To begin this essay—the latest in a series exploring certainty—let’s recall some questions lingering from a previous post, having to do with the relationship between phenomenal appearances and Awareness, in terms of their certainty:
* Is it actually necessary that appearances are less certain than the Awareness within which they arise and dissolve? Is there no scenario in which they are, say, equally as certain?
* If pure Awareness comes with 100% certainty, and if (in Reality and, for some, experientially) pure Awareness fully saturates phenomena—then why doesn’t this full saturation include a transfer of this 100% certainty to all phenomena?
* More generally: In what sense do all the noumenal qualities of Awareness infuse appearances, and in what sense do they not? To use the ocean/waves metaphor: Are not all waves equally wet?
* If phenomena/appearances are fully saturated with Awareness, then shouldn’t they also be fully saturated with the noumenal qualities of Awareness, including the quality of 100% certainty (via something like the transitive property)?
* Perhaps it’s the case that we can be 100% certain that the essence of an appearance is Awareness—while at the same time remaining uncertain about various phenomenal qualities of the appearance. But how is this not a remnant of (the mistaken assumption of) duality?
The answer to these questions would seem to hinge on a distinction between, if you will, Absolute and relative types of certainty—with the latter limiting the degree of certainty that phenomena can display, in relation to their phenomenal qualities.
To Whom or What Does Certainty Belong?
Absolute certainty—that I am and that I am aware and that this direct knowing of being (Sanskrit: sat) and awareness (Sanskrit: cit) comes with a profound level of comfort, ease, and contentment (Sanskrit: ananda)—belongs only to This non-conceptual, non-phenomenal, nondual True Nature, pristine Awareness. It never belongs to conceptual-mind.
The certainty of conceptual-mind will always be relative, probabilistic. Why? Because the validity of mind’s conclusions will always depend upon the quality of sensory evidence and/or the precision of reasoning—both of which vary according to circumstances.
* The certainty of visual evidence, for instance, depends upon how well our eyes are functioning.
* And mathematical/logical certainty, based upon a set of axioms, depends upon the truth and relevance of the axioms.
Mind can assign degrees of certainty to phenomena, based upon the evidence of the senses and/or logical inference. But such certainty will always lack the perfection and unassailable stability of Absolute certainty.
Determinism, Chaos & What Lies Between
This capacity to assign degrees of certainty—but never 100% certainty—to the qualities of phenomena is a defining parameter of the game, as it’s currently being played. The space-time game-board and its rules are set up in a way that avoids both determinism and utter chaos. And this, as we’ll see, allows it to be quite interesting (and potentially very fun!) to play.
If everything phenomenal were certain, we’d either be living in a totally static universe—with nothing moving or changing at all. Or, we’d being living in a deterministic universe—like a pre-fab clock wound up and now unwinding according to an inalterable plan.
If, on the other hand, phenomena behaved in a way that was totally chaotic—without any discernible laws or patterns, in the absence of any cause-and-effect mechanisms—then there could be no certainty whatsoever (except for the certainty of there being no certainty, lol).
The Upside of Uncertainty
As it turns out, spiritual realization (i.e. the unveiling of our original freedom) as well as creative innovation are possible only because phenomena operate in a manner that is neither wholly deterministic nor wholly chaotic.
Both utter chaos and rigid determinism offend our sense of freedom and creativity. As it stands—with the game set up to avoid these dual pitfalls—influencing happens in more-or-less predictable ways, even if the outcome is never 100% certain.
And this is actually a good thing—because having 100% certainty (across time and space) from the point of view of a specific body-mind would be much less interesting. For instance, without some degree of uncertainty we could never experience:
- The joy of a hide-and-seek game.
- The intrigue of a good murder mystery.
- The satisfaction of a creative solution to a challenging problem.
- Throwing a surprise birthday party for our friend—and having them actually be surprised.
- Watching a chess tournament, tennis match or basketball game—not knowing ahead of time who is going to win.
- Designing and conducting scientific experiments to test a hypothesis.
- The pleasure of getting to know a person—their habits, quirks, preferences, history and aspirations.
- Being scared by a nightmare—and then waking up to discover that it was only a dream.
In each of these cases, the intrigue or pleasure of the experience depends upon an appetizing mix of predictability and uncertainty. There’s mystery in how it’s going to turn out—but also clear cause-and-effect mechanisms that can be brought to bear, to engage the situation.
The Desire for Phenomenal Certainty
Why do we think we want to be certain about such things—i.e. about the movement and qualities of phenomena?
