On going soft in the head

Jessica. By Thomas Hawk, San Francisco

Jessica. By Thomas Hawk, San Francisco — The homeless girl with love in her eyes.

It was during a balmy mid-afternoon in Central Oxford that I and my friend of some 20 years’ standing gingerly negotiated a crossing of the busy street that had first been lain a millennia ago during Saxon times — then a loosely set cobbled carriageway running northwards up from the ford of the oxen at Grandpont, some half mile or so distant along adjoining St. Aldates. The year was 1992 and a palpably self-satisfied, Thatcher-hewn metropolitan hum of affluence pervaded the air in equal measure to the oppressive diesel fumes belching from the buses and taxis that laboured and lurched their way along Cornmarket Street towards Carfax, twixt which our bodies wove, breathing in unnatural rhythms, yet mysteriously embracing the effluvium with bare arms and wide open hearts, unburdened neither by concerns nor the otherwise ubiquitously lugged, logo-laden bags of well-sated shoppers.

And then it hit me. Like Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, like Drury’s hypnotically corrective stick — ich liebe dich! I knew I was now in love, and that I loved my friend; I loved the woman who brushed past us so irritably; I loved, too, the arthritic elderly gentleman who froze with anxious eyes in deliberating the manner of his crossing, and I loved the carcinogenic particles pumping through my lungs out into the yielding air, the dumb dummies posing erect at shined panes with their cold, dead eyes and synthetic elegance, the chaos and indecipherable din of a gaggle of garrulous language students, of horns a-honking, of the lumbering bells of St. Michael’s tolling optimistically, and of ancient Oxenaforda’s silenced, illustrious past; yet I was not only in love, as love was now in me as I turned, looking at my friend, laconically offering, “I feel great”, at which, with pursed smile, he said, “You feel it too, do you?”

A religious may call it God’s Presence, though in these days of Rationalism I should deem it the cranial release of monoamines and oxytocin. I’m unsure what to call it, ‘Love’ seeming as polluted a term as was Cornmarket on that summer’s day 25 years ago. Most will know of this state by whatever name or none; Buddhists call it ‘Mettā’ (Pali) or ‘Maitrī’ (Sanskrit), ancient terms denoting ‘kindly, loving feelings of amity and benevolence’, the Aristotelian ‘Philia’ and Judaic ‘Chesed’ meaning the same. It’s a state of mind, my friend and I feeling it contemporaneously in empathic triggering of a brain region known as the Periaqueductal Gray; mirror neurons firing sympathetically, some might claim. It matters little; what counts is its vividly transcendent actuality, its negation of isolative self-consciousness. Most interesting, is it being a state susceptible to nurturing in Buddhist mental culture practices.

I’ve no interest in quasi-religious cosmologies or in ritualistically indulging spiritual performances of any hue; although I do enjoy evensong at nearby Wells Cathedral, imbibing both quietude and its glorious choral music as an uninitiated yet appreciative bystander. Still, there exist practices of mental culture advanced in ancient canonical texts that benefit us in contemporary life, easing burdens and providing solace; moreover, quieting our troubling, nascent neuroses and supplanting them with those feelings of Mettā — the amity and benevolence that so readily mirrors in encounters, be they with friend, stranger, or foe. Yes, foe too, as in the culture of Mettā we extend the feeling even to those to whom enmity is harboured, reorienting our former negative emotional predispositions. In our polarised, hate-drenched world, now moreso than ever I find this quiet mental skill an incomparable boon.

People are hurting; they are fearful in a world at its most perilous juncture since October 1962; greater still given AUMF and AGW. Our individual deep traumas arising from horrifyingly common sexual and physical abuses, and the acute stress disorders brought on by profound adversities or our innate neurological imbalances, must be addressed by professional clinical means. Mettā is not a cure-all or some nostrum for the naïvely credulous; rather it is an engaging of focused, potent feeling which conciliates an agitated mind, loosens nervously held tension, and eradicates discordant enmity. Buddhist psychology addresses the subtle absence of contentedness which pervades consciousness in varying degrees, ubiquitously so. We tolerate this just as we might static in radio reception, or the buzzing of our refrigerator. Mettā ameliorates this negative hum, softening our mind and social interactions.

Mickie his name was, the weaver betwixt buses, he of the mirror neurons, my fellow choker in the pack. After that day he began to develop the mental culture of Mettā so as to be able to auto-intuit that same sense of amity and connection whenever it was helpful. He dissolved his former self-centricity — an affliction common to us all — and others would quietly remark to him that something was different, he’d changed, in subtext asking what alchemy had caused this. Yet there was nothing in Mickie’s nature that isn’t present in others too; he’d simply learned to access the contentedness and amity lying dormant within humankind. I so admired him for cultivating his mind with Mettā, that faculty of intuiting a kindly benevolence which he gifted to others as much as to himself, they mirroring silently, unbidden. I think of it as him having gone soft in the head. If only I were wise enough, I would too.

Mettā very much: Marie Williams & Mickie Brough-T.

What is it like for nothing to happen?

Painting the Earth. By Ana Cooke, Farnham, England

Painting the Earth. By Ana Cooke, Farnham, England.

As befits my contrarian nature, and whilst risking irritating some readers, I want to begin by asserting something unlikely to appeal to reason; that is to say, if we are fully aware, maximally aware, then nothing happens. This is a non-perceptual, albeit meditative, state of mental pellucidity alone; it is not a state of consciousness. How so? Consciousness per se denotes being ‘with knowledge’ – Latin: Con Scientia – and is commonly assumed synonymous with awareness. Still, as we are not ‘with knowledge’ in this maximal state1, let us for now term it ‘awareness’, analogously denoting what is akin to an illuminative trait of consciousness, as if it were to radiate light upon itself, rather as a solitary lantern illumines both itself and all. In conceptualising awareness this way, we ought not to do so as if it were being projected onto a sense datum, which falsely renders a dualistic, spatially separated conceit.

In this conception, consciousness is the appearance of ‘lit’ phenomena; it is being ‘with knowledge of (or as)’ something, having an inherent aboutness, meaning it is like being a particular way. Whilst awake (cognition persists when asleep), it is our knowing we are undergoing experience, or as some call this, ‘metacognition’. Pervading this aboutness is an illuminative quality which itself is devoid of discernible attributes, much in the way that light is indiscernible save that it illumines objects – as does our lantern both itself and surrounds, yet its radiating light forever remains unseen. This ‘light’ of awareness is not susceptible to recollection; nor is it stratified perceptually, e.g. oil lantern, gas lantern. Marked solely by lucidity and potency – potent, as our entire conscious world springs forth from it – objectless awareness rests both prior to, and as a constituent element of, all conscious cognition.

