As the “Obstacles” page observed, the method is too simple: just stop trying to separate pattern and nebulosity. If you complain “but how am I supposed to do that,” most explanations are too complicated: obscure, difficult, and over-long.
The complete stance can be approached both experientially and conceptually. You may find one approach easier, or the other. For some, increasing comfort and familiarity with nebulosity in experience, and then finding patterns within nebulosity, gradually leads to conceptual understanding. Meaningness mainly aims for conceptual understanding first. The two approaches are synergistic, and it’s most effective to combine them. Stabilizing the complete stance eventually requires both: it is “a way of thinking, feeling, and acting.”
This page provides a medium-length explanation of a four-step method for finding the complete stance. It’s ambiguously both conceptual and experiential. I hope it is neither too simple nor too complicated. A more detailed version appears later in the book.
The fundamental method of meaningness
Specifically in this instance, through open receptivity and passionate involvement: first finding nebulosity; then finding patterning within nebulosity; finding how they relate; and participating from engaged apprehension.
This should sound fairly familiar. It is the method used throughout Meaningness.1 We’ve seen many implicit applications already.
I sketched an informal version in the introduction to the book: “Accepting nebulosity resolves confusions about meaning.” Now we can be somewhat more precise and detailed. Let’s take it a few words at a time…
Specifically in this instance
This is a practical method for resolving problems of meaningness as they arise. It is not about theoretical or philosophical analysis. Applying it to abstractions tends to veer into vapid metaphysical speculation.
Use it concretely, at least at first. Ground the practice in specifics.
When you’ve succeeded with sufficiently many everyday-life cases, you will start to see more general patterns. Then drawing more abstract conclusions may be justified.
Finding, through receptivity and involvement
“Finding” is an imperfect term, in suggesting a finality: you’ve found nebulosity, so you can put it in a box and take it home with you. That is an unworkable fantasy of fixation.
“Finding,” here, implies instead an ongoing interaction.
An alternate phrasing, “looking for” nebulosity, could put too much emphasis on your part in the interaction. It is a little too prescriptive, active, and subjective. Making a project of it—applying a technique, or searching along a mapped path—does not allow for nebulosity’s own active role of manifesting itself in the situation. Nebulosity often shows up unexpectedly, perhaps as breakdown or as serendipity.
“Observing” or “experiencing” nebulosity risks the opposite misunderstanding. These terms are too passive; they put too much of the burden on nebulosity to show itself. They wrongly suggest nebulosity is an objective feature of the situation that can be dispassionately recorded.
“Open receptivity” is the nebulous aspect of your own role in finding nebulosity. “Passionate involvement” is the patterning aspect of your role.
Step 1: Nebulosity first
Viewed from the complete stance, nebulosity and pattern are inseparable, and both are always completely and equally present. However, our usual way of being overlooks or denies nebulosity, which often seems unwelcome. When approaching completion from confusion, one must overcome the ingrained habit of prioritizing patterns, by attending to nebulosity instead. That’s easier to the extent that you can experience nebulosity positively, and come to actively enjoy it.
Recoiling from nebulosity stops you from noticing its qualities. It’s just “Ugh! Look away, run away, nuke it from orbit!” Taken as an absolute—as total absence of pattern and of meaning—nebulosity is devoid of characteristics. The five terms “insubstantial, amorphous, non-separable, transient, ambiguous” could be taken just as stating lacks: of solidity, shape, discreteness, continuity, and definiteness. However, since nebulosity is inseparable from pattern, it never occurs absolutely, or in the absence of pattern. When found, it does have these qualities—negative and nebulous as they sound.
We can re-express the five qualities in positive terms. “Positive,” both as characteristics nebulosity does suggest; and as ways nebulosity may be welcome, rather than uniformly noxious. We could say these positive characterizations point toward pattern from nebulosity. That implies also pointing toward their inseparability, as it dances in the middle, between these poles at the extremes. Recognizing and working with this inseparability is the complete stance.
Overall, we could summarize the positive aspects of nebulosity as freedom from fixation. Absolute patterns, lacking nebulosity, would be perfectly rigid. They would create a totalitarianism of existence, in which everything not demanded by the Cosmic Plan was impossible.
Insubstantiality permits movement without restriction. It points toward the fluidity and flexibility of pattern and nebulosity when taken together.
Amorphousness allows for creativity, improvisation, and change, like a sculptor’s modeling clay, when fixed forms might not.
Non-separability can be understood as intimacy, connection, and as the pervasiveness of meaning.
Transience, the fact that meanings and circumstances are not eternal, engenders freshness, opportunity, serendipity, and spontaneity.
Ambiguity provides freedom from fixed meanings. It gives birth to humorousness, openness, and wonder.
These are qualities of the texture of interaction: of perception, action, and awareness. To find nebulosity, lightly bear in mind the possibility of noticing these qualities as they arise in everyday life. When you do, gently investigate further, feeling for their occurrence in specific situations.
Step 2: Finding patterning within nebulosity
The specific words matter here again. One aims at finding patterning, rather than specific patterns. That is, for this method, one avoids solidifying patterning into discrete forms. (Making patterns as discrete and rigid as possible can sometimes be extremely valuable, in engineering, for example. It’s counterproductive for this practice, though.)
“Within” expresses the method of approaching the inseparability of nebulosity and pattern starting from the side of nebulosity. After finding nebulosity, one finds patterning as an emerging aspect of that nebulosity.
