Confessions of an Ivy League Dropout


Contemplative Studies and the Sanitization of Mindfulness? (some thoughts about Evan Thompson, Mind & Life, and the sensationalist doctrine)

We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures; whereas, under some disguise or other, orthodox philosophy can only introduce us to solitary substances, each enjoying an illusory experience [….] The principle of universal relativity directly traverses Aristotle’s dictum, ‘A substance is not present in a subject.’ On the contrary, according to this principle an actual entity is present in other actual entities. In fact, if we allow for degrees of relevance, and for negligible relevance, we must say that every actual entity is present in every other actual entity. The philosophy of organism is mainly devoted to the task of making clear the notion of ‘being present in another entity’.

Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, 50

Apologies for the contentious title of this post, but since I woke this morning, I’ve been feeling strange philosophical stirrings.  So, here we go. I’m going to try to explain my current pet theory of touch or haptics, in order to ask whether contemplative neuroscience and the science of mindfulness currently emerging under the umbrella of amazing para-academic organizations like the Mind & Life Institute, is in fact working with only half of the model of mind and mindfulness presented in buddhist philosophy. That’s my sense, and perhaps it’s the best we can do with our scientific optics, but the question is whether we are sanitizing ‘mindfulness’ and buddhist philosophy (choosing to see mere designation but not emptiness) in complicity with the very epistemic regimes we say we wish to change. (I have to add that I’ve come across a thinker across east-west divides, and a great explicator of Dzogchen, who registers recognizes the “happy, profound commensurability of our two knowledge paradigms—causal objective Science and acausal subjective Spirituality—” and seems to be working on an interesting book, The Noetic Revolution: Toward an Integral Science of Matter, Mind and Spirit. I’m excited to read this stuff).

As highlighted by lively discussion, at the recent Mind and Life Summer Research Institute, of the decontextualization of traditional contemplative practices, we risk sanitizing the mind when we take it as the object even of embodied first person neurophenomenological study. I propose that contemplative neuroscience may benefit from a Dzogchen approach to the nature of mind. This view distinguishes between normal, ordinary mind (sem) and natural, ordinary mind (rigpa).  Dzogchen (non meditation) differs from the modes of ‘mind training’ that have become familiar to neuroscience, in its relevance to issues of gene expression, epigenetics, and neuroplasticity, through the work of Richard Davidson and others. Dzogchen emphasizes relaxed, spacious familiarity with the mind in its natural (uncontrived, unfabricated) state.

Put differently, I propose that while the effects of mindfulness may be measurable on the brain, and in its cumulative after-effects on cognition and behavior, we are perhaps led down a limited path when we come to think that, because specific techniques and practices effect these changes, meditation is in some way a material operation of thought upon the thinking brain.

One of the problems here may be to distinguish thought from attention in the context of mindfulness.  If we adopt the broader notion of attention, and presume that attention is not one thing but a complex of material interactions, implying the primacy of feeling over thinking, then one could possibly argue that meditation is what ecophilosopher Adrian Ivakhiv calls an “ethico-aesthetic practice,” involving the sort of extended and deep sociality or cosmopolitics implicit in Bergson’s notion of “open” society and Peirce’s optimism about slow change. Ivakhiv writes:

With his insistence that habits are to be cultivated, Peirce belongs to the class of believers in the practice of cosmopolism (or what William Connolly calls immanent naturalism) — the cultivation of a better, more reasonable, more ethically satisfying, and more beautiful universe by the universe itself, including us. Just as ontological constructivism (of the sort that Whitehead, Stengers, Latour, and others speak about) is broader and more capacious than social constructionism, so this is more capacious than socialism.

A broader understanding of attention may help, but for the moment the model of ‘well-being as a skill’ seems to roll over and offer its throat to utopian bioinformatics, or to an educational system in which skill-sets and socioeconomic advantages link up like sodium and chloride.

