Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Phantom And A Dream

Linguists also speak of schemata.  According to linguists, the words we use do not themselves convey the entirety of the things and ideas that we're trying to express. Words serve as catalysts which set off sparks of potential meaning that the listener organizes into more specific meaning by observing facial expressions, body language, and other redundant cues. As listeners, we also employ schemata, our prior experience and the storehouse of narratives that each of us carries.  We bring these unconscious scripts to every exchange, and as any given sentence unspools, we readjust our schema to make better sense of what we are hearing.

Writing in The New Yorker, Jack Hitt gives the following example.  Consider the sentence, "John was on his way to school last Friday and was really worried about the math lesson."  Although not explicitly stated, we apply a schema to the sentence and surmise that John is a student, and we can further picture him either on a school bus or walking to school as we wait for more clues to fine tune the schema.  Nothing in the sentence conveys John's height or the color of his hair, the season, or the clothes he is wearing, yet each of us supplies our own variant of this information and await further verbal data for confirmation.

Then we're told, "Last week, John had been unable to control the class."  Suddenly the schema shifts and we assume John is a teacher, and instead of riding in a schoolbus, we might picture him driving a car.

"It was not fair of the math teacher to leave him in charge," we're told.  Instantly, our mind shifts John's identity to substitute teacher, or a janitor, or a particularly trustworthy student, or whatever role our unique and individual prior experience suggests is most likely to be left in charge of a class.

And so on.  But these schemata are employed not only in our communications among one another, but in the narrative that we're constantly telling ourselves.  We see a man running out of a convenience store, and we think "robber" and surmise he is up to no good.  When we see that he runs to the street and grabs the arm of a child who was about to wander into traffic, we revise our internal narrative and think "father," and now he's a good guy.  And along with the roles we assign the man, our schema also fills in the back story of what he was doing in the store, what his intentions were toward the child, and most particularly, whether or not he represents some sort of threat to us.

These schemata are not a bad thing.  Our sense organs are constantly receiving an almost infinite amount of sensations and information, and our minds have to sort it all out and determine which require our attention or consideration. This can usually be thought of in terms of what represents a potential threat of harm and what represents an opportunity for pleasure, amusement, or advantage, although most of the sensory input, in fact the vast majority, falls into the bland middle category of neutral and is ignored, if it is even perceived at all.  If we had to examine each and every phenomena that our senses presented to us and make individual determinations of threatening, neutral, or advantageous, we'd never have the chance to get on with our lives.  The unconscious filters that we use to make these determinations are based on our prior experiences.  The Sanskrit word for these filters is samskara; linguists and neurologists call them schemata.  

In moments of extreme crisis or in unfamiliar environments or situations, we sometimes abandon our schemata and have to make those very phenomenon-by-phenomenon determinations; this usually results in the semi-paralysis we often observe in traumatized persons.  If we're, say,  in a crowded theater and suddenly smoke grenades were to explode in the dark and a gunman suddenly opens fire, the sheer unfamiliarity of the situation might be so disorienting that no schema could assist us, and the ensuing near-paralysis might even cause a person packing a concealed weapon to forget his training in self-defense, or even that he was packing a gun.  There are so many other things going on that require our full attention to assess that we are incapable of analytically developing a strategic response.  I could go so far as to say that the cause of irrational panic is the sudden loss of schemata.

The "trouble" lies in the fact that we linguistically sophisticated hominids get so caught up in the narratives that we're constantly spinning and revising, that our minds are perceiving the schemata themselves and not actual reality.  There is a mountain, and then there's the "mountain" in our schema, and we mistake our samskara for the dharma of the mountain itself.  

This can sometimes have unfortunate consequences: our schema so convinces us that the well dressed man walking down the street toward us is a "businessman" on his way to "work" that we don't perceive the pistol clearly visible in his hand.  Our schematic inability to see what is clearly visible is what magicians and con artists rely upon for their tricks.  We're so sure that the "homeless person" trying to get our attention is "asking for money," that we don't hear his warning that we're about to step into an open manhole.  

The Middle Way is to neither abandon our schemata (if this were even possible as it's an unconscious process) and be overwhelmed by the enormity of experience, nor to rely solely on our perceptions and mistake the schematic "mountain" for the dharma of the real mountain.  We're absorbed in a fantasy world of our own narration.  This is why the Buddha famously concluded the Diamond Sutra by telling us that we should think of all in this fleeting world as: 

A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

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