Sunday, February 08, 2009

Not as it Appears

The other day Martha came back into the house. "I'm going to need to take the Honda instead! The Ford has a low tire," she called to me. "Okay!" I called back. I was taking the bus to work anyway.

On my way out I looked at the Ford's tires. They looked fine to me. I walked all around. Sighted down to see if the curves looked different. Nothing. They were the same.

That night when I got home, I said, "so one of the Ford's tires is low? Which one?"

"The front, on the passenger side," she said, promptly.

Now, I've known Martha a long time. If she says something's so, it's so. I went back out, armed with my new knowledge of which tire was supposed to look lower. Went around the car looking at the tires.

Back inside. "You're sure about the tire being low? I believe you," I added hastily, "but I just can't see it."

"If you believe me, why are you asking again?" she laughed.

We found the tire gauge. I went out and measured the air pressure. The left front tire was fine, but the right front tire, sure enough, was six pounds low. I still couldn't see the difference.

I drove it to a gas station and filled the right front back up to 36 lbs. All the while I chewed over the fact that, although I had accepted the fact, and was acting on it, I still didn't really believe there was a visible difference to the tires. There must have been. But I was finding it impossible to believe that while I couldn't see it, Martha could. I use reading glasses now, sure, but Martha does too, and this wasn't a matter of fine print, it was a matter of proportions and shapes. Not, in other words, a matter of the eye: a matter of the brain's visual processing. I have learned to accept, though grudgingly, that other people can see and hear things I can't. I often have to fish out my reading glasses to read fine print that my kids read with ease; I've long accepted that other people can hear sounds in a certain range -- say, the base line of a song on a radio next door -- when I can't hear a thing. But this was different. This wasn't my eyes or my ears. This was my brain not being able to detect something.

It bothered me like having a beetle dropped down the neck of my shirt. The fact was simple enough; the evidence was overwhelming; but I kept groping for another answer. The Honda must have a warning light that I didn't know about. Martha must have unconsciously noticed the car handling differently yesterday. She must have checked the tires and be teasing me by pretending to have detected it by sight.

Preposterous, all of them. She could see it and I couldn't, that was all.

This, I thought, was the simplest and easiest case. A discrete physical fact that could be established by measurement. But it's just one of countless things that I can't see and other people can. And likewise there are countless things that I can see and other people can't see at all. When we get to complex things that are impossible to measure -- the good faith of a White House spokesman, say -- the perceptions are just as sharp and just as firmly believed. Many of them are dead wrong. Many of mine, many of yours. But making ourselves understand that intellectually is a huge effort. Making ourselves understand it viscerally is even harder. When we already distrust the people who see something different from what we see, hostility blossoms. We know they really see what we see. They're just pretending not to, out of malice or greed or sheer stubbornness. They must see what we see.

I don't think human beings will ever stop deliberately harming each other until they understand, viscerally, that other people don't see what we see. And I don't think that will ever happen. It's simply too difficult to achieve. Yogis spend lifetimes trying to reach this understanding: it's part of what a Buddhist means by "wisdom" or "understanding emptiness." Getting that the world is really not as it appears -- feeling the play of appearance wash over you as a phantasmagoria of self-generated perception. It's like feeling the wind blow through your body. Which of course the cosmic wind actually does: subatomic particles go whistling right through the space our bodies occupy without turning a hair. We are truly insubstantial.

There's no big practical value to learning to perceive it. There's no worldly reason to spend the hard frustrating work of meditation that is supposed to help in the process. I won't earn more money or impress the girls or escape death. There's no reason but this: it's the deepest bliss and the greatest relief I know. I've known it only for a few moments at a time, now and then, moments of grace. I don't even know for sure that meditation makes it happen more often. But rare as it is, and impossible as living there seems to be, having experienced it transforms everything. Just to have seen it once cracks open the carapace. A little light leaks in. It's really not as it appears. Thank God.

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