We sometimes speak of losing perspective: overstretched, overburdened, we find ourselves lashing out at a loved one, letting slip a snide remark that we immediately regret. Or else, caught up in our own challenges, we lose awareness of other people’s lives, and of the world. There is a passage in Plato’s Phaedrus that describes how the perfect soul “soars upward and brings order to the whole world.” It describes a way of restoring perspective: if we imaginatively rise above our experience and look down from above, we see ourselves within a much wider frame—and find order in the world.
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius kept a notebook that has found its way down to us asThe Meditations. He was a busy man, occupied with his wide-ranging imperial duties, as well as his commitments to family and the practice of philosophy. In his day, philosophy was an applied discipline—a body of spiritual exercises, not a set of dry tenets or grist for academic infighting; philosophy was about changing your life.
In two passages, Marcus suggests imagining oneself looking down on the world from a high vantage point. “If you want to talk about people, you need to look down on the earth from above,” the first passage begins; by doing this, it continues, you will see “herds, armies, farms; weddings, divorces, births, deaths; noisy courtrooms, desert places; all the foreign peoples; holidays, days of mourning, market days . . . all mixed together, a harmony of opposites.” The visualization is aimed at generating awareness of the myriad things that happen in the world, so that the things that obsess us are seen for what they are—tiny aspects of a larger world. Which is not to say that they are meaningless, just that they occur within a much wider context. This broader view can help us release the bonds of self-concern.
The second passage is more poignant: “To see them from above: the thousands of animal herds, the rituals, the voyages on calm and stormy seas, the different ways we come into the world, share it with one another, and leave it.” Though the first passage mentions death, it focuses on the energies of life, the hurly-burly of being in the world. The second is melancholy because it is more resigned: things simply happen—we do our rituals, we travel about, we bear children, live among them, and die. We can’t change these facts, but if we cultivate awareness that everyone, everywhere has similar experiences of life and death, it can take the urgency out of our responses, opening a space for equanimity to arise.
Imagine a scene in a film: a couple riding in a cab, caught up in an impassioned argument; the camera lifts, so we see the cab’s yellow roof among others in a busy street; the camera keeps lifting until we’re high above that street, in blue sky, until we see all of Manhattan, and lifting still. At each stage of this ascent, we take in more and more—it doesn’t invalidate what’s happening between that man and woman, but the enlarged context blunts the urgency of their argument. And we see how the rough edges, the bumpy curbs and litter, feel less important as we see them from higher up—the small disorders of life become less significant, and as Plato suggests, a broader order emerges.
When I visualize Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, he’s usually up above the world, suspended in a bright sky. His name tells us as much—ishvara means “lord,” andAvalokita is usually translated as “the one who looks down,” so Avalokiteshvara is the Lord of the Dharma who looks down. I’m fascinated by this parallel with Marcus’s exercise, and with Plato’s image. Why is Avalokiteshvara so high up? Because that gives him a more comprehensive view of the lives of beings in the world, making it easier for him to see and respond to suffering.
When I practice Marcus Aurelius’s “view from above,” I’m putting myself in Avalokiteshvara’s place. As Marcus suggests, looking down is itself a kind of letting go. When we cultivate a view from above, we gain a proper perspective—we see our lives within the “harmony of opposites,” the endless transformations of birth, growth, joy, illness, prosperity, sadness, and death. And we see the countless others with whom we share our lives, to whom we are related by the very fact of having a body, with all the sufferings and joys that flesh is heir to.
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