When we were taught 1, 2, 3 and A, B, C, few of us were ever told about the Game of Black-and-White. It is quite simple, but belongs to the hushed-up side of things. Consider, first, that all your five senses are differing forms of one basic sense—something like touch. Seeing is highly sensitive touching. The eyes touch, or feel, light waves and so enable us to touch things out of reach of our hands. Similarly, the ears touch sound waves in the air, and the nose tiny particles of dust and gas. But the complex patterns and chains of neurons which constitute these senses are composed of neuron units which are capable of changing between just two states: on or off. To the central brain the individual neuron signals either yes or no—that’s all. But, as we know from computers which employ binary arithmetic in which the only figures are 0 and 1, these simple elements can be formed into the most complex and marvelous patterns.
In this respect our nervous system and 0/1 computers are much like everything else, for the physical world is basically vibration. Whether we think of this vibration in terms of waves or of particles, or perhaps wavicles, we never find the crest of a wave without a trough or a particle without an interval, or space, between itself and others. In other words, there is no such thing as a half wave, or a particle all by itself without any space around it. There is no on without off, no up without down.
Although sounds of high vibration seem to be continuous, to be pure sound, they are not. Every sound is actually sound/silence, only the ear does not register this consciously when the alternation is too rapid. It appears only in, say, the lowest audible notes of an organ. Light, too, is not pure light, but light/darkness. Light pulsates in waves, with their essential up/down motion, and in some conditions the speed of light vibrations can be synchronized with other moving objects so that the latter appear to be still. This is why are lights are not used in sawmills, for they emit light at a pulse which easily synchronizes with the speed of a buzz saw in such a way that its teeth seem to be still.
While eyes and ears actually register and respond to both the up-beat and down-beat of these vibrations, the mind, that is to say our conscious attention, notices only the up-beat. The dark, silent, or “off” interval is ignored. It is almost a general principle that consciousness ignores intervals, and yet cannot notice any pulse of energy without them. If you put your hand on an attractive girl’s knee and just leave it there, she may cease to notice it. But if you keep patting her knee, she will know you are very much there and interested. But she notices and, you hope, values the on more than the off. Nevertheless, the very things that we believe to exist are always on/offs. Ons alone and offs alone do not exist.
Many people imagine that in listening to music they hear simply a succession of tones, singly, or in clusters called chords. If that were true, as it is in the exceptional cases of tone-deaf people, they would hear no music, no melody whatsoever—only a succession of noises. Hearing melody is hearing the intervals between the tones, even though you may not realize it, and even though these particular intervals are not periods of silence but “steps” of varying length between points on the musical scale. These steps or intervals are auditory spaces, as distinct from distance-spaces between bodies or time-spaces between events.
Yet the general habit of conscious attention is, in various ways, to ignore intervals. Most people think, for example, that space is “just nothing” unless it happens to be filled with air. They are therefore puzzled when artists or architects speak of types and properties of space, and more so when astronomers and physicists speak of curved space, expanding space, finite space, or of the influence of space on light or on stars. Because of this habit of ignoring space-intervals, we do not realize that just as sound is a vibration of sound/silence, the whole universe (that is, existence) is a vibration of solid/space. For solids and spaces go together as inseparably as insides and outsides. Space is the relationship between bodies, and without it there can be neither energy nor motion.
If there were a body, just one single ball, with no surrounding space, there would be no way of conceiving or feeling it as a ball or any other shape. If there were nothing outside it, it would have no outside. It might be God, but certainly not a body! So too, if there were just space alone with nothing in it, it wouldn’t be space at all. For there is no space except space between things, inside things, or outside things. This is why space is the relationship between bodies.
Can we imagine one lonely body, the only ball in the universe, in the midst of empty space? Perhaps. But this ball would have no energy, no motion. In relation to what could it be said to be moving? Things are said to move only when compared with others that are relatively still, for motion is motion/stillness.
