There are no colors. At least that’s what most folks working in science will tell you.
You see the soft blue backdrop of your computer desk top, the red filling of a Cherry Pop Tart, the vibrant psychedelic splashes on the cover of Meat Puppets II. But, objectively speaking, there are no colors out there. They only exist in your mind.
If you’d like to know the science behind what I’m saying, here is a nice article about the subject. In short, the phenomenon we perceive as color is just the way the brain interprets the various wavelengths of energy it receives through the eyes. There are “colors” we cannot see. And the colors we do see, may be just a limited range of possible colors even within the spectrum our eyes can detect.
I’ve been letting my mind play around with this notion some lately. Maybe this is just a mental exercise, an intellectual plaything. Maybe it’s not really “Zen.” But I thought I’d share it with you for whatever it’s worth.
Right now, I’m sitting at a light brown wooden table. In front of me is a bookshelf, a little darker shade of brown. On that shelf is a blue plastic basket full of black and silver cords and things that I use when I do audio projects. In the shelf above that I have a bunch of DVDs. The cover of Happy Days season one is mostly powder blue. The Space: 1999 DVDs have covers that are mainly black with white accents. There’s an old VHS of The Compleat Beatles (that’s how they spelled it!) whose cover is mainly red with multicolored stripes along the bottom, sort of like one of those gay pride flags you see all over West Hollywood.
If you came over, you’d probably agree with my assessment of these colors. This agreement between us about a fairly neutral fact would seem to suggest an objective reality. We might not agree about whether the early adventures of Fonzie and the gang down at Arnold’s burger shop are worth re-watching. But we would at least agree on what color the DVD box is.
Yet none of these colors are real, at least according to science.
This is a profoundly Buddhist sort of idea, and it’s a very Buddhist-y sort of paradox. We know for sure that roses are red and violets are blue. Any person with decent color vision can agree on that. And yet, this undeniably true fact is not in any objective way true.
We live in a world where certain people try to exploit this ambiguity about facts for political gain. When I tried to dig into the ambiguity of the very concept of an objective fact on social media a few weeks ago, it caused a minor uproar. I made a bunch of people really upset.
And yet the fact remains that the factuality of facts is highly questionable.
So where does that leave us?
If we can’t even say for certain that bananas are yellow, what happens to facts about which there is a large amount of disagreement? Is Donald Trump a good president? Is Global Climate Change real? Does racism exist?
Here’s how I deal with it.
In my life, I can think of a few people with whom I never seem to have good interactions. Oh, they might behave themselves and act reasonably pleasant when they want something from me. But nearly every interaction I’ve ever had with them goes awry at some point. When I have noticed that as a consistent pattern with certain people, I have cut off my interactions with them.
I won’t say they’re “bad people.” I just cannot have a decent interaction with them. My brief time here on Earth is too precious to waste on what I have every reason to expect will be bad interactions.
There is no objective fact in which they’re “bad people.” Maybe when they’re around other people they’re really nice. I read once that dogs almost always liked Adolf Hitler. To them, Hitler was not “bad.” But in a historical sense, I think most of us agree that the world is better off without folks like Hitler running countries. No matter what the doggies in those countries think of him.
So, I can have opinions based on my experiences with people and things, and decide how I want to behave around those people and things when I encounter them. Understanding that the concept of an objective fact is just a mental construct doesn’t prevent me from acting as if those mental constructs matter. They matter.
On the other hand, on a more intimate, moment-by-moment basis, I find the idea that there is no “red” or “green” or “good” or “bad” to be remarkably freeing.
I took a break just now from writing this essay and ate a banana. A yellow one! In the past I might have been stuck in a mindset that constantly compared that banana to other bananas I’d eaten, or to my ideal of the perfect banana. Or maybe I’d have been so busy worrying about whether Trump was a good president and whether Climate Change was real that I’d have barely even registered the flavor of that banana. But now I taste the banana in ways I never could before.
It’s been an interesting journey, this Zen stuff. It feels as if every color is brighter and richer than it ever was before, every flavor is deeper, every emotion is one I’ve never felt before, every sound is unique even if it’s the sound of an album I’ve listened to a hundred times.
Yet there’s been no loss of who I am in the conventional sense. I’m still just as much me as I ever was. I have not lost the ability to discern truth from falsehood, even while understanding that there may not be any such thing as truth or falsehood.
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Every Monday at 7:30pm there’s zazen at Angel City Zen Center (NEW TIME, NEW PLACE!) 1407 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 10:00 am there’s zazen at the Angel City Zen Center (NEW PLACE!) 1407 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!
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