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    Thread: For a Given Value of Real

    1. #1
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      For a Given Value of Real

      As lucid dreamers, there are questions that pretty much all of us ask ourselves sooner or later: are the people, events, places and so on that appear in our dreams real in some sense? Are bad things that happen to us in dreams something we should be worried about in their own right?

      What I’ll be writing here, then, is sort of metaphysics but sort of isn’t—the reason being that there’s usually no compelling reason to puzzle over that question unless puzzling over things is something you enjoy doing.

      I’m coming at this from a Buddhist perspective—and, I should make clear, that of a student rather than a teacher. I’m drawing on thousands of years of others’ experiences—but through the lens of my own, which means that there’s a distinct possibility that I could be dead wrong about everything. But, for what it’s worth, I have been interested (read: obsessed) with dreams for about a decade now, and I do have some experience with how these questions are handled in Western philosophy.

      Actually, if I were to sum up what I’m about to say in the words of a Western philosopher, it would be Montaigne: “Et au plus eslevé throne du monde, si ne sommes nous assis, que sus nostre cul.” Translated, that means: even on the highest throne in the world, we are still sitting on our own…cul. Yeah. So consider that the tl;dr version.

      Because I’m really trying to start from the ground up here, I’ll need to clear up some misconceptions first. From what I’ve observed—both in academic settings and on the internet— discussions of the causes of human behavior tend to center around whether we have free will or not. These discussions are almost guaranteed to derail into discussions about moral responsibility and selfhood at some point. Someone might claim, perhaps, that if the ultimate cause of your action was outside of yourself, you’re not responsible for your action. If it wasn’t, then you are responsible.

      This is not the way a Buddhist would handle the question. First off, this is because there is no beginning you can trace everything back to. Everything just goes further and further back. There is no ultimate cause, nothing you can definitively pin the blame on, either inside or outside of yourself. Just patterns repeating themselves endlessly.

      The second difference is that, in a Buddhist context, it doesn’t make sense to draw a hard line between “you” and rest of the world. The pattern isn’t just your pattern: it runs through everything. There is an important sense in which there is an “I”, an ego, but it’s a fluid entity, not a solid one—definitely not solid enough for blaming purposes.

      So what does it mean to take responsibility for your mindset and your actions in such a worldview? Clearly, it does not have much to do with guilt or blame or anything of the sort. It’s forward-looking rather than backward-looking. it’s the intention to take responsibility rather than the admission that one was responsible for some particular incident in the past. You do it because taking responsibility gives you control over the patterns that would otherwise control you.

      And I emphasize all of this upfront because a Buddhist account of causality is an account of karma, and everything you think you know about karma is wrong. Karma is not morality. It is not cosmic justice. It’s not destiny. It’s not deterministic—that is, not something like a physical force inevitably bringing about a certain result, like gravity causing an object to fall.

      Possibly, these misunderstandings happen because they fit better with traditional Western ideas about the world than the Buddhist view does. Possibly it’s because the Hindu concept of karma—or so I’ve heard, anyway—actually is deterministic, and people figure that everybody must be using the word to mean the same thing. Or because you sometimes see Buddhists treating it as if it’s morality—which there are good reasons for, in some contexts. It’s a word that actually has a lot of different meanings, but what I’m talking about here—to put it in the least misleading terms—is conditioned perception.

      And I apologize for taking so long in what is still essentially the prologue. It’s probably tedious, but what I’m going to say would be useless at best if I didn’t make that clear. Here are some emoticons to break up the giant wall of text.



      So yes. Karma has to do with perception rather than morality. It’s a concept that does a lot within Buddhism. The reason we’re all able to agree to some degree about what the world is like—e.g., the sky is blue, sunsets are especially pretty— is shared karma. If you’re familiar with the term ‘intersubjectivity,’ that’s exactly what I’m talking about here. We don’t agree that the sky is blue because it is blue in some ultimate sense—it’s because we all have more or less the same biological equipment to work with, and we’re all inclined to interpret our experiences more or less the same way.

