Monday, December 31, 2012

Blind Sight: We Only See What We Want To

Tomorrow I'm going to die. I could be hit by a car or knocked in front of the train or get into an auto accident. Any number of biological issues of which I am currently unaware could strike and lay me out. Falling debris from space could in a fluke of chance strike me or any number of potential people with borderline homicidal rages could see me as a target. The list of potential deaths is as long as my imagination can churn in the land of the macabre.

I am not going to die tomorrow. At least, not likely. I don't know. Neither do you. No amount of planning or training can hope to possibly address every conceivable possibility and even then there remains those events of which we cannot conceive but remain possible. The sheer magnitude of the potential frailty of my life is enough to short-circuit my frontal lobe and send me spiralling into a morass of despair and nerve-stopping terror.

However, I don't have to sit there contemplating such things. I can, just as so many of us do moment to moment, day to day, year after year, think of other things and live a life of varying importance. The enormity of our frailty is eclipsed, wonderfully, by the even greater degree of life that flows in, as and between every nuanced instantiation of nature's laboratory. I have stood in the midst of masses of people at airports and concerts and had the humbling though exhilarating notion occur that I will likely never see a single one of these people again no matter how well traveled I could become and each day they are replaced by untold others going about their lives blindingly oblivious to the seething potential they brush across at every intersection of narratives.

Watching "Stranger Than Fiction" again last night, I was struck again by the author's poignant question that if a man truly sees their death coming and goes out to meet it anyway, is that not a man you'd want to have stay alive? It is the quintessential existential question, one that much of technological and entertainment-based society is contrived to help us never ponder.

The notion of death is a fear-laden cognitive device, one that is for many halts us in our mental steps at its shocking finality. And yet, we are faced with it every day, it rests underneath every future plan, personal quest, building project and started journey. If only we plan and keep planning ahead death will never reach us, and yet it does every day, as inexorable as any other physical force. For every device thrown up in its path another one from before plummets in futility. We look forever forward afraid that if we look back we will be caught.

We are already caught, already held. We do not ignore death's door by opening up others in the same hallway, that one will always be there, never forgotten however much we attempt to ignore it. There has been much said, primarily in religious philosophical circles, that without death there would be no morality, it serves as a stop-gap for ethical peril. Others posit that it serves as the primary force behind the scurrying lives we all live. Both undoubtedly have some truth, but it is a truth contingent upon accepting death from the assumed perspective each position takes. Death does not have to be punishment any more than it has to be a separate and distinct force. In every change of life there is a death of a sorts, from one form shifting to another. Even in our own lives we are not the people we were a year ago, five years ago, yesterday, believing we are simply a by-product of a biological narrative stringing together separate events into a whole. The impetus behind our actions, once divorced from death, can be bound within life itself, death as merely one facet of life, not the cessation of it.

Certainly this thinking is not easy to hold onto. I for one still shudder at times thinking of the cold nothingness that awaits, my imagination providing sensations that rationally I know would be impossible without a body and yet still struck by the power of the image. However, like the character in "Stranger..." I attempt on occasion to look in the face of my inevitable end and, despite its inevitability, strive forward anyway. The result is not that I become precisely a man worthy to continue living, but that I find a life worthy of calling such.

Frank Herbert in "Dune" through his character Paul declares "If I am to die, I must pass along a transcendental lesson.  I must leave with serenity." I can only hope to embody this lesson, though if not achieved completely, the reaching for it creates a life embracing both what comes before and what lies ahead. In this day on the Eve of a new year, holding both seems quite an important thing to do.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Resolution as Sacrifice

The New Year is upon us and with it comes the inevitable round of created and broken resolutions, the annual practice having become more parody than source of progress. Before the fires of change reach fever pitch and that new gym membership languishes in auto-pay purgatory, there's some room to think for a moment about the movement from old to new, from habit to hope. As I recently finished Neil Gaiman's "American Gods," the story provides ample imaginative space to explore this query.

Shadow, the central character, gets caught up in the machinations of the god Odin who desires to wage a war of the old gods against the new. The old have lost a great deal of power, brought over here to the United States in the minds of those having come from their native lands, time having distanced ancestors from their roots and the old gods no longer being sacrificed to or believed in. Instead, new gods have arisen from the intent of a modern America, gods of television and prostitution, highways and cell-phones. These new deities are belligerent and puerile, flitting about in their desires, always attempting to stay one step ahead of the next fashion to grip the social consciousness. Odin is tired of languishing in a pit of mediocre life and takes Shadow on a trip across the States to inspire other older gods to rise up. Along the way there is painted a picture of society in which the sanctified areas, places of worship, where once were monuments to human ingenuity, instead have been replaced by carnivals and rest-stop amusements; Stonehenge replaced by the worlds largest ball of twine, continuity has been replaced by frivolity, depth of feeling replaced by blips of commercial focus. While both sets of gods can be malicious, caring little about their hosts except as it gives their existence legitimacy, there is a quality to the old gods that often strikes a chord in Shadow, however much he despises the whole enterprise he's caught up in.

