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Universal Rules: The Finger That Points to the Moon is Not the Moon


Ah, those Zen masters. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that we'd be looking at another Zen-like text, this one a slightly more obscure version of "The Map is Not the Territory." Both concepts point to a common Phoenix Centre topic – the unreality of what we call reality.

Many moons ago, I referred a couple of times to a wonderful book, called Language, Structure and Change, by Efran, Lukins and Lukins. Much of the book is a paean to the idea of the subjectivity of reality. Last week, I mentioned a client who spent several sessions arguing with me over the validity of his perceptions, despite the fact that the results he's getting in his life, using those perceptions, aren't positive. I described this last week as "whacking yourself in the head with your own mallet." This week, I met a client who explained what had been happening in his life and indicated that, since nothing he had been trying had been working, that he was willing to change anything to get "better" results.

Actually, his issue is perfect. His 31-year-old daughter isn't living her life the way he wants her to, and they haven't spoken since October. He listed off what she was doing that he didn't approve of, and indicated that, no matter how much he insisted, she kept doing them. I responded, "All of the things you want your daughter to do are perfectly appropriate. However, they're appropriate for a dad talking to a 14-year-old. Your daughter is 31." He got this odd look on his face for a moment, then smiled and said, "Well, that isn't going to work."

In a sense, he had an insight into our topic. When he saw his daughter in his mind, he saw a young woman perpetually in trouble, and perhaps more significant, perpetually 14. He was therefore locked into "dad of a delinquent 14-year-old mode." His behaviour perfectly fit that role. Thus, his "finger pointing to the moon" was perfectly accurate within it's own context (in his head.) It just wasn't pointing to anything other than itself.

That's really the point of the expression under consideration today. In a sense, it's like raising your hand to the moon and believing that you actually hold the moon in your hand. In other words, 

we act as if the representation we make in our minds, regarding pretty much anything, is the actual reality of the topic at "hand."

Have you ever sat in one of those business meetings where everyone is "trying to reach consensus?" The might have even brought in a guy like me to "facilitate the process." God, I love jargon. Anyway, be honest. Aren't you sitting there, and inside, thinking, "What the hell is the matter with these people? Why don't the get this?" I was having dinner with Ben & Jock last year, and Jock commented that they'd seen a play in NYC, and at the end "half of the audience missed the point." Eyes twinkling, Ben said, "Which means they didn't get Jock's point."

The reason we have so many social conventions is because we don't see eye to eye. Politeness keeps us from screaming or going mad. And yet, we still waste inordinate amounts of time trying to get people to agree with our internal representations. Every time I hear someone say, "This is how it is," I have a pretty good idea how it isn't. If it were that way, there would be no need to explain it or try to convince anyone.

It is, then, simple arrogance that causes us to think that our opinion should be important to anyone other than ourselves.

The best that I can say is that my representation of reality is better put as, "here is the story I am telling myself." It's like walking into a showroom with a group of friends and looking at a lamp. We all agree, at the "reality" level, that the thing with the bulb and switch and base and shade and body, sitting on a table, is a lamp. Whether it's a "pretty" lamp is subjective. Whether it will fill the role I have in mind for it is subjective. (I remember walking into my parents' apartment and flipping a light switch and being "blinded by the light." They had a chandelier with 3, 250 watt bulbs in it. I said, "My god that's bright!" They said, "Not when you are 80 and have bad eyes.")

Thus, as we explore our world-views, the debate should not be re. "right and wrong," as mostly our interpersonal disagreements are simply conflicting opinions. It seems to me that the only relevant criterion is, "how is this working for me, and how is yours working for you?"

If I am treating my 31-year-old like a 14-year-old and she doesn't like it and isn't talking to me, I can keep doing it in hopes that she sees the light and starts acting like a good 14-year-old, or I can ask myself how I like the results of my actions. If my goal is to dominate my daughter and keep her under my thumb, I want to keep doing what I'm doing. If I want to establish and adult-to-adult relationship with her, I'm going to have to change my behaviour at the minimum, and I would be wise to change my internal representation of her from 14 to 31.

In the end, it's that "simple."

What are your internal representations? Can you own them as your personal property -- not something to be "sold" but "yours?" It's about getting over trying to manipulate others into to doing it your way, while resisting being manipulated into doing it their way. From there, you can examine how well your representations are working for you, and look for ways to change the ineffective ones.

Representations are just that. The finger that points to the moon is not the moon. The map is not the territory. Simple, eh?

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