The mind/body question gets us into biopolitics (one of the key issues of which, I would argue, is precisely that the very existence of the state is predicated on epistemic violence or its ability to mark a sanitizing line between what counts as human, or as one of its legal or rational citizens, and what gets exiled from this cohesion that passes as relationship, tacitly positioned as inanimate, insentient, or irrational) but it is also, arguably, the central concern of all philosophical systems. (To what extent philosophical systems, such as empiricism, are epistemic regimes or biopolitical discourses, is another matter). Philosophy seems one long elaborate dance around that single puzzle. I come at this question as a romanticist, forced to ask why contemporary criticism seems to be so shallow in its response to poets like Blake, Keats, and even Wordsworth.  My answer (through Whitehead) is that our current dominant epistemic regime is basically now either dualist or monist, and so even a brilliant buddhist-scholar-slash-philosopher-of-mind like Evan Thompson subscribes to a sort of discrete model of mind.

David Paul Boaz has this to say:

It’s true that the more sagacious members of our Postmodern high culture thinking classes no longer believe the Modernist/Enlightenment dogma—the cult of objectivity—that the grand cognitive estate of human subjective exoteric religious and esoteric spiritual experience is conceptually reducible to the Cartesian cogito(self, ego), or to Kantian pure reason. Yet astonishingly, recent physics, philosophy and social theory and practice (apparently embodied by non-sagacious thinkers) is still conspicuously reductionist; that is, our scientific and spiritual discourse, and subjective even spiritual experience are reduced to mere mono-causal “empirical” sense experience, and to physical electro-chemical reactions in brain matter.

Such “scientific” reductionism is Quine’s second dogma in his seminal “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1951), required reading for scientists, philosophers and religious studies folks. Both the epistemological/methodological, and the ontological reductionism of the prevailing objectivist Modernist “scientific” realism/materialism metaphysic represents a refusal to engage such reflexive thinking. Oracular metaphysical pronouncements—scientific or religious—deserve a most stringent, non-dogmatic skeptical response; don’t you think?

Although the buddhist understanding of the mind as momentary may seem to support a neuroelectric, materialist, informational view (what Whitehead calls the “sensationalist doctrine” with its attendant fallacies of isolated location and misplaced concreteness), I think this amounts to a disappointingly reductive misinterpretation, and reification, of emptiness. I read Thompson’s latest post to Psychology Today this morning, “Is Consciousness a Stream? An Update: A new experiment shows perception is discrete, not continuous,” and I guess it provoked me a little.

So, we will have to go into this question of the mindstream a little.  Wikipedia reports, “The notion of mindstream was further developed in Vajrayāna (tantric Buddhism), where “mindstream” (sems-rgyud) may be understood as a stream of succeeding moments, within a lifetime, but also in-between lifetimes.”

Let’s look at what senior Tibetan scholar and buddhist meditation teachers have to say:

Alexander Berzin (who, by the way, I’ve heard accused by young Tibetan philosophers of being another western academic who sometimes mistranslates Tibetan philosophy) writes:

The “I” exists, but merely as an imputation based on a continuity of everchanging moments of experiencing everchanging things.

Here, already, “everchanging moments of experiencing ever-changing things” do not seem fungible with “discrete perception.” Berzin notes that states of deep meditative absorption in emptiness escape all descriptive categories:

Similarly, the deep awareness of total absorption on voidness (mnyam-bzhag ye-shes) and the deep awareness of the subsequent attainment (rjes-thob ye-shes, post-meditation wisdom) are neither primary nor subsidiary awarenesses, although they accompany both of them. This is because they are not simply ways of being aware of their objects; they also refute the true existence of them.

Now, this notion of absorption is not so distant in its implications from Whitehead’s critique of reification and his notion (drawn from Bergson) of “transition.” For Whitehead, there is no particular or discrete spacio-temporal location. In fact, because we now know we are dealing with space-time (not space and time), we also know that if we admit that what looks like a particular or isolated location is actually a flow of interrelations, then what looks like a discrete temporal moment is actually infused with the infinite. Whitehead’s writings are more or less a sustained critique of reification and seriality, a challenge to outmoded models of space, time, and perception. For instance, he writes,