      The common toolset we have to work with is our senses and our conceptual understanding, which is considered a sense within Buddhism. I’m not sure how to explain this without another massive digression except that it’s our mental processes when they’re acting like a sense organ: our eyes tell us that what we’re looking at is red, and our conceptual understanding tells us that it’s a ball. That’s simplifying a bit, but that’s basically it. And it makes the connection with conditioning clear: knowing that it’s a ball and not, say, an apple is something that comes through conditioning. It’s our past experiences shaping our experience of the present. That’s why it’s good not to take our own impressions too seriously.

      Which brings me to dreams. Our perceptions don’t stop being conditioned when we’re asleep and dreaming. This is why we should also be cautious about taking things that we perceive in dreams too seriously, even if we don’t believe that they’re only regurgitated waking life impressions.

      If there are other worlds/planes/whatever out there that we have the chance to experience in our dreams, we are seeing them through conditioned perception to the same degree to which we’re looking at our computer screens through conditioned perception. It’s true that we have a bit more perceptual freedom in dreams—everything is a bit more fluid, more malleable, and so it’s possible for conditioning to be a bit less restrictive there. But it’s also possible for conditioning to have much freer rein to shape everything to look like itself, and realistically, unless we’re deliberately trying to sabotage that conditioning, this is the likelier possibility.

      This is why, for a Buddhist, there’s an important sense in which it doesn’t matter whether the threatening figures you encounter in your dreams are conscious entities in their own right. The more basic problem is that you’re still seeing them through conditioned perception. The reality could result in any number of equally valid perceptions, and so if the problematic side is the one you seize on, it’s something you need to recognize, and do something about—again, keeping in mind that this does not mean feeling guilty or even tracing out the history of how things got to be that way. That sort of thinking is a lot more likely to get you tangled up in your conditioning than it is to get you out of it.

      Instead, the solution is—well, pretty much every Buddhist practice is a solution, one way or another, and there are literally thousands of them, ranging from intricate rituals to the basic silent sitting meditation that just about everybody is familiar with by now. But what it boils down to in the end is giving you the tools and the training to become more comfortable with uncertainty, ambiguity, change, boredom—basically, everything that comes along with being a human. We loosen the conditioning, we no longer automatically fit everything into our current conceptual framework— which, no matter how sophisticated it may be, is never equal to reality.

      Perception is still a creative process, whether you’re awake or asleep—there’s no getting around that—but as we begin to perceive more, we notice we have a choice in how we react to things. Reality is—again, to put it in Western terms—underdetermined. Until we’re comfortable enough with uncertainty to notice this, we don’t have a real choice in how we react because we don’t see the situation as it is, in its full context, in all its complexity. We get the abridged version, so to speak, one that’s simplified enough not to threaten us or actually make us think.

      Of course, there is a sense in which it does threaten us if it conjures up vicious dream monsters, for instance. But it seems that the idea of living in a world that isn’t divided into friends and enemies, into us and them, often strikes us as threatening on an even more basic level.

      I think it’s likely that we sometimes encounter beings in lucid dream that aren’t just our own mental constructs, whether it be other dreamers or something else altogether. But until we achieve clarity, we’re just going to be projecting onto everyone else, whether it’s extra-dimensional beings or our next-door neighbors. It’s going to be just as if we thought them up—because, in a way, we did.

      We could argue all day about the metaphysics. People have been arguing about metaphysics for thousands of years and are unlikely to stop anytime soon. But I think a lot of the stupider arguments could be avoided if people could admit one simple thing: that what they think influences what they perceive. This means not automatically dismissing someone else’s experiences because they don’t fit with your own view of what reality is and how it works—and it means not imagining that you’re the sole human being in the world whose experiences are an accurate reflection of reality. It’s amazing, the way it opens things up to genuine, interesting discussions.



      So yeah, please feel free to ask questions or whatever. I’ll try to respond in a reasonable amount of time. (Which is more than I can say for this post, which I promised LighrkVader I’d write up—what, two months ago now? But, at any rate, here it is.)
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    2. #2
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      Woop! I've been looking forward to this. I'll have to read it tomorrow. Big paper to finish tonight. Thanks!

