One way to explain the difference quickly is to use the ancient symbol of the cross, two straight lines intersecting at right angles. Since its use predates Christianity by many centuries in both the east and the west, separate it from Christian iconography. [For more on that, see chapter 4 of my Are You Living Without Purpose?]
Let’s interpret the horizontal line as temporal Becoming and the vertical line as non-temporal (i.e., eternal) Being.
Successful living occurs temporally. We all understand the usual biological pattern: birth, growth, reproduction, maturity, death. Of course, it can be disrupted at any time, but, every organism, once born, inevitably dies.
The temporal domain of Becoming is characterized by relentless flux. There is no stasis. Nothing abides. Human, plants, and other eukaryotes; bacteria, alga and other prokaryotes; rivers, lakes, and oceans; prairies and mountains; clouds, stars, and galaxies – everything we are able to perceive or imagine is transient.
A “form” [object, thing] is anything “singleoutable,” i.e., whenever we are able to answer the question “Which one is it?” we are aware a form. A form is anything we are able to pick out as an object of attention.
The inhabitants of the temporal domain of Becoming are forms. There’s no such thing as an eternal form.
(The only exception might be concepts, principles of classification, such as numbers. ‘4’ and ‘four’ are perceivable symbols [a numeral and a word] that are used denote the number four. The symbols are temporal, but is the number itself eternal? If might seem so because, for example, it is timelessly and necessarily true that four is greater than three. What is being singled out when we conceive a number such as four, aleph null, or the square root of minus-one? It’s unclear. Numbers, like other concepts, seem to be qualities [properties, characteristics, attributes] rather than individuals. I have followed Butchvarov in arguing elsewhere that all qualities exist in the sense that, even if a quality is never exemplified or instantiated, the quality is real. Why? Well, if you are able to single out a quality, there’s nothing to prevent you from singling it out again or to prevent someone else singling it out. If so, then that quality is multiply single-outable, hence, real or existent [see below]. However, let’s here set aside this issue about the nature of numbers and other conceptual objects.)
What can be said about the inhabitants of the eternal domain of Being? Nothing.
Language is a product of Becoming and inapplicable to Being. Being is ineffable. It can only be described negatively with descriptions such as ‘formless’ or ‘non-temporal.’ This explains why the Buddha, for example, always refers to nirvana using negative terms such as ‘deathless.’
Human nature has two dimensions, namely, the temporal and the eternal. To live well temporally is to be successful. To live well eternally is to be masterful. Insofar as we are forms, we are temporal; insofar as we are formless, we are eternal.
Both are important, but living masterfully is more important than living successfully. The reason is that even those who are successful are beset with problems, whereas mastery is beyond problems.
My goal in the rest of this short essay is to suggest why that’s the case. Even if that goal is not achieved, this essay will be successful if it suggests to you a serious possibility.
The horizontal line of the cross represents the temporal. It makes no difference whether you think of your life as extended from left-to-right or back-to-front. It’s the temporal extension that matters.
You undoubtedly identify with your autobiography, your life’s story. You think of yourself as having been born in some place, your growing up, your temporary situation right now, and of your inevitable decline and death in the future. Let’s assume that all your beliefs about your life’s story are true – as they may be.
Is there more to you than your life’s story?
The vertical line of the cross represents the eternal. It’s as extensionless as it is ineffable. It’s formless and, so, cannot be singled out.
It’s easy to conclude that it’s unreal, nonexistent. If it’s nonexistent, it’s wholly without value.
As Butchvarov argues in Being Qua Being, in the domain of Becoming to be real is to be multiply single-outable, to be the subject of multiple identity judgments. A material identity judgment has the form “this is that” or “x is y.” (By way of contrast, a formal identity judgment has the form “this is this” or “x is x.” Since everything is what it is and not something else, we may here set aside formal identity judgments because they are really only relevant to such abstract discussions as those of logic.)
For example, if the pen in my right hand that I am seeing is also the pen that I’m touching with my right hand, then it’s real. If the star that I am seeing is the one that you are seeing, then it’s real.
We innately have the ability to make material identity judgments and, whenever we make them, we are attempting to conceptualize reality. (The question about how to understand the truth or falsity of such judgments is a very interesting one, but let’s also set it aside here. For more about it, see Being Qua Being.)
Whether or not you agree that that is how to understand the concept of reality or existence, we do have an ordinary, important concept of reality or existence. We do distinguish real objects from unreal ones. There’s an important difference, for example, between an oasis and a mirage.
The temporal world is the world of real or existent forms. The domain of Becoming is full of forms. As instances of nonveridical perceptions illustrate, we do sometimes make mistakes when judging whether or not something is real, but notice that making a mistake in classifying something presupposes a concept, a principle of classification, to misapply.
In the domain of Becoming, Brentano’s thesis of the “intentionality” of consciousness applies: to be aware (conscious) is to be aware of some form or other. In perceiving, there is something perceived. In dreaming, there is something dreamed. In desiring, there is something desired. And so on.
What, though, about the domain of Being? Since it lacks forms as inhabitants, obviously Brentano’s thesis is inapplicable. Does that mean that it’s empty?
