The Actor and the Character

This entry is part 7 of 11 in the series Refocusing.

Refocusing can be difficult to explain coherently. It revolves around non-ordinary experiences that many people would not believe possible without personally experiencing them, and sometimes not even then. It is based on ideas that seem to violate everyday logic and common sense, and explanations that ignore or violate both our scientific and cultural understandings of physics and how the world works. Nonetheless, I find it relatively easy to convey Refocusing face to face, when I can share the non-ordinary experience that Refocusing makes possible. I can judge how well they are “getting” those experiences as we go along, and reshape the experiences and my explanations as necessary to fit their understanding.

Writing about Refocusing is more problematical. I don’t get any feedback as I’m writing, so I just have to go ahead and plow through, hoping that I’m constructing a framework that will make sense to readers, and trying to anticipate questions which might arise. My academic training as a mathematician leads me to think in logical abstract models, but I’ve found that that can make most people’s eyes glaze over pretty quickly. I’m trying to ameliorate this somewhat by writing more from a personal-experiential perspective and less in a third-person academic style.

In this post I want to explore how I understand myself as a human being, and what that means in general experiential terms. I want to look particularly at my transformation from what I think of as the pretty conventional understanding that I grew up with, to the more differentiated and radical understanding which has grown out of my explorations into the nature of experience.

I used to think of myself as a unified being living in a material world, able to interact physically with that world and the people and things in it in generally predictable ways. By “unified being” I mean that it felt like there was just one of me. When I used the pronoun “I,” it always applied to pretty much the same entity. I acted, and I interacted with other people and things, primarily through purposeful patterns of muscular contraction. These contractions allowed me to move by reconfiguring the shape of my skeleton, and to transmit forces through my skeleton into objects (including people) around me to move, hold, or otherwise affect those objects, and what I actually did was generally what I thought I was doing.

This understanding grew out of my life experience, and was strengthened by what I learned in school and university and beyond. Others around me seemed to have similar life experiences and to understand them in much the same way, further reinforcing my belief that this understanding represented unquestionable TRUTH. I didn’t need to formalize this understanding or even to articulate it clearly to myself for most of my life, because it was just the way things were. I’m going to refer to this way of understanding myself as the conventional perspective, since it seems to capture the way most people seem to understand the world. Later I’ll compare it with another perspective which I’ll call the theatrical perspective and define below.

In my late 30s, I began to question this conventional perspective, when I encountered experiences with ch’i and ki that seemed to conflict with what my then mechanistic worldview saw as possible. (These kinds of ideas were much further beyond the pale in the 1970s than they are today.) I remember realizing, very clearly, that I was either going to have to stop having those experiences, or change my worldview. The experiences were too interesting to give up so my worldview began to shift, opening first to a broader energetic perspective which admitted to the possibility that those energies were real. The bigger shift came, though, through my Refocusing experiences.

When we started, Bob and I were simply looking for ways to neutralize the efforts of a determined opponent to impede or restrain us. The ki principles we were learning in Aikido seemed to provide a path to that end, so our goal seemed to be largely a matter of honing the required skills. With practice, we found we could achieve that goal. What was a surprise, though, was that we could achieve it in many different ways. With any given constraint or impediment, we could create variations in what we did to become free. We could explain those variations with different and sometimes mutually contradictory storylines, and they all worked.

We’ve seen a number of these different storylines in the videos presented thus far in this blog series. These include the idea of initiating movement from different locations, in Being Moved by a Ball, of different ways of dealing with blank space in Filling the Blank Space, various ways of anchoring yourself in Making Yourself Solid, of getting up as if no one was holding you or responding to a different signal in Self-imposed Limitation, Another video, Composing Different Experiences, which we haven’t look at in this Refocusing series, provides additional examples of how changes in perceptual focus can strongly impact the resulting experience. Our eventual conclusion was that we could bring physical interaction into focus in many different ways, and in most of those, we would be free. But somehow, the choices that we tended to make, most of the time, were the ones that get us stuck.

