Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Mind as a Tapestry

I recently read an essay about tapestries and was struck by how poignantly they can serve as a metaphor for the mind.

Most people assume that humans--their minds in particular--are like needlework or embroidery. In these crafts, someone stitches thread through a base fabric to create a pattern that stands out upon the original cloth. For instance, in the image below, the complicated thread pattern is sewn onto the red fabric, creating the appearance of a dragon.

In this analogy, the threads represent all of the changing attributes, experiences, sensation, perceptions, emotions, and thoughts that appear on or occur to our self (the red base cloth). We as humans have an intuitive sense that we have a core 'I', some essential self who experiences all of the events in our lives. To continue our analogy, we believe that we are the unchanging red cloth, the backdrop, upon and against which our lives occur.

Buddhism challenges this fundamental assumption. Rather than accept the notion of a core 'I' who experiences emotions, thoughts, and experiences, Buddhism understands that there is no experiencer; there are simply experiences, such as thoughts, emotions, etc., that we misconstrue as occurring to us. For this reason, the human experience, according to Buddhism, resembles a tapestry much more than it does embroidery. 

With a tapestry, there is no base fabric. The threads, usually made of wool, are woven around one another to create the entire tapestry with the semblance of a background. Yet, there is no backdrop, just as there is no 'I' who experiences our lives; there are only the threads of experience. The red in the tapestry below is not actually the background; it's part of the tapestry.

A fundamental difference between these two analogies is that if we removed all of the threads in embroidery, the base fabric would remain (the red in the first image). This corresponds to the mistaken view that there is some fundamental 'I' who exists beyond or behind my experience. 

With a tapestry, on the other hand, if we unwove all of its threads, nothing would remain, not even what appears to be the red background (second image above). In our tapestry analogy, the self is just another aspect of the tapestry--the 'I' is yet another experience.

I think that this can be a helpful way of understanding this fundamental (what I would argue is biologically based) error in human experience. Certainly, I can live my daily life as though I have some internal 'I'--answer the phone and pay my bills--yet not be duped into taking this construct too seriously. When I view my desires and impulses as not "mine," then I am less likely to feel compelled to act upon them. Freedom emerges when we recognize that this fragile, delicate thing that we call 'I' is yet another experience. And just as all experiences come and go, so too does this sense of I-ness. 

Sometimes it stands out in sharp relief, like when we are in pain, while at others times it fades into the background. The 'I' shifts and cavorts, and, optimally, it is whatever the situation demands it to be. Sometimes I am Dad or husband; other times I am teacher or student.

The self, we come to find, can be a skill or tool that we can learn to use. Just like the "background" in the works of a master tapestry maker, the self--although ultimately illusory as a solid entity--can be used to create astonishing marvels of beauty. 

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