This quality is best noted in sacrifice, which plays a large role in "American Gods." While the new gods demand sacrifice, there is a passiveness to it which would be sad were it not so pathetic. People's lives are given up in homage to a deity they know little about which offers them nothing more than momentary release from a world so much broader than the leftover dregs they curl up around. One is reminded of the sludge left behind from coffee having sat for too long in a pot, a dark slow-moving mass that makes you ponder how you could have ever put that inside you but still entices you to flush it out and make more. The old gods demanded so much more, the entirety of a full life, not just an entire life but a full one, dedicated to the service of transcendent ideals, filled with purpose. Shadow offers himself up to bear witness upon a tree to a god's passing and in so doing changes the course of many events, finding as well in himself truths that had long been hidden. Juxtaposed with this is the story of a man swallowed by a god of debauchery who's last breath is like a whimpering gasp. Simply put, there is no comparison.

So what is all this to do with New Years and resolutions? I've had brought to my attention that this year has been in large part about consequences, the effects of choices made in the past which, not often labelled good or bad, still end up needing to be dealt with. Beowulf's dragon resonates here, the consequences of actions coming full circle at the end of a cycle in life. In defeating the dragon there is found a fulfilled purpose, a sacrifice of a purpose-full life in the service of something greater. With this in mind resolutions can be noted. As mentioned, this annual rite has become more parody than purpose-filled, much in the way our gods have become more ephemeral.

In determining a resolution it may best be kept in mind that true sacrifice has less to do with calories and more to do with inner meaning, less to do with hopping on a treadmill and more to do with the intent with which one connects with every person they come across. The New Year can be a time of determining which gods are being created by our intent, which deities we pay homage to and in so doing, direct or redirect the course of our lives.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

How Deep Does the Surface Go?

At the behest of several friends of mine I recently read "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel. For those who haven't read it or seen the recent movie adaptation I will refrain from coming out with a complete spoiler but hints are inevitable so be forewarned. The story follows a young Indian man who, after a childhood amongst animals in his family's zoo and exploring several facets of religion through the instruction of a Muslim cleric, a priest and a minister, finds himself shipwrecked and adrift on the sea in a boat with a Bengal tiger. The story is fantastical, melancholy and brimming with insight into the human condition as only a child through harrowing experience can tell it. The ending is, so as not to spoil it completely, quite unlike the story that comes before it and yet provides a new depth which requires another read-through, to look upon the fantastic with eyes wide open though now a heavier heart.

The story is not an apologetic for any particular religion or definition of god. When confronted by the cleric, the priest and the minister, Pi can only stammer in affronted confusion "I only wish to love god." To this succinct and largely empty response (since we have no idea what the boy means by "god") the three custodians of their particular religious mysticism have no reply and instead go about their lives though now with a wary eye on their former student. Juxtaposed with the ending, where the fiction is replaced with a horrific reality, one can see the author attempting not to make a case for the existence of any particular god but pointing the reader towards an appreciation for the story-telling need in humanity to give meaning where none is immediately present. Out of this inevitable projection comes not a deity but religion and spirituality in general, not a judgmental being ready to define the world for us, but an intrinsic quality of the human person to make life more palatable especially in the midst of tooth and claw.

I have written before of the human being as story-teller in the entry from 11/08/2012 "Self-Image As Story-Telling." There I note that self-deception is at times a legitimate enterprise but one of which consequences will effect not only deceiver but those whom that person comes into contact with. Authentic decisions, such as they are, can only be made based on truth and deception denies truth from being seen. Martel in "Pi" asks the question at the end, when authority figures hear both stories and choose to go with the fantastical one, whether a collective acceptance of deception serves a purpose in a similar way that it serves a purpose for the individual. There are truths which we all wish to hide from, truths which especially in emotionally difficult situations, we may not want to at first if ever know. The parent sees an approaching doctor and collapses, crying out "no, no, I don't want to hear;" a friend laughs and talks of their goodness despite a string of relationships broken and destroyed declaring a more nuanced reality; a person prepares for sleep and feels the yawning abyss of darkness reaching out promising oblivion and prays they wake up remembering their dreams. We protest and create wonderlands to hide and cover ourselves with rainbows, hoping the image stays strong enough to get us through the turbulent waters. To this end we do, whether individually or as a society, offer up the fantastical and so Martel makes his point in having authority promote the fantastical.

However, as any good writer does, the central point is never merely one-sided. The child Pi is very well aware of the brutal reality of the voyage he undertook, can with cold dispassionate voice recall every minute detail of his undertaking, every scream and gurgle, every gasp of horror and drop of blood. The fantastical story he creates does not ever make him forget his ordeal, it does not expunge from memory the events that shaped the rest of his life. Rather, it serves as a veneer, a veil carefully laid over his experience that if one looks closely the reality becomes clearly seen. The veil exists to give meaning to an otherwise meaningless sequence of events.