So let’s have two balls, and notice that they come closer to each other, or get further apart. Sure, there is motion now, but which one is moving? Ball one, ball two, or both? There is no way of deciding. All answers are equally right and wrong. Now bring in a third ball. Balls one and two stay the same distance apart, but ball three approaches or retreats from them. Or does it? Balls one and two may be moving together, towards or away from three, or balls one and two may be approaching three as three approaches them, so that all are in motion.
How are we to decide? One answer is that because balls one and two stay together, they are a group and also constitute a majority. Their vote will therefore decide who is moving and who is not.
Note that whereas two balls alone can move only in a straight line, three balls can move within a surface, but not in three dimensions. The moment we add a fourth ball we get the third dimension of depth, and now it would seem that our fourth ball can stand apart from the other three, take an objective view of their behavior, and act as the referee.
Yet, when we have added the fourth, which one is it? Any one of them can be in the third dimension with respect to the other three. This might be called a “first lesson in relativity,” for the principle remains the same no matter how many balls are added and therefore applies to all celestial bodies in this universe and to all observers of their motion, wheresoever located. Any galaxy, any star, any planet, or any observer can be taken as the central point of reference, so that everything is central in relation to everything else!
Here is someone who has never seen a cat. He is looking through a narrow slit in a fence, and, on the other side, a cat walks by. He sees first the head, then the less distinctly shaped furry trunk, and then the tail. Extraordinary! The cat turns round and walks back, and again he sees the head, and a little later the tail. This sequence begins to look like something regular and reliable. Yet again, the cat turns round, and he witnesses the same regular sequence: first the head, and later the tail. Thereupon he reasons that the event head is the invariable and necessary cause of the event tail, which is the head’s effect. This absurd and confusing gobbledygook comes from his failure to see that head and tail go together: they are all one cat.
The cat wasn’t born as a head which, sometime later, caused a tail; it was born all of a piece, a head-tailed cat. Our observer’s trouble was that he was watching it through a narrow slit, and couldn’t see the whole cat at once.
The narrow slit in the fence is much like the way in which we look at life by conscious attention, for when we attend to something we ignore everything else. Attention is narrowed perception. It is a way of looking at life bit by bit, using memory to string the bits together—as when examining a dark room with a flashlight having a very narrow beam. Perception thus narrowed has the advantage of being sharp and bright, but it has to focus on one area of the world after another, and one feature after another. And where there are no features, only space or uniform surfaces, it somehow gets bored and searches about for more features. Attention is therefore something like a scanning mechanism in radar or television, and Norbert Wiener and his colleagues found some evidence that there is a similar process in the brain.
But a scanning process that observes the world bit by bit soon persuades its user that the world is a great collection of bits, and these he calls separate things or events. We often say that you can only think of one thing at a time. The truth is that in looking at the world bit by bit we convince ourselves that it consists of separate things; and so give ourselves the problem of how these things are connected and how they cause and effect each other. The problem would never have arisen if we had been aware that it was just our way of looking at the world which had chopped it up into separate bits, things, events, causes, and effects. We do not see that the world is all of a piece like the head-tailed cat.
We also speak of attention as noticing. To notice is to select, to regard some bits of perception, or some features of the world, as more noteworthy, more significant, than others. To these we attend, and the rest we ignore—for which reason conscious attention is at the same time ignoreance (i.e., ignorance) despite the fact that it gives us a vividly clear picture of whatever we choose to notice. Physically, we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch innumerable features that we never notice. You can drive thirty miles, talking all the time to a friend. What you noticed, and remembered, was the conversation, but somehow you responded to the road, the other cars, the traffic lights, and heaven knows what else, without really noticing, or focussing your mental spotlight upon them. So too, you can talk to someone at a party without remembering, for immediate recall, what clothes he or she was wearing, because they were not noteworthy or significant to you. Yet certainly your eyes and nerves responded to those clothes. You saw, but did not really look.