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      Great read. It really cleared up some aspect of buddhist thought that I didn't have a proper relationship to.

      The basis was similar to what is presented in a lecture you made me think of when we first talked about this. But you connected it to some points that expanded my view on it. After reading it a couple of times, what I get the impression is essential for me to understand better, is the idea of conceptual understanding being a sense of it's own.
      If it is a sense I would be most interested to know if you can "feel" or "directly experience" this being the truth. Like with sight or hearing. Having just heard about it for the first time, the idea of conceptualization being a sense is naturally still purely conceptual to me, and quite an undeveloped concept at that.

      My intuition tells me this is at the core of the feeling I had, that you knew something significant that I didn't. I'm looking forward to seeing where it leads me. Are there any ideas that are key to understanding why they see it as a sense?

      Thanks.
      Last edited by LighrkVader; 11-27-2018 at 08:04 PM.
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    4. #4
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      I think it's interesting how several different ancient ways of thinking wind up leading to the same conclusions. Everything you said I agree with, but I got to this point through Carl Jung and more specifically, Hermeticism, Christian Gnosticism, and Kabbalism. In other words, I came from the West, you came from the East.

      More often than not, deciding what's "real" or not comes down to how useful it is to consider it real or not, and what exactly you mean by "real". Take the threatening figures experienced in dreams. Clearly if they are causing waking distress of some kind, the effect they had on your psyche was real. Is anything beyond that really necessary to consider? That really depends on why you are considering them and the physiological effect they have on you in the first place, but generally the answer would probably be "no".

      In a more abstract vein, consider what the "wolf" in the Boy Who Cried Wolf is. It could easily be said to be the act of knowingly deceiving others for some kind of personal gain (in this case, entertainment), and (lacking another way of putting it, having just seriously looked up, considered, and learned the term "Karma" for the first time, lol) the Karmic Fruit that such an action brings to bear. What causes the boy to get eaten isn't really the wolf that actually shows up for real itself, but instead of the Karmic Fruit born of his Karma. The cries for help would be the Karma, and the motivation behind them being deceptive, malicious (to some degree, anyway), and overall negative, the "wolf" he cries for help because of both appears in general as the vehicle for the seeds of mistrust, annoyance, worry, and other negative emotions he had sown, as well as literally manifests in the form of a wolf that eats him.

      But, even if it had not been an actual wolf that eventually gotten him, something else would have. Either way, the "wolf" winds up being "real" in the sense that it eventually comes to attack the boy. I think this is an expression of a truth we aren't always keenly aware of--that because our reality is constructed in the mind of and with symbols, symbols are capable of affecting us in ways that are equally as real as the things they symbolize in the our surrounding world. Neither our mental concepts of wolves, nor our rendered images of them are actually the wolves they are meant to represent, but they are capable of attacking and hurting us just the same--even when we creatively interpret certain perceptual phenomena as them or conceptualize them as them.

      There is no "incorrect" way to interpret a perception and/or an experience, or even an inaccurate way. All the really changes is the degree of which it is creatively interpreted instead. The raw Karmic Fruit of the Boy Who Cried Wolf was not actually a wolf (despite one literally being it), but interpreting it as one, or even as something else, is perfectly valid. Understanding this is what opens up the path to understanding and interpreting one's own dreams. The unconscious mind functions entirely on this level of symbols, and so if we are capable of understanding the symbols as being real and having real effects on us, understanding what the symbols actually represent in the context they were experienced in becomes possible.

      The great thing about that is, even if the original "meaning" was lost (if there could ever be said to have really been any one, true original meaning), the meaning that is understood by considering it is just as valid and true as any other meaning you might come up with for it. This highlights the amazing plasticity of the mind and the way it functions; it's fascinating. All interpretations are equally true, but conversely, they are equally false. All truths in this sense are therefore ultimately half-true, and all half-truths are ultimately false. It sounds as if there is no truth, then, or that all things are true... and only some things are kind of true, simultaneously. That would make no sense at all, except that what it means for us (the useful meaning, anyway) is that truth (and therefore, untruth) is a product of the mind, and can only reside within the mind, or apply within the mind. This is because of duality.

