“[I]n many contexts the term ‘world’ is used not to refer to the external world, either in the sense of what we see, or of the planet earth in space, or of the universe as a whole, but, rather, to stand for or signify the ‘world’ of an individual: one’s world.”
– Hamilton-Blyth, Sue. Early Buddhism: A New Approach: The I of the Beholder (Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism) (p. 93). Taylor and Francis.
I think that’s what phenomenologist Husserl’s concept of ‘lifeworld’ was meant to convey, in the first half of the twentieth century. The Nikaya Buddha used the word ‘loka’ in a like fashion. It could be used, as we do, to refer to the bigger worlds – our peopled world, or our planet, or our universe – and our world of immediate experience. We say “I really get his world.” Just as, when we speak of the ‘world-view’ of the ancient Greeks (or whomever), we are referring to how they experienced the situations they were in – the way they ‘had’ the bigger peopled world, planet, and universe, as experience.
It was this that the Buddha was primarily interested in: How we can become attuned to, transform, and eventually transcend our individual ‘world within the world.’ Where else does the ‘tangle within a tangle’ get untangled?
It seems to me that he approached this by indicating the kinds of experiences we will find as we become familiar with our ‘loka.’ (This ‘loka’ concept, as I see it, was later elaborated into the ‘maṇḍala’ practices of later Buddhism. To know your own subjective world in all its dynamism is to acquaint yourself with a mandala – that is, with a experiential sphere that has (subjectively remember) a centre and periphery.)
The four mindfulnesses – physical body (with death), feeling-tones, mind-states and the dynamics between them – are one such model of what you will find in your ‘loka,’ your experiential world.
The model of the ‘six senses’ (which I’m expanding into seven, to update it) is another important perspective on one’s world as one directly has it in experience. And, so that’s why I’m going into the fine detail of the sensory fields – as a means to becoming intimately equated with our experienced life, both as we imagine it is, and how it actually is.
There’s a sense of something precious that comes with the history of use of the word ‘loka.’ According to Sue Hamilton-Blyth, the word predates the Buddha and is Vedic: “It’s earliest meaning was a “free, open space” or a “safe, sacred space.” We needn’t lose that meaning, though we’ll not be staying with that alone, but will be delving deeply into its metaphorical meanings, and the problems that inevitably come with our ‘world within the world,’ as it usually functions. So, here, notice that the word ‘space’ goes with ‘loka.’ Space itself, in our personal world, is a sense worth exploring, which brings a richness of meaning.
In line with our understanding that language is about experiencing in situations – and not about establishing ultimate realities, existences, and things – I’m going to make some statements about the living actuality of sensory living. The experience of the fork with food making its way to your mouth; of lifting the kitchen trash and walking to the door. The actual experience of the hot sun, or the freezing wind.
The following statements can’t claim that reality is ultimately the way we have it; but, even with that being so, even so, our speaking is not arbitrary. We can’t just say any old thing and expect to get a healthy relationship with life, as some people like to think. Yet, we have to talk about the heat and cold, and about fork, food, and trash. In this approach, I contend that speaking and thinking works even better when we have some relationship with the implicit ‘more’ which informs our saying, and which is carried forward by our saying; a relationship with the wildness that the big life process is. There can be, by the virtue of this body’s participation in reality, a relationship of concepts to the ‘non-conceivable’ universe, a relationship which will give us a more harmonious life. And, this is possible, because we are that life, and we co-create that bigger life.
Mary Hendrix stated (in the video Thinking at the Edge in 14 Steps) the main problem of our present ways of thinking: “The concepts that we use in our society are based on science and ‘things,’ and they have built into them structures that drop out the lived human body experience. So that anything we go to think about, if we are using this kind of prevalent concept, it has already dropped out the living person.”