But is consciousness illumined, so to speak? Why not assume it identical to quantifiable, reflexively responding and infinitely recursive nervous system states? Are they not sufficient for, or constitutive of, apparent subjectivity? Do qualia, our characterised instances of the way things appear to us, by their hidden nature lead us to regard them as immaterial, unquantifiable by any methodology? Do naïve intuitions deceive us; ought we rather to take physical correlates as our only measures of consciousness? Some theorists may seek to explain away even consciousness itself, let alone permit of any intractable awareness. Otherwise, absenting any correlates to bodily states, Cognitive Science is ubiquitously disregarding; its precept seemingly ‘no content, no consciousness’; so an explanatory gap then appears between theorisations and an objectless awareness functionally analogous to light.

Various phenomenologies, Husserlian as well as Buddhistic and Advaitan conceptions alike, deem methodological approaches prerequisite to our addressing appropriately why there is something it is like for us to undergo physical processes in typified mind/body problems of consciousness. These remedies result in a suturing of both sides of this explanatory gap within a radical, enactive2 actualising of awareness such that theoretical constructs of the nervous system never broach in their intended technical remit. That actualisation ‘sees’ the irreducibility of experience and utter redundancy of resorting to reification of either the mental or physical, neither does it bind to any object vs. subject dichotomy. No scientific representation grants us the first-person immersion into the enactive2 nature of awareness necessary to suffice for resolving what are in, essence, manmade existential problems.

Still Drying. By Ana Cooke, Farnham, England.

Still Drying. By Ana Cooke, Farnham, England.

Why does any of this matter? Firstly, if objectless awareness is actualisable, then it must conform to any comprehensive theory of consciousness, and yet how might it? Research typically hypothesises higher order information processing and correlations between brain states and experience, as if they alone give rise to the subjective. Yet awareness remains neither any state of cognition or knowledge, nor is it a sleep state. It obtains without interfacing to memory functions, is devoid of aboutness, and presents as a featureless pellucidity and potent ground for nascent consciousness. It is as if a Tabula Rasa to that regarded as the conscious mind. It prima-facie exists; yet is not like anything. Ergo, we must account for it. Secondly, to address mind/body dilemmas effectively requires more than consensus, a template; it demands experienceable verification of aware mind’s enactive2, non-localised nature.

What is it like for nothing to happen? Thomas Nagel is often paraphrased in discussions on consciousness. He posited3 that there is always ‘something it is like’ to be conscious. In other words, to be conscious is for there to exist a unique, subjectively felt experience. Whilst this intimate aboutness is never descriptively reducible to a materialist paradigm of functions, intentional states, and higher order information processing, as in doing so we jettison the very thing we are attempting to describe – our apparent subjectivism as conscious beings, our personally felt experience – neither is it sufficient in accommodating a de facto objectless awareness. Hence Nagel’s trope is no use insofar as the state has no characteristics, is not a set of proliferations, and is utterly devoid of aboutness. Here, we can say little more than that it obtains, is accessible to any contemplative adept, and that it is well proven.

Remember the difficult opening statement: if we are fully aware, nothing happens. To be fully aware means not having its potency occluded by or in mentation. Thought is a product of concentration – a coalescing of attention around serial perceptual streams. Distractedness too is a mode of mental focusing, albeit with a rapid oscillation of attention. Yet maximal awareness rests prior to all thought and focusing of the mind, its illuminative nature being revealed in pellucidity and beingness only. It does not know itself as a reflected thing, so is not ‘conscious of awareness’. Nothing ‘happens’, whilst a potent, intuited presence pervades it. It may be accessed via first-person perspectival phenomenology, progressively reducing mental proliferations until the objectless awareness presents. To become adept in this practise requires skill and the overcoming of thought’s deep fear of its own absence.

What use is this experience? Firstly, it contextualises the nature of thought and results in a disidentification such that we cease feeling as if inhabiting thought neurotically. In turn this exposes the put-up job of self-sensing, and we see the ‘self-of-me’ as the narrative-based stream of mentation that it is. We feel a dramatic lessening in isolative self-consciousness, and a resultant tendency to attune empathically, with less cupidity. Our past omnipresent mental proliferations – i.e. chatter, worry – make way for a tranquil sense of immediacy and presence, whilst both subject and object, as apprehended, are clearly understood as psychical constructs alone, and ‘though obtaining still, they cease distancing us emotionally as we know they arise in unicity. Lastly, the subtly relentless interplay of desire and aversion is increasingly pacified as our innately given, indwelling contentedness surfaces unbidden.

In conclusion then, the purpose here is to float a provisional notion that no matter the sophistication and accuracy of our scientific representations of consciousness, of themselves they can never produce anything other than a reflected and partial understanding, one sufficient for our advancement in many spheres, but in others paling against consciousness’ full realisation of itself, as itself, rather than as an image of itself. Any direct actualisation will bestow benefits upon individuals to whom it appears, even though in their descriptions of the same they necessarily, and can only, evoke paradoxical, and hence unsatisfactory, an accounting for it. As such, the explanatory gap spoken of earlier can exclusively be sutured in a first-person apprehending, and a significant advancement towards that is this esoteric exposure to a maximal awareness. I welcome hearing readers’ views on any flaws herein.

 

1 Related research paper:  http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00099

2 Enactivism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enactivism

3 T. Nagel: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Is_it_Like_to_Be_a_Bat%3F

 

The ambit of ambition

Looking after Number One, Bedford Square. By Steve Cadman, London

Looking after Number One, Bedford Square. By Steve Cadman, London

It was a bright and still morning as he stepped from his elegant Georgian town house in Bedford Square, the ad-be-clad double-deckers delivering the day’s first visitants to The British Museum on the far side of his familiar Fitzrovian neighbourhood. Sunday. Church bells pealing. An absence of sharp tailoring on the now ambiguously accoutred. More of a crinkled linen state of affairs, for those consciously á la modish. A day of rest, not of work, not for most. Free of the throbbing urgency of nine-to-five-ness; though usually for him, for my erstwhile friend, it was seven-to-ten-ness. Long days keeping his holed ship afloat. A captain of business anticipating, in some dread, any skipper’s final obligation should the waterline be holed.