      Duality is the concept that something exists along a spectrum between two poles. The reason the meaning and truth of everything all falls apart the more it is considered is because two polar opposites are actually just a measure of the same thing, whose difference is only in degree. When you start straining the metric to its absolute limits, the illusion of the measured thing's dual nature collapses on itself (hot and cold is just heat itself), especially when used to compare or measure the concept itself by its own metric (trying to compare various ranges of hot and cold to the point it only makes sense to say something more singular and uniform, like "heat level"). The collapse of sensible meaning by straining the metric simply illustrates that it is always possible to do, and to keep in mind that literally all concepts of are equally capable of collapse when trying to maintain any kind of ultra-rigid kind of meaning from it). It reminds us of just how plastic and flexible our interpretations and perceptions of things are, and that awareness gives us a greater ability to navigate the mind and states of consciousness.
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    5. #5
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      Quote Originally Posted by LighrkVader View Post
      If it is a sense I would be most interested to know if you can "feel" or "directly experience" this being the truth. Like with sight or hearing. Having just heard about it for the first time, the idea of conceptualization being a sense is naturally still purely conceptual to me, and quite an undeveloped concept at that.

      My intuition tells me this is at the core of the feeling I had, that you knew something significant that I didn't. I'm looking forward to seeing where it leads me. Are there any ideas that are key to understanding why they see it as a sense?

      Thanks.
      Hey, glad I could be of some help.

      The idea that conceptual understanding plays a role in perception isn’t unique to Buddhism (as I see Snoop has mentioned, but I’m going to have to respond to that post more fully later on.) I see news articles all the time with this as a theme, one way or another, and there have been Western philosophers who’ve been interested in it for at least 200 years now. When you call it a sense, though, that’s just a matter-of-fact recognition of the fundamental role it plays in our understanding of the world - that if we're going to perceive anything at all, that's one of the channels it can come through. Whereas if you talk about, say, confirmation bias or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or the placebo effect, it sounds sort of exotic or abnormal, and you still have to connect all the dots yourself to figure out what’s going on and how ubiquitous it is. The Buddhist view just starts from there—and really, most of its practices wouldn’t make sense unless you took it as a working hypothesis from the beginning.

      I don’t know what it would be like to directly experience it—outside of a dream, anyway. I actually did an experiment in a lucid dream not so long ago that had some interesting results. But as far as becoming more aware of it in general, I’d say noticing how your own perceptions about things change depending on your circumstances is the easiest way. Perceptions seem absolutely convincing while they’re happening, just because of what they are, but if you think about past occasions, you can see it could have just as easily been another way. I mean, if I think a poem I wrote last week was awful, but I remember how I thought it was great right after I finished it, I’m not going to give either opinion much weight. Especially if I remember having gone through pretty much the same thing the last five times.

      I think probably any form of art would provide a great opportunity to observe how dozens of compelling and sometimes contradictory interpretations about something can coexist. As someone who’s interested in music, I’ve often found that learning something new about a piece adds new dimensions to my understanding of it. And when you go through ear training, what you’re doing is literally changing how you perceive sound through shaping your mind—not your sensory equipment itself, but what you’re capable of doing with it. It's pretty incredible when you think about it.

      And, naturally, lucid dreams are also a great way—if you’re already pretty sure your brain isn’t radically different when you’re dreaming than when you’re awake.

    6. #6
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      Quote Originally Posted by snoop View Post
      I think it's interesting how several different ancient ways of thinking wind up leading to the same conclusions. Everything you said I agree with, but I got to this point through Carl Jung and more specifically, Hermeticism, Christian Gnosticism, and Kabbalism. In other words, I came from the West, you came from the East.
      Hey, Snoop - I'll try to write up a fuller reply later this week. But I'll say for now that it was a long and winding path to get to where I'm coming from. My own first contact with this idea actually came by reading Camus explaining Heidegger, who may have been inspired by Eastern philosophies and religions. How's that for a way of coming to experience reality more directly?

