From Abstract Freeze-Frame to Natural Kinship — How Awareness of Our Dynamic Inclusion in Unrestricted Space Dispels the Alienation of Objective Perception

‘Plain Brotherhood’ (oil painting on board by Alan Rayner, 1999)

Questions of Perception

What does the word ‘space’ mean to you, and how does this affect the way you feel about your self and the natural world? Does what comes to your mind make your heart ‘Jump for Joy’, does it make your heart ‘sink’, or do you just feel ‘indifferent’?

In this short essay I want to say why there is every good reason for your heart to Jump for Joy! I also want to recognise how and why, for a great many of us, the very idea of space is liable to make our hearts sink or mean nothing at all to us. It all comes down to a question of perception.

So, let me ask you, do you perceive space as an empty gap that distances you from others and has to be ‘connected’ or ‘bridged’ across in some way if you and they are to be together? Do you perceive space as a three-dimensional box in which you and others are contained and move around? Do you perceive space as a presence outside your body, inside your body or both inside and outside your body?

Is space something you can measure and divide up into discrete units, like a set of boxes within boxes? Is space ‘nothing’ — an absence of material presence — or ‘no thing’, a presence of material absence? Is space a barrier to communication or is it what makes communication between different localities actually possible? Is space somewhere definable, or is space everywhere, without limit?

Frozen Space — Fixed Geometry

The familiar perception of space as a ‘gap’ or three-dimensional ‘box’ that many of us have come to take for granted actually arises from taking an objective or abstract spectator view of reality in which the observer stands back from what he or she is observing within a fixed frame of reference. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this view. It’s actually quite a natural one for us human beings to take, as primates with binocular vision and grasping hands. But if it becomes exclusive, the one and only view of reality that we accept as valid, it can be damagingly restrictive and misleading, impeding our understanding of one another and the natural world. Our hearts will most definitely NOT ‘Jump for Joy’, and they may well sink without trace, leaving us feeling cold, isolated and at odds with one another and the natural world

What results from the spectator view of reality is equivalent to a photographic snapshot — an instantaneous ‘freeze-frame’ within a restrictive perspective. Here all that is included in the foreground recedes to vanishing point at a distant horizon, and from that vanishing point all that is seen in the foreground is itself reduced to a vanishing point. We have a set of box-frames of progressively diminishing size receding into distance within the initial freeze-frame or ‘field of view’ apparent to the observer. All that is present within the freeze-frame can then conveniently be divided up mathematically into a set of rectangular boxes whose length, depth and breadth can be measured in such definitively discrete units as cubic centimetres or cubic millimetres.

By this means we can produce an instantaneous three-dimensional ‘map’ (or two-dimensional map, if we flatten this out), which can serve us very well as a navigational aid that helps us temporarily to ‘know where everything is’ in relation to all else contained within that frame of reference. But how realistic and comprehensive an awareness of reality — and the true nature of space — does this map actually provide for us? How well does it correspond with your actual experience of life in the natural world? And how does it make you feel?

Clearly, the map alienates from view all that actually occurs prior to, after and beyond its immediate frame of reference, including the observer! It only records a small portion of what is ‘out there’, beyond the observer, while excluding what is ‘in here’, within the observer. It has nothing to do with how we actually feel, inside ourselves. As a map of reality, it is profoundly one-sided and partial. This is because three-dimensionality is a transient quality of material form somewhere, NOT unrestricted space everywhere, which is infinite, intangible and all-inclusive.

Vital Space — Dynamic Geometry

How does your perception of space and reality change if instead of regarding it within a fixed frame of reference, from which you yourself are excluded, you spin yourself around like a ‘whirling dervish’? This enables you dynamically — rather than instantaneously — to perceive an endless circular panorama with your innermost self at its spatial centre. Do you feel that you’ve lost your grip on reality as all appears to circulate around you in the opposite direction to that in which you are turning? How do you know whether it’s you or reality that’s turning?