A resting day, yes, and so he strolled towards a wooden bench in the tweet-filled square oasis, these days now twice tweet-filled, but then just sparrow emanations. A time to consider: options, options. In the past, Virginia Woolf may well too have weighed her fate here, before in time lining a weighty overcoat’s pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse on a similar Spring day four decades ago. Across the square, another local resident, John Maynard Keynes, would have sat considering means to palliate Capitalism’s frequent waterline breaches. Later still it would be Madonna Ciccone, then Lady Gaga, eyed at discrete distances by ex-vets, they too bereft of options within their muscle-twitching watchfulness. This quadrant, hemming in.

Madonna's Blond Ambition Tour Corset. By Brandon Carson, San Carlos, USA

Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour Corset. By Brandon Carson, San Carlos, USA

A short stroll to the workplace; thirty seconds to key the alarm codes; an ascent to a now eerily quiet office; a passive stare at his Mac Classic and the sleep-depriving spreadsheet printouts; pour a single malt; more – at least three fingers; slump in the chair; toss the carton of Pethidine onto the desk; options, options. The ship was going down, and it needed half a million to stay afloat. These days, his home in Fitzrovia would amply cover that sum, nine or tenfold. But this was back in Thatcher’s day, and besides, the bank already had a charge over the house. Options, options none. He takes a pill, the first of forty. Clarity pacifies the mind where options once had wearied. Each pill a pocketed stone; each bell-tolled minute a step closer to the river.

And so it was, upon that bright sun Sunday, my friend found his way out. A victim of his own designs, sunk by ambition. Now I’m told that such striving is a healthy, natural human quality, hearing politicians’ endless mantras of ‘aspiration’, of people wanting to ‘get on’, to ‘work hard’, to ‘climb the property ladder’, and thereby ‘doing the right thing’. The message is clear: compete or fall by the wayside. I must set goals to ensure my security, must compete – perhaps even against my own instincts – so as to propagate and extend familial interests. Who, ultimately, is served, though? I witnessed so many follow this ambition-laden trajectory over the years, and learned that whatever promise was fulfilled, and mostly it was not, the price was heavy.

Thatcher bags, displayed on the day of her funeral. By Rachel Clarke, London

Thatcher bags, displayed on the day of her funeral. By Rachel Clarke, London

Can sufficient ever satiate my fundamental desire for contentedness, or am I bound to a striven life irrespective of my material needs? As I heedlessly clamber, eyes directed skywards, over the failed ambitions of the many less able to compete, as I turn my thoughts away from the price others pay for my cutting myself a larger slice of the pie, do I feel true to the ethics I would so glibly espouse, in knowing I really am ‘doing the right thing’? Again, who or what is served in my assumed, self-centric ambitions, other than a vague article of misplaced faith which somehow came to inhabit me as if a given of nature? If my contentedness subsists in the ambitious pursuit of wealth or status, so my innermost needs are met. The thing is, it seems it is not so.

The ambit of ambition is exposed in asking just such questions, and yet why would I ever doubt my assumptions; why should my ambition be bounded? Is it not so that, just as my erstwhile friend believed, an endless succession of frontiers are there to be conquered, each elevating one to an ever higher degree of fulfilment? Or has what I serve now become a vacuous promise, a point at which my remaining time – perhaps a span shorter than I suppose – would best be passed in restraining my purblind acquisitiveness? Oh, the justifications leap quickly to one’s defence, do they not? As always, we find the complex though habituated easier than the simple yet uncustomary – a perverse trait in many higher animals, even we, the paragon amongst them.

The house was sold; the bank and preferential creditors paid off; the Mac and remaining assets auctioned; and in short time, Madonna arrived in the square – for the very first time – and Thatcher, in tears, left Downing Street – for the very last time. Unlike so many, and would he but have realised it, my friend could have attenuated his pernicious cupidity, spared himself that opiate-dulled submersion into the darkened waters of quietus. Most have not even the choice to indulge likewise such avarice, their ambitions extending no further than providing essentials, with perhaps the occasional purchase of some brief cheering. So it is that my words are as irrelevant to them as ineffectual they are to those spellbound by an ambit-less ambition.

Handel on – Free Will

Alcina – Meghan Lindsay and the Artists of Atelier Ballet. Photo by Bruce Zinger

Alcina – Meghan Lindsay and the Artists of Atelier Ballet, Toronto. Photo by Bruce Zinger.

Driving serenely Eastwards towards London in the middle lane of the M4 amidst dense, though well-ordered, traffic, I listen to Arleen Augér sing an aria in Alcina – Handel’s oft ignored but exquisite opera, and one with an amusingly bizarre libretto. Juggernauts dourly and stately process their tonnage along the slow lane to my left, whilst eager, besuited deal-makers, along with those for whom time runs too fast today, speed past upon my right at a steady, metronomic tick. A Toyota cocooned I, sandwiched, fore and aft, port and stern, in the middle lane, sail contentedly along. Hundreds of minds doing precisely what were required to remain safely within reach of their goals. A taut calmness holds, whilst all rests upon fine judgements, an invading bee, or the inopportune, nerve-vibrating alert of an anxiously awaited text – carnage, staved off, for now. So, sing your honeyed song, evil sorceress; though your spell enchants, I animate for now; just for this now.

A towing truck begins to drift in front of me – a well-judged, if impertinent, call by its driver; or rather one which may have been deemed so had he not forgotten that he was once again towing, and the length of his charge was double that which he had assumed. Brain takes over: get out of the way Hariod; I need to be driving this thing, not you. Brain calculates that hard braking is too risky, and anyway, the Toyota would still get broadsided by the dumb, forgotten trailer. Three, maybe five, 360 degree rolls to follow? Arleen continues oblivious. No option but to drift into the fast lane, hoping amidst insufficient certainty that the oncoming deal sorcerer and his Audi’s stoppers can help Brain save the day – vorsprung durch technik! Save it, that is, for Brain, and much other grey matter besides. Hariod knew none of this silent, synaptic work – axons, dendrites, quantum vibrations in micro-tubules silently orchestrating. Bravo! Enter Hariod stage left, as the driver.