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      OK, it does look like we’re on much the same page—although I’d hesitate to use the boy who cried wolf as an example since it’s a story with a moral. It’s perfectly fine for what it is, but karma only looks like “getting what you deserve” within a very limited point of view—and, because it’s a story, the limited point of view is all you get.


      Quote Originally Posted by snoop View Post

      There is no "incorrect" way to interpret a perception and/or an experience, or even an inaccurate way....
      Quote Originally Posted by snoop View Post

      All interpretations are equally true, but conversely, they are equally false. All truths in this sense are therefore ultimately half-true, and all half-truths are ultimately false. It sounds as if there is no truth, then, or that all things are true... and only some things are kind of true, simultaneously....
      Meaning is tricky, and I’m not sure, just reading what you’ve written here, if I'm in agreement or not. Because in Buddhism, there is one way of seeing things that is better than all the others, and that is to see them completely—as opposed to catching hold of one or two aspects of something that, while they’re as real as any others, may or may not be the ones that matter in a given situation. This is something that, for most of us, is pretty far from being a reality—but we can at least avoid thinking that we see things completely when we don't, which is trouble no matter how you look at it.

      That’s the problem with relying on conceptual frameworks—that they all come pre-equipped with blind spots, they’re always incomplete. And, yes, inherently dualistic. And while only being partly right isn’t really a huge deal most of the time, it’s often what you don’t see that gets you.

      (I should mention that pretty much anything I say about meaning I owe to David Chapman, and you should totally check out his website/hypertext book if it's something you’re interested in. (Just google meaningness.com) He’s been thinking about this stuff for years and has a real talent for making it easy to understand.)
      Last edited by LeaningKarst; 12-13-2018 at 08:23 PM.
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    8. #8
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      I didn't actually start off using the boy who cried wolf example with plans to include any mention of the concept of karma, lol. It just kind of happened because with it fresh in my mind, it was the best way of explaining what I meant. Karma, as I understood it from looking it up the other day, has nothing to do with "just desserts" or morality; morality isn't considered at any point when discussing it. It's a concept that functions instead as an entirely "mechanical" process in the sense that it deals only really in terms of cause and effect. It's not that the boy who cried wolf is getting what he deserves (or even the opposite opinion, for that matter), it's merely that this was the most likely inevitable result of his decisions. So, as you said, the idea of Karmic Justice makes no sense because justice inherently involves moral judgments and considerations. There was nothing of the sort going on; what happened is simply the result one should expect from behaving in such a way.

      That said, my point with that example was more of me agreeing with your ideas about what it makes something real, and trying to come up with a somewhat tangible example to show exactly in what way your ideas on things being real that wouldn't otherwise be considered to be is correct. Admittedly it wasn't that great of an example, lol.

      Because in Buddhism, there is one way of seeing things that is better than all the others, and that is to see them completely—as opposed to catching hold of one or two aspects of something that, while they’re as real as any others, may or may not be the ones that matter in a given situation. This is something that, for most of us, is pretty far from being a reality—but we can at least avoid thinking that we see things completely when we don't, which is trouble no matter how you look at it.

      That’s the problem with relying on conceptual frameworks—that they all come pre-equipped with blind spots, they’re always incomplete. And, yes, inherently dualistic. And while only being partly right isn’t really a huge deal most of the time, it’s often what you don’t see that gets you.
      The idea that you should see something completely sounds rather vague though, doesn't it? Do you mean to consider it in its entirety as a unified macroscopic whole (beyond duality)? Or to see something in all the ways possible to see it? If it's the former, wouldn't seeing it entirely from a macroscopic perspective in fact not be the same as seeing something completely? I believe it would be the case that to see something completely, you would have to mean the latter--to see something from all the ways possible to see it.