There is a prevalent misconception that “becoming” involves the notion of a unique seriality for its advance into novelty.  This is the classic notion of ‘time,’ which philosophy took over from common sense […] Recently physical science has abandoned this notion. Accordingly we should now pure cosmology of a point of view which it ought never to have adopted as an ultimate metaphysical priniciple […] ‘creative advance’ is not to be construed in the sense of a uniquely serial advance […] There is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming […] extensiveness becomes, but ‘becoming’ itself is not extensive.  Thus the ultimate metaphysical truth is atomism. The creatures are atomic […] But atomism does not exclude complexity and universal relativity. Each atom is a system of all things. (Process and Reality 36)

As he explains, a bit more colloquially, in Modes of Thought,

The notion of self-sufficient isolation is not exemplified in modern physics. There are no essentially self-contained activities within limited regions. These passive geometrical relationships between substrata passively occupying regions have passed out of the picture. Nature is a theatre for the interrelations of activities. All things change, the activities and their interrelations. To this new concept, the notion of space with its passive, systematic, geometric relationship is entirely inappropriate. The fashionable notion that the new physics has reduced all physical laws to the statement of geometrical relations is quite ridiculous. It has done the opposite. In the place of the Aristotelian notion of the procession of forms, it has substituted the notion of the forms of process. It has thus swept away space and matter, and has substituted the study of the internal relations within a complex state of activity. This complex state is in one sense a unity. There is the whole universe of physical action extending to the remotest star-cluster.

Even more provocatively, he writes:

…all things are subjects, each prehending the universe from which it arises. The creative action is the universe always becoming one in a particular unity of self-experience, and thereby adding to the multiplicity which is the universe as many. (Process and Reality)

Whitehead bemoaned the fact, let us remember, that we continue to defend the conclusions of the Newtonian model we have already rejected:

[…] the development of natural science has gradually discarded every single feature of the original commonsense notion. Nothing whatever remains of it, considered as expressing the primary features in terms of which the Universe is to be interpreted. The obvious commonsense notion has been entirely destroyed, so far as concerns its function as the basis for all interpretation. One by one, every item has been dethroned [….] [such as the notion that]  matter involves nothing more than spatiality, and the passive support of qualifications. It can be qualified, and it must be qualified. But qualification is a bare fact, which is just itself. This is the grand doctrine of Nature as a self-sufficient, meaningless complex of facts. It is the doctrine of the autonomy of physical science. It is the doctrine which in these lectures I am denying.

The state of modern thought is that every single item in this general doctrine is denied, but that the general conclusions from the doctrine as a whole are tenaciously retained. The result is a complete muddle in scientific thought, in philosophic cosmology, and in epistemology. But any doctrine which does not implicitly presuppose this point of view is assailed as unintelligible. (Modes of Thought, Lecture 7)

Sogyal Rinpoche’s explanation of moment to moment experience as a flow of transitions or bardos seems quite close to Whitehead’s emphasis on the notion of transition or of “perpetual perishing”:

In the ordinary mind, we perceive the stream of thoughts as continuous, but in reality this is not the case. You will discover for yourself that there is a gap between each thought. When the past thought is past, and the future thought has not yet arisen, you will always find a gap in which the Rigpa, the nature of mind, is revealed. So the work of meditation is to allow thoughts to slow down, to make that gap become more and more apparent.

Because life is nothing but a perpetual fluctuation of birth, death, and transition, so bardo experiences are happening to us all the time, and are a basic part of our psychological makeup. Normally, however, we are oblivious to the bardos and their gaps, as our mind passes from one so-called solid situation to the next, habitually ignoring the transitions that are always occurring.

In fact, as the teachings can help us to understand, every moment of our experience is a bardo, as each thought and each emotion arises out of, and dies back into, the essence of mind. It is in moments of strong change and transition especially, the teachings make us aware, that the true skylike, primordial nature of mind will have a chance to manifest.

(Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying)

Thompson’s post about the discrete rather than stream-like nature of perception makes it seem that if meditators can become more sensitive to the moment to moment nature of experience, they begin to experience the discrete quality of consciousness.  But Sogyal Rinpoche seems to have something closer to the Whiteheadian “event” in mind when he speaks of the “gap” or transition as an opportunity to recognize the luminous nature of mind.