Whither Free Will in all of this? We believe we have agency, meaning we feel we have autonomous, volitional control over events. It feels almost as if a guiding homunculus – or is she a mythical sorceress? – resides benignly within our craniums, directing matters, dutifully thinking our thoughts for us, experiencing our experience, driving our Toyota, cursing careless truck drivers, and appreciating Handel. Most of us consider ourselves largely free to choose as we wish the course of our decision-making, and by thinking of ‘ourselves’ we relate back to this imagined sorceress, or homunculus. Those who may object to this imagery must describe exactly what this agent of Free Will is, or conclude – most counter intuitively – that there is no such thing at all. We exist as embodied, thinking persons, as individuated social constructs or social selves, but not as the agents of Free Will we imagine ourselves to be in our own private La Fenice, our personal operatic myth.

The Songs of Handel's Alcina - Published 1735

The Songs of Mr. Handel’s Alcina – First edition, published London, 1735

Why and how do we experience the illusion of agency and Free Will? The short answer is that we are subject to what psychologists call a Postdictive Illusion – a post hoc mental fabrication of events which reinforces a sense of agency and selfhood; the latter likely being artefacts of evolved survival means. In any situation, an array of possibilities exists as to how we might respond to our current or envisaged environment. What happens is that subconsciously felt predispositions incline towards one particular option, and so motor action of the body initiates accordingly. Following both such occurrences, some or all of these options appear in consciousness, and a postdictive – meaning an explanation after the fact – illusion of choosing appears to be made ‘now’. In fact, the apparent choosing occurred after its consequences were subconsciously felt and after motor action initiates. A sorcery of the mind has tricked us; so let’s get back to Alcina in the Toyota.

This incident struck me so because there was no prior deliberation of how to deal with the situation, no thought of ‘shall I brake, or veer to the right?’ Everything happened far too quickly for any conscious thinking, and I was left with a clear sense that it had nothing to do with any ‘me’ as one might normally think of oneself. This happens frequently in daily life; just try thinking – as you do it – of how to dance, or strike a tennis ball, or tie a shoelace, and see how the whole process becomes impossibly convoluted and clunky. We get a proprioceptive sense of ‘me doing something’ as we throw our shapes, drive that backhand, or tie the laces, and this feeling feeds recursively into a sense of self and agency, just as does the apparently willed choice to have initiated those actions. In fact though, we are devoid of self-agency, just as Arleen is uninhabited by a sorceress called Alcina. As a great artist, she inhabits the role, yet her script has already been written.

I hope not to have dwelt overly on dry technicalities; it being far more fun to be dressed-up on the stage of life acting out our dramas, is it not? Still, when the curtain falls, the bows being taken, we then return to the dressing room to wipe away the make believe in the mirror of self-reflection. If the mirror is perfectly clean, what we see is no longer the sorceress willing so freely, or the homunculus determining things on our behalf. We instead see ourselves as links in a vast and beginningless ocean of interrelatedness. In Handel’s opera, Alcina the sorceress is a wicked seductress, casting spells upon many lovers who, spellbound, arrive upon her mystical isle. After using them, she turns them into stones, animals, waves or trees. Finally, Alcina comes truly to love, and with it her powers dissolve; she sinks into the isle’s ground – way out in the vast ocean – and it is seen that both Alcina and her isle were only ever the illusions of her now reanimated victims.

Contentedness embodied (Part Two)

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Ethiopian Cleaning Ladies. By Steve Evans, London

Having previously seen that our everyday apprehending of the world and phenomena comes about via mental representations, we can now consider awareness as it runs more pervasively, seeing how any fundamental sense of contentedness may relate to this. Naturally, the mirror of consciousness continues to perceive reflectively, reflexively, and selectively throughout all psychological states, and our sensory systems persist in routine modes of functioning. The vast flood and flux of sensory data cannot all be reflected in the mind’s mirror, for it would instantly be overwhelmed and rendered unable to navigate the world. So it is that beneath the representations of mind we call consciousness, the brain’s algorithms select and time-shift events, order priorities, and focus attention, all of which occur beyond our ken. What we take to be the world is a composite, selective rendering of sense imagery, in isolation being distanced from any innate reposefulness.

It is worth reminding ourselves what this innate repose or contentedness is – a quality embodied via immanence, that is, from within. Put simply, it is our natural state prior to the mind’s overlay and manipulation of desire and aversion. Many may object to the idea that their lives are guided by these seemingly lower, or animal, impulsions, and that is due to them not being seen in their full subtlety. At a gross level are craving and hatred, yet myriad finer gradations subsist beneath, often running subliminally as if assumptions, though still impelling action in the mind and world. These we can term desire and aversion, and when they obtain, a level of discontent must logically persist. This too may run subtly, and in its ubiquity we may well deny its very existence. Many consider themselves to feel reasonably content; yet one cannot be so, any more than one can be partially pregnant. Contentedness is an absolute; it does not arrive in gradations of feeling.

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Mother and Child in Havana. By Jorge Royan, Argentina

We read above both of awareness as well as consciousness, and how the latter may isolate us from contentedness. Consciousness means being ‘with knowledge’, so refers to objects reflected in the mirror of mind; it is all of the phenomena known as thoughts, memories, imaginings, sights, feelings, scents, tastes, and sounds. Awareness, as connoted here, is the illumination of these phenomena – the lucid yet blank slate upon which the objects of consciousness are inscribed, as it were. The two are not mutually exclusive to themselves or to the body, and the three comprise an integrated unicity. In any isolative consciousness, desire and aversion have free rein, and the triumvirate’s innate contentedness is obscured. When a balance is struck in accentuating awareness, contentedness may arise via immanence. The stuff of consciousness is then seen as the psychical objects they are, no longer serving as agents for desire and aversion, and we are freed of all discontent.

That is quite enough of the dry technicalities; so let us now look at how awareness is accentuated. The flavour of this is analogous to a feeling of ventilating the mind, or of dropping the narrow grasping at objects of consciousness and letting the mind breathe more freely. We seldom realise how much we grasp at sense objects, and typically these will be visual or verbal in nature. Even when we close our eyes in a silent, darkened room, still the mind grasps at an internal monologue; or in sleep, the mind grasps at visual imagery in dreams. Abhorring a vacuum, the mind clings to some semblance of familiarity, or seeks patterns, however fantastical in nature. The trick is to turn awareness upon itself, rather than having consciousness run free. Now, awareness is objectless; it is just the mind resting in radiant lucency. This means it cannot grasp or be grasped at, so the first thing to do is to relinquish that stance, as if being asleep whilst remaining wide awake.

