the thingness of things


POSTCARD #81: NewcastleFive days in a Buddhist monastery in Northumberland, sitting meditation in the early morning and last thing at night. The photo above was taken at 5.15am. I wanted a picture of the sunrise and didn’t see the sheep in their places next to the wall – slightly startled by a human being leaning over into their enclosure and the click sound of the phone camera. They wait to see if he comes back, forget about it and only the fragrant grass remains… early on a summer’s morning.

After that I’m in the Dhamma Hall, sunlight shining through the roof windows on the Buddha statue, benign and welcoming. Monks with shaven heads sitting on the floor, faded tangerine-brown robes, flowers, incense and candles. Focused on the silence, watching the inbreath/outbreath, seeing the thinking process coming and going. Fragments of a thought pieced together from associated thoughts, memories of a past time brought into present time, together with things thought about in future time. Pause for a moment and everything stops… just the circumstance itself. It takes some effort to get it started again. Maybe there is only one moment – only one, all the time.

Everybody sitting completely still, listening to this shared silence. Suddenly there’s the faint sound of somebody outside doing something. He whistles part of a tune it’s not noisy, quite pleasant. Nobody moves, of course, nobody turns around to look. We all continue to sit, the quietness interrupted by a small clunk noise… then he whistles his small tune again. It’s the farmer next-door, busy with things. A wooden door goes bonk… something is dropped on the ground, and there’s an interval of quietness. Then a rustling noise, and the whistled tune re-enters, invading the space. It’s an amazing sound, a kind of warbling around a melody. It trills like a bird – how could anyone whistle so well! It’s a chorus from an old song I can’t quite remember. Then it’s silent again… waiting for the whistle to come back, but it doesn’t come back and I realise he’s gone.

Consciousness seems to move from one moment to the next and there’s only just enough time to decide what this is before it changes into something else. In the interval that the mind is engaged in ‘thinking it’, everything moves on and I can never seem to catch up – can never find the right words to express it… wordless and indefinable. Language is an overlay placed on reality, gives everything an identity, tells the story, creates a fiction I get lost in. Nothing is what I think it is. The present moment feels like it’s an immediate event occurring ‘now’, but there’s also a feeling that maybe it’s not. Time is a measurement I apply – applied time. Maybe this is something that’s not happened yet… it happens later, gets reflected upon and what I think is ‘now’ is actually a fraction of a moment of hindsight situated in future time. How can I be sure things are what I think they are when I’m only always just feeling my way through something not experienced yet? Looking at what it’s not and everything on the other side of that, must be what it is. The absence of ignorance…

Moon unchanged,
Unchanged flowers.
I, however, am now
The thingness of things.


38 thoughts on “the thingness of things

  1. ‘The present moment feels like it’s an immediate event occurring ‘now’, but there’s also a feeling that maybe it’s not. Time is a measurement I apply – applied time. Maybe this is something that’s not happened yet… it happens later, gets reflected upon and what I think is ‘now’ is actually a fraction of a moment of hindsight situated in future time.’

    Something like this appears to be supported by neuroscience now. In its representations of the senses including all mentation, the brain time-shifts direct sensory experience so as to create a superimposition within awareness (psychological time), and with which we navigate our way meaningfully and safely in the world. So whilst within clock time all is sequential and linear, within introspective psychological time, things get shuffled around a bit. o_O

    Hariod Brawn.

    P.S. Sounds like a lovely retreat.

    • Thanks Hariod, I like the way this is explained, ‘the brain time-shifts direct sensory experience’, it’s expressed so much better than my attempt. The feeling of it being always slightly out of time, and things get shuffled around a bit… Nice! Yes it was a quiet time up there in Northumberland, the least populated county in England, a gentle rolling landscape and natural things all around.

  2. “then, out of the box
    came Thing Two and Thing One!
    and they ran to us fast.
    they said, ‘how do you do?
    would you like to shake hands
    with Thing One and Thing Two?'” ~ Dr. Seuss
    Thank you for the rock wall, the rising sun,
    the sheep, the still point staying through out
    all the seeming motion!

    • Good old Dr. Seuss… we all need to re-read these things, thanks for the idea. About the sheep in the photo, I didn’t know they were there until I got back to my room and examined the image. Nice to think they’re probably there now, sheltering against that same stone wall for the night… and the world goes on.

  3. I loved this post, most especially the lovely way in which you described the sounds you were hearing during meditation – the sounds the farmer makes as he moves around and whistles. Moment to moment from one sound to another. You described it perfectly.

    • Thanks Jude, there are some things that just get expressed the way they happen. Something to do with the farmer who is unseen to those in the meditation hall, is unseen in this description of him too. Also the happiness of the incidental whistling, so good to be involved in creative tasks and able to move on always. These rural surroundings, you must know how that feels where you are too…

  4. Oh, it looks lovely there. How nice to be near the gentle sheep. And it sounds lovely– how good your retreat sounds. And the sounds of the countryside. I am afraid to open my mouth to belie my ignorance but the present seems so slippery. A chimera. Once you look at it, it is gone to the past. I try to turn off the mind while in the back yard in the country and take away the I and just attend to each sight and sound as it happens. Thoughts sometimes try to interrupt. I comes in and out. Of course I is sensing all around me but I as a part of the unity of nature. This brings peace, even ecstasy. And then there are days when I am trampled by overgrown tangles of thoughts and no peace. Brain chemistry and electrical activity at play here. Well, thank you for the inspiring post.