Do you immediately begin to recognise how inadequate a picture of reality your boxed-in view of space from a fixed direction was providing? Do you begin to have a sense of the spatial reality dynamically encompassed within your own body and how enormous and unfathomable this seems in comparison with how your body appears instantaneously from a distant fixed position — as in a mirror or ‘selfie’?

Or is it all dizzyingly too much for you to take in? Do you want to slow your circular motion down and view the reality all around and within your body from just one angle — one ‘step’ or freeze-frame — at a time? Having done this, do you then consider it possible, without loss, to re-assemble the continuous motion by viewing the frames sequentially, as in a cine film? [Incidentally, this is the basis of differential and integral calculus, which mathematically breaks down and re-assembles natural motion and curvature into and from a series of infinitesimally small straight-line steps]

The perception of reality and space that we get by observing what’s ‘out there’ or ‘in here’ objectively within one or a series of freeze-frames provides us with a convenient way of analysing and measuring it that brings a sense of calculable predictability and control over our destiny. But it also has the effect of bringing the dynamic and spatial continuity of reality to a temporary halt — instantaneously ‘fixing’ it by mental fiat.

It is akin to cutting a living organism into separate slices in order to study its anatomy. By so doing we might learn much about the structure of the organism, but not without loss of continuity. We will in the process have removed what is intrinsically vital — the internal space and circulatory motion — for the organism to be alive and sustain its bodily coherence. We will have killed it!

More Than A Map — Space as an All-Inclusive, Receptive Presence, Inviting Responsive Motion

More than a fixed anatomical map is needed if we are fully to comprehend the organism as a living, dynamically embodied being that can’t be motionless for an instant if it is not to disappear into nothingness like the ‘Cheshire Cat’ (or, Schrodinger’s Cat, for that matter!). The same is true of all reality. Both the stillness of space and circulatory motion are required as mutually inclusive presences if any natural body is to take shape.

This ‘more than a map’ is what an awareness of what I call ‘natural inclusion’ provides. Here space is perceived as an all-inclusive presence — a ubiquitous/continuous/infinite/intangible stillness receptive to movement everywhere, as distinct from a three-dimensional freeze-frame. We can now move on from thinking of material bodies as inert, completely definable objects with fixed boundaries that are both separate from space and separated by space from one another, to understanding them as energetic inclusions of space somewhere within space everywhere.

The Joy of Natural Kinship

When we apply this awareness to ourselves we can recognise why there is actually good reason for so many of us intuitively to feel inspired by a joyful sense of kinship with one another and all other material forms in the cosmos. We are all formed in the same way — as circulations of energy around local receptive (hence gravitational) centres of space. We all dwell within the same continuum of space as a receptive presence everywhere. Space is not a separating distance, but what receptively pools us all together in natural communion. We see stars at night because space is translucent, a ‘luminous darkness’ or transparency that freely permits energetic motion. We feel kinship because we truly are all ‘children of Nature’ — mutual inclusions of space and energy in receptive-responsive relationship. We dwell inextricably within one another’s receptive and responsive influence and natural neighbourhood. We are intangibly ‘inter-influenced’ even when not materially ‘interconnected’.

This awareness of the unrestricted space of natural inclusion hence dispels the abstract perception of ourselves as isolated material objects at odds with one another and our environmental surroundings. We instead understand ourselves to be dynamic inclusions and expressions of natural space and energy. We recognise life as a gift of natural energy flow, to be received, cared for and passed on in continual relay — not a competitive ‘struggle for existence’. By the same token, we can dispel many of the paradoxes and conundrums of modern science, which come from imposing an abstract ‘freeze-frame’ onto natural spatial and dynamic continuity, and consequently isolating natural bodies as inert objects moved around by extrinsic force rather than intrinsic influence.

A Simple Message

A simple message breathes into Mind.

Immerse your Self in the Receptive Stillness of Space,

Within Life,

Not aloof from IT.

Your innate creativity blooms,

Inspired and soothed

By Love

In the dark,

Soulful depth

Of your open heart.

Alan Rayner is an evolutionary ecologist, writer and artist, who is pioneering the philosophy of natural inclusion