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Göttweig Abbey, Austria. By Jorge Royan, Argentina

Try this: Gently ask yourself now where awareness is, not where attention is placed, but where awareness itself is. Is it within your head, or maybe in thought alone; is it now residing in the blurred, opaque visual forms of your nose that you seldom notice, or perhaps on the screen where these shapes appear? Is it in the words you hear inside your head, whether these or your own commentary? Just become intimate with awareness itself now, having realised there is no answer. Remain curious, yet without grasping, without seeking out answers, without driving attention along. Let consciousness fall asleep, savouring instead the deliciousness of a ventilated mind, sensing how awareness has expanded as consciousness nods off. You will not quell the mind entirely, but you will balance your body and consciousness with awareness. It begins to feel pleasant as you turn from subtle desires and aversions to awareness, yet lose interest even in that pleasantness now too.

As we develop this technique alongside any mindfulness practices we may engage in, a disinclination inevitably develops towards the former grasping stance of the self-centric, unrestrained, conscious mind. We see that it was superfluous for the most part, as well as emotionally wearying, and that we function perfectly well with it attenuated and pacified. We steadily become more balanced as we go about our affairs, and desire and aversion continue to fade over time. When conditions are conducive, contentedness will arise, being sensed as a perfectly equanimous psychological freedom arising from within. Our presence-in-being feels both vitalised and delightful; so too consciousness itself becomes at once more vibrant yet tranquil. We cease to divide the world neurotically into a point of centrality, thought to be the subject of ‘me here’, and entitative objects, or ‘things out there’. Awareness appears seamless and non-local, as it is. Contentedness becomes embodied.

Contentedness embodied (Part One)

Old Couple in Kyrgyzstan. By Evgeni Zotov, Flickr.

Contented Couple in Kyrgyzstan. By Evgeni Zotov, Flickr.

As human animals we spend the greater part of our lives apprehending the world reflectively, as if peering through to it by means of psychical mirrors. Our minds evolved to affect this process unwittingly via constantly flowing streams of updating composite imagery, all unquestioningly taken as the world in itself – Naïve Realism made real. Such mirroring is presumed synonymous with our life itself too – all the sights, sounds, feelings, scents, tastes and thoughts that reflect to us, outside of which no phenomena may appear. These mirrored images are, for the most part, accurate reflections of what happens around and within us, and had our species not evolved to apperceive with this level of precision, then we humans may not be here on earth today. To that extent it is a success story, yet could our mirror-gazing existence be enhanced in the evolution of some quality we lack, yet innately intuit? And may we at times glimpse that which we are yet fully to embody?

A digression: a young woman feels she should take up meditation and so arranges to meet the abbess of a Buddhist monastery. The abbess, having ascertained the woman’s suitability for meditative training, asks why she has requested instruction. In response, the woman explains that whilst her life is comfortable, secure, and untroubled, still she senses the absence of an unquantifiable contentedness of sorts. She appreciates that happiness is ephemeral, coming and going in accord with events, though a disquieting lack of a deep satisfaction persists, and she is left pondering if that felt void, and the contentedness yearned for, has parallels in Buddhistic conceptions of human existence. She senses a subtle distancing, as if life were obscured by a gossamer filter, or remained slightly out of focus, enquiring of the abbess if such thoughts were valid. If so, she asks, might evolution fix this ubiquitous glitch? Smiling, the abbess asks ‘how long do you want to wait?’

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Street Seller in Havana. By Jorge Royan, Argentina.

Beyond the essentials of life, we human animals devote much of our time to realising this same contentedness. Rarely do we conceive of such efforts in those precise terms, thinking instead that we desire happiness rather than to dwell in contentedness. This is because happiness is an overt feeling, and the human is a feeling-driven animal by and large. Behind this striving for a felt happiness, however, in fact lies a knowledge that inheres within the body and which understands that contentedness is the supreme goal. To be content is to be utterly beyond all desire, and such a state is not dependent upon feeling in the least; rather is it more akin to a psychological freedom, one which is not subject to the dictates of desire and aversion, nor wrought by virtue of any conditions. The human body knows this; it is far from being any philosophical abstraction. That is why the young woman was accurate in her appraisal before the abbess, and also why in turn the abbess smiled.

Our fallacy is to mistake a mere mirroring of pleasant sensations for true contentedness; it is the inclination of the mind to seek out a vaporous flux of sensory gratifications and think they will satisfy the body’s quest for that which it knows to be within and realisable now – almost as if that same knowledge were a cellular memory. It is a different mode of memory though, one which cannot ever be laid down for later recall as if an object stored in the mind. Rather, it is the body’s knowledge of itself, as itself, not as an image of itself in a certain state, such as a mood or felt disposition, but as itself alone. Contentedness is not any visualised echoing within the mind, something reflected in the mirror of the psyche, and so cannot ever be manipulated into existence by recall, intellect or volition. It is neither a spiritual attainment, nor result of any endeavour, nor may it be invoked by behaviour or genetic birthright, other than that common to all humans.

License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

Beauty Salon in Havana. By Jorge Royan, Argentina.

After many years of earnest meditative application, the young woman, now in her forties, went for her afternoon stroll in a local park. She felt calmly observant, yet made no attempt at mindfulness and thought of nothing in particular. Suddenly, in an uncaused instant, a radical perspectival shift occurred, as if life had come into focus. The contentedness she had alluded to with the abbess arose, though not in any mirroring. Her mind leapt in so as to make sense of it all, though quickly she came to laugh at the futility of its blunted effort, as what presented needed no qualification, being starkly obvious in its perfected ordinariness. She knew now that the contentedness she had sought in life could never have attached to any subject, nor absorb into any seeker, as that same seeking subject was merely her own mind-creation. It was as if awareness were now unobstructed by past distinctions imposed by the mind, and the waiting the abbess spoke of had now ended.

