Transformations of the path

A revelation is conventionally supposed to be given by an external agency. But a sudden burst of learning may be a fork in one’s own developmental path. It is a sudden change of the living relation between the system inhabiting and the system inhabited. The source of the change is neither inside nor out – or it is both inside and out. Everbody wholly embodies transformity.

All beings originate from the creativity of Heaven, so all are transformations of the path of Heaven. Being transformations of the path of Heaven, each has the great function of the whole body of the path of Heaven, and is not just a small portion of the effective capacity of Heaven. Therefore they can each correct nature and life.

— Chi-hsu Ou-i (Cleary 1987, 118)

Eternal transformity

A revelation, if anticipated, must first meet and then exceed the expectations of those who recognize it. It must fulfill the old law even by transforming it. As in Luke 16:16:

The law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom is preached, and every one enters it violently. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one dot of the law to become void.

— (RSV)

‘For heaven and earth to pass away’ is for historical time to become imaginary – as indeed it is, since all we know of past and future is what we know now. Revelation raises the body of truth, as resurrection raises the true body, from temporary or temporal presence (i.e. location on an imagined timeline) into eternal presence. At the apocalypse, the arrival of ‘the world that is coming,’ even the stone tablets come to life again.

But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.

Luke 20:37-8, RSV

Resurrection and revelation are not mere historical facts but actual present experiences. Such an experience, seen from the outside, would be a phase shift in brain dynamics, one that changes everything for the bodymind subject to it. Revelation could be triggered, for instance, by an analogy; the violence of which Luke speaks is the feeling of a mindquake shaking the foundations of meaning, destroying and making it new. Mark Turner describes the process thus (1991, 125):

Analogies can inventively induce us to construct new connections, and recast or tune others. A powerful analogy can restructure, disturb, influence, and change our category structures, and successful analogical connections (light is a wave) can ultimately become part of our category structures. Some of the connections that analogies propose might mesh with our category connections and thus be easily assimilated. Others might be deeply disruptive, with the consequence that their assimilation will be resisted by the conceptual apparatus we already have in place. A deep, surprising analogy that leads us to form weird but powerful connections that challenge our category structures will not settle readily into our conventional knowledge. It will remain suggestive, never achieving a location in our conceptual apparatus. It will not be used up – assimilated and naturalized – as we go through it repeatedly: we will be able to return to it again and again, and find it fresh, because the connections it suggests cannot be established in our category structures (or maybe even in our conventional conceptual apparatus) with impunity.

This is what Wallace Stevens (1957) calls ‘poetry,’ a ‘renovation of experience’ which ‘must resist the intelligence almost successfully.’ Turning signs are precisely those that we cannot assimilate, that is, cannot turn over to the unconscious in the form of habits, and thus they are always fresh. But sometimes we are not up to the challenge of reading them anew. Then, if we have a hunger for transformation, we are tempted to look elsewhere for the turning sign – anywhere but within ‘our conventional conceptual apparatus.’ Anything out there can potentially trigger the transformation, but unless the potential is realized, nothing happens. If the epiphany does occur, it is like being struck by lightning, everything is lit up. In either case the transformation cannot be located either in the transformed world or in time.

The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of man, and you will not see it. And they will say to you, ‘Lo, there!’ or ‘Lo, here!’ Do not go, do not follow them. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of man be in his day. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.

Luke 17:22-25 (RSV)

As Northrop Frye says (1982, 133), the ‘ability to absorb a complete individual is, so far, beyond the capacity of any society … society will always sooner or later line up with Pilate against the prophet.’ Of course a revelation ‘will be resisted by the conceptual apparatus we already have in place’! If it were not, there could be no transformation, only minor adjustments. And as Turner also points out, it is this resistance which keeps a sign such as an analogy fresh. There are some truths you can never take for granted no matter how many times they are granted to you, because they challenge the very basis on which they are understood. For instance: Even though you know that the world is wholly contained in the bodymind and the bodymind wholly contained in the world, these inclusions continue to appear mutually exclusive, and thus to continue as revelations.

The imminence of a revelation

‘The mystic believes in an unknown God, the thinker and scientist in an unknown order; it is hard to say which surpasses the other in nonrational devotion’ (L.L. Whyte, quoted by Koestler 1964, 260). The scientific or religious seeker has to believe that the unknown is really out there, which in practice can only mean that it is knowable and not fictional). But neither is it factual: the sense of it is yet unmade.

Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces molded by time, certain twilights and certain places – all these are trying to tell us something, or have told us something we should not have missed, or are about to tell us something; that imminence of a revelation that is not yet produced is, perhaps, the aesthetic reality.

— J.L. Borges (1964, 5)

Surprise evolving

A revelation as turning sign is an inburst of the unknown. Its meaning is quickly assimilated or incorporated into known forms and structures – or else is quickly forgotten. But the deeper the revelation, the more it transforms the prior framework and continues to inform it.

