Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Autostereogram as the Mystical Experience

Yesterday I focused on how I try to train myself to check and re-check my vision. Buddhism places this responsibility first along the eightfold path, referring to it as "right view," or "right perception." But there are certainly traces of this notion in Christianity and Sufism (and Judaism?--I can't think of one right now): "Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment," Jesus advises.

The idea of "right looking" may seem uncomfortable to many in our vaguely postmodern/subjective era. My students' first reaction where disagreements in perception arise is to diffuse the situation by retreating into their non-sequitur claim that "everyone is entitled to their opinion." Of course, I usually prod--but which opinion is right?

So as I was thinking about that yesterday, I remembered a time when I was about 13 and my grandma bought a framed print of an autostereogram and hung it on her wall. This is as good an example as any (click to enlarge):

I remember very distinctly the feeling of frustration that came over me at Christmas that year, as all of my extended family walked over to the print, stood for a minute, and then said, "Oh, I see it!" Frustration, because I stood for hours and couldn't see it. At first they teased me, then they finally lost interest in teasing me--and still I stood there, looking, looking. I finally must have given up temporarily, because I remember that I never did "see it" that Christmas. It wasn't until a few years later, at a friend's house, that I stared at another autostereogram and finally saw rightly.

Wikipedia notes,
People who have never been able to perceive 3D shapes hidden within an autostereogram find it hard to understand remarks such as, "the 3D image will just pop out of the background, after you stare at the picture long enough", or "the 3D objects will just emerge from the background".
What a perfect analogy this is for me! I haven't stumbled upon such a perfect analogy for spirituality since my post on the "collapsing bridge of ontotheology." Here perception--experience--must precede understanding. So whereas I was the frustrated one, unable to see what others were seeing in front of Grandma's autostereogram, I have also been, by way of spiritual experience, the one trying to describe how a whole new way of seeing is revealed at the "end" of spiritual seeking--trying and failing, while my listeners "find it hard to understand such remarks."

And so it seems to me that it comes down to a matter of interpersonal trust: I trusted that my entire extended family wasn't playing a practical joke on me, and so I kept looking. To have turned around and said, "There is no such hidden image in this print" would have been incorrect. My trust in their testimony helped to keep me looking long enough to (eventually) see rightly.

In precisely the same way, I've pleaded with friends to keep seeking the spiritual experience, even as I understand that they cannot understand what it is I'm trying to describe until they experience it for themselves. In Varieties of Religious Experience, Will James summarizes a view that is found consistently in the mystical traditions all around the world: "This overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness." But no one--not even James--can understand this claim without undergoing it. And to undergo it seems to require trusting that such an experience is possible.

And so I keep standing there. Waiting for it to come into focus. Stand with me?


  1. The question I might ask your students isn't which opinion is right but rather who would consider one opinion less wrong. This strikes me as a more ethical/sophistic framing of the question because it stipulates that any determination of right/wrong is caught up in another person's judgment. It doesn't mean judgments are equal--only that judgment's aren't solely mine to control (or left to an inhuman Reason).

  2. So, Wrangler, am I right in speculating that you don't accept that there's a "right way" to look at the stereogram? Just looking at it as static is as "right" as seeing the dinosaur? Indeed, the whole principle of "right perception" must be uncomfortable to you?

    Last week I went to a student's presentation of a report he did on "Blackwater" (the private security company big in Iraq). He did an in-depth study of how MSNBC presented Blackwater as opposed to how Fox presented Blackwater. When he finished summarizing the two views, a colleague of mine asked, "So, what's the truth?"

    And he simply said, "Oh, well, I was really just interested in presenting the different views."

    It was an awkward moment. I think you would've liked it.

  3. there's obviously a valid and verifiable claim that if you don't focus correctly you won't see something that's "there."

    the question then, is how do you react when someone says "seeing the pattern as i do, i find it beautiful. i don't need the 3D image."

    you can of course be convinced not only that your method is "better" and "right" as a means to a view, and you can argue that by defining terms of quality. but you can probably more easily make the claim that they are simply willfully choosing not to pursue something that they probably realize they should expect to find.

    what's their reason for obstinateness? that's where the "right" or "wrong" argument finds a more relevant object.

  4. That is a great question, Wishydig. For you to ask the question, you have to have understood me precisely--and I really appreciate that.

    So... how do I react? Well, I kind of go back and forth. There's a bulldog part of me that wants to shout as loudly as possible, "But it's awesome!--if you stop looking, you won't see it! You'll be missing out!"

    But simultaneously I understand that no "argument" can make headway here. That's why I noted the extent to which my own looking was founded upon a trust that others were not deceiving me (and here I mean it at two levels: my family, regarding the image within the image; and also people like Buddha and Simone Weil who were telling me to keep looking, spiritually).

    Maybe a better question is: why did I trust them? Why don't other? I'm afraid there's no "reason" there--it only appears as a blessing *to have trusted* after the 3D image emerges.

    Is that the same question you're asking when you say, "What's the reason for their obstinateness?"--sort of the other side of the same coin?

    Anyway, yes! Fuckin' yes!