Saturday, July 9, 2011

Seamlessness and the Self

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile you’ve probably noticed my penchant for the word seamlessness with regards to ultimate reality. Seamlessness, to me, conveys a deeper reality than does interconnectedness. Whereas interconnectedness implies individual entities in relationships of mutuality, seamlessness conveys a reality beyond separation, beyond individuation, beyond compartmentalization.

When I first moved into the neighborhood where I presently live, none of the backyards in the immediate vicinity were fenced; they all just kind of blended together into one big tree-filled expanse. It was beautiful. Over the years, though, as old houses got torn down and new ones were built and as people with young families and dogs moved in, more and more fences went up and less and less of that expansiveness remained. The seamlessness that had once been so readily apparent is now almost completely parceled up into little areas of separateness. This is precisely what our ordinary consciousness does with the seamlessness of ultimate reality.

As our understanding of Buddhism deepens and we begin to glimpse the nature of emptiness, we become more and more aware of the artificiality of the boundaries between self and other, this and that. What we may overlook, however, is how much we treat our internal reality as we do our external reality. In other words, we parcel up the seamlessness of our internal reality just as we parcel up the seamlessness of ultimate reality. Now, this might sound just a little bit bizarre so let me clarify what I mean with some examples.

An example that will likely resonate with the Buddhists in the room relates to practice – the practice of Buddhism, that is. People who aren’t raised Buddhist don’t just become one overnight. It’s a gradual process. Buddhist practice might start out being “only” what we do when we settle our butts down onto a cushion, for instance; or maybe it’s something that we “only” do when we head on over to the local Zen center. As time goes on, perhaps, we start to tune in to the fact that practice encompasses what we’re doing as we drive down the highway, or work out in the yard, or come to grips with some major life stressor. Somewhere along the line, though – lo and behold – practice becomes something that we’re doing every minute of every day. (Okay, okay, how about more often than not, then?) In other words, as practice deepens it transitions from something that is very compartmentalized – something that we’re only doing some of the time – to something that is seamlessly integrated into, ahem, every breath that we take. Of course, this example need not be constrained to practitioners of Buddhism. Anyone aspiring to expand their faith experience from something that they engage in only on Saturday or Sunday, or whenever, to something that they are every day of the week can surely relate to seamlessness in this regard.

Okay, now how about an example right out of left field? Some years ago I was the lucky recipient of a surprise birthday party. Yes, I was lucky – lucky to have someone in my life who cared enough to want to throw one for me, and lucky enough to have people in my life who wanted to come. I have to tell you, though, it was a very disorienting experience! You see, there were people there from the company that I worked for, and from the bike racing team that I belonged to, and numerous others from various disjointed circles of old and new friends. In hindsight I realized that what was so disorienting about the experience was the fact that my relationship with each of those people was so much a function of the context in which we usually saw one another. It wasn’t so much that I was not being myself with any one of them – it was just that I wasn’t the totality of who I was with any one of them. Each person only knew one of the partitioned aspects of who I was and it was up to me to keep track of who I was with each of them – not an easy task at a crowded party without any of the usual contextual clues. Needless to say, it was exhausting having to clamor over the rubble and debris left behind after all of those fences that had been compartmentalizing the various areas of my life had been torn down!

I’m fairly confidant that everyone can relate to that experience to at least some degree. The fragmentation of the self seems to be a fairly common manifestation of the complexity and conflict inherent within our modern society. By “necessity” and, yes, by choice we partition our lives into separate little areas. When we’re here we can be ourselves and when we’re there we have to keep our guard up. We have a mask that we put on when we’re in this situation and a persona that we adopt when we’re in that one. This group of people knows that most embarrassing of truths about us and that group knows only what we’ve allowed them to know. Perhaps at work we’re the expert – the knowledgeable one who’s cool and calm and in charge; but when we’re engaged in our favorite pastime we allow our passions to burn unchecked as we give ourselves over to whatever activity we’ve decided to allow to affect us in that way.

But it’s not just a matter of keeping track of whatever compartment we’re in at any given point in time. Even when we’re fully aware of where we’re at we’re still checking our “instrumentation” in order to make sure that we stay within our prescribed parameters. We "meter" ourselves out in order to ensure that we don’t give more of ourselves than we’re prepared to give – whether that happens to be our time or our resources or our effort or our compassion. Like someone grudgingly reaching into his pocket at the behest of yet another panhandler we go through our lives – with one eye on whatever situation has presented itself and one eye on our meters. What keeps us from really giving freely of ourselves? Is it because we think that there won’t be enough left over for ourselves? Is it because we’ve passed judgment on the worthiness of the situation or the person? Is it because of a false belief that we have little of value to offer, or that we’ll get swept away by circumstances out of our control? Is it pride? Is it because of a belief that anything that we might be able to do is just a drop in the bucket compared to a need that is unimaginably great? 

Spontaneity, Authenticity, and Congruence

Seamlessness, with respect to the discussion at hand, has woven into it various threads such as spontaneity and authenticity. Without having so many fences to watch out for and meters to keep track of we become free to behave totally in accord with the needs of the present moment and whatever circumstances are arising. We become free to act with spontaneity. Likewise, without having to keep track of what mask we’re supposed to be wearing or what persona we’re supposed to adopt in any given situation we become free to give it the totality of who or what we are – in all of our authenticity. Authenticity is unrehearsed, uncontrived, and unadorned.

