Points of View

by Merin Nielsen

(Note: The opinions expressed in any Subud Vision editorial are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the other Subud Vision editors)

There's only the one reality, but there are millions of valid ways to describe it. Many of these seem to contradict each other. So how can they all be valid? Because 'seeming' to contradict might not involve any actual contradiction.

A cylinder seems round from end-on, but rectangular from side-on. With the light from a certain angle, my teapot casts a shadow resembling the silhouette of an elephant. From another angle, the shadow looks more like that of a helicopter. By examining the shadows that my teapot casts from every direction, you could figure out its real shape, but you still wouldn't know what colour it is, or even whether it's hollow. Shadows are only two-dimensional, so their descriptive power is limited.

All descriptions are limited. In a land of shadow puppets, words like round and rectangle would be understood, but no puppet would comprehend 'cylinder' or 'hollow'. Suppose somebody has lived only inside rooms of black and white. Describing 'blue' to that person will not be useful to them for understanding what it's like to experience blueness, because an experience involves a 'state' of the being who has it. Pure states cannot be described. They can be 'evoked' or recalled, but only by referring to scenarios with which they are associated in memory. If a person has not experienced anything like a given state, then anyone else's description is unlikely to be meaningful.

While new states are always associated with scenarios, the past affects how subsequent experiences are interpreted. What about a land where everybody has experienced a similar range of states, but they all associate a certain thing with different scenarios, thereby interpreting it differently? Then to describe that thing, it might help to compromise by referring to a wide variety of scenarios. In describing some experience that could be less than familiar to other people, we generally cobble together pieces of past states that are each more likely to be familiar. That way it's feasible to build up some patchwork impression with more chance of making sense.



"For me, skydiving is like eating watermelon after a day of digging ditches." Nonsense—somebody replies—skydiving is more like eating hot chillies! It's possible that our personal experiences are all different, so no words are ever guaranteed to help when describing 'states of being', no matter what associated scenarios are presented. There’s no way to confirm that my experience is just like yours.

But states of being and personal experiences are exactly what the Subud latihan is all about! Few things in life are so deeply personal, private and intimate as the latihan. Therefore it's no wonder that we describe it in a wide range of ways, many of which seem to contradict each other. It's no wonder that, when the latihan is associated with different scenarios, lots of us may find them strange or inappropriate.

The latihan has been thoroughly described in terms of certain culture-based scenarios—by Bapak. These were familiar to him by association with his personal experiences, the interpretation of which was thereby affected. In no way does this diminish any description that Bapak provided. Sincere descriptions are not 'wrong' even when they contradict one another—they're just limited. When it comes to recognising something from its shadows, though, if another person's description refers to unfamiliar scenarios, then their interpretation might well supply nothing meaningful. Consistency among one's own experiences should take priority.

To the extent that people share a culture and common background, it may be easier for them to describe deep or subtle experiences meaningfully among themselves. However, sometimes a fresh perspective, from outside the familiar cultural background, will cast bright new light on somewhat mysterious things. Consequently new shadows appear, which could be useful for figuring out the real nature of the thing in question. Accordingly, for many people, Bapak's descriptions of the latihan have been wonderfully helpful.

Whenever we describe states of being, it is like employing shadows. And in this light, I would be wrong to think my teapot is an elephant just because it casts the same shadow as an elephant. The mistake arises if I assume that this one shadow tells the whole story—if I forget that my teapot has more dimensions than shadows have—and that there are millions of other possible shadows. Some angles of the light provide more information about my teapot than other angles, but no shadow has as many dimensions as reality itself.

In other words, every such description is based on some angle of the light. Therefore none of them is complete, and there are always alternative, valid perspectives that might well seem contradictory. To view a cylinder requires some 'point of view', and likewise to consider the latihan. But because the latihan is a deeply subjective state of being, describing it is especially prone to be misleading or meaningless, even if someone's experience of it is crystal clear to him or her.

Nonetheless, Bapak described the latihan in terms of various cultural and 'spiritual' scenarios with which he was familiar, and which are potentially useful to us in the sense that alternative, detailed shadows are useful. But any more than that? Some people say 'no', others say 'yes'. Many believe (staying with this extended metaphor) that Bapak described things in a complete, multi-dimensional fashion—beyond the mind, so to speak—this belief being confirmed through their own experiences, which are clearly personal.

But it's a problem when anyone says that some description is the one complete truth of the matter, because they're saying that someone else's seemingly contradictory description—based on different experiences or interpretations—is wrong. It's quite all right to make such assertions when discussing, say, the colour of my teapot, but when it comes to subtle states of being, it's just impossible to know that any description encompasses the complete dimensionality.

Surely it's good to recognise that no "once and for all" description of the latihan or spiritual life will ever be available, and to embrace our diversity of experiences. In this regard, perhaps Subud as an organisation ought to review the way that it endorses Bapak's talks as an interpretation which stands alone. Maybe Subud should officially and conspicuously adopt an impartial position with respect to anyone's description of the latihan, the meaning of life, the universe and everything! This would not mean rejecting Bapak's talks—merely no longer specifically promoting them to members.

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