Last week you defined the abstract as a quality or characteristic apart from any specific object or instance. You also asked us to experience the abstract. I have not had any success at this. Can you give us a more practical example to work with?
I ask you to clean up your work space here at the gallery. You do so. The space becomes more ordered. Perhaps it is not the way I would order it but I recognize that it now has order. Where does this come from? Why are we able to agree that order has increased, even if the specific configuration would be different if any one of us did the ordering? Can you experience this quality of order directly, without reference to a particular?
Order is a manifestation of the abstract, an expression of an abstract quality. For most human beings of sound mind, it gives rise to a sensation of satisfaction. The impulse to order, or to be honest, or loving, begins in the unseen world—it is a priori as the philosophers once said. We are able to cognize these qualities because they already exist. Exist where? I would say that order exists within the capacity of perceiving. But perhaps more exactly, all the qualities of the abstract exist as the latent possibilities of empty space and they take form through the action of perceiving.
This formulation seems to suggest that the world around us is an illusion, that what we experience is not real but just a function of our perception.
Yes and no. What you experience is always real and it is always an illusion. The fish in the fish tank very likely does not know it is in a tank. The experience of the fish is the experience of the fish. But as the owner of the fish, standing outside the tank, you know something about the reality of the fish’s life that the fish does not know. You are able to see a larger context in which it is clear that the fish lives in an illusion. But the fish has real experience nonetheless–its life is not made less because you know its limitations. Moreover, the fish’s life has a specificity of experience that you, outside the tank, cannot really know.
The universe is much greater than the universe I perceive. I know this by reasoning from the example of the fish tank. Can I learn to perceive more? Or more correctly, can I learn to limit my perceiving less? To me, the answer may be found in the experience of the abstract, the unlimited.
Rumi refers to the abstract as the Sea, which he also calls the unlimited Treasury of the Unseen. Each of us is given a tray with samples from this Sea. These samples are what we are able to experience in this world but they are only a small portion of what is to be found in unlimited measure in the Treasury. The samples are extraordinarily beautiful but they are limited. Some of us long for the Treasury. As Rumi says, “The longer one stays upon the Sea, the colder one’s heart grows for the tray.”
The items on the tray do not become less beautiful. They are simply no longer sufficient. Attachment to the specific is lessened by attraction to the Source. That is the power of the abstract.