Here is where the genius of "Life of Pi" resides, in noting how even in the midst of our creative impulse we never forget what lies beneath and inextricably connected to the story we're telling. There comes a time in the story-telling where Pi finds an island and almost stays but realizes soon enough to do so would mean death as the vegetation would eat him alive, the island in its entirety being a trap for the unwary. So it is with our stories, if they are dwelled in too long, thought of as the only truth that exists, we succumb to their allure and waste away, eaten by our own energies.

Whether in our individual stories or our socially-created ones, we serve always the need and drive within us to create meaning and thus serve within and as the universe by providing what it cannot do in itself, give it purpose. As we are the universe itself thinking, the stories we create shape our perception, give us values to identify with and fight for, and cast into conscious space an infinite variety potential stages to dance our lives upon. To think that any one story is the sum-total of experience however is to succumb to the ego and fall asleep in the midst of seeming peaceful greenery. To serve life and therefore ourselves and each other, we do well to remember the veil but also what lies beneath. Dedicating our lives to ever greater levels of understanding means always asking how deep the surface goes and at times making peace with our Bengal tigers.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Mind Gone Terribly Wrong

In the echoes of gunfire, when the soft patter of small feet seem louder in their absence, the heart reaches out in yearning to that moment of innocence, lost now. There is something bone-jarring in witnessing the death of a child, as if death rather than constant presence haunting our steps comes before our eyes in full, forcing us to hear the grinding of its bones, smell the charnel of graves and bear witness with eyes tearing up at an inability to close, unable to shut away the sight which shakes and rattles our constant stories of "not going to happen to me."

The massacre of Newtown stands poised to join that unenviable club of events (like Columbine and 9/11) we remember with poignant detail conjoined with where we heard the news, felt our first thoughts, and still inspires an immediate up-swelling of emotions. A week has passed and I still remember the initial disbelief then shock and sorrow as the information continued to trickle in throughout the morning. The reactions were almost quotidian in their inevitability, banal in the hoarseness of their shouts. Too many guns, not enough guns; societal breakdown, removal of god. The litany went on and on in ever-increasing attempts at ideological showmanship, even now continuing to float like a thick miasma amidst the social sites and Internet.

We want to know why, we want to know, to simply know so as to find the bubble of sickness, lance it and move on, warily moving forward hoping we got the problem before it metastasized. I do not hope or even plan to attempt to answer the why of the shooter's actions. I'd written a recent 3-part series on decision-making which should answer why I find this attempt foolishly egotistical even for my vaunted sense of intellectual capability. Doesn't mean others won't try, have tried, and will continue to try. As invariably as it comes in a society hooked on episodes of "Law and Order" and "Criminal Minds," questions concerning the shooter's mindset came up, every citizen becoming an arm-chair psychologist. While thankfully the meme concerning asperger's being in some way a causal factor has subsided in the face of clear testimonial from experts noting violence is not associated with this disorder, there still resides here a point to be taken.

I have written before in this blog, often I have to admit, concerning relationships and how the standard view of mind and free-will is both naive and destructive. Having been faced recently with a quote from Ronald Reagan concerning personal responsibility and recognizing that while I agree with the words, the meaning behind them is considerably different for me than it likely was for him, I realize I need to write about responsibility and will do so next. At this time I want to remind us all of that age-old adage "there but for the grace of god go I."

I am not Adam Lanza, but I could have been and so could have you. I'll wait a moment for the possible screaming this may engender to die down. Clear now? Maybe not, but bear with me. I have mentioned before the mental game I play with people at times in asking them to think of themselves separate from any object, person or event, to form a picture without any social/personal/familial data. It's impossible. Now switch something up. Use the incredible powers of our human imagination to cobble together a different life, one where parents shifted, the town in which you grew up was a different one, where every relationship you've ever had ceased to exist and was replaced with a completely different set. Choices are bound within the context, many the variables of which we are rarely consciously aware, and so every choice you've ever made would be different. The internal created narrative you have of yourself, built over a lifetime of data and more or less consistent when we need it to be, is gone and with it any sense of yourself as you are now. Instead someone else stands in your place and within this imagined reality, honesty should compel you to quiver just a little in humility at how fleeting our sense of self truly is, when the shifting of even a few variables would create someone we'd barely if at all recognize.

I'm not removing personal responsibility here. I'm not casting Lanza into an ethical void-land. I'm simply pointing out that responsibility and the sense of self that it is derived from is not nearly as obvious as we typically think. Ironically, both the left and right of the political spectrum, in their prognostication concerning what is at fault in this tragedy are both essentially saying the same thing: that by changing "x" there would have been an inevitable shift in behavior such that the shooting never would have occurred. Both essentially are stating the absence of a truly context-less free-will, despite both in other moments holding onto the notion with clenched fists and scraping nails. In either case, the reality of the situation leaves us in a quandary of which variables to focus on.

