Recently went with a couple friends to check out the Solar Decathlon: a competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, which featured teams from nine American and two European colleges – each of which had constructed a solar-powered home. The homes had all been transported and then reassembled in an open field in Denver, Colorado – where they have been available for public viewing, as judges assess the structures according to ten criteria – architecture; engineering; water; energy; health and comfort, etc. — hence the competition’s name as a “decathlon.”
Now one of the friends with me that day – Jerry – is a mechanical engineer. When I first met him, he was working for a small company that was designing a new prosthetic device: a mechanical foot for use by amputees. When I would meet him at his office, there almost always was a mechanical foot “running” on a treadmill – testing its durability, in terms of the number of steps that it could complete before beginning to degrade in one way or another. Celebrations large and small happened when the foot reached various milestone: 10,000 steps, 100,000 steps, and half-million steps.
Though Jerry no longer works for this company, his interest in all things mechanical/scientific remains – so as we wandered from one solar-powered house to another at the Solar Decathlon, getting to examine first-hand the various architectural, mechanical and thermodynamic innovations on display, he was in “geek heaven” – enthusiastically chatting up the designers of the homes about all the technical specs.
Since neither my other friend, Cathern, nor I have this sort of specialized knowledge, our participation in these conversations was much more peripheral: we listened and, when possible, learned a little bit about things like R-values (the capacity of an insulating material to reduce heat flow) and SIPs (structural insulated panels) and Tesla solar batteries. As we learned some of the technical details, our appreciation of the homes increased, albeit in a somewhat abstract way.
The Joy Of Wandering
I really enjoyed the passion and pride the students had for their creations –- as expressed via these highly technical explanations. That said, every now and again I felt drawn to drift away from these conversations, and simply wander around on my own, looking here and there, and simply feeling what it was like to be inside a particular home. In those moments, I was tuning into what in Taoism is referred to as the fengshui of the space: how light and subtle energy gather and flow; how my body feels being in the space; and to what degree my mind is uplifted or depressed within the context of the home’s structural configurations.
So that’s pretty much how it went for those four or five hours of wandering through these eleven innovative homes: a toggling back-and-forth between, on the one hand, engaging at a conceptual level; and, on the other hand, relating at a more direct-perception and intuitive level to what I was experiencing.
Would I Want To Live Here?
And in imagining how I might decide which, if any, of the homes I would actually choose to live in – of course the various technical specs would come into play. But the bottom line, at least for me, would have to be something much less conceptual, and more about how it actually feels being in the space.
One of the homes, for instance, was constructed entirely of concrete: concrete foundation and floors; concrete walls; and concrete ceiling. And while the practical and ecological benefits of this choice were many – e.g. ability to withstand high winds and fires; and last for three generations – my immediate sense, when standing inside of it, was that there was no way I would want to live there: the sense of heaviness was just too palpable.
In any case, this Solar Decathlon experience as a whole led me to reflect, once again, upon the role of conceptual understanding along our spiritual path: How it has a role to play, though to what extent varies widely from one person to the next.
To build a home like the ones that we saw requires a lot of conceptual expertise. To benefit from and enjoy the home, once it is built, requires no conceptual expertise at all. Does the technical understanding possessed by an engineer or architect increase the benefit and enjoyment derived from abiding within the finished home? Does it decrease it? A case could be made for both.
Our Nonlocal Home Of Pure Awareness
But for our purposes here, let’s notice the important difference between the goal of constructing a physical home; and the goal of accessing the “space” of our True Nature: Pure Awareness. The physical home that we live in has a specific space-time location, and specific architectural contours. Arriving at our physical home means placing our physical body within the context of these architectural contours.
Arriving at our spiritual home of Pure Awareness, on the other hand, involves transcending all localized space-time contours. The “space” of Pure Awareness is wholly unstructured and non-conceptual. Does this mean that conceptual constructions along the way are necessarily counterproductive? Not at all! – Only that these structures, in and of themselves, are not intended to be “lived in” – but rather to be discarded when they’ve served their purpose.
A Thorn To Remove A Thorn
A traditional metaphor for this is using a thorn to remove a thorn, and then discarding the “therapeutic thorn” at the end.
Even after we’ve glimpsed our True Nature, there still can be belief systems and/or physical contractions rooted in ignorance – whose dissolution may be facilitated via the application of conceptual techniques. The conceptual technique is akin to the “therapeutic thorn” which removes the “disease thorn” of the ignorant belief or physical contraction.
Dusting For Fingerprints
An unexamined ignorant (i.e. dualistic) belief is something like a fingerprint left on a glass or countertop: invisible to the naked eye, but made visible via the dusting of a skilled detective. In the same way that the fingerprint powder makes the fingerprint visible, a particular conceptual technique/inquiry can bring previously hidden beliefs — “fingerprints of ignorance,” if you will — to the fore. Once fully visible, the beliefs can be properly challenged, and dissolved.
Diagnosing The Pathogen
An unexamined ignorant (i.e. dualistic) belief is also a bit like a virus or bacteria circulating within the bloodstream of our human body. The presence of the bacteria/virus remains hidden from view – until the pathologist examines a sample of our blood under a powerful microscope. With the assistance of this device, the bacteria/virus can be clearly identified – and a remedy applied. Similarly, deep conceptual inquiry can function like a powerful microscope, clearly identifying patterns of dualistic ignorance. Once identified, these patterns can be dissolved into the “cure” of nondual wisdom.
Once the conceptual constructions have served their purpose, they are released – which allows us to live in the non-conceptual “space” of Pure Awareness. Once the microscope has revealed the virus or bacteria, it has served its purpose and so can be returned to its storage closet. Once the fingerprint powder has revealed the fingerprint, both the powder and the print are wiped away. Once the “therapeutic thorn” has removed the “injury thorn,” both thorns are discarded. All of these are examples of how construction can serve a larger deconstructive purpose.
The point being – that detailed conceptual inquiries such as the one outlined in The Theory Of The Two Truths (introduced in the previous post) can indeed serve a useful purpose, in helping us to identify ignorant beliefs still (apparently) blocking our view of the infinite space of Pure Awareness.