So, I question whether one necessarily has to think about the momentary nature of consciousness as ‘discrete’.  What if there are actually two truths or two levels of experience, as both process philosophy (Whitehead) and buddhist philosophy suggest? Buddhist philosophy suggests that relative experience (of the discursive or conventional mind) involves experience in terms of discrete phenomena. But a subtler level of experience (‘natural mind’ to the Dzogchen tradition) involves experience of the emptiness (or relationality) of so-called phenomena.

Whitehead distinguishes between “presentational immediacy” (punctual perception) and “causal efficacy” (transitional perception).  To clarify these terms, let’s visit a brilliant passage (presenting Shaviro’s response to Harman’s critique of process philosophy) from Matthew David Segall’s blog, footnotes2plato:

“Presentational immediacy” displays reality in a way amenable to representational analysis, showing only the more or less clear and distinct surfaces of the world as they are presented to a reflective subject here and now. It is the end product of a complex process of unconscious prehensive unification in our organism and nervous system. “Causal efficacy” unfolds behind the scenes of this Cartesian theater in the unrepresentable depths of reality, carrying vague emotional vectors from the past into the present. Perception in the mode of presentational immediacy is punctual (hence its relative clarity and distinctness); perception in the mode of causal efficacy is transitional (hence its vagueness). Presentational immediacy allows for intentional consciousness, the subjective capacity for attentional directedness toward the eidos of objects; causal efficacy, in contrast, is prehensional, the presubjective capacity to inherit the affective influences of objects. The former mode requires that a mind remain at a distance from things, relating to their essence rather than sensing their causal presence, while the latter implies the internalization of things, the intimate assimilation of their past being into our present becoming.

My own understanding is based on touch or the haptic.  I believe that to meditate is to directly experience the active interrelational universe.

This gets me into a bit of a debate with science.  After all, science tells us that experience is subjective and cannot be verified.  Worse, subjective experience is notoriously inaccurate.  The brain can easily be tricked into misperception.  We misjudge, misread,  misinterpret, misremember, misunderstand, misplace, and so on and so on. Those of us with brains know this happens all the time, and is probably more the rule than the exception.  What we mistake for reality is dependent on so many factors, and those factors are dependent on other factors.

The problem with this line of thought, however, is that it cuts us off subjectively from any encounter with reality. That gesture of cutting off is itself a metaphysical premise.  Maybe we need to approach reality differently.  If I describe ‘reality’ in terms of the experience of an active interrelational universe, in effect I produce an image of reality (what Deleuze called an “image of thought”) and that image forecloses or curbs attention or cognition. I produce a fiction, which becomes a matter of belief.

But if I totally avoid communicating subjective experience of felt interrelations, then I produce another picture of the universe: one that is sanitized of relations. I presume that perceptions, under normative or objective circumstances, correspond to objective sense data, and that these sense data are rational rather than relational. (Blake’s “There Is No Natural Religion” does a better job than I am doing of satirizing the epistemic regime of orthodox sensationalism).

no natural religion

This, too, is a matter of belief.  Both beliefs (that the universe is relational and that it is nonrelational) are possibly hazardous as they do not accord with reality. The issue here is that the scientific belief presents itself as objective, rather than as a belief.

That’s one point. Another point arises with the question, what if reality is not a subjective experience?  I use words to say that the universe is active and interrelational (or to indicate the fact that meditation seems to bring a shift in one’s basic experience of reality, such that the universe seems alive and radically interconnected rather than abstract and reified). However, the words or images are not the reality. In that case, cognition of the reality could not happen through words or images. To the extent that cognition or attention happens through words or images, reality is not experienced.  Cognition itself has to be relational in order to encounter the relational. Put differently, the relational is not a construct of words and images (though the word relational is). The experience of the interrelational is not a subjective experience. (Indo-Tibetan philosophy has an insanely rigorous notion of “valid cognition” that western intellectuals, from philosophers to psychologists to literary critics, may need to study). Belief (produced by words and images) prevents or curbs the experience of reality or interrelation. In that case, seeing for ourselves is a matter of great importance. However, science does not permit us to see for ourselves. It introduces radical doubt about the reliability of direct experience.  To that extent, it reifies experience, reducing it to the subjective, when it may be too intensely relational for subjectivity.  In that sense, it cuts us off in advance from reality, yet poses this metaphysical circumscription as a kind of respect for fact or reality.