Rather than selecting any particular point, I want to direct attention to the underlying premise anyone engaged in thinking about this event takes for granted, that being the inherent interconnected quality Lanza, and therefore all of us, have in any and all situations, from the horror-ridden to the unashamedly joyful. The time for wallowing in anger and knee-jerk judgment will pass, if it hasn't already. Then comes the task of safe-guarding a future for children who want only to bring home to their parents new art to put up on a fridge. We do them a disservice if we forget in our rush to placate our ideological dictates that we are all in this together, this being life and civilization. The precise parameters of how we are our brother's keeper are in need of discussion and dialogue but not the fact that none of us exist or behave in a vacuum of our own choosing. Separation, from self to community to the spiritual, will never solve anything. Let us have Newtown be more than a name associated with loss but a prophetic calling to create a truly new-town, a place where we find healing in integration and hope in togetherness.

Friday, December 14, 2012

"Your" Obsession Is "My" Need

Have started reading "Life of Pi," finally assenting to the insistence of several friends of mine and 50 pages in I'm quite sure a great many entries here will be inspired out of this book of child-like inquiry into religion. Thankfully my imagination is such that while I had a topic in mind already, I began to see how a different tactic could accomplish the same point and perhaps make it better. So rather than pontificating with great emotional angst about the problem of obsessing over past hurts and current passions, the more general and helpful idea of focusing on life's transcendence came over me and with it a story.

I worked for a couple years at a supplement store, peddling for nearly any would-be self-healer various pills, powders, and liquids that, based on scanty or mismanaged scientific research, were lauded as potential cures for everything from the common cold to cancer, though the labels were with the technical acumen of a host of lawyers careful to never say "cure," hence why "supplement" is all the rage. Reminds me of commercials seen in childhood of a sugary cereals being promoted as part of a balanced breakfast but the picture has juice, fruit, toast and milk added. In either case, such pandering often left me in a state of moral crisis, one that I sought with some difficulty to assail by delivering (much to the consternation of upper management who caught me on occasion) recent research on products and being quick to point out that the intent given to the product is often just as if not more powerful than the product itself. Incidentally it was during this time that my love-hate relationship with Oprah (who makes the antics of sales peddlers mere trinkets to a vast menagerie of finely cut jewels) began. However, I digress and need to return.

The story takes place on one particularly dull day when a man entered my story with a look of concern and hesitancy on his face. In a voice full of meekness he inquired as to whether I knew which way east was and if he could do his prayers in my store as he didn't want to be a bother to people out in the mall. I'd like to say that it was from a state of benign and loving enlightenment that I said yes, but honesty compels me to admit I was so shocked by the request I simply said yes without thinking much about it. Within a couple minutes the man had done his meditative calisthenics and with a now beautiful smile on his face thanked me and left my store.

In the wake of 9/11, albeit having also spent the previous couple years engaging in a constant struggle with philosophy and religious theology, I had moved from the fundamentalism of my teens and family and turned into the embrace of an empty landscape called atheism. In no way do I wish to say atheism, which I still identify with, is empty in the sense of meaningless, but empty as in a vacuum of space. There are as many forms of atheist as there are Christian, except for the atheist she or he has merely taken a next logical step to total atheism as the monotheist has with all the rest of the gods. In this spirit of mind, distant from my personal bout of anxiety-assuaging fundamentalism and beginning to look at the religious impulse itself in all its forms, I still felt an instant concern at this Muslim having asked to pray in my store, but following up this irrational and utterly human response was yet another reaction, that of curious wonder.

I had seen my fair share of cosmic-inspired emotions, the face taking on the slack beauty of a person forgetting for a moment that their ego is truly not the center of the universe. Indeed, I had experienced a few moments like that myself, but all of these experiences were rarely connected with people of a separate faith. Why this is, is for another entry. Suffice to say, seeing the look on the man's face was a profound moment for me, one that years later still gets recreated in my head accompanied by an internal orchestra delivering a musical crescendo. The feeling of transcendence, that connection with an ineffable oneness, which I had seen in so many others, felt in myself and now saw in someone of opposite ideological leanings, helped me identify within myself a deep need, existent for quite some time but not wholly realized, to understand and identify with the human impulse to constantly seek out this feeling and once found, wallow in it like a bee in honey.

Let's face it, when we enter into a new relationship, particularly the romantic kind, the feeling of egoless-ness which often comes about is a glorious thing. Polyamorists, in our constant need to label everything, have coined the phrase "new-relationship-energy (NRE)" and it is both the bane and abject joy of everyone practicing this lifestyle. Before I go on, let me clarify where I'm going, since the whiplash that may have occurred as I went from religion to relationships could be painful. We, as human beings, are in constant search for relationship, of any and all variety, and religion, with its powerful synchronicity of social and emotional energies, is at core about relating, whether it be to an imagined deity, a social group, a family, or truly all of the above and more. The transcendence which often gets far too simply associated with religious feelings is manifested in relationships as well; a comparison of ecstatic language used in religious rituals and the accompanying feelings, with that of sexual experience could fill a large volume of literary research.

So, back to the meandering trails of my consciousness, the precipices and valleys of religious experience is not so difficult to map onto that of relational reality. There is the moment of initial connection, the brain deciding to take what was intended as a field-trip and turn it into a safari of epic proportions, with NRE washing everything away (sometimes even our cherished ethical standards) and we feel we must, simply must pursue this connection. On the flip-side of this is when a relationship ends terribly and there persists a need to pursue the now negative emotions to the exclusion of all else. We humans are, if anything, righteously consistent in our quest for self-abnegation. Call it religion, psychopathy, irrational obsession, NRE, or any host of other terms/phrases, the end result is a recognition of a sometimes frantic dedication to making the drips of cosmic joy into a flood.