The opposite practice is also feasible: finding nebulosity as an aspect of patterns.3 However, the more radical motion from nebulosity toward pattern may make it easier to find the complete stance, by restraining the natural tendency to overemphasize pattern.
So one finds patterning within a particular context that one has already found to be nebulous. That makes it harder to absolutize than a pattern-in-the-abstract. One finds patterning as softened by the nebulosity that surrounds it. Then it points toward their inseparability. (This again is just a method of approach, not the complete understanding. The complete stance takes nebulosity and pattern as mutually pervasive, and recognizes both equally, not favoring either.)
The book introduction described five qualities of pattern: reliability, clarity, distinctness, endurance, and definiteness. Having found nebulosity in a situation, one may attend to the possibility of locating these qualities as well.
The habitual impulse then will be to grasp at them, and to try to separate them from the corresponding qualities of nebulosity: insubstantiality, amorphousness, non-separability, transience, and ambiguity. Restrain this impulse. That is the second step in the method.
Step 3: Finding how nebulosity and pattern relate
“Finding” is a careful word choice here again. It could contrast with “analyzing,” for example. Analysis is sometimes extremely useful, but in this method it would tend to harden patterns prematurely.
Finding requires both gentleness and precision. Gentleness includes intuitive awareness, non-conceptual sensitivity, and receptive exploration. Precision includes clear thinking, close attention, and deliberate investigation. Combining them is restraint from fixation and denial of both pattern and nebulosity. That avoids jumping to conclusions before developing accurate understanding.
The relationship between nebulosity and pattern is simple in the abstract: they are inseparable aspects of each other. Nebulosity is always patterned; patterning is always nebulous. But we aren’t doing philosophy here. We want practical resolutions to particular problems of meaningness. How best to sort out a work or family conflict, for example? Specific details matter, so “nebulosity and pattern are inseparable!” is not obviously helpful.
Ways nebulosity and pattern intertwine in a particular situation or domain can be unique, surprising, or unboundedly complex, so ultimately no fixed method for this third step is possible.
However, it often helps to find the simultaneous presence of both of a seemingly-opposed quality pair from among the five. Feel for their mutual pervasion: how is this both insubstantial yet reliable? Amorphous yet clear? Non-separable yet distinct? Transient yet enduring? Ambiguous yet definite? Can these coexist? Can all be true at once? Partially or relatively, at least? This sounds quite abstract, but it may reveal specifics in specific situations.
The rest of “Doing meaning better”—the main division of Meaningness, of which this page is a part—applies the fundamental method to many dimensions of meaningness. How do nebulosity and pattern relate in problems of ethics, purpose, identity, and so on?
In a sense, having read this far, you know everything in the rest of the book. But working through particulars in these different dimensions should make it much easier to apply the fundamental method in your life.
Step 4: Participating from engaged apprehension
This fourth step is the activity of the complete stance itself.
“Engaged apprehension” expresses the pattern and nebulosity of one’s self in interaction.4 It echoes “open receptivity and passionate involvement,” but in the opposite order, because now we are emphasizing active participation. Also, whereas “open receptivity and passionate involvement” are about you, “engaged apprehension” is about interaction, in which you are inseparable from “the situation.” (This inseparability of self and situation is the topic of the upcoming chapter on selfness.)
The complete stance is a better way of thinking, feeling, and acting. These are also inseparable.5 Nebulosity and pattern are sensed as aspects of participatory activity, and participation flows from their inseparability.
The rest of this chapter on the complete stance is mostly about that!
Later, Meaningness and Time applies the method to society, culture, and psychology, across time: past, present, and especially the future. Can a shift to the complete stance resolve our urgent, global crisis of meaning? I believe this is possible.
- 1. This method is structurally parallel to the Four Naljors of Dzogchen Sem-dé. (The Four Naljors, rather than the Four Ting-nge-dzin, because this page corresponds to the path level in the threefold logic of base, path, and result.) I believe the Four Naljors, and other Buddhist non-conceptual meditation systems that work directly with form and emptiness, are powerfully synergistic with the more conceptual approach I sketch here. For an introduction, see Ngakpa Chögyam’s Roaring Silence, which covers only the first two naljors. shock amazement is a difficult, advanced text that includes all four naljors and the four resulting ting-nge-dzin. The explanation of the complete stance in Meaningness is not meant as a presentation of Dzogchen. They are structurally parallel, but the subject matter is not the same.
- 2. This fivefold characterization comes from Vajrayana Buddhism, which takes it as foundational ontology. I don’t think it has any special ontological status, but I do find it useful as a reminder of some ways you may find nebulosity. I’ve modified it somewhat for use in this different context. I recommend Ngakpa Chögyam’s Spectrum of Ecstasy: Embracing the Five Wisdom Emotions of Vajrayana Buddhism for an extensive explanation of five ways emptiness and form (analogous to nebulosity and pattern) manifest and interrelate.
- 3. The Eggplant explores this alternative approach. In the domain of technical rationality, which absolutizes patterns, finding nebulosity within them opens out one’s understanding into meta-rationality.
- 4. “Apprehension” means direct, immediate comprehension of a situation, not necessarily on the basis of full conceptual understanding. The word also can imply worried anticipation, but that’s not the sense here.
- 5. Buddhists may notice that the phrase “thinking, feeling, and acting” is an expression of the trikaya; their inseparability is the svabhavikakaya.