Yes. It is empty of forms. The domain of Being is formless.
However, what if it’s possible to be aware without being aware of forms?
Notice how language and thought are here blocked. We are at the limits. We know the difference between real and unreal forms, but nothing can be said or thought about what is formless.
Is it possible for awareness itself to be empty of forms? If so, how could one single out such an episode of awareness?
Notice that we typically single out episodes of awareness by the forms they are about. “What did you see?” “I saw a man duck behind the bushes.” Now try to describe that episode of visual consciousness without referring to that man. Try to describe a dream without relying on what it is about. Try to describe a desire without relying on what it is about. It can’t be done. Can you single out the consciousness of a form without identifying it by attending to that form itself?
Yes, Being is the domain of silence. It is the domain of emptiness, of formlessness or no-form-ness, of stillness.
Here’s the key: distinguish awareness (consciousness) from thinking (conceptualization). To think is to judge, in other words, to classify, conceptualize, sort, discriminate, or categorize. That is a tree. This is red. She is angry.
There have probably been moments in your life when you have been perfectly alert, wide awake, fully conscious, without thinking. Yes, we are typically so addicted to incessant thinking that we may experience such moments only occasionally. However, they do occur spontaneously to many people.
Any intense experience can stimulate them. It could be, for example, some natural spectacular event such as a suddenly seeing a glorious mountain-scape or tsunami that momentarily numbs you linguistically.
Other animals seem to experience such thoughtless awareness. Think of a hungry polar bear focused intently on a seal’s breathing hole or a cat watching a mouse hole.
In fact, thinking is so slow, heavy, and burdensome, that humans often take extreme measures to break free from it temporarily. Why do many people use non-prescription drugs or alcohol? Why do they go bridge-jumping, mountain-climbing, or hang-gliding? Why do they enjoy steep roller coasters or racing powerful automobiles or motorcycles? There are all kinds of tactics that we use in an attempt to drive thoughts out of our minds, to stop thinking, to obtain relief from incessant “thoughting.”
Any good vacation involves emptying thoughts from awareness. Don’t you enjoy, or at least occasionally crave, good vacations?
This comes from our natural impulse to Being. If we are horizontal creatures doomed to live only temporally, we are condemned to perpetual dissatisfaction. All problems temporal. No autobiography is without problems. Furthermore, temporal problems are relentless; they never end.
Even if you had all forms arranged to your liking, that arrangement would begin to dissolve in another moment. It’s futile to look for lasting satisfaction in the domain of Becoming.
The way to escape the temporal is to open to the eternal. We have two dimensions to our nature, the horizontal and the vertical. Although the temporal is only half of our essence, we try to live well while only attending to it. That’s as foolish as trying to win a prize fight with one arm strapped to your side. We are not giving ourselves a chance.
You may object that, although perhaps interesting, there’s no way to prove the eternal real. Why? You might argue that, since the eternal is formless and only forms are real, it’s false that the eternal is real.
However, that’s being bound to thought (language, concepts).
Could there be thoughtless awareness, in other words, awareness without thinking (conceptualizing, judging)?
There not only could be, there is. Merely acknowledging that possibility provides hope that living masterfully, which is living without problems or dissatisfaction, is possible.
Notice that even in Becoming, physical forms are spatial, in other words, inter-related spatially. Is physical space itself formless? (Newton thought it absolute [so that it would exist without bodies in it], whereas Leibniz thought it relative. It’s another interesting question we may here set aside.)
Becoming is a ceaseless play of forms. With no contrast, with no awareness of Being, that play becomes heavy, serious, and oppressive even though it’s really light, playful, and dazzling.
In fact, with no awareness of the eternal, how would we ever notice the temporal? We’d have no distinction between the temporal and the eternal. Similarly, with no awareness of non-blues (in other words, if everything were blue), how would we ever notice anything that wasn’t blue? We’d have no distinction between what is blue and what isn’t blue.
Furthermore, again, you yourself may have spontaneously experienced glimpses of what awareness of formless is like.
The point is that it is provable. It’s not provable conceptually, but it’s provable by direct (unconceptualized) experience.
It’s simple: just stop thinking for a moment.
Is it easy? No. It typically requires lots of practice.
Mastering life is more important than being successful. The reason is that even the most successful human lives suffer from the dissatisfactions arising from problems.
Why not find out for yourself whether or not mastering life is possible?
There are multiple practices known as ‘meditation.’ There are several classic ways of practicing that have been working for centuries, even millennia. Sages have been showing the way since before the time of the Buddha.
This is why sages like the Buddha have been telling us that there’s no living well without mastering meditation. Why? Because until we learn how to drop all thoughts, we are deluded into identifying with them, into thinking that all we are is temporal creatures. Even a momentary dropping of all thoughts is sufficient to catch a glimpse of the eternal, which is as central to our nature as the temporal.
Master the way, or let go of the possibility of living masterfully and live a settle-for life of ceaselessly chasing mere success.
There’s good news, too: there’s nothing standing between you and mastery except your thoughts. Furthermore, dropping thoughts requires no time at all.