And here is the beauty of humanity. Wait, what?! Yes, the beauty. There are any number of examples in which one can point to the horrors perpetrated by religious or other seemingly transcendent ideologies, but none of these are identical to the pursuit itself. Keeping those examples in mind as a caution, I can instead choose to pull my awareness towards a consideration of the positive examples of this innate human need. As the reverend of my spiritual center noted a while back in the midst of a faith crisis, the current absence or negation of the faith points to its existence before. Sometimes we need to break down a current mental obsession to note a previous, more life-giving iteration. In the midst of that moment of transcendence, whether it be religious, social or relational, whether it be one of joy or anger, the point of connection to existence is not that particular moment but how it directs with a ghostly-hand to the recognition of our shared need to find a similar experience. In that we can identify with integration and peace surrounding a storm.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

We Are Not the Humans You're Looking For, (Decision-Making, part 3)

There's a common story concerning three blind people who approach an elephant, one grabbing a leg, another its trunk and another the tail. Each then describes the beast that they believe exists and of course none of them get it right. Notice however that the only reason we know the people are inaccurate is because we're told that the creature is an elephant at the beginning. The recipient of this story is given a small form of omniscience here and then the story-teller uses the narrative to wax poetic about whatever point is desired to reach. I'd like to go to a different conclusion here though and declare that all of them are correct. Without a context, without someone telling them or an outside observer possessing sight, there would be no real reason to declare any of the people wrong. They could go about their merry way with nary a moment of doubt concerning their truth and from within their world, they'd be utterly correct in lacking that doubt. Only in combining their perspectives, in rejoining the group that they originally arrived as, do they have the possibility of expanding their awareness and coming closer to accuracy.

Here then we have two conclusions from the previous expositions on decision-making: one, context is very nearly everything when it comes to revealing truth and two, only in joining with greater humanity can we begin approaching a larger awareness of our lives and an accuracy concerning our existence.

To recap simply, we have gone through an exposition on the nature of decision-making, noting how for all the power we as a species gives to reasons there is no sense in which any offered exist in a direct relationship with the shift in behavior or the initial action. There's a mystery here where the precise moment in which neural connections are made is forever outside of our conscious awareness, such that reasons exist at best as potential explanations and at worst merely provide a context out of which the behavior was selected prior to awareness, very likely a combination of the two to be perfectly honest. In addition, these reasons do not exist context-free, there is no sense in which objectivity defined as being absent of environmental connection is in any way coherent. Reasons exist within a vast contextual pool of information, some known and a great deal unknown, all of which forms the nests (to use Ken Wilber's term) or baskets of an interrelated and integrated universe.

We cannot escape this reality, cannot think outside of it and behavior is dependent and determined upon all of it, though only in the sense of being within a natural and materialistic existence not in a pre-determined linear connection. There is freedom here but it is not the freedom of a context-less being but one where an increasing awareness of interconnected reality within the human necessity to create relationships brings about a greater space for behavioral possibility.

I've mentioned at the end of each of the last two entries in this series a slightly vague declaration of the consequence of residing in this understanding of reality, noting how anger and frustration can be replaced by grace and compassion as we reside in a spiritual consciousness of integrated reality. This is all well and good and hopefully brings a smile to the face of more than just I, but it's ridiculously lacking in specifics. Honestly, I don't intend to provide a great deal of specifics, rather focusing on principles which can then be applied to everyday experiences. The individual analyses that can be done will, in keeping with the philosophy, be determined by the context of the situation including the people involved. I have my moments of celebrating a rather healthy ego but even that will halts in the face of attempting to answer every conceivable potential situation.

As mentioned initially, there are two conclusions: context is nearly everything and within community/relationships is found the space to expand our awareness and thus our behavioral potential. When we confront someone, including ourselves, both of these principles should be front and center, providing parameters for the cascading emotional responses giving our brains a bath. The way we hold our bodies, the words we "choose," the tone of our voice, the connections we have with the other person, the events that happened earlier in the day or week, the memories being recreated as the brain makes connections between the current situation and past experience, all of these are occurring at the speed of synaptic connections, electrical impulses so fast they give us the illusion of instantaneous consciousness and a sense of the present.

We are often quite like the people in the initial story, each grasping at what we think is the totality of our experience and completely unaware of the vastness of the object we are blind to. A healthy ego knows its contextual sisters and brothers in humanity, knows that without the baskets of being holding individual experience there would be no such thing to write poetry about, become incensed over and feel passionately about. Depending on the person in front of us and all the variables just mentioned, we will respond with aspects of ourselves unknown or rarely instantiated and/or typical and in line with our perceived self narrative. The same holds for the person in front of you in reverse. There is still right and wrong, still potential for dialogue and therefore a progressive increase in accurately describing reality, but the process is found in union, not divisiveness.