Another thread that’s woven into this seamlessness of which I speak is congruence. The concept of congruence is probably associated more with the work of counseling psychologist, Carl Rogers, than with any other person. Rogers (1961) says of congruence:
Though this concept of congruence is actually a complex one, I believe all of us recognize it in an intuitive and commonsense way in individuals with whom we deal. With one individual we recognize that he not only means exactly what he says, but that his deepest feelings also match what he is expressing. Thus whether he is angry or affectionate or ashamed or enthusiastic, we sense that he is the same at all levels – in what he is experiencing at an organismic level, in his awareness at the conscious level, and in his words and communications. (pp. 282, 283)

Hmmm…, that sounds a lot like the seamless integration of all aspects of being.

Spontaneity, authenticity, congruence – what keeps us from actualizing these traits with every breath that we take? What keeps us from truly experiencing this totally seamless way of being? I would venture to say that there is one emotion more than any other that stands in our way – fear. We fear that the voice of our inner truth will lead us astray. We fear that we will not be accepted as we are. We fear that giving of ourselves will diminish ourselves. We fear the randomness of good fortune and bad and so we pass judgment on those less fortunate in order to make ourselves feel entitled to that which we have. We fear our own impotence in the face of overwhelming forces that seem always on the verge of sweeping us away. We fear not being worthy of our position in life and so we pretend that it is all our doing. And we fear that we don’t matter – that nothing matters – that our very existence is without any meaning whatsoever. Yes, fear is what all of our fences and meters are all about. Ah, but what is fear, anyway, but our forgetting that we are a seamless manifestation of the seamlessness of ultimate reality?


Rogers, C. R. (1961) On becoming a person – A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Company.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Image courtesy of tungphoto:


  1. I don't think any of your posts has resonated or meant more to me than this one. Thank you so much for your wonderful teaching.

  2. Ahhh, how nice to get to the point where practice is every moment of every day. A reason to continue on the path. Thank you for this teaching.


  3. Kristen, thank you for saying that! It's funny, but I think I had more doubts about being able to make my thoughts cohesive and coherent on this post than on any other so far. I appreciate knowing that my fumbling around to find the right words was worthwhile. Stacey, thank you for reading! Let's all have a party when we get there! :D

  4. As the poet W.B. Yeats put it so eloquently, "If what I say resonates with you, it is merely because we are both branches on the same tree." I appreciate your fumbling for the right words - you succeeded in writing a post that meant something to me, and you did it in a way that no one else could. :D

    P.S. I wonder where you got the idea for some of these topics? ;D

  5. Maku, I have been away awhile, at least from reading this post. I read the most recent one first so out of order. I think you did a really nice job at expressing this difficult concept. A home run! One thing I must ask. It appears, based on evidence from neuroscience, that many (all?) of our behaviors are hardwired. Therefore, our perception/sense input, the basis of our behaviors, are determined by physiology. Even more, this sense input can be easily distorted by internal/external conditions, etc. All of this is just to say that "reality" means something quite different from person to person, although there is a consensual reality which allows us to get along in the world, etc. Then layered on top of this are the phenomena you talk about, social conventions and roles, and so on. I'm curious as to what's your take on integration/congruence taking into account the neuro-scientific depiction of reality versus the social depiction you discuss in your post?

  6. I just re-read my comment and it sounds like an exam question. I'm sorry. I don't want to sound like I'm testing you. I'm curious.

  7. Hello Robert! Thank you for reading and asking tough questions. I'm not sure exactly how far you're going when you say "hard-wired". Some of the attributes that I've been describing are absolutely hard-wired: the wavelength range within which we can see or hear, for instance; the bandwidth of consciousness; the strength that a neuronal signal needs to be in order for us to become conscious of it, etc. Other attributes that I'm talking about are strongly, but provisionally, hard-wired: our survival instincts, our tendency to view our self as a seperate and independent entity, etc. Still other attributes are more weakly hard-wired: our thought processes, physical habits and behaviors, etc. Save for that which is absolutely hard-wired, everything has the potential to be changed.

    We do all have our own unique karma that keeps us from experiencing reality in the same way that another person does. At this point I'm tempted to veer momentarily into a more Hindu way of thinking about consciousness; i.e. that there is some pure consciousness that is overlaid with all of the various layers of individual and social karma. If we think about consciousness in that way then it makes more sense to think of some subjective reality "out there" that we all have the potential to experience in the very same way if only we could get rid of these filters that we have.

    Now, having described that Hindu way of looking at consciousness, I will backtrack and say that that is NOT the way Buddhists think about consciousness. In the Buddhist way of thinking about it, consciousness is always situationally dependent. Everything is situationally dependent (a la, dependent origination).

    When I use the word seamlessness as I have with respect to the social sphere, I'm talking about realizing not just our interdependence, but our inherenent oneness - and then acting on that understanding. When I'm talking about seamlessness as I have with respect to the individual sphere (the self that is not other), I'm talking about being aware of the karmic barriers that keep us from acting in a fully functioning capacity.

    I think it is worth mentioning that we are talking about something that is essentially beyond the capabilities of language - ultimate reality, that is. Nonetheless, I think that the word 'seamlessness' expresses it fairly well..., or as well as I can express it, anyway.

    Please let me know how close I've come to addressing your comment. Perhaps we can use a strategy of successive approximation! Thanks again, Robert!

  8. Maku, I agree that this is something that goes way beyond the ability of language to express. That said, I don't think we disagree on anything. It is certainly my understanding of Buddhist conception of emptiness and dependent origination, what you have described here and elsewhere. I think we have to be clear that there are limits to how much of this we can "know", much of what the masters have said on this are based on their enlightened observations, which are extremely insightful, but not data in the scientific sense. So, everything is contingent.