The leading edge of revelation is what Peirce called the ‘breaking up of habit’ – which ‘will, according to the law of mind, be accompanied by an intensification of feeling’ (EP1:348). The intensity of feeling does not last forever, but one who enjoys it is more likely to learn from it.

The experience of revelation has its roots in the pre-conscious and pre-human, like all experience. Evolutionary biology can even account for it in terms of adaptive value:

The element of surprise is the revelation that a given phenomenon of the environment was, until this moment, misinterpreted. Animals who experience surprise as a pleasure are likely to recognize camouflage and leave more offspring than are their less perspicacious brethren. Selection as nature, filled with live, sensitive beings, is by no means blind.

— Margulis and Sagan (1995, 165)

Discovering percepts

For Peirce, thoughts are not enclosed within our brains or individual minds – and neither are percepts. If they were, perception could not open up the cognitive bubble as it sometimes does.

When we first wake up to the fact that we are thinking beings and can exercise some control over our reasonings, we have to set out upon our intellectual travels from the home where we already find ourselves. Now, this home is the parish of percepts. It is not inside our skulls, either, but out in the open. It is the external world that we directly observe. What passes within we only know as it is mirrored in external objects. In a certain sense, there is such a thing as introspection; but it consists in an interpretation of phenomena presenting themselves as external percepts. We first see blue and red things. It is quite a discovery when we find the eye has anything to do with them, and a discovery still more recondite when we learn that there is an ego behind the eye, to which these qualities properly belong. Our logically initial data are percepts. Those percepts are undoubtedly purely psychical, altogether of the nature of thought. They involve three kinds of psychical elements, their qualities of feelings, their reaction against my will, and their generalizing or associating element. But all that we find out afterward. I see an inkstand on the table: that is a percept. Moving my head, I get a different percept of the inkstand. It coalesces with the other. What I call the inkstand is a generalized percept, a quasi-inference from percepts, perhaps I might say a composite-photograph of percepts. In this psychical product is involved an element of resistance to me, which I am obscurely conscious of from the first. Subsequently, when I accept the hypothesis of an inward subject for my thoughts, I yield to that consciousness of resistance and admit the inkstand to the standing of an external object. Still later, I may call this in question. But as soon as I do that, I find that the inkstand appears there in spite of me. If I turn away my eyes, other witnesses will tell me that it still remains. If we all leave the room and dismiss the matter from our thoughts, still a photographic camera would show the inkstand still there, with the same roundness, polish and transparency, and with the same opaque liquid within. Thus, or otherwise, I confirm myself in the opinion that its characters are what they are, and persist at every opportunity in revealing themselves, regardless of what you, or I, or any man, or generation of men, may think that they are. That conclusion to which I find myself driven, struggle against it as I may, I briefly express by saying that the inkstand is a real thing. Of course, in being real and external, it does not in the least cease to be a purely psychical product, a generalized percept, like everything of which I can take any sort of cognizance.


And of course, the form of this ‘purely psychical product’ is partially determined by the physical form of the perceptual process, which depends on the perceiver’s embodiment. The percepts of a color-blind person will not be the same as those of someone with normal color vision, although they will agree on the externality of the object they are perceiving, and will both attribute whatever color-qualities they see to that object, as neither of them has any control of those qualities. Yet through dialogue, they may become aware that their percepts differ, and thus become aware of aspects of perception internal to the nervous system.

These internal aspects of the perceptual process are themselves products of development and evolution, habits in the broad Peircean sense, varying somewhat from body to body. Sometimes those who become conscious of these habits as such can take control of them to some degree, even though one does not normally control one’s own developmental process, and its “schedule” is mainly determined by factors beyond anyone’s control. For instance, one who has no opportunity to learn language before puberty is unlikely to learn it later on in life, as the developmental “window” for taking on that set of habits has passed.

Another example is stereoscopic vision (the perception of depth resulting from the brain’s ‘fusing’ of the two different images received by the two eyes). People vary considerably in the degree of stereoscopic perception they have, and some do not develop it at all because they lack an eye or normal alignment of the two eyes as babies. Usually, if the defect in alignment is corrected later in life, it’s too late for the person to develop the habit of stereoscopic vision. But Oliver Sacks (2010, 111-143) describes the case of ‘Stereo Sue,’ who learned in middle age how to see in stereo depth, and had to work very hard at the eye exercises prescribed by her optometrist in order to maintain this ability even after she had learned how to do it.

The plasticity of the human brain allows for some limited conscious control even of perceptual processes, and although conceptual processes are much more malleable, there is no fixed boundary between them. Likewise there is no fixed boundary between the internal and external worlds; all phenomena involve some interaction or ‘coupling’ between them. Lack of control of psychical or mental phenomena is not an absolute criterion of external reality either. People who are subject to hallucinations may be fully aware that they are not external objects of perception, not real in that sense, and yet have no control of their appearance (Sacks 2012).