Ironically, I find this among spiritually-inclined cultures, too, when speaking to people about the role our body plays in spirituality. To many meditators, the body is a ‘temple,’ a ‘vehicle,’ a ‘way-station.’ It’s a thing that serves consciousness. It’s a junior partner of lesser intelligence than the process they prefer to exalt, expand, purify, or dwell wholly within; that is, ‘consciousness.’ It’s ironic that we lose the person when we separate ‘mind’ from ‘body.’
With such topsy-turvy concepts, our experience of the living body becomes tragically limited; limited by the very concepts which, from a developmental point of view, the body gave rise to in the first place! The particularly ephemeral process of thinking has tragically reduced its own matrix (the body as a local process of the vast universe) to a secondary role. This split from nature skews everything human in the direction of our ego systems. Isabella, in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (II.ii), sums the situation up beautifully:
“But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep.”
Read ‘thought’ for ‘man,’ and ‘body’ for ‘essence,’ and you have the roots of our modern crises: we’ve left our own nature out of the picture. As a by the way, here, with Isabella’s word ‘glassy,’ she points to an experienceable ‘body of light’ or ‘body of clarity’ – an experience which we’ll look at that later. At this stage my point, though, is that words like ‘glassy.’ ‘light,’ ‘clarity,’ and ‘transparency,’ are not words people associate with the body; and that this is because we’ve become dissociated from our actual body, and treat it as a secondary intelligence, rather than as primary. A healthier, more experience-near approach is Gendlin’s:
“There is the absolutely best laboratory – as far as we know, at least – in the whole cosmos; which you can have access to; because the absolute best laboratory in the whole cosmos – which has a direct line into whatever everything is – that’s a human being. And you have that with you. So anything that comes out of that laboratory, has great possibilities – even if it looks like a very small thing.”
– Eugene T. Gendlin, Thinking at the Edge (Five Tape Video Series), opening to Tape 5, Gems from Gene (produced by Nada Lou).
This point to a very different body than is commonly imagined in our society. I’m not dismissing or denigrating the scientific portrayal of our body, however. That approach is powerfully useful. Nevertheless, we have to find a balance in approaches. For the sake of our humanity, and for the well-being of all the planet’s species, our emphasis in the context of inner transformation needs to move to the primacy in our experience of the living body. This sentient body is the primary process of a human being, the functioning of which gives rise to your ‘world,’ your ‘lifeworld.’ The extraordinary world of the ordinary – the bodily activities of walking, sitting, singing, speaking, eating, defecating, and even simply breathing – can, with intimate knowledge, reveal levels of ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’ that have no limit.
The ‘world’ of this actual, living, time-conducting body is exactly the action of the bigger life interacting with itself. And, as a part of that interacting life, the body produces representations about its fluid, non-graspable situations – images and abstractions about body-environment interaction, and which are meant to carry life forward – even though the body itself is non-representable. The body, as life, is non-ikonic.
“The body is a nonrepresentational concretion of (with) its environment.” – Gendlin, Eugene. A Process Model (Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy). Northwestern University Press.
So, to say it again: the situation of being one ever-changing, mortal individual in an immeasurably vast ever-changing cosmos is very intimate. It’s your actual sensing; a sensing which is because the vast universe IS. The irony, though, is that we do in fact have a ‘little brief authority,’ in that we are individually and alone responsible for the health of our ‘world within the world.’ Through the activity of the senses and intellect, to participate successfully within the larger world, the body creates its own world.
As we investigate the actual day-to-day living of our body-intelligence, in all its conditions – while delighted, dissociated, despairing or depressed – we become can familiar with how we create the world via our ‘world.’ It’s happening right here. The most reliable ‘laboratory’ is this your very body – the only place practically devoted to conducting these efficient investigations in the natural science of the person. This, indeed, is where your experience of the world happens. It is the path. Says the Nikāya Buddha, “It is right here in this fathom-long mortal body (Pali: kalebara), with its perception & thoughts, that I say that there is the world, the origination of the world, the cessation of the world, and the path of the cessation of the world,” (AN.4.45)
If we are to understand flourishing in life and dying in a manner that befits the flourishing, we will need to understand ‘world’ differently. This is so, even if only because to face our fears around death, we need to understand what we fear losing – our world.
