I have a vivid memory from third grade, when our teacher showed us a black-and-white picture and asked us what we saw. Squinting, I could make out a strange face: a large nose, a small line for a mouth, sad or tired eyes. The teacher then said to look at the curve of the nose as a jawline, the mouth as a necklace, the eyes as ears—and instantly, magically, the initial image of the old crone turned into a young lady right before my eyes.

It took my breath away. I soon realized I could shift my perspective between the two seemingly opposite images, both contained within the same picture. It blew my young mind that one thing could be interpreted multiple ways, and even simultaneously. The implications were world-shattering: if that was true with this particular optical illusion, what else could be seen differently?

Looking back, I see how this experience helped prepare me to later contemplate what is known in Buddhist philosophy as the two truths: the interdependent relationship between the relative (conventional) world and the ultimate (absolute) view. In brief, “relative truth” describes the dualistic world of subject and object that we usually perceive. The “ultimate” is the true nature of all those phenomena: nondual, and beyond labels and conceptual understanding.

Contemplating the two truths invites us to relax our preconceived notions about our mind and experiences, to stretch beyond the comfort zones of our conditioned beliefs about phenomena and reality and explore what’s there with openness and curiosity. 

Within the laboratory of our own direct experience, we notice the unfolding patterns of our mind. We can see for ourselves how we observe our sense perceptions through the tinted lenses of our thoughts, label them, and then react emotionally to the assumptions we make about them. 

We can decide if we want to continue doing this, or try something different. We have the freedom to choose for ourselves how we want to interpret and interact with our world.

Contemplation Exercise

  1. To start an analytical meditation session, find a quiet space.
  2. Do a few minutes of calm abiding meditation.
  3. Engage your thinking mind with curiosity and creativity. Bring to mind the flavor of your favorite treat. Really try to mentally taste it. What is the difference between that experience and physically tasting with your tongue? What if you ate the treat in a dream? How would that compare to these other experiences? 
  4. Notice any memories, labels, physical reactions, or feelings when you vividly bring the taste to mind. Rest for a moment.
  5. Now think about how others might be allergic to or dislike the taste of your preferred treat. Who is correct in their assumptions of “good” or “bad,” “right” or wrong?” Is one person’s experience more valid than another’s?
  6. Let the analysis go, and conclude with a few minutes of calm abiding meditation. 
  7. Dedicate any goodness from the session to all beings.
 Nick Vail
Nick Vail

Nick Vail is a second-generation Buddhist who lives in Seattle. A single parent, he enjoys quality time with his son, playing the guitar, singing, dancing, and meditation.

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