Inner geography

When the border between Poland and Russia was being drawn, a farmer was asked which side he wanted to be on.  “I'll stay on the Polish side,” he said, “I don't think I could bear those Russian winters!” 

From the air the world of course does not look like a coloured map; you would never know that there was such a business as politics and national frontiers.  The contents of the world, so to speak, are natural but the format is artificial. 

Is it the same story with the mind?  Can you speak of a format?  Yes, I think.  The coloured map divides the world into inner and outer, or me and not-me, or subject and object.  This is the great national frontier and there is seldom any question about it.  The subject (‘I’) has its own territory and protects it as best it can, because there is danger to it on all sides.  Well, nearly all sides: there are a couple of safe stretches of border and I can cross them whenever I like, to make a change from home, or to get something I want, or to know that I can expand myself.  That frontier is so long in place that I may seldom think of life without it.  It is an account of life.  But there are some realities it is unable to take into account: death for one, and God. 

But this is not a moral point now.  It is about trying to see how we actually picture ourselves and our relationship with the world.  Even putting it like that is tracing the same frontier again: as if we existed first and set up a few relationships with the world afterwards.  It is very hard to open one’s mouth without confirming that frontier.  The very structure of our language does it for us: grammar makes some things as solid as rocks, and other things it makes invisible. 

Compare, for example, “I have a pound in my pocket” with “I have an idea in my mind.”  They seem just the same: in each case there is a thing that I possess and keep in a certain place.  But an idea is not a thing that can be possessed, and the mind is not a place.  Even after we have adverted to this it remains difficult to think of them in any other way.  When it comes to very basic concepts we may retain a vague diagram derived from grammar, or even geometry. 

The problem with the subject/object frontier is that it does not appear artificial.  It has an appearance of natural necessity by running very close to the physical distinction between my body and the things around me; besides, in logical thought the subject/predicate distinction is fundamental; and in daily living we are conscious of the need to be always objective rather than subjective: all branches of experience appear to recognise this frontier and to patrol it day and night. 

The trouble with it is that it gives the impression that the ego has a philosophical standing.  And it makes no profound sense of God or death.  That is a lot of problems in one bag. 

It makes no sense of death because it has made the ego used to seeing itself as an outsider, an outsider accumulating experiences, knowledge and the rest.  It offers no wisdom about losing everything and losing oneself, it has nothing to relate this to.  The ego cannot face death, though ironically it itself is made of nothing.  Knowing nothing about giving itself away, it longs for permanence.  And God?  Well, the ego would like to be God itself, so it has this difficulty with God.  All God's attributes have been collapsing into the human ego in western philosophy, so there is rivalry between them and no peace. 

With a different format, all the content would remain just the same.  I would still work and eat and sleep, and talk with my friends.   But I would ‘die’ every moment: I would give myself completely, and there would be no ego trying to profit by everything.  I would not even find myself trying to be ‘wise’ in the way we usually imagine it: like a bee collecting pollen from everywhere and turning it into honey.  Because I would give myself completely to everything I would have no interest at all in making a distinction between inner and outer.  Every step of my day would be a step into the void, and in that void I would know God in the dark way that mystics know: the way of not-knowing. 


Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.