De Visionibus

I have always struggled with the idea of visions. It’s not their plausibility that troubles me. I certainly believe that visions happen. It’s not even the issue of which visions ought to be believed that bothers me. My world is constituted of a single, indivisible truth that is beyond any one claim to grasp it and that is also fragmented into an infinite array of facets – our individual awarenesses – scattered across space and time (if you are incensed by my deliberate use of a paradox, I suggest you go read something more sensible … like the Wall Street Journal).

This is a sculture by John Bonington, a visual artist based in Kingskettle, Scotland.

No, it’s the mechanics of how visions operate that bother me. I think the reason for my disquiet comes from an intuitive sense that if we were to understand the mechanics of visions, then we would know so much more about the nature of our own awareness.

We take for granted the nature of our awareness because it is ever present to itself, ie. us, yet never able to turn upon itself. The eye cannot see itself, but in a mirror. We cannot know ourselves, but for the reflection of ourselves we cast in the world. Descarte’s very position that our awareness is evident to itself by its own action of interpretation (cogito ergo sum) only really stands, in my estimation, by the tautology that awareness is per se aware. We feel that our awareness is couched in our head because four of our five senses are housed there. We make the very logical leap to the conclusion that our awareness is somehow “in” our brains because of the coincidence that the organ that governs our various bodily functions also happens to be couched in the same appendage where most of our senses collect.

Anyway, I’m not interested in taking on the entire history of scientific thought and common sense at the same time – though I will say that the kind of sense that is in fact common is not the sense I usually trust. This is all to point out that the nature of how we experience our life and reality is often neither linear nor rational, though does have a certain kind of causal logic. Visions just make sense in a world where awareness is unbounded by our material form. The problem is, if unbounded by physical form, how can we come to use our awareness more … > ahem < … awarely?

This is why visions trouble me, but this is not to say that I have not had them. I have often been confronted by guides, human or literary, which employ instructions that make no attempt to explain precisely how one has a vision. You’re just supposed to ‘visualize’ or ‘envision’ or ‘see with your inner eye’, but I have found that there are numerous levels to ‘seeing’.

First of all, we see in a particular way when our eyes are open and our minds awake. This is self-evident and the benchmark for all other forms of seeing.

Then, there is the ‘seeing’ that we do with our intelligence. This really means ‘understanding’ or ‘comprehending’, though these are deplorably spatial words for a process that is anything but. What do we mean when we say “Oh, I get it!”? There is no real thing to have or possess, yet we insist on describing our inner transformation through this physical metaphor of acquiring a concrete good. What we are expressing is a transformation of our own nature, our own mode of experience, realized through an encounter with something previously absent from our awareness. We suddenly have the ability to interpret our experience in a new way. The implications should not be passed over lightly.

When we come to understand something new, we suddenly grow by an order of magnitude. Certain ideas alter us more or less greatly, and thus we usually consider something ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ based on the degree to which it alters our awareness of the world around us (Einstein’s theory of relativity is ‘high’ while today’s price of gas is ‘low’). This does not include that viewpoint which views ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ things as corresponding to a value system: ‘higher’ being blessed or supernal while ‘lower’ means being debased or evil. I would rather not address so very different a complex of ethical ideas at present.

The point is that through learning we suddenly become something we weren’t, even if all we learn is the current price of gasoline, and our entire life is an endless stream of lightening bolts transforming us bit by bit into something we nor any other being could have imagined save the divine. Even then, the gods cannot know precisely what we will become, only what we are capable of becoming: the order, kind and magnitude of our possible manifestation. If such is all the gods may understand, how thoroughly do we underestimate and blind ourselves to the glory of each person we meet and no less the glories of all the worlds surrounding us? Precisely because we and all those minds against whom we incessantly collide are undergoing a nearly constant array of transformations, we succumb to an illusion of constancy and stability, but the degree of newness we should ever feel is infinite. We are not who we were even five minutes ago.

Nevertheless, the ‘seeing’ that spawned this tangent is purely mental and only relates to physical sight by way of a metaphor — a rather stretched one in my opinion, as it loses the full implication of the learning process. Such a metaphor distracts from the transformative nature of learning by inducing an episteme that populates the world with invisible but no less spatial concepts that one must ‘open one’s eyes’ to ‘see’. Nothing could be further from the truth. Taken to the extreme, this view leads to the feeling that one’s brain can only hold so much information. I cannot count the number of times I have heard people talk about information ‘pushing’ other information out of their heads — what complete idiocy (I chance seeming uncharitable here for rhetorical effect)!

Between the sight of our eyes and the ‘sight’ of our inner comprehension, there are a number of other kinds of vision. I have never seen anyone attempt to classify them and so I will do so here.

The ability to envision something with the inner, conscious mind is a simple aspect of thought. Insofar as this goes, the inner visual faculty is the exact counterpart to our inner linguistic faculty. What I mean here is that our conscious mind produces language, and it produces the idea of something that can only be experienced spatially — that is, seen. Nevertheless just as we can think an inner monologue without experiencing it with the same peculiar intensity of something spoken to us, when we think of something that can only be seen — that is, visualize something — then our minds do not experience it as a sight but as a mental construct.

Yet there is a faculty that perceives mental sights and sounds very much as vividly as if they came to our awareness from the consensus reality — what most term ‘real life’ — and not from some other, more rarified source. We all experience such visions and sounds in dreams, but it is possible to perceive such things while awake. I suspect that, when we dream, we have actually risen to a form of wakefulness in which such visions are not yet eclipsed by our productive faculty, that part of our mind which forms language and envisions after the above fashion, and that deep meditation leads those who may into the same wakeful but perceptive state as found during dreams.

The implication here is that when dreaming we have almost no active intention, since our will instinctively begins producing language and spatially perceived concepts without allowing our perception to take in what it may. This is why wakefulness appears to eclipse dreams and visions. It is not wakefulness that blinds us to such visions but our incessant urge to produce thought rather than receive it. Our ability to perceive has thus atrophied through neglect, though any may begin to learn again how to ‘move’ mentally in such a way. Those who meditate and practice altering their mental state (‘processes’ would be a more accurate term as thought has no static state and only differing forms of activity) are able to perceive thought as well as produce it but do not lose there intentionality as the dreamer does.

This will require much more thought and I will continue to work on it, continuing this line of thought as I can. There is much here to consider.

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