Maybe the notion of the haptic (or a form of touch unlimited by images or ideas, and hence unlimited in relation, sensitivity, or intelligence) is a bit like Leibniz’s theory of monads.  (I do need to spend some time with Leibniz).  Keats once referred to sparks, radiances, or intelligences that become ‘souls’ through the medium of experience. Maybe I’m more interested in something closer to Krishnamurti’s “supreme intelligence” – an obviously fraught term or phrase, but I believe he understood it less as an absolute mind than in the Vedanta context of the simultaneity of creation and destruction, or of creativity so spontaneous that it can never be said to exist. (The interesting thing about Krishnamurti’s take on meditation is that he saw it as having deconditioning effects on the brain, which I do not think he would have described strictly in terms of neuroplasticity.  He did tend to use the world ‘timelessness’ apparently to indicate an active, spontaneous, relational creativity that might ‘act’ upon the man-made structures of ‘time’ or of the conditioned brain).  This would put his notion of timelessness or the unconditioned in line with the virtual (in the Deleuzian and Bergsonian sense). Personally, I imagine creative intelligence of this sort as non-monist, because it never exists as a substance.

To clarify, it never exists because it lives and dies in the same instance.  Hence, it is never self-identical.  That may seem a paradox: how can there be intelligence that is not identical with itself? This would seem like some sort of ceaseless, serial difference: not unlike the reductionist view of atoms in random motion. How can something be non-self-identical and yet self-organizing?

In a sense, I am talking about energy in its “eternal delight.” The basic notion here is that self-identity is not delight.  Joy is ever that which abrogates the self, with its optics of finitude.  To be a self is to be limited, and in limitation there can be no meaning.  Put differently, the reality is relationship and we have an implicit drive toward reality. In neuroscientific terms, perhaps one could say that the brain seeks a certain kind of activity that is interrelational, or even that the highest form of brain activity is the activity of emptiness happening in the brain. If the mind and matter distinction is ultimately rooted in dualism, then maybe it’s not crazy to speculate that the brain is emptiness (like everything else). I suppose then we would be speaking of a brain that does not exist, and that therefore we will never find.

The buddhist notion of a mind stream or continuum of consciousness would seem to indicate that there is a subtle consciousness, located at the energetic heart center and not in the head, that – though normally latent or dormant – can, if supported by tremendous bliss or energy, actively cognize emptiness. Apparently, only this subtle mind can really experience emptiness, perhaps because it’s activity is so much more intense than the gross mind.  I like to think that the subtle mind has the nature of emptiness and only becomes active in and as emptiness… so, all forms of gross cognition or discursive clinging have to dissolve, which means we stop wasting the energy that would otherwise spontaneously arise as bliss, and then the subtle mind would be spontaneously active or self-liberating.  In other words, when all forms of division naturally cease, interrelationship manifests spontaneously as the nature of mind and reality.  I think this makes the notion of realizing emptiness seem quite accessible to all of us.

Perhaps one can speak of the meaning of finitude, pointing to the fact that every being we have ever loved, including ourselves, exists in dependence on a body, or, some would say, is a body. One might argue that this sort of meaning has meaning only because of its contingency and impermanence.  We are all, in this world, subject to conditions. In buddhist terms, we all suffer from pervasive and subtle change.  Surely one could argue that the beauty of the flower is that it will not last and will never be quite the same again. That is, one could argue that impermanence is not suffering.

I can’t help making a detour here to the Four Seals, as defined by HE Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche in his article,“Buddhism in a Nutshell: The Four Seals of Dharma”:

All compounded things are impermanent.

All emotions are painful.

All phenomena are empty.

Nirvana is beyond extremes.

