When you look at something, there is central vision and there is peripheral vision. Central vision is clear, bright and colourful. It is the focus of attention. Peripheral vision is vague, evanescent and has no particular edge. When something moves through our peripheral vision, it is like a hint. We are vaguely aware of it. We are not sure where it came from or where it went. Perhaps we turn toward it and it comes into focus. Sitting in the garden I notice a movement. I turn my head and see the little bird. I now notice the colour of its wing. I see it with my central vision. Seeing with central vision we know the phenomenon in a new, crisper way. So perception is like this. There are two zones, centre and periphery.
However, as my example of seeing the little bird shows, the centre is not a fixed point always in the same place and always oriented in the same direction. It is, rather, a quality of experience that is more vivid. We need these two types of quality, the soft and vague on the one hand and the bright and vivid on the other, and we can turn them in many directions.
Centre & Periphery
Actually the whole of life is like this. All our projects, our roles, our concepts, our commitments, our faith… they are all like this. In each case there is a centre and a periphery and both are mobile. What was periphery can become centre and vice versa.
This is how the mind is organised. Probably the functioning of the brain has this pattern. If we have a concept of something it has a core image. Everything else that we include within the concept goes on around this core. In your mind there is a core image of a table. In all probability, it has four legs, has one flat top which is oblong and is made of wood. Our minds can cope with round tables, tables made of glass, tables with revolving tops such as you sometimes find in Chinese restaurants, tables with one steel leg and so on, but these are all in the periphery of our image of the prototypical table. We identify them as tables because they have a similarity to the prototype.
How far can one go before one stops calling it a table? One does not know. When an instance comes along we make a snap judgement. Sometimes individuals disagree. “Well, it’s a table, isn’t it?” “No, surely not, you can’t call that a table,” “Well, it is sort-of a table, but I suppose you could call it something else… a trolley, perhaps, but a serving trolley is a kind of table really, just it has wheels, like that one, though usually trolleys have four wheels,” “Well, yes, I suppose so, but this one is much more trolley than table to me,” and so on. These two people are discussing the peripheral area, the borderland, between two concepts, each of which has its central image. The item in question does not quite coincide with either prototype.
Life is full of such borderlands. In fact, almost everything goes on in borderland. We hardly ever see something that fits our core image exactly. Very few trees actually look like the child's drawing of one. When it comes to people, the same applies. We naturally think in terms of how much they are like this kind of person and how much like that type, but there are no exact matches. This does not mean that we should give up our prototypes, nor does it mean that we should sharpen our definitions and make them comprehensive. It means that we should learn to enjoy ambiguity.
The borderland has degrees. I am typing this on a laptop computer. Mostly I am looking at the screen, but the keyboard is often in my direct vision too. The curtains in the room are somewhere off to the left. While I am in this configuration, the keyboard is a closer province of my borderland and the curtain a more remote one. The same is true of things in our life. Some hold our central attention much of the time, others we visit only occasionally. Even the most remote provinces of our life can, however, become central attention if needs must. Borderlands are all areas that can warrant central attention at one time or another. The centre is not a fixed point, it is a moveable feast.
For a mixture of worthy and unworthy reasons, modern life is somewhat at war with this reality. Modernity is in search of sharp edges, comprehensive categorisation, and more static positions. It wants definition. It also wants to undermine the core image. The worthy side of this is that the modern ideology is an attack on prejudice. In the interests of social equality it seeks to break up our core images.
For instance, however liberal and politically correct you are, deep in your mind, your core image of a doctor is probably a white, middle aged male. The fact that a very large number of doctors are now non-white and/or young and/or female does not touch this core image in our mind. A friend of mine many years ago became a male nurse at a time when there were very few. People asked him, a little worriedly, about his prospects in such a job and he would, with tongue in cheek, say, “Oh, I expect I’ll just marry a doctor and settle down.” Since then things have changed somewhat in the real social world, but the core image in our minds probably remains much the same.
We can, from this example, I think see the positive side of the modern attempt to break down core imagery. The problem is, however, that we are made this way and if we have no core imagery then we have no sense of meaning, which is, to a large extent, how modern life is. Instead of having many things that are all meaningful, we have a narrower range and it does not mean much. We have to reckon with our basic psychology. Perhaps eventually we will get to a stage where the core image of a doctor is young, female and Asian, but there will always be one and the other images that we encounter will be in its periphery. The solution is not to destroy the core, but to enrich the borderland and to do so means dissolving boundaries.
The fact that one has a core image does not automatically generate prejudice. The fact that one has a core image of what a table is does not mean that once cannot appreciate other designs - even appreciate them more. As so often, the solution to the problem does not lie in the direction of reduction, but in that of expansion.
Thus there are two different kinds of equality. in one, everything it reduced, in the other, everything is uniquely special. A young, female Asian doctor may be an image in our borderland. If our boundaries are strong, this may make life rather difficult. If we are happy with fluid boundaries, then encountering her is enlivening, not threatening. When I was in hospital recently, my doctor was a big jovial black man. Splendid!
This concern with boundaries has become something of an obsession of our time. It is not that long standing. Things have changed within my lifetime in this respect. Now, there is a strong and widespread advocacy to be clear about and maintain one’s boundaries, as if this is a cure for mental ills, when, in fact, it is one of the main propagators of them. This was not the case before 1970. One never heard the word 'boundary' used in this way. One perhaps heard a different word that has now gone out of fashion, which was 'duty'. Duty is more to be associated with core meaning.