We are not the humans people are so often looking for, capable of dispassionate analysis and complete control over our lives. Rather, we are the humans we see in every sweet statement of connection, every cry of pain, sorrow, joy and happiness, every thundering discourse from one's bully-pulpit and each and every moment of head-scratching wonder. It is not the fantasy, it is the reality and thus all the more beautiful to experience together.

The Baskets Of Our Being-ness

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Baskets of Our Being-ness (Decision Making, part 2)

Picture with me for a moment a series of interlocking and interconnected baskets (this is essentially the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber), each held within the other from the smallest to the largest. The largest holds all of existence, it encapsulates all that is known and unknown about the universe and provides the structure by which all the others are to be held within. As the baskets get smaller, each one has it's own set of validity claims and means of discussing the information contained within. The constraint of the previously larger basket is only felt at the margins of understanding, when what is known ceases to fully describe the issue under analysis and requires a new paradigm and language. Going further the baskets get smaller and smaller although at no point should it be thought that there is anything but a near infinite potential of knowledge awaiting discovery as each basket interconnects with smaller and larger ones holding or being held within. Eventually we get to personal experience, held within the basket of genetics and biology, held within familial and societal/cultural background, held within geo-politics and so on. Conscious experience then is held within the constraints of all these previous interlocking baskets, setting up the parameters for analysis, thought formation and potential behavioral responses.

Note that at no point is there a simplistic linear relationship of causality between any of these baskets. This is to forestall charges of strict deterministic or mechanical way of looking at reality, despite still acknowledging that everything is natural and materialistic throughout. What shifts is not metaphysics, but paradigms and language pertaining to what is being discussed. For instance, in discussing various rocks found on a hiking path we would use different language than if we were discussing plate tectonics, but it's still all under the field of geology which has it's own way of discussing things than say physics or biology, though again all those are still within the frame of scientific inquiry. As it pertains to personal decision-making then we can have various discussions from the social and cultural influences on behavior potentials, the role genetics and familial upbringing including attachment relationships have on cognitive framing and the like, or have a chat concerning just what it is like to live the life each person feels through in their experience.

This integral way of looking at human existence is a means of calibrating oneself to an ever-increasing understanding of their existential placement but also in determining to a greater degree the contextual lattice in which decisions are made. To do so requires us to do two things: one, a dedication to introspection with a continuing increase in educating oneself to the better understanding of one's perspective/frame of the experiential world and two, accompany this inquiry with a constant humility borne out of an appreciation that our minds are so much wilder and opaque than we in our egoistic hubris often believe.

The first is two parts (yes I cheated and made 3 points out of 2, hey it's my blog), the initial issue of introspection being often associated with spiritual disciplines such as prayer/meditation, retreats, involvement with a local community, therapy, etc. The religious/spiritual disciplines involved here are not such connected with anti-rational or anti-scientific ideologies. This is not to, as dogmatic and fundamentalist ideological groups would encourage, continue with uncritical acceptance of leader-declared truths. Rather, with the combination of the second part concerning education and growing understanding, delve into what is tentatively known by various disciplines, academic and spiritual, test their limits and begin to see the spaces of uncertainty that exist. There can be as much truth found in reading the latest journal or book as that found in a meditation retreat, though the truth may be articulated in different ways and have import at different levels, the retreat likely being far more of a personal experiential knowledge.

Doing so allows us to see that while facts and reasons are often what we promote as causal agents for our shifting mental paradigms, they actually only provide the context for the shift. We can do the internal check and parade our facts and reasoning out to be critically analyzed (albeit to varying degrees), but the very same litany can be presented to someone else of similar background and ideological position and while one will shift the other will not. However strong facts and argumentation are, they do not provide the impetus for change. The shift occurs in a similar space of, to again use the match analogy, we know that moving across the rough edge will result in it being lit, but we are at pains to note the precise bump that causes the ignition and we certainly do not see the molecular shift occurring that is the flame itself igniting. Reasons are not worthless, knowledge is not a waste of resources to gain, no more than foregoing the particular surface provided in the match case would be particularly helpful in getting one lit. Context matters, it guides or provides the parameters, much like the baskets described earlier, for particular thought processes and therefore behavioral choices.

Thus we are struck by the second injunction, that of residing in a humility concerning the opaqueness of our own minds and existence, and not just our own but others as well. Because while certainty is a feeling we all appreciate, dogmatism being the one exception, a genuine search always provides more questions than answers, however many answers end up being found. In any and all relationships we wrestle with the crazy-making confusion as to why our point isn't being heard or why someone did what they did. Stepping back into a space of humility and attempting to understand the baskets that make up their own lives will give us an appreciation for where their behavior emerges from and provide the impetus for appreciating our own spaces. There the grace in which we all reside can bring calm and a joining with our fellow person rather than division, love rather than hurt.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Edges Not Core, Changing Mind Not Soul (Decision Making, part 1)