Contentedness was now embodied, and she knew that whilst her body had realised itself, and with it her mind too, neither were in truth discrete entities standing in contradistinction to one another; they were both existent yet as perspectives of each the other. She saw that subject and object, as apprehended, were only ever psychical creations, so too that the point of centrality which localised her body and self-image was not so for awareness itself. She gazed over at the distant Chestnut trees, her mind enquiring as to what was so different, yet somehow the same, and ordinary. What was it that was imbuing her with this total desirelessness and ease at a perfect ordinariness? The park, the trees and she of course existed as spatially referenced in awareness, yet awareness also saw itself as itself, as non-local. Her self-centricity had dissolved, yet she remained, embodied as pure awareness and the contentedness she always intuited she had been.

Eyeing the I in the Eidola

Venus at a mirror. Titian c.1555

Venus at a mirror. Titian c.1555

Eidola, the pluralised rendering of ‘eidolon’, are represented in ancient Greek mythological literature as what we commonly regard as phantoms, or apparitions – the spiritualised human form in other words.  These terms derive from ‘eîdos’, a Greek noun loosely translating as ‘a form seen’, yet broaden the meaning to embrace a supernatural element. Ever ubiquitous, humankind’s tales of ghosts, spectres and the like, extend to the animistic beliefs of indigenous tribal peoples, pervade the anthropology of religion, reach back to pre-literate cultures of ancestor worship, and are vividly alive in contemporary media too. In Christian theology, the fundamental reality, or hypostasis, of God, posits the same as existent consubstantially in three forms, one of which is the Holy Ghost. It would appear that eidola persist as a cultural universal, gripping the human mind in faith, awe and fascination.

Personally, I am not keen on being spooked, and the idea of one seeking out such dubious a privilege in film, books or theme parks is as much puzzling as it is anathema to me. This is not merely an inevitable by-product of my advanced years, for I have always eschewed the dubious delights of having my vampire juice flooded with neutrophilic leukocytes, or my sympathetic nervous system haunted by cloaked and shadowy adrenergic receptors – whatever those may be. Such beleaguering goings-on occur irrespective of my clammy-handed protestations, and much as I may bid to reassure the conscious self of the actuality of the situation, show me Regan’s swiveling head and the shivers start up unfailingly. Something odd is going on, as if there were a doppelgänger here; the one being self-possessed, reasoned and conscious, the other irrational, perturbable and asleep at the wheel.

Which is the essential me, the conscious rationalist, or the closeted and timorous absurdist? Still, in presupposing some enduring quintessence of selfhood within or about me, I unwittingly invoke an eidolon, a form seen in mind’s eye yet vaporously at best instantiated; a mind-blown ectoplasmic doppelgänger whose existence pervades my substance and reflectively conscious psyche, which itself is but partial, fleetingly present, a mere fluxing bundle of perceptual imagery alone – a Humean human, inhabited and haunted by a spectral homunculus.  In short, I too am a myth of sorts, a narrative of my own insignificant little odyssey. And yet I exist, so whilst excusing, if you will, the peccadillo of the double negative, I am not nothing. Selfless in the strictest sense, am I more than embodied characterisation, a spectre idling along in its dramaturgical existence, an empty ghost actor?

Self Portrait. Johannes Gumpp. 1646

Self Portrait. Johannes Gumpp. 1646

Surely the eidolic invocation of self cannot be the primary evidence of my truest being; nor is my social construct consistently self-like, as it morphs from one encounter to the next. My physical presence fails the criteria too, for it changes and is subject to programmed cell death, or apoptosis, and the body is a cellular formation. As an adult, up to seventy billion cells die within me each day, so I am separated from my own cells at an astonishing rate. One minute they constitute what I am as an alive being, and the next they are dead, decaying within me and awaiting scavenging by white blood cells which smell their death. Am I somehow separate from the dead cells yet identical with any alive ones? No, they both are part of what I am, which is neither entirely alive nor dead, not inside or outside any self, part eidolon and part matter, not nothing, and yet for a while, an indefinite something.

Glib theories abound, yet which of them withstands scrutiny; which do not devolve to fanciful thinking at base? It seems implausibly dismissive to hold that consciousness does not exist so requires little accounting for – the view of Eliminative Materialism. And similarly so to assert that consciousness and transcendental idea alone are what I am; or otherwise to call forth the ineffable and regard myself as some play of Lila or Godhead. No, undeniably there is awareness illuminating all consciously apprehended phenomena, and there is this heaving heap of cells coming and going too, albeit only in loose aggregation. In all, some tight-woven interplay of mind and matter, a body subjected to endless sense impressions, a mind-created eidolon which spooks whilst affirming itself. And at times, a unified multiplicity prevails, a seamless non-localisation in which I as subject recede, give way, dissolve.

Phenomenologists, most notably Edmund Husserl, have in the past century proposed rigorous mind-analyses for disposing of eidola in contemplatively reductionist ways, echoing the ‘via negativa’ of Vipassana Buddhism and later Indian Advaita/ Natha doctrines, Greek Pyrrhonism, Epistemological Fallibilism, Maimonides’ negative Judaism, with correlates to the apophatic mysticism of Islam and Christianity. So too are there dubious quick-fix, pick ‘n mix bags admissible to the jaded, post-modernist mindset, they being largely corruptions of classical doctrines. All are attempts at debunking the mythological self and god by rejecting falsity; though curiously none state what persists thereafter. Elusive yet obvious when seen, eyeing the I in the eidola is unsusceptible to perceptual capture. Known by and as itself alone, it remains present to all awareness, ever thus, subtle, profound, not a myth.

 

Empathic apes

Orangutan mother and kids. By Patrick Bouquet, Chantilly

Orangutan mother and kids. By Patrick Bouquet, Chantilly

The year is 1955, and far from the nearest village, somewhere within the Northwestern jungle region of Thailand, a 48 year-old Englishman and ordainee to the Buddhist monkhood sits quietly in studious attention. A few feet away, a female ape sits, arms carefully wrapped around some precious possession. The monk first chanced upon her the previous day, and due to the curiosity roused in observing her melancholic countenance, has remained respectfully nearby to her. A trust has developed, the ape sensing the monk’s gentle disposition and harmlessness. He really ought to be making his way to the village for alms, yet somehow senses that he should stay. A silent, palpable communication has developed between the two, and slowly, carefully and deliberately, the ape, her sadness still etched upon her face, finally unfolds her arms and offers a first sight of what she has been protecting. The monk slowly approaches to within a pace or two, sensing the invitation, only to catch sight of her lifeless and terribly deformed baby.

