The Transparency of Existence

When my friend Brian walks to work, he sometimes comes up with observations like this: 

We normally think of our bodies as fully separate from the surrounding environment, but every nuance of the body is exquisitely tuned to the relatively restricted range of prevailing conditions on earth: temperature, light, atmospheric pressure and chemical composition, gravity. Just as the contours of a jigsaw puzzle piece are mirrored in the contours of the negative space of the surrounding pieces, so the structure and function of our bodies bear the unmistakable fingerprint of the nature of the planet as a whole.

In this sense we are more like well-integrated facets of an incredibly vast and continuous mosaic than independent entities moving freely against an arbitrary, disconnected background.

Goldfish.jpg

Our failure to appreciate this is a consequence of the more general principle that when context is held constant, it becomes transparent to us and is no longer perceived or appreciated as context.

Water is invisible to the fish until the fish is removed from the waters and thereby can perceive a change in the previously unchanging context.

This is congruent with recent proposals that one driving computational principle of the nervous system is to construct a model of the world that minimizes violations of expectations. When context is held constant, it readily conforms to learned expectations, loses perceptual and cognitive salience, and becomes taken for granted or even transparent to the degree that we lose consciousness of it entirely.

Probably the most radical instance of this is the transparency of existence as such. There is nothing so banal and shrug-inducing as to point out the obvious that things exist. But when contrasted with the idea of nothingness, such as when contemplating death or why there is something rather than nothing, Being itself can become contextualized as an "object" of awareness.

In this mode of consciousness, the most supremely banal transforms into the most supremely baffling and awe-inducing. That which is most obvious and taken for granted is simultaneously that which is most mysterious and astonishing. It should make you shrug, but it should also make the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention with a jolt of bewildered electricity. We exist.

Appreciation of existence as such is inseparable from appreciation of consciousness as such. At the ground level of things, the distinction between metaphysics and epistemology blurs, and That Which Is becomes indistinguishable from That Which Knows.

From the point of view of a conscious being, the raw thusness of Being is identical to the raw suchness of Consciousness. Recognition of that normally diaphanous ground in which everything we know, have ever known, and will ever know subsists is cause for an ineffibly deep and rewarding way of perceiving, understanding, and relating to oneself, others, and the entirety of existence.

Perhaps the tight relationships amongst these phenomena account for the construction of the compound Sanskrit term sat-cit-ananda, or being-awareness-bliss.


Brian Maniscalco walks to work in Bethesda, Maryland.