The title of this entry has me going out on a limb conceptually, so here's hoping it doesn't break and send me spinning into the darkness of hopelessly vague ideas. Changing one's mind has been, yes, on my mind recently, or more so than usual. As any who have read my short bio or know me in person can attest, my life has been one of rather drastic shifts in the northern mental landscape (the southern blessedly remains true to its purpose). Coming from a place of abject devotion to conservative Christianity, I went flailing and ranting in anger through the still fields of deconversion and atheism, and now more calmly dwell in the constant changing vista of belief in a god without supernatural essence that resides as principle and life-giving power within and as all of existence. There were moments I felt like a whirling dervish without a sense of centeredness, hopelessly spinning into the etherealness of the mind's bizarre places. Just so there's some attempt at humility here, I do not hope to explain completely or have ever declared a complete understanding of that journey, no more than anybody can unequivocally declare with utter certainty the particular reasons why a mental shift occurs. It just happens. We awake as if from a dream and the realization comes as a new starting point, curious at how we got here but convinced this is the only place to begin. Sure, reasons are given, rationalizations spun, grand stories of our travails broadcast for any willing to listen, but that precise moment from point-A to point-B is never pinned down. Further, upon reflection it becomes increasingly obvious (and science through brain-scans have indicated) that our reasons come after the fact of our shift, not before, that they are often tangential to a vague understanding that deeper realities exist of which even the most powerful of articulated arguments don't scratch.

This is not to say reasons are bad or foolish, I'd be the last person to declare that unwarranted conclusion. While many have witnessed or gone through a situation where the most beautifully articulated argument does nothing to dent someones certainty, of which is shattered completely at a later time by the most simplistic of devices, this does not dismiss the importance of the surrounding context to a mental shift, it only indicates that we are very far from purely rational creatures. Such reflection should encourage us to do two (in an attempt at keeping this simple and relatively short) things: one, a dedication to introspection with a continuing increase in educating oneself to the better understanding of one's perspective/frame of the experiential world and two, a constant humility borne out of an appreciation that our minds are so much wilder and opaque than we in our egoistic hubris often believe.

Those two points will be in the next blog entry, right now I want to continue focusing on the context of decision making. We ask people to explain their actions not simply because most of us have an unverified and ungrounded understanding of the self and it's causal association with the body, but because we also recognize at some level that while a person's decisions are ultimately their own we like knowing the extent of the pondering that went into it. We instinctively recoil in wariness at seeing someone seemingly making behavioral choices without regard to any internal or external context, often equating such actions with immaturity. Reasons become supports, more needed as the larger the decision becomes. We speak of "buttressing" or "supporting" our decisions due to their "weight" or "size." However, while reasons can provide a context, even a very important one, they simply do not provide an inevitable linear relationship with decisions or indicate the precise point at which a decision has been made.

To use a match as an example, one can slide a match against many surfaces as much as possible and no flame will occur, there must be a certain amount of friction. Ideas arise or are struck within a relational context (here is where issues of psychological attachment come into play). The vast majority of people growing up in particular religious households unsurprisingly grow up believing some variation of the initial foundation rather than something radically different. With near-death-experiences (NDEs), it is no great surprise that one's religious beliefs determine the nature of the experience, as in Muslims do not see Jesus and Christians don't see Muhammad (though I can imagine the identity crisis that would befall were this to occur!). Relationships exist also between ideas/reasons, the power of self-identification clearly shown whenever someone gets emotionally charged at their given reasons being challenged or criticized.

What does all this mean for daily life though? I can pontificate all day and luxuriate in the sound of my words being typed out, but in the end, without a connection to making life better it's as if I'm laughing at an unshared joke, funny at first and then increasingly depressing in it's isolation. We are not inherently rational creatures, our capacity for reason is quite easily eclipsed by our predilection for emotional outbursts and blind devotion to ideas we accept as simply a matter of our social existence. This is true of our enemies, our friends, our families, our lovers and ourselves. When we ask for or insist upon knowing the why of a person's actions or engage in a seemingly endless self-flagellation for why we did x-behavior, the reality of the opaqueness of our minds should be kept front and center of awareness. By noting how reasons exist as context not simple causation and that much of the mental gymnastics occurs before we are ever aware of it, we do not cease caring about why people do the things they do or diminish the legitimacy of determining good and bad reasons. Rather, we calm ourselves from the emotional explosiveness of identifying too strongly with particular ideas which encourage divisiveness. The space of grace this leads to when interacting with others in disagreement with is built on the realization that a person's mind may be forever out of our complete understanding but the tendency towards a certain spectrum of behavior, the activity of the soul if I may engage in poetic license for a moment, is of greater concern.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Proper Attachment: Attunement Not Possession

What is it to be attached? At what point can a person look upon their lives and query as to their connection with things and/or people? Does attachment signify any and all relationships, including to objects, or is it better understood as only pertaining to people? Is attachment good or bad, life-giving or not? These and many other questions have been asked of me since starting writing, indeed many are questions I’ve asked of myself through the years of study, and as I’m sure attachment and how it relates to human relationships and society in general will continue to populate my writing, I decided to finally articulate just what is being meant in my continued usage of the term.