Two empathic apes, ancestrally and psychologically speaking, separated by little more in this moment than a distant, lineage-splitting, speciation event. Opposable thumbs, one hers and one his, in turn chase away a monk’s tear and a delicately mottled butterfly as it alights from the baby’s forehead, though cannot do the same for their conjoined feelings. Eyes meet, evincing as they do a deepening rush of sadness. Nothing can be done – is this what she is thinking in her way? In his unknowing, the saffron-robed wanderer radiates compassion, yet knows he has nothing to do with it; an offering from wisdom, not from the self. All that need be known arrives in the fullest of measures. What use now the venerable elder’s sagacity, his knowledge of emptiness, renunciation, equanimity, the void? She inhabits the void, is the void, her bleak knowing piercing its veils. Without turning, the monk slowly retreats, still reverently holding her gaze alongside a shared understanding. A slight suggestion of a bowing head betokens what passes between them.

It is the ability to empathise which in part distinguishes the psychopathic mind from its otherwise healthy state, and the primary orbit of empathy is that of feeling, not the mere gyrations of intellect. This is why many species of sentience can empathise, and we human animals are but one of them. We may erroneously presume that an ability to reflect upon others’ situations facilitates human empathic capacity; yet the state of those others and their situations need not be known as verbally abstracted objects in the mind – little stories packaged in words. We may just as well occupy others’ frames of reference by intuited means; and vitality, morbidity, distress and joy may all be recognised across species in differing ways; one need not indulge any anthropomorphisation, for clear evidence abounds. What is intuited here, or instinctively known, is the nature of the other’s felt emotional condition; and in this way, 60 years ago, the grieving mother ape and mendicant monk shared that intense experience – a wordless world of deep, primate feeling.

Engraving of Orangutan. By Willem Piso (1611-1678). Courtesy Wellcome Trust

Engraving of Orangutan. By Willem Piso (1611-1678). Courtesy Wellcome Trust

Was the mother ape empathic? Well, she came to appreciate the monk’s amity; she felt able to extend trust; she intuited the monk’s concern for her as well as his desire for understanding as to the reasons for, and significance of, her sadness; and finally, she recognised that the monk would feel something of that sadness in revealing its causes to him. This is all to say that she significantly placed herself within the monk’s frame of reference and innately understood that emotions can be matched in shared experience – the personal does not expire at the boundary of the body. Her empathic appreciation was sophisticated, certainly moreso than any psychopathic human ape. Now, one way to cheat the system is to mimic expressions and gestures, which results in a like proprioceptive sense. This means our feelings echo the other’s, so affecting an emotional contagion of sorts, whether volitionally induced or not. Yet neither jungle dweller did so, their empathic link being forged in mind purely intuitively, and silently.

Empathy subsists in knowledge; it is in part to know the mind of the other, and whilst its currency is both cognitive (knowing) and emotional (feeling) in nature, it is the latter that strengthens the connective link to altruistic and prosocial leanings, as well as ameliorating aggressive traits. Primates’ mirror-neuron systems help forge innate empathic leanings, with research suggesting that empathy evolved in part as a survival mechanism. Right now, tens of thousands of refugees are fleeing war-torn regions of Africa and the Middle East so as to seek sanctuary, and survival, in Europe. A few hours ago, a three year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, drowned and was washed up on the shores of the Greek island of Kos. Equally tragically, his five year-old brother met a similar fate. Whilst Europe’s politicians exhibit an ongoing empathy gap, innocent children are dying. We live, not literally, though metaphorically, in a jungle, sharing the empathic faculties of the monk and bereaved mother ape. Are we wise enough to nurture the same?

Synecdoche (Part Two): Little World

Fool's Cap Map of the World. Unknown origin c.1580-1590

Fool’s Cap Map of the World. Unknown origin c.1580-1590

In the first part of this article, we discussed how each person, in coming to understand how they construct themselves as the self-entity they take themselves to be, must in the process come to understand how all others do too. In other words, self-knowledge is not particular to the individual, because the self – in essence an embedded, accumulating and by graduation morphing narrative and body schema – comes into being by identical means in our species. Each of us remains unique in many ways, such as in our formative experience, our psychological make-up, conditioned traits, genetic inheritance, and in our individuated physicalities. Yet that which we regard as our quintessence, the enduring internalised construct we each unquestioningly hold as the self and the aspect of ourselves which we most intimately cling to, is little more than a formulaic pretence determined and governed solely by means of evolved, unbidden and unconscious processes.

Each character has a given name, societal position, cultural identity and perhaps a hierarchical status; yet all such markers are in part a figure of speech, or synecdoche, denoting an undeniable correlation with countless others. The markers delineate superficial distinctions alone, and the greater the number of them, the more we remove from our understanding the underlying truth of the other’s commonality with us.  In much the same way, in our coming to understand how the worlds we ourselves inhabit are constructed, we see also that same world as a synecdoche for all others. How I relate to my home and environment, my relatives and loved ones, those I engage with out of chance or necessity, and those whom I depend upon or those who depend upon me, human or non-human, all make up my little world. It is a relational world, an interactive adventure forged from myriad connections, surprisingly few of which do I have great control over.

The argument against this is to assert that such correlations are facile, that how can I, a materially secure Westerner living in a largely strife-free state, possibly share any commonality with the oppressed and malnourished other on, say, the Indian sub-continent?  Are these conditions not worlds apart, if only qualitatively? Well, in examining human suffering, we find it has a common genesis, proceeding as it does from the mind. For example, we commonly mistake unpleasant bodily sensations for suffering, failing to distinguish between physical pain and the attendant overlay of mental anguish. Is the suffering of the wealthy financier who contemplates suicide at her portfolio’s decimation greater than that of the homesteader in sub-Saharan Africa facing a crop failure of a few sacksful of grain? Objectively, then yes, these are worlds apart, yet the subjective suffering of each may be qualitatively indistinct, even in their wildly differing experiential settings.

Geography of Twitter. By Eric Fischer, Washington, DC

Geography of Twitter. By Eric Fischer, Washington, DC

And what of care and affection; are we to suppose that our world as comprising love is any the lesser or greater than others? Ought we to suppose the human instinct to loving solicitude is greater than that of our fellow creatures? Who amongst us knows what human love is as distinct from other forms of animal love, and whether it is qualitatively superior? Am I so arrogant as to suggest my altruistic benevolence is any the greater than that of my pet Border Collie, for it seems far from being so? If I am unable to define precisely what constitutes this world aspect, how am I to know that those of other animals are not simulacra of my own, there being no original and authentic love-world other than the one as represented by the many – is this not a truth hard to refute? I may describe a personal world of felt affection, yet in doing so prescribe but a figure of speech alone, a synecdoche for all worlds inhabited perhaps by most beings of sentience.

