Zen & The Art of Subjective Reality


A typical Buddhist Monastery

So I was walking back to work from the psychologists’ office this morning and there was a young man standing in the mall with a shaved head and orange robes holding an alms bowl. Something in his physical attire made me think ‘Buddhist’, and ‘now there’s something you don’t usually see on the streets of Sydney’ and ‘how can there be a stone monastery full of monks on a craggy snowy hillside in Sydney and I’ve never noticed it before?’, and that got me thinking of Liam Neeson with a goatee in The Dark Knight and then…

I suddenly experienced the shared connectedness between all living beings and realized that the young monk and I were one and the same and that I should reach out and encourage him in his journey by sharing from the abundance the universe had so generously imparted to me. So, fiver in hand, I walked back to the monk to open the physical connection that would be the medium the Universe desired to manifest a blessing for this young man who was both stranger and brother to me, at which point he put his hand over the alms bowl and said “sorry no money only food”.

It kind of threw me, to be honest. It’s not every day that the Universe picks me to offer money to the homeless or the busker or the spiritual seeker, so when it is my turn I’m not used to experiencing it being pushed back at me. I kind of went “Oh… right” and given that I didn’t have anything in the way of food on me at the time, walked away feeling a little confused by the encounter.

Confused because I had only just that morning (somewhat coincidentally) been reading about a tree falling in a forest making no sound, and I recalled the Buddhist philosophy on this matter. The full Snowy Tibetan Liam Neeson version is…

“Appearances are one’s own mind. From the beginning, mind’s nature is free from the extremes of elaboration. Knowing this, not to engage the mind in subject-object duality is the bodhisattva’s practice.”

The More Easily Understandable Zen version is…

“Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind. One said, “The flag moves.” The other said, “The wind moves.” They argued back and forth but could not agree.

The Sixth Ancestor said, “Gentlemen! It is not the wind that moves; it is not the flag that moves; it is your mind that moves.” The two monks were struck with awe.”

So an argument formed in my head as I carried on my journey; surely from the Buddhist viewpoint making the distinction between money and food is engaging the mind in subject-object duality. The appearance of my gift is in one’s own mind. Indeed I was not offering him money at all, merely a small rectangle of paper (well, plastic actually) with some designs printed on it. In most parts of the world it is worthless, however in Australia the designs signify value and this value can be transferred to other physical items, some of which may have some nutritional value if eaten or imbibed. Some of these items may have the appearance in ones mind of… food.

Also the ‘food’ and ‘money’ are made of the same basic material at a nuclear level. The Universe simply chose to arrange this building material into the temporary form of a small thin rectangle of plastic. The falling tree in the forest has no form or sound if there is no consciously aware organism nearby which possesses the ability to interpret shapes and patterns and detect pressure waves and can therefore ‘see’ and ‘hear’ it fall. Likewise the small part of the universe I was holding in my hand has no form until there is an organism nearby with the ability to categorize it into concepts like food or plastic or money. Another entirely different organism may interpret this arrangement of building material (and me) as completely random.

So to summarize then – it’s a bit fucking stupid to not take the money because to you it isn’t food, especially if you are Buddhist and hold that appearances are one’s own mind. I could (if I was feeling gracious enough) have asked the young man what food he would prefer and had I got back a request that was satisfiable in either the food court or the nearby Woolies, have swapped the money for something he would accept as food. So the money was always potential food. If I swapped the money for food, it is not the money that moves; it is his mind that moves.

No doubt you are struck with awe at this revelation just like the two monks in the story above were. Once the awe has subsided a little you may also be struck with the question of where I am going with all this. What has an existentialist pondering on the interpretation of appearance got to do with being an ACoN? Well…

The world as you experience it is largely up to your interpretation of it. You literally make your world with your mind. For an ACoN this is a problem because we do not interpret our world to be benign. There is something wrong with us and we don’t seem to be able to ‘get’ how the world works the way the other successful people we compare ourselves to seem to get it. The world seems to work against us. We interpret this to be a permanent fixed situation, which leads to frustration and depression and inappropriate reality-escaping behaviours like drug misuse or retreating from the world as a form of avoidance, either internally or physically becoming remote.

The good news is that this interpretation is entirely 100% incorrect. Our narcissistic parent(s) distorted the world and we misinterpreted it, but because our world-view is just an interpretation it is open to reinterpretation.


I have experienced my mind moving dramatically in my life. Two moments that stand out for me are when I gave up smoking and when I gave up hating myself…

I had tried for years to give up cigarettes, but had pretty much resigned myself to smoking until I died. Then on a holiday in Cairns Australia a few years ago I recall thinking at the time that I was starting to look and feel middle-aged, and that I wanted to go back to the man I was at age 25 – fit, healthy, enthusiastic about life, and crucially – a non-smoker. I remember having a cigarette before we went to the airport to catch a flight home, and then during the flight I was thinking about what I would do to become 25 again, and when I got off the plane in Sydney I was a non-smoker. Never wanted one ever again and couldn’t even understand how I ever smoked in the first place. I’ve never really worked out what happened on that flight home, but somehow my mind moved.

The second stand-out moment was in November 2015. I’m not sure exactly how to describe what happened to me, but in 20 words or less; I dug into my memories and uncovered a hurt and angry inner child who possessed me for a while to the point where I wondered if I was having a breakdown until I worked out that he needed me to stop rejecting him and that I needed to forgive myself for rejecting him the way my parents had, and when finally I said out loud the words “I forgive myself for rejecting myself”, my mind moved. My interpretation of the world moved.  My experience of the world moved to match my new interpretation. I am no longer a human doing, rather I have become a human being, with all the possibilities that entails.

Appearances are one’s own mind. Your mind can move. Grasp that concept, think about what it implies, and be struck by awe.

I have skills liam neeson

p.s. giving up smoking taught me an important lesson. To paraphrase Steve Jobs – “the difference between those who succeed and those who don’t often seems to come down to no more than perseverance”. If you keep trying you will eventually succeed. To give up smoking you just have to succeed one more time than you fail. Keep trying.

p.p.s. I owe my mind move from rejecting myself to accepting myself in no small part to Jessica Mullen. Jessica does a fabulous little daily meditation video on YouTube. You can find her here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZhqq3K2wJ8  breath in, and raise your vibration…. 


2 thoughts on “Zen & The Art of Subjective Reality

  1. Keep writing. I’m a fan.


  2. thanks Kimberly. I sometimes wonder if I’m making any sense or just rambling 🙂


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