This change is not for the better. It is rather unnatural and certainly not spiritual. Buddhism, Taoism and Shamanism especially are advocates of natural perception and natural functioning and in such natural functioning there is Tao and Te (or Li). Tao is something vaguely present, always fertile, powerful, moving in the depths. It has no edges. Te or Li refer to application. This is central vision. Te emerges out of Tao. It is the peak of the mountain, but nobody can say quite where a mountain starts or stops – somewhere in the foothills, or could it be on the seabed, perhaps.
Tao has no truck with sharpness and in a playful ironic kind of way pulls the rug out from under our carefully constructed self-limits. In fact, such breaking down of boundaries is one of the main ways that spirituality works. It is the role of the teacher to dissolve boundaries.
“I feel secure,” “How’s that,” “I know what I’m doing,” “What do you do?” “I do X, Y, and Z’” “That great. Super. X is wonderful. I’ll show you a nice example of X you can get to grips with. Actually it’s a WX really, or, perhaps it might be truer to call it an UVW, but you’ll soon get the hang of it.” Before you know it you are doing Ms and Qs and, surprisingly, if one stops to think about it, not feeling anything like as insecure as one would have imagined.
Defense, Conflict, Protection and Rescuing
Boundaries are things to defend. They are invoked in the hope of protecting or rescuing, but this is only really useful as a short-run tactic. As a philosophy of life it will not do because it implies a life of threat and fear. In some situations, it is good to protect a person, if there is a real threat and not just an imagined one, but we have moved into an age wherein there is a widespread notion of trauma and damage that tells people that they are going to need protection for years and years and induces an unnecessary degree of dependency and anxiety. This restricts their life. Real therapy is not about establishing boundaries, but about learning to venture beyond them.
One of the problems of boundaries is that when they are sharp they provoke conflict. We talk about 'defending' our boundaries. Who needs such defense? Is it not the origin of war? In the fear of being taken advantage of we set up border patrols, but the spiritual teacher says, “If a man asks you to go with him a mile, go with him two, if he asks for your cloak give him your shirt also.”
Another problem that they bring is that sharp edges tend to go with empty centres. Modern life is like that, irritation around an empty centre. Spirituality is the opposite - plenitude that flows out into rich surroundings, always exploring. The person who is weak spiritually tends to have a sharp self limit. This person can tell you a lot of things about him or herself, much of it being about why they can’t do this or that or have to have the other. They are easily slighted and an angry energy comes up whenever anyone comes into their borderland in an unexpected way. They find it hard to take criticism, either reacting defensively or taking it to heart and sewing it into their idea of self worthlessness. Self is a function of boundariedness. It is, however, empty hearted. The solution is not to increase self-worth, it is to let go of the boundary, the up-tightness, the 'preciousness' about self. As the heart expands, the boundary dissolves. It comes to be felt as a restriction.
The more mature person has less self definition, yet there is a sense of greater heartedness about them. Because their borderland is rich, they can move into it and beyond it readily. They have little difficulty moving onto new ground. Consequently, they are nothing like so sure who or what they are, yet people find them reliable. They can enter your world and you can enter theirs. They always have something to offer because they have a sense of always receiving. Their borderland is permeable and rich and this feeds the heart. When new things come along they take them in or extend to greet them.
Zen Master Dogen uses the image of the illusion of, when out in a boat, thinking that the shore is moving. The spiritually mature person is a sturdy boat that is constantly on the move, happy to be so, and carries many different passengers and different cargoes whereas the person who is weak in spirit clings to a position and imagines that it is the shore that is moving; in other words, clings to a fixed position while imagining that everything around is unreliable. The former person has a joyful, colourful, eventful life whereas the latter one has a fearful, defended, boundaried one.
By core, we refer here to a sense that life is meaningful. Interestingly, the person who deeply feels the meaningfulness of life probably, nonetheless, has difficulty giving that meaning definition. They indicate rather than define...
“What is the meaning of life?” “Love, faith, joy, things like that,” “But what do you mean by ‘love’ - how would you define it?” “You can’t define it, but you know it by the feel.” “But how can you work with something you can’t define?” “Watch and you’ll see, open yourself and you’ll feel it. It is everywhere - you can’t put it in a box.”
At the beginning, I suggested that the origin of this phenomenon is in the sense of sight. Central vision is sharp and clear. Why then can we not define central meaning? If you examine your sense of sight, you will realise that it does not define, If you look intently at something you know it - the pattern, the colour, the shape, the texture - you know it directly, but not as information; you know it as experience. If you turn what you see into information, this is a secondary function, it comes after. The person with a strong core knows love as experience. It is clear and has colour and texture, but it is not information.
I think, influenced by modernist thinking, many people have taken Eastern spiritual ideas as being about dissolving the core when they are actually about getting rid of limits while valuing experience and taking it to heart. The ‘emptiness’ of such philosophy is really openness, vastness, flexibility, spaciousness. It is all-encompassing. It is the ability to move one's central core wherever it is needed, not losing the ability to do so. Boundaries impede such movement.
So, on the analogy of central and peripheral vision, in the spiritual life a person's core is not a fixed position and their peripheral life has no boundary. The core can move about in that unbound space and draw endless nourishment from it, all the while bestowing natural grace wherever it wanders.
Those who come to us for help are not suffering from a lack of boundaries. Often, they are suffering from too much self definition and self concern. There may be good reasons in their past why they are so, but the solution is not in tightening up, it is in easing out.
The world is full of refugees in flight from wars. Are we going to invite them or are we going to surround our life with razor wire to prevent them disturbing our sense of our own self? There is no real security in such defense. Defending our boundaries we are constructing our prison and inviting conflict. Many ancient stories begin, “Once upon a time there was a prince who gave up his castle and...” Spirituality is not about strengthening the ramparts, it is about leaving our castle and going forth,