      Obviously that isn't something we are capable of doing as human beings though, right? The pursuit of seeing something in all ways possible to see it (to see it completely, from the microcosm to the macrocosm) is something I already take part in, but is that what is meant? Because if this is the case, then according to the lens of Buddhism, we are never capable of seeing things from the objectively better/best/correct way to see them. And again, if it means only to consider things in the sense of it as a macrocosm, it's impossible to truthfully claim to be seeing something completely when choosing just a single aspect of it to focus on, even if that "aspect" is itself in its totality (because, like it or not, the concept of totality and a unified, perfect, complete whole is still a dualistic comprehension of the concept being considered, because the opposite of considering it that way is to consider it as an imperfect, flawed, set of disparate components coming together in a system to form the whole).

      So again, I'm just getting more confused, because seeing something completely, no matter how you slice it, is not only impossible to do, but wouldn't actually be complete if it somehow were possible because the concept of completeness and wholeness are still ultimately concepts, and therefore dualistic. So, if seeing it the objectively better way is impossible or their reasoning behind it being the objectively better way to see things is flawed from the very premise, then in what way is seeing things from that perspective the best way to do it? How would a Buddhist justify the belief that seeing things in that way is in fact the best?
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    9. #9
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      Quote Originally Posted by snoop View Post
      I didn't actually start off using the boy who cried wolf example with plans to include any mention of the concept of karma, lol. It just kind of happened because with it fresh in my mind, it was the best way of explaining what I meant.
      OK, understood. And it did work up to a point, which is really all you can ask of an example.

      Quote Originally Posted by snoop View Post
      The idea that you should see something completely sounds rather vague though, doesn't it?

      Yes, it struck me afterwards that that phrasing might have been a bit vague. Also that it might have a bit of resonance for someone who’s a fan of Jung, although it’s been long enough since I’ve read him by now that I couldn’t swear that this is an area where there’s overlap. But I’ll see if I can do better—or as well as I can in talking about non-conceptuality using concepts.

      That paradox, I think, is the problem you’re pointing out in your last couple paragraphs—it’s a problem with talking about non-conceptuality, not experiencing things that way. There are methods practiced by Buddhists that are aimed at bringing about non-conceptual experience, but none of them involve explaining it, and this is why. We start out with the concepts because we’ve got to start from somewhere, but they’re not a part of the experience itself. They’re not even terribly useful in bringing us to the experience. But it’s all we can talk about in the abstract.

      Which brings me to clarifying what I said before. When I said seeing things completely, I meant in a given, concrete situation, not in the abstract. In the abstract, there are infinite ways available for us to view something. It would be kind of cool if we could do that—which, as you say, we can’t—but it’s the sort of thing that would interest me as an armchair philosopher rather than as a Buddhist practitioner. In Buddhism, the emphasis is always on the moment, in the present situation. And so when I say complete—the more traditional way to say it would be “as it is,” but I was hoping to avoid the lengthy explanation that would call for—it’s something much simpler than what it might have initially sounded like.

      To use an analogy: say you’re a musician learning how to play a piece of music. The more you practice it, the better it becomes. But there’s really no upper limit on how well you can know it. You could conceivably spend an entire lifetime on one simple piece, and it would keep on getting better. There’s no point at which you can say it’s perfect—just that it’s good enough for your standards, whatever they happen to be. You can find plenty of world-class musicians who’ll say as much. They know that, even if they’re at the very top, there’s still room for improvement.

      But when you actually sit down to perform—or stand up, I guess, if it’s blues guitar or something—then it’s different. You’re coming into it with a certain level of preparedness, but from then on, how well things turn out depend on your ability to correctly read the situation and adapt yourself to it and, importantly, not introduce any hang-ups of your own.

      To see the complete situation is mostly about what you don’t do—not distorting it to reinforce some self-concept you think is important, not imposing some fixed idea of meaning on it, not ignoring the aspects of it that are inconvenient. It’s seeing that it's essentially open—not necessarily seeing all the individual ways it could possibly go, but just seeing that it doesn’t have to be any particular way.
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