It seems that we notice through a double process in which the first factor is a choice of what is interesting or important. The second factor, working simultaneously with the first, is that we need a notation for almost anything that can be noticed. Notation is a system of symbols— words, numbers, signs, simple images (like squares and triangles), musical notes, letters, ideographs (as in Chinese), and scales for dividing and distinguishing variations of color or of tones. Such symbols enable us to classify our bits of perception. They are the labels on the pigeonholes into which memory sorts them, but it is most difficult to notice any bit for which there is no label. Eskimos have five words for different kinds of snow, because they live with it and it is important to them. But the Aztec language has but one word for snow, rain, and hail.
What governs what we choose to notice? The first is whatever seems advantageous or disadvantageous for our survival, our social status, and the security of our egos. The second, again working simultaneously with the first, is the pattern and the logic of all the notation symbols which we have learned from others, from our society and our culture. It is hard indeed to notice anything for which the languages available to us (whether verbal, mathematical, or musical) have no description. This is why we borrow words from foreign languages. There is no English word for a type of feeling which the Japanese call yugen, and we can only understand by opening our minds to situations in which Japanese people use the word.
There must then be numberless features and dimensions of the world to which our senses respond without our conscious attention, let alone vibrations (such as cosmic rays) having wave-lengths to which our senses are not tuned at all. To perceive all vibrations at once would be pandemonium, as when someone slams down all the keys of the piano at the same time. But there are two ignored factors which can very well come into our awareness, and our ignorance of them is the mainstay of the ego-illusion and of the failure to know that we are each the one Self in disguise.
The first is not realizing that so-called opposites, such as light and darkness, sound and silence, solid and space, on and off, inside and outside, appearing and disappearing, cause and effect, are poles or aspects of the same thing. But we have no word for that thing, save such vague concepts as Existence, Being, God, or the Ultimate Ground of Being. For the most part these remain nebulous ideas without becoming vivid feelings or experiences.
The second, closely related, is that we are so absorbed in conscious attention, so convinced that this narrowed kind of perception is not only the real way of seeing the world, but also the very basic sensation of oneself as a conscious being, that we are fully hypnotized by its disjointed vision of the universe. We really feel that this world is indeed an assemblage of separate things that have somehow come together or, perhaps, fallen apart, and that we are each only one of them. We see them all alone—born alone, dying alone—maybe as bits and fragments of a universal whole, or expendable parts of a big machine. Rarely do we see all so-called things and events “going together,” like the head and tail of the cat, or as the tones and inflections—rising and falling, coming and going—of a single singing voice.
In other words, we do not play the Game of Black-and-White—the universal game of up/down, on/off, solid/space, and each/all. Instead, we play the game of Black-versus-White or, more usually, White versus-Black. For, especially when rates of vibration are slow as with day and night or life and death, we are forced to be aware of the black or negative aspect of the world. Then, not realizing the inseparability of the positive and negative poles of the rhythm, we are afraid that Black may win the game. But the game “White must win” is no longer a game. It is a fight—a fight haunted by a sense of chronic frustration, because we are doing something as crazy as trying to keep the mountains and get rid of the valleys.
The principal form of this fight is Life-versus-Death, the so-called “battle for survival”, which is supposed to be the real, serious task of all living creatures. This illusion is maintained
(a) because the fight is temporarily successful (we go on living until we don’t), and
(b) because living requires effort and ingenuity, though this is also true of games as distinct from fights.
So far as we know, animals do not live in constant anxiety about sickness and death, as we do, because they live in the present. Nevertheless, they will fight when in hunger or when attacked. We must, however, be careful of taking animals as models of “perfectly natural” behavior. If “natural” means “good” or “wise,” human beings can improve on animals, though they do not always do so.
But human beings, especially in Western civilization, make death the great bogey. This has something to do with the popular Christian belief that death will be followed by the dread Last Judgment, when sinners will be consigned to the temporary horrors of Purgatory or the everlasting agony of Hell.
More usual, today, is the fear that death will take us into everlasting nothingness—as if that could be some sort of experience, like being buried alive forever. No more friends, no more sunlight and birdsong, no more love or laughter, no more ocean and stars—only darkness without end.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.