of something else in reference to oneself. In contrast, an allocentric reference frame is where the location of something else is in reference to yet another object, independent of oneself” — Proulx et al., 2016
Both of these reference frames are used in our everyday experience. When navigating a space, you switch between these modes of seeing the world, as you are constructing a cognitive map of your environment based on how things relate both to each other, and your being. Speaking about the benefits of meditation, the quote below goes on to say:
“Ultimately, such practices strive for non-egocentric, allocentric-like effects on personality such as a “quiet ego” self- identity (Wayment et al., 2015). An “allo-inclusive” identity which incorporates the social and physical environment into the perceived sense of self is a desired identity because such individuals have lower depression and higher satisfaction, and feel more connected to others (Leary et al., 2008).”
It appears that prioritizing a certain mode of spatial perception is beneficial when creating a self-structure. While the science tells us that we can quantify the sense of wellbeing — Zen master Dogen can help shed some light on why this is the case.
Leaping Clear of Abundance and Lack
This is the title of one of Dogen’s most famous works. Often translated to mean Actualizing the Fundamental Point. Kosho Uchiyama translates it as “the ordinary profundity of the present moment becoming the present moment”. Both are beautiful and insightful in their own right. However, it is the following passage I want to look at, with respect to our previous discussion on spatial cognition. Below are three translations of the same verse, by various accomplished authors (all found in the same single book listed in the bibliography).
“To carry the self forward and illuminate myriad dharmas is delusion. That myriad dharmas come forth and illuminate the self is enlightenment.” –Bokusan Nishiari
“That we move ourselves and understand all things is ignorance. That things advance and understand themselves — is enlightenment.” — Shunryu Suzuki
“Conveying oneself toward all things to carry out practice-enlightenment is delusion. All things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realization” — Kosho Uchiyama
The dichotomy is set up beautifully in all of these translations. If we create a rigid, fixed and solid notion of self, and use that to go out into the world — we are deluded. If we allow the world to reveal what we are, this is realization. If our identity is co-created in participation with our environment, this is practice-enlightenment. An ongoing process of expression. Why is the first way delusion? Simply because it does not correspond to the way reality actually is. Having a notion of self-hood independent of the external world is a mental fabrication — every ounce of your being is deeply woven into the fabric of the universe.
The references to spatiality are abundant here — as every quote speaks of movement as the way our being interfaces with the myriad dharma (taken to mean world/all things). I think Shunryu Suzuki’s conception of things advancing and understanding themselves is the most clear. There is no egocentric agent, no difference between background and foreground — yet understanding and distinction arises as a consequence of life unfolding.
Cognitively, we cannot help but utilize egocentric and allocentric modes of reasoning. Our body will take care of itself, it evolved to do so. But if we insist on erecting a conceptual view of Self, perhaps we ought to collapse the distinctions between space and object. Perhaps it’s best to emphasize the interconnectedness of everything, as opposed to clinging to arbitrary distinctions. Instead of seeing yourself as an agent moving in space — see yourself as a movement of space.