    • You’re right, the present seems so slippery. A nice way of putting it. We are surrounded by illusion (maya). This is the puzzle, and I feel drawn to investigate further. Everything I need to do this is built-in, part of the software. Even though, the ‘now’ is illusive, look at it, and it’s gone into the past. Maybe it’s the continued openness to what’s happening, rather than trying to find the answer. And the whole thing reveals itself as a presence that was here all the time. Contemplating this is enough for a lifetime…

  5. This put me in mind of this piece by Luc Ferrari. I hope you will find the time to listen to it.

    Ferrari’s Presque rien No. 1 ‘Le Lever du jour au bord de la mer (1970) is regarded as a classic of its kind. In it, Ferrari takes a day-long recording of environmental sounds at a Yugoslavian beach and, through editing, makes a piece that lasts just twenty-one minutes. It has been seen as an affirmation of John Cage’s idea that music is always going on all around us, and if only we were to stop to listen to it, we would realise this. (Wikipedia)

    • Interesting, reminds me that the act of editing reality is what our senses are doing all the time. The Ferrari piece is a (larger) version of that action… the way we understand the world. Important to direct our attention to the selective process we think is reality. Thanks for this.

  6. Great piece. I loved the lines Hariod pointed too as well as these: “In the interval that the mind is engaged in ‘thinking it’, everything moves on and I can never seem to catch up.” Your writing reminds how jingly-jangly awkward it can be to actually dip a toe of consciousness into the water of now. It’s like playing tee-ball with a bat that’s always in some kind of quantum superposition nowhere but here just when it swings through the ball. Whooosh…! We’re standing right beside the ocean but are strangely unable to connect when we try to aim for it. How can you miss it? And yet… I shift my weight… slam into sand… Too slow… What the #@$%?


    • Thank you Michael, yes, predictably unpredictable, #@$%? The grace found in calamitous events, a learning process. Children know about this, ‘to actually dip a toe of consciousness into the water of now’, wonderful. It all engages a certain kind of curiosity and this drives the investigation… how can it be like this? A new day dawns and life continues.

  7. Reblogged this on Teacher as Transformer and commented:
    The “thingness of things” caught my attention. Despite the language and words we use, there is always something hidden that is unknowable and unspeakable. Ted Aoki referred to it as the “isness” of a particular phenomenon. With humans we might call it their “whoness.” It is what captures our hearts in the work we do when we slow down enough to be in each ensuing moment. We never have the words to describe fully what that thing or person is. Usually, it is the part we love the most.

    • Thank you for the reblog. It’s inevitable that sometimes when we use words to describe conscious awareness we run out of ways of saying it…. ‘Something hidden that is unknowable and unspeakable’. The experience of meditation is often wordless, thus cannot be retained in memory in the usual way… some other kind of knowing is present.

  8. Dear tiramit,
    I love your precision here in describing what is so ineffable. You express so well what I was attempting to show with the metaphor of digital awareness in an analog background.

    Language is clumsy and never quite represents the fullness of reality, of now, but perhaps our talk is like birdsong?

    Love your writing!

    • Thank you Debra. I like the idea of language and speech as birdsong, I’d been thinking of it more in the sense of what was inexpressible, and now I’m seeing it (through another metaphor) as the ‘voice’ – it’s a kind of performance, the sound of a musical instrument…

  9. I love that you claim the awkward truth that “language is an overlay placed on reality”….even as you communicate with language. I’ve wanted to write about this topic so many times. The truth is, sometimes I believe that my writing helps me expose my Truth, while at other times…it seems a diversion to keep from finding Truth.

    • Thank you, yes, I know this feeling. Could be that the Truth is inexpressible, there are no words for it. And language is a tool for expressing how it appears to be, what it resembles, what it’s like… a wonderful shared software that names things, identifies feelings, etc. There are poets and artists who are compelled to use words and others who go beyond that, spiritual advisors who refer to silence, emptiness, no-thingness…

  10. Language: 🙂

    Consciousness itself lies outside the parameters of space and time that would make it accessible to science, and even we curious folks. That realization carries enormous consequence: consciousness cannot be located. But more: IT HAS NO LOCATION. eve

    • Thank you for your visit, yes, so there can only be figures of speech. I like to think of it like conscious experience is part of the flow of a great river which has its beginning somewhere in the unknown and its ending and all its tributaries streams and lagoons wherever they might be are all moving at the same time and in the same time. Words attempt to express the mystery…

  11. I suspect that “maybe there is only one moment – only one, all the time” is the nature of time as we call it. Of course, words are all we have and seem woefully inadequate when it comes to relaying experience yet we want to express the “thingness of things” if only to bring them to another’s attention or even just to revel in them ourselves–the moments are that explosive in the experience of them. At least for me this is true. Lovely post. Thank you.

    • Thanks for this Karen. It can be dynamic, compelling and we depend on words to examine its meaning. There’s a natural human curiosity, an inclination to stop and look and try to identify, to see what’s going on, and if I can’t understand it one way, find another way. Poke it with a stick, give it a prod to see what it’ll do. Investigate, think about what it could be. Apply the metaphor, put it in a figure of speech. And what’s left after the words have given up and gone home is the Meaning itself…

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