Saturday, December 5, 2009

There Are No Nouns...

My thesis adviser in graduate school, Alan Koehn, once said something very intriguing: "There are no nouns, only verbs." Looking at life this way, we can cultivate an interesting and insightful perspective on the subject of the previous three postings regarding interdependent co-arising and the doctrine of anatta (the absence of a "self" in everything). In addition, we can also see the world in a new way.

I was on a ten-day silent vipassana retreat at Spirit Rock a number of years ago, and in the middle of it I remembered Alan's words. I began to look at everything around me, not as a thing, but as a verb; an action; a process. The trees were "tree-ing," the birds were "bird-ing," the sky was "sky-ing," and so on. I turned that lens toward myself and discovered that I was no longer Roger but a thing that was "Roger-ing."

By making that adjustment in my conscious awareness, I was able to see clearly that everything in the perceivable world is a process, without any content whatsoever. The concept of interdependent co-arising shone crystal clear before me. The process of countless causes and conditions were giving rise to everything in my field of vision, and I could find no content in any of it.

From this perspective of process instead of content, the dharma of "no self" is more easily understood and penetrated. We can look and look, and never find a self in any of it. Our existence becomes like the metaphor of peeling an onion: eventually, we reach its center, but even that, too, disappears under scrutiny. As Gertrude Stein said when she returned to Oakland to visit her childhood home, and found that it had been replaced by a parking lot, "There was no 'there' there."

As you go through your day today, take some time to look at the objects around you and see them as process only; as verbs instead of nouns. Simply add "-ing" to what you see, turning the noun into a verb, and you will understand this concept immediately. Notice as well that, not only is this a fresh and interesting way of looking at the world, but it can add a lightheartedness to your day, kind of like becoming a child again and learning how to name the objects around you.

And lest you fear that, by making this adjustment in consciousness, life will lose its specialness, paradoxically you will find that observing the world in this way only serves to make it all more miraculous and sacred.
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. ~ Marcel Proust

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