These experiences led me to the broader and more general conclusion that there is no uniquely correct perspective on reality, no underlying TRUTH that can be discovered and adhered to. Rather, the external substrate that exists “out there” and from which our experience derives is a “rich reality. By this I mean that it always offers us wide range of possibilities from which to choose and compose our ongoing experience, moment to moment. All of these possibilities are partial and incomplete, in the same way, say, that a two dimensional drawing is can only be a partial and incomplete representation of the scene or object being depicted. I explore this theme in greater detail in my book, The Reality Illusion.

Thinking of myself as a unified being living in a material world provides a useful perspective from which to understand and manage most of my day-to-day experience. It works well when I drive, for example, or work in the yard or walk on the beach, and my other routine interactions with the world. I can use it in doing my Feldenkrais work, but find that perspectives that draw on my Refocusing experience give me a much richer set of capabilities.

My Refocusing and other related experiences have shown me that there’s really much more going on than the conventional perspective acknowledges, and have motivated me to look for other ways of understanding myself, my place in the world. I want to look now at one particular alternative perspective which provides a useful lens through which to observe and understand the Refocusing experience. I’ll call it the theatrical perspective.

The theatrical perspective 

I wrote earlier about the idea of co-created realities, where the players were not independent entities contesting with each other so much as cooperating beings working together under predetermined rules. I cited don Juan’s agreement, shadow puppet shows, and computer simulation as examples of such realities. Generalizing from those experiences, I can think of myself, or at least of that part of myself that I usually identify with, as a character in the ongoing improvisational drama that we think of as ordinary reality, life in a material world. This drama is governed by rules that spell out how interactions between players should be resolved.

Those rules dictate, for example, that I should be unable to get up from a chair when someone is holding my shoulders down, despite expending significant effort in trying. Immobilizing myself by lifting my feet in the air and pushing my butt into the chair is a way of adhering to those rules, and maintaining the illusion of ordinary reality. But the character I identify with is not doing these things, he is doing something altogether different — trying to get up.

But if my character is not doing the actions that keep him immobilized, who is? I can imagine another part of me — not this character with whom I usually identify — working at cross purposes with the character in order to maintain the consensual ordinary reality. I think of that part as an actor, specifically, as the actor who plays the part of the character, acting according to the rules of the script even when doing so is at cross purposes with the character’s expressed intent.

I’ve now identified two aspects of myself, who play central but distinct roles in my experience. It no longer makes sense to think of myself as a unified being. I am at least a dyad, a being with two parts. But then, who was it that identified and conceptualized these two parts? I need to identify yet a third part, who I’ll call the perceiver. This perceiver is the part of me who registers my experience and makes my core choices. He is the aspect of myself that I most deeply identify as myself — the aspect that some traditions might refer to as the witness or the spectator. In keeping with the theatrical metaphor, we can think of this perceiver as being in the audience watching the drama, normally relating to and identifying with the character in the same way that I might identify deeply with a character in a movie I was watching.

In this post I’ve traced the evolution of my self-image from that of a single unified being to that of a triad being, consisting of three distinct aspects who each play central but distinct roles in my life and experience. Next time, I’ll examine these roles more deeply, and see how they all fit together. I’m not including any video in this post because the next one will give us better machinery to explain and understand what goes on in these Refocusing encounters. It makes sense to wait for that machinery before we look at any more.

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As always, I would appreciate thoughtful comments and reactions to the ideas and experiences I’m exploring here, but will continue to delete spam comments unrelated to these posts.

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2 thoughts on “The Actor and the Character”

  1. I feel that you are doing a great job of describing these experiences. I especially like the phrase “rich reality.” It seems to fit perfectly. I was a little blocked by “non-ordinary” and thought that “extra-ordinary” could be a better descriptive. In looking up the meanings of each, extraordinary was a better fit for my experiences from working with these exercises. Synonyms for extraordinary like – amazing, phenomenal, remarkable, strange, wonderful, and unprecedented – were more in line with what I experienced.

  2. I’m still in my trial-and-error phase of looking for the right linguistic framework to describe all this, and haven’t yet found what feels like the right solution. I took “ordinary reality” from don Juan’s usage, in Castaneda’s writing, then chose “non-ordinary” as value-neutral counterpoint. I’ll sit with “extra-ordinary” and see how that feels.

    I’ve also been thinking about replacing “ordinary” with “conventional,” which perhaps better describes that set of experiences as resulting from a set of conventions.

    Thanks for the suggestions. Feedback like this helps move my process along.

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