My little world is forged at the interface between psyche and otherness, between ideas and the world as impressed upon my senses. Those impressions and the precise nature of that otherness differ in every detail from the next person’s, yet the means of forging are identical. This shared action results in distinct narratives of course, and it is these that are held to in our bids to assert the pre-eminence of individuality over commonality. I want to believe I am, if not special, then unique; yet that is only true in the differing stories of what I am and what my little world is. To those without privilege to my narratives of self and world, my assumed mantle of uniqueness is meaningless, and the same is true of theirs to me. We may here be at a cold and sterile juncture, yet it also is a starting point from which we may begin to introduce the binding agents of humankind – our innate qualities of kindness and compassion, of empathic understanding.

So what, why should I care about such ideas when I have altogether more pressing concerns? What is the point in abstracting notions such as these from the warp and weft of daily living, the place where I earn my crust, feed my children, and work on my betterment as a means of personal fulfilment? Perhaps the answer lies somewhat starkly in the evidence, and which seems to me to be in a state of constant deterioration. We live in a polarised world, where theists fight theists and atheists argue against both, where the wealthy seldom flinch in their impoverishment of others, and where power-hungry and psychopathic leaders crush the potential of all they have dominion over.  Is it not time to find our common humanity, or even our common animality? We humans are destroying our sole environment; we are chasing down the darkening corridors of economic systems at the point of failure. Can we not rest awhile so as to perceive our little worlds as one?

Synecdoche (Part One): Little Person

 

New Zealand, air hostesses from 1965. Courtesy NZ governement archives

I am just a little person, one person in a sea of many little people who are not aware of me, yet each potentially a simultaneous understanding of the other; each, in a sense, a simulacrum or synecdoche for all others: if I understand myself sufficiently deeply, then in that moment I understand the other, however remote my presence to them. This is not to say I can appreciate their specific complexities, of course, and the detail, the true intricacy of any given life, remains forever removed from that quota of awareness I am privileged to. Each little person, tagged with their own unique package of characteristics, is still a synecdoche though, potentially at least, for all the little people out in the sea of otherness. The word means literally ‘take with something else’, so conveying the idea that even a partial representation alone is sufficient to apprehend the whole, or vice versa.

This sounds rather fanciful to the contemporary mind, conditioned as it is in a belief as to the total, inarguable individuality of each little person. What an appealing belief this is too, for this same little person here finds a seemingly plausible counter to a reluctantly intuited sense of homogeneity, which word itself derives from the Greek ‘homogene’, meaning ‘of the same kind’: Homo Sapiens. Even though each of the little person’s internal organs are replaceable with those fished from the sea of many little people, even though their blood, hair, bones, limbs, eyes and hands can be substituted with biological or manufactured alternatives, still the little person resists the evidence, demanding their status as a uniquely enduring entity. It is of course the mind itself that insists upon countering the intuited and actual homogeneity, and the mind, so the little person believes, belongs to them.

New Zealand, air hostesses from 1959. Courtesy NZ governement archives

This raises a problem, for if the little person’s physicality is all but totally interchangeable, then at what point during this theoretical process does the supposed possessor of the mind cease to exist? When does the point arrive at which we can no longer claim the mind belongs to any little person? If we hold to Physicalism, or Hard Materialism, we assert the mind belongs, if not to the little person, then to the organ of the brain. Should we be an Eliminative Materialist, we say there is no mind, and so no such question arises. I resist these philosophical perspectives, for to me there is a non-locality of awareness, meaning it arises both within as well as about what we think of as the little person, and whilst we call this aware experience ‘mind’, I do not adhere to any Cranialism; it’s not exclusively headstuff. In accepting this, we logically must ask whether the mind is under ownership.

Ownership implies agency, or self-determination, and it is belief in this that makes the little person feel unique and autonomous, directing their life just as all others would theirs. Yet this owning agent is never verifiable other than as consciousness, for it is only ever a belief that resides within and as that consciousness. Now, all conscious displays are themselves non-local simulacra, representations of otherness that are neither the little person nor any owning agent, and which clearly may never be evidenced outside of consciousness. This means the little person is always a thought-construct, a put-up job forged by mind and subsisting in otherness but never in essence itself. Should this hypothesis obtain, then the little person is a synecdoche for the entirety of others in kind; this is because every little person, being a fabrication of mind, comes into apparent existence in an identical manner.

New Zealand, air hostesses from 1970. Courtesy NZ governement archives

Where are we? We heard that the mind persists in countering a reluctantly intuited homogeneity of all the little persons. Further, we said the mind forges each little person as a thought-construct, and that the little person does not exist as an enduringly instantiated entity – just like a house, a car, or a computer, its parts are interchangeable. Beyond this, we learned the mind produces only conscious effects as verification of its own fabrications, and that these subsist universally for all the apparent little persons, being as they are culled from the same sea of otherness. And lastly, we found that the hypothesis as a whole demonstrates that each apparent little person is a synecdoche for the sea of many little people. So, in understanding myself sufficiently deeply, then in that moment I understand the other, which was the assertion of the opening paragraph and a challenge to the curious mind.

In the ‘Ship of Theseus’ paradox, a parallel question is raised: in replacing a wooden ship plank by plank, are the ongoing resultants still the original ship?  In point of fact, only the conception itself endures across the constant transitioning. The ship, as known, is not a wooden construct; it is a thought-construct, a fixed conception presenting to any observing little person, all of whom create each the other in identical fashion. Each parallel the ship in that their structure constantly mutates whilst a sense of enduring selfhood smears out across the whole, forged in mind in homogeneous ways. Now, if the little person turns the mind in on itself reflectively, they in time realise that they must be more than a thought-construct, a belief. They see that the little person whom they believed they existed as was a synecdoche: a motif in play which in its perfectly clear seeing brings knowledge of all of its kind.

 

Images courtesy of New Zealand government archives: http://archway.archives.govt.nz/ViewFullItem.do?code=14847710