Saturday, July 06, 2013

shining the spotlight on the background

Of all the possible one-word descriptions for existence, "eventful" is better than most. Each moment is both different and similar to other moments in countless ways. The associated deluge of information far exceeds the data-processing resources of animals. And it arrives in a variety of encoded forms such as light waves or air waves or chemical particles or contact pressure.

Nevertheless, pragmatic animals need to somehow transform it into rapid beneficial decisions that satisfy the four "F"s. So it's understandable that a first reaction of complex nervous systems is to decode phenomena into figures in either the foreground or the background. Subsequently the background activates much less nerve activity than the foreground. If the animal's most intense activation pattern is like a spotlight, and the information is like a theater stage divided into foreground and background, then the spotlight shines primarily on figures in the foreground.

By contrast, meditative detachment prevents the spotlight from remaining on a single target. The spotlight doesn't linger on the insistent figures in the foreground. Its illumination is stationary long enough to identify the figures' existence but little else. None receive bonus time in the spotlight to deliver extended monologues.

Indeed, as the skill of detachment develops, the spotlight is less exclusive: it's more likely to land on less intense figures in the foreground. After still more development, it evolves. Its size grows and it moves quicker. The foreground figures virtually share the spotlight because no singular figure is in it for a notable time period.

Later, the entire foreground of phenomena ceases to claim the spotlight constantly. Instead, the liberated spotlight can include background figures or "extras" which are normally ignored. These might have worthy qualities but were automatically assigned to the background. The assignment's rationale could have been any number of relative judgments that equate to "boring": too safe, too calm, too stable, too tiny, too weak, too predictable, too motionless. However, observing and analyzing the background more fully might lead to surprising conclusions. Generally speaking, it's valuable advice to periodically question the larger arc of a life. Large-scale long-term plans require the willingness to consider phenomena that don't offer immediate effects or payoffs.

The spotlight can continue to roam farther back, for the background is truly made of layers defined by differing frequencies of change. Each layer's phenomena are perceptible in front of slower layers. Hyperactive chirping birds fly among a background of trees. Trees gradually yield and lose leaves. The trees absorb a background of sunlight, which varies in intensity as the background called Earth rotates and travels its orbit around the Sun.

Ultimately, the spotlight's journey through the background layers only can end at a remote wall of uninformative abstract ideals. Such logically circular ideals can hardly be communicated except through self-evident grammatical constructions. It implies very little to compare real figures to these ideals. "It's more thing-like than a background of nothingness." Or, "It shifts more often than a background of timelessness." "It's more colorful than a background of transparency." "It's more massive than a background of vacuum." "It's more chaotic than a background of stillness." "It's noisier than a background of quietness."

Laid against this extreme "background", even the spotlight certainly qualifies as a "foreground" phenomenon too, as does the whole stage, as does the act of detachment. The attempt to seek emptiness is something non-empty. The sensation of tranquility is less tranquil than an utter void. By their nature, these background ideals can merely be approximated and never captured. On the other hand, the failure to catch the uncatchable shouldn't be a source of anxiety or shame; if perfect nonexistence were ever achieved then no live human could possibly experience it anyway.