This is a big topic, and I want to make a tiny start. Today, after musing on the uses of the English word, I will give a couple of Pāli quotes, to indicate an unusual approach to the word ‘world.’ The way I want to use it, here, is to indicate the flow of what you are experiencing. In this way, just as far as human beings are concerned (that is, leaving aside all the other sentient creatures) there are seven billion life-worlds on this one world (planet). Two humans meeting in a cafe, are two worlds interacting.
One of them says, “How are things going in your world?” This means: How’s the state of affairs in your existence? Right? This is more general, I think, that the meaning I am pointing to, but it’s related. There’s your world of meaning and my world of meaning.
Here are some other uses – with meanings that I am not using. One common use of the word is to mean: planet. That is invoked in H.G. Wells’ book title The War of the Worlds. Or, it can mean ‘heaps’; as in, “I think the world of him.” But, if I want to tell the whole world something, I probably mean ‘all the people‘ on the planet. If ‘the world is against me,’ it means everybody. Or, we can talk of the world of politics, or of art, or of online gambling. These point to collectives, cultures. There are many more uses. What a bewildering array, if you’re trying to learn English!
However, in the context of becoming self-aware, and in the context of practices of dying, such as the Dissolution of the Element Meditation, there is a simple meaning (or at least, one we can start with): the flow of whatever you are experiencing, at any moment. That’s the world. To distinguish it, I will use the Buddhist word for ‘world’: Loka. That’s the Pāli word translated as ‘world’ in the Samyutta Nkāya translations below.
I am experiencing, right now, the sound of a convection heather, the tap of the keyboard, and have various pains and other sensations in my body. The temperature of the room, my thoughts appearing and disappearing in experiential space, my feelings, and so on. All this is my present world of awareness. When they see someone die, many people try to think what has happened to the world of the dead person. Has it ceased, or does it have some other kind of existence, now?
Of course, my ‘loka’ includes a lot that is implicit, but I have only six avenues of describing what is in my loka: seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, bodily sensing, and cognizing:
“That in the world by which one perceives the world and conceives conceits about the world is called ‘the world’ in the [Buddha]’s Discipline. And what is it in the world with which one does that? It is with the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.” (Samyutta Nikāya 35:116. Translator: Nānamoli, [my parenthesis].)
“‘Void world, void world’ is said, Lord; in what way is ‘void world’ said?”—“It is because of what is void of self and self’s property that ‘void world’ is said, Ānanda. And what is void of self and self’s property? The eye … forms … eye-consciousness … eye-contact … any feeling … born of eye-contact … The ear, etc …. “The nose, etc …. The tongue, etc …. The body, etc …. The mind, etc …. any feeling whether pleasant, painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant born of mind-contact is void of self and self’s property.” (Samyutta Nikāya 35:85. Translator: Nānamoli)
Don’t worry about what the speaker is saying about the world (ignore, for now, all that about the self and voidness). I would just like you to notice that we can use ‘world’ to mean: your experiencing.
Why am I asking you to consider this? Because, the world (human society) is groaning for want of attention to our (individual) life-world. The mindfulness training in the Buddhadharma is about attuning to one’s present moment experiencing; that is, to one’s lived world, one’s loka. Using that framework, we pay attention to
a) all that is associated with bodily form,
b) feeling-tones – the values of pleasant, unpleasant, and neither pleasant, nor unpleasant,
c) the qualities of the states of our psyche (or: mind, if you like),
d) the dynamics of a, b, and c; in terms of specific important qualities, and their workability.
This is my field of responsibility. No-one else can do it for me. This is why it is said that one’s family will be of no help, when one dies. Why? Because you will be experiencing the dissolution of your own world. Isn’t it this – our world, which we have been managing, working with, shaping, all our life until now – isn’t it our world that we are afraid of losing, at death? Loka is the life of an individual human being.