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I believe in Rainbows

 I’m fully aware that a rainbow is an illusion. Millions of drops of water falling through the air in a rain shower happen to be in sunlight, and each one acts as a prism, refracting the rays from the sun and breaking up the spectrum into discrete colors, each of which is projected at a particular angle. The result is that an observer sees different colors from different drops of water, in bands that blend into what we call a rainbow.

The physical details of the illusion we call a rainbow may not be romantic, but it doesn’t squelch my aesthetic appreciation. The fact that rainbows most often are accompanied by dark storm clouds that give them a dramatic backdrop, and the fact that we see rainbows most often when the sun is low in the sky and lighting up the landscape in a yellow-orange glow, make rainbows one of my favorite atmospheric phenomena. I’ll go out of my way to stop and gawk at a rainbow; it turns what has probably been a dreary, rainy afternoon into a pleasurable experience.

I thought of rainbows recently as I read Douglas Hofstadter’s new book I Am a Strange Loop, in which he explains how physical events become mental events as we perceive the world around us—and within us. Subtlety and nuance are possible because there are so many neurons in our brains, each one reflecting and refracting the light of experience from just the slightest difference in angle. Perception—that is, our experience—is often far from reception—what our sensory apparatus takes in. That rainbow on a late afternoon across a wide, green valley, with the golden sun lighting up trees and farm buildings in the distance, and dark clouds in the background moving on after drenching the landscape in life-giving water, stirs something in me that eludes explanation, or even accurate description. I want to simply stand there and take it in, no matter what other urgencies are calling for my attention.

What Hofstadter is getting at is more than simply explaining perception. What he’s after is a way for us to understand the self. Understanding a rainbow as water drops in sunlight is simple compared with understanding this phenomenon we call our self, but both depend upon an awareness of millions upon millions of separate events adding up to a singular experience, an abstraction, to which we tend to have an emotional relationship.

The self, like the rainbow, is sort of like an illusion. That doesn’t make it not real. Sometimes we insist that something is either real or not real. Is a ghost real? Do you really love me? C’mon, yes or no? No weasel words—you love me or you don’t. Well, the real world, and the real me, aren’t quite like that. Both are made up of layers of meaning, each higher layer standing for a lot of different and mingled meanings beneath them. In fact, “I” is merely a shorthand notion, a symbol for what amounts to just about everything we have ever experienced in our lifetimes.

Ken Wilber likes to call this kind of insight “transcend and include.” To step outside oneself and observe from a larger perspective without denying the old viewpoint is to grow wisdom, to move upward through the spectrum of consciousness. I cannot deny that there is still a part of me that feels and thinks and sometimes acts like a three-year-old—the same way nearly all three-year-olds feel and think and sometimes act. But that is only one of an infinite number of layers in this notion I call “me.”

A Buddhist teacher will instruct a student to meditate on her self, or what she perceives as her self. “Is it my body? No, because I have a body; therefore I am more than my body. Is it my mind? No, because I have a mind; therefore I am more than my mind.” This process goes on and on, until the student realizes that one cannot point to one’s self at all. Therefore it is an illusion, like a rainbow.

Douglas Hofstadter sees the “I” as what he calls a “strange loop,” a continual taking in of experience and comparing it with memory fragments already stored, and merging the result into something new, which is then stored to be compared with the next moment’s experience. This accumulation and processing of experiences outstrips our ability to perceive and recall directly, so we continually develop shorthand concepts—symbols—that stand for categories of things. A “rainbow” comes to mean more than a colorful display in the sky; it becomes perhaps a symbol for hope or beauty or some other pleasurable feeling. Hofstadter asks, “[Does the mind] believe that its fervent belief in its “I” is only an illusion, but an unavoidable illusion?” (p.110) “Unavoidable” because we don’t have a choice. It is literally human nature to make symbols to stand for collections of experiences that have meaning for us. That ability, which seems to be unique among earthly creatures, enables us to dream, to envision, to gather the myriad details of the universe into clumps that we can understand and deal with. As we all know, it is both a blessing and a curse. (Who would not, at times, gladly trade places with the cat, curled up peacefully sleeping in a spot of sun next to the window?)

I believe in rainbows, in all the layers of meaning tucked under the word, from the comfortable feeling to the pleasurable vision to the delightful thought of millions of tiny spheres of clear water gathering and playing with sunlight to the mysterious attraction of molecules to each other that hold water drops as well as the rest of the universe together to the even more mysterious energy that makes it all work.

And I believe in my self, that mysterious cloud of concepts and feelings that every experience impinges upon and that in turn modifies and flavors every sensation, even though I know that, at the very bottom, it is nothing but squirts of chemicals among billions of electrical devices, no more mindful of my dreams and visions than I am to the ultimate purposes of the universe.

Donald Skiff, April 12, 2007

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