The notion of attachment has in psychology and philosophy various definitions and usages, though notably the idea is part of “attachment theory” connected with Bowlby and Siegel and previously as it is used in various forms of Buddhism. Focus will be spent on delineating these two definitions and I believe it will be found that the two are connected and mutually helpful. I want to refrain from getting too academic here but some is inevitable and I encourage any and all interested to delve into the literature available and by all means contact me with any future questions so I can address them to the best of my ability.

Attachment is, at core, concerned with the mental relation between the so-called “I” and other objects, be they people or things.

Buddhism offers as an understanding of mind that there is no “I” or central being. Instead what is offered is a combination of aggregates all of which exist in the human person as causally interconnected pieces making up a whole. These aggregates are: material form, sensations, apperceptions, volitions and consciousness. I will not at this time go into a full description of each as this isn’t the point here and I encourage everyone to read the link provided. Suffice to say, this notion of mind is connected with a theory of causation for behavior in which no single act exists in a linear fashion with anything else, rather all actions are generated from an interconnected web of variables. The connection with attachment is here, where the isolated focus upon a particular object ignores the transitory nature of all things, including the self.

At no time does Buddhism promote that a person become un-attached, as we are instantiated within particular bodies and as such are connected to all things, both physical and perceptual. Instead, the term non-attachment is used to convey the idea that at no time should it be forgotten that no single thing or person exists in a vacuum of its own essence. All are related to everything else in the non-linear web of existence. Even so-called singular objects, like a tree, are not perceived in entirety but as a construction from the perception of trunk, branches, leaves, etc. People also exist this way in our minds, at face-value as holistic or of, to use my favorite phrasing, possessing of a singular narrative. Only a few moments of reflection will indicate that this singular narrative is a conglomeration of multiple experiences, personality facets and relationships. Attachment then, for Buddhism, is to wrongly focus on something or someone in a false sense, as a singularity rather than an interconnected instantiation of nature.

Remarkably the notion of mind here articulated so far is quite similar to the growing consensus in the scientific community of what mind is and plays a central role in the articulation of attachment in how I use it in my writing, at all times noting the source and influence being principally that of Daniel Siegel (though there are others). The mind is a term used to describe a process of energy and information flow that is created through the bio-social connection with others. Like in Buddhism, the “I” is not a thing in itself but a means by which the individual relates to their particular instantiation within a general narrative. Here attachment is primarily associated with human relationships, principally that between child and caregiver, though attachment theory has, with the understanding that all relationships are attempts at answering unmet needs, has branched to include analysis of all human relationships as they pertain to the evolution of the individual.

At a deeper level, the notion of attunement is used to indicate that “the inner reflection* of mindfulness practice involves a form of internal attunement* in which an observing self attunes to an experiencing self in an open and kind way. Likewise, secure parent-child attachment is characterized by interpersonal attunement*, a form of communication that involves a parent attuning to a child in an open and kind way” (Siegel, Daniel J. (2012-04-02). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) (p. 43). Norton. Kindle Edition.). Attunement is the open and receptive means by which someone focuses on the flow of energy and information involved in relationships (Siegel). Proper and healthy attunement allows the object of attachment, the child or loved one, to be held in an open field of understanding the multiple variables of their existence and being receptive to their needs.

Not all relationships are associated with attachment, only those that are connected with caregiving and meeting the initial biological and later psychological needs of the other. The tendency of a person’s attachment relationships will form mental structures that automatically react to future relational connections, with behavior being the means the person has learned to address the anxieties bound in those structures. Attachment in this sense is inevitable and necessary. Dependency here is a central aspect of human life, the defining feature in how we form our personalities and relate to the so-called external world of form.

Combine the Buddhist and psychological definitions of attachment and there arises an amazing synchronicity. Imagine a wheel with a central hub and spokes reaching out. The hub is associated with attachment in the psychological sense, the basic and underlying principle by which all personality and behavior stem out of. Within this is biology, genetics, social influences, etc. all in an interconnected web of natural causation. The spokes are our attempts at connecting with objects, both people and things and events. The outer wheel is the totality of existence, of which the spokes are only connecting to particular instantiations. Buddhism would note here that the better perspective is to dwell on the wheel itself and see the whole as opposed to becoming “attached” to the singularity of which our connection is only momentarily pointing to. Broadening the focus will incorporate more of existence into our awareness and work on what Siegel notes is the goal of attachment theory and healthy living: integration.

I want to end on a personal reflection. In relating to ourselves and others we should keep in mind both uses of the term attachment here, in recognizing the role relationships play in the creation of our narratives and how we relate to others, and also recognizing the Buddhist understanding of the transitory nature of all things. When we become attached in the Buddhist sense, whether it be to a particular object as in possessions or in a particular facet of a person as in a supposed deficit or error, we lose sight of the reality that all singularities, whether people or objects, are part of a vast interconnected web reaching all the way down to quarks and muons and all the way up to galaxies and universes. As I pointed out in the last entry, we are all in this thing called existence together. As we broaden our minds to become aware of more and more, we begin to understand how enormous the “together” really is.
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