Because we believe that if we clearly know about the contours and evolution of circumstances, then the comfort and/or safety of our body-minds can be guaranteed, or at least maximized.
Or, because knowing with certainty will be beneficial in terms of financial profit, e.g. knowing how the stock market is going to react, ahead of time, allows us to invest for maximum profit; or knowing which tennis player is going to win the match, allows us to bet on the winning player, and reap that financial reward.
But such desires for phenomenal certainly are rooted in the existential fear of absolute annihilation—aka the fear of the death of the body, when we believe that who we are essentially is the body.
Once we’ve connected with the Absolute certainty of Awareness—and know this to be our essential nature—then we’re no longer bothered (in an existential way) by phenomenal uncertainty. On the contrary, we can fully appreciate and enjoy the game …
Long Live Impermanence!
Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh is fond of saying, “Long live impermanence!”
Why is impermanence something to be celebrated? For one, it’s because impermanence is what makes healing and transformation possible. Without impermanence, our problems would remain problems forever.
It’s also the truth of impermanence that helps free us from the notion of a separate-self: a separate, permanent, inherently existent body, mind or body-mind that we belief to be “me” or “mine.”
Understanding impermanence means understanding that within the realm of phenomenal appearances, nothing exists absolutely, nor can anything disappear/not-exist absolutely.
Every (apparent) thing is in perpetual transformation. What may appear as the dissolution or disappearance or death of a particular phenomenon is more properly seen as a transformation: a composting or recycling of that “thing” into something else. (In physics this same insight is reflected in the notion of the conservation of matter/energy.)
When we look closely, the existence/non-existence polarity can be transcended. We can see that these are just concepts, ideas that have no actual referent.
Causes and conditions come together, and then dissolve—creating and dissolving phenomenal patterns which mind names as this or that.
But no “thing” ever exists “from its own side” i.e. in a permanent, separate, independent way—nor can it be subject to absolute non-existence.
In Advaita Vedanta, Absolute reality is often defined as “that which always is”—but this is a Beingness that is non-phenomenal, so transcends the existence/non-existence polarity. That which always is—is no-thing! It’s not a phenomena, but neither is it a nihilistic absence or nothingness.
The Perpetual Transformation of Phenomena
Phenomena are in a perpetual state of transformation. Some transformations happen quickly, from the point of view of human perception. When the fire from a spark comes into contact with the gas in our stove burner, the flame emerges immediately—allowing us to cook dinner.
Other transformations happen more slowly. A caterpillar creates its chrysalis—and from that point requires one to three weeks to emerge as a butterfly. A mountain rage may take centuries or millennia to rise up, and then dissolve—though a time-lapse camera could record and then play this back at a rate that would allow our human eyes to see the mountains moving like ocean waves.
Many metaphors have been used to describe the perpetual transformation of phenomena. Some of my favorites are:
* Like the shapes and colors in a kaleidoscope: patterns dissolving and giving rise to new patterns.
* Phase changes such as ice to water to steam.
* Recycling or composting: our rotting fruit and vegetable scraps reincarnating as a rose bush.
* Waves rising and falling within the ocean.
Names & Forms: The Fruit of Pattern Recognition
The appearance of names and forms is just that: an appearance, via the mechanism of pattern recognition. The cognitive/perceptual apparatus of a human body-mind learns to recognize a pattern and assign a name to the pattern. This can and does happen, even though no such pattern is actually static, but rather are continuously transforming.
Given the appropriate causes and conditions, a name/word appears in the mind. Then the name/word dissolves again. Do names disappear absolutely into the “space” of mind? Or do they, like the phenomenal patterns they represent, also simply transform into something else?
If we lean toward an Idealist point of view, then every phenomenon is a mental event/perception, and nothing more. So, the distinction between names and forms becomes inconsequential: If one is in perpetual transformation (absent of absolute existence and absolute non-existence) then the other is also.
If we make a firmer distinction between mental events and events happening in the external world—then we can wonder whether the two operate in more-or-less the same fashion, in relation to their mechanisms of transformation. But this is a topic for a future essay ….
What We Most Desire
What we most desire is not relative conceptual certainty, but rather, a recognition of our inherent wholeness/holiness—which is the Absolute noumenal certainty of Pure Awareness—and which brings in its slipstream indestructible confidence, satisfaction, contentment and ease.
In this “space” of pure Awareness we enjoy an effortless fulfillment, an absence of lack. Why? Because nothing is missing—even as phenomenal “things” arise, dance, play and then dissolve. We become like the ocean, appreciating the appearance of waves, and their subsiding back into their source.