I used to assume this meant that all composite phenomena are suffering, until Venerable Ngawang Sonam, a young Cambridge scholar and religious translator for HH the Dalai Lama, explained to me that clinging not impermanence is suffering. This seems to be why Dzongsar Khyentse interprets the second seal (normally translated, “All contaminated phenomena are unsatisfactory”) as “All emotions are painful.”  As he explains:

Some people think that Buddhists are pessimistic, always talking about death, impermanence and aging. But that is not necessarily true. Impermanence is a relief! […] Delusion arises when we don’t acknowledge that all compounded things are impermanent. But when we realize this truth, deep down and not just intellectually, that’s what we call liberation: release from this one-pointed, narrow-minded belief in permanence.

So, where does suffering come in? He explains that it stems from emotion, which is rooted in dualistic grasping, or grasping at things as truly or permanently existing:

The Tibetan word for emotion in this context is zagche, which means “contaminated” or “stained,” in the sense of being permeated by confusion or duality […] Everything we create through our emotions is, in the end, completely futile and painful. This is why Buddhists do shamatha and vipashyana meditation—this helps to loosen the grip that our emotions have on us, and the obsessions we have because of them.

So it would seem that if energy is eternal delight, then it is free of grasping at permanent or independent subjects or objects.  Buddhist philosophy does not use the term energy to describe emptiness, as far as I know. (Maybe there are good reasons for this. For instance, maybe energy technically pertains to the ‘wind horse’ or subtle material basis of phenomena, upon which, for buddhists, the mind is said to ‘ride’).

I have to admit that I find even Dzongsar Khyentse’s crystal-clear article elusive on this point.  He summarily dismisses energy, leaving us with only emptiness, but tells us he can only point us to an image of emptiness and not the real thing:

Philosophies or religions might say, “Things are illusion, the world is maya, illusion,” but there are always one or two items left behind that are regarded as truly existent: God, cosmic energy, whatever. In Buddhism, this is not the case. Everything in samsara and nirvana—from the Buddha’s head to a piece of bread—everything is emptiness. There is nothing that is not included in ultimate truth. […] Ultimately speaking, the path is irrational, but relatively speaking, it’s very rational because it uses the relative conventions of our world. When I’m talking about emptiness, everything that I’m saying has to do with this “image” emptiness. I can’t show you real emptiness but I can tell you why things don’t exist inherently. […] In many philosophies or religions, the final goal is something that you can hold on to and keep. The final goal is the only thing that truly exists. But nirvana is not fabricated, so it is not something to be held on to. It is referred to as “beyond extremes.”

He’s quite clear that emptiness has nothing to do with nihilism:

There is another kind of a problem that arises from not understanding emptiness. It occurs with rather superficial and even jaded Buddhists. Somehow, within Buddhist circles, if you don’t accept emptiness, you are not cool. So we pretend that we appreciate emptiness and pretend to meditate on it. But if we don’t understand it properly, a bad side effect can occur. We might say, “Oh, everything’s emptiness. I can do whatever I like.” So we ignore and violate the details of karma, the responsibility for our action. We become “inelegant,” and we discourage others in the bargain. His Holiness the Dalai Lama often speaks of this downfall of not understanding emptiness. A correct understanding of emptiness leads us to see how things are related, and how we are responsible for our world.

Again, I can’t help but come back to the notion of infinite interrelationship and its spontaneous self-liberating activity, otherwise impeded by the great waste of energy that goes into the gross mind. Not that we don’t need the gross mind or that we can escape the gross level of experience. I don’t know about those things. A monk did tell me that the goal of buddhism is to separate the subtle and gross minds, so that the former can continue its journey without the latter. I don’t know. For the moment, I’m interested in the notion of emptiness as infinite interrelationship (which implies infinite intelligence and infinite compassion).

Maybe this might seem too panpsychic for buddhists, a mere straw of residual clinging to clutch at. Maybe the notion of emptiness is simply a thousand times more effective.  Dzongsar Khyentse (who has always struck me as the smartest cookie out there) implies that:

If there were some true permanence in compounded phenomena; if there were true pleasure in the emotions, the Buddha would have been the first to recommend them, saying, “Please keep and treasure these.” But thanks to his great compassion, he didn’t, for he wanted us to have what is true, what is real.

To conclude, bare fact is sanitized of relation, and in that sense tends to tacitly reinforce the optics of the spectator in a world of sense-data.  At worst, Whitehead argues, this optics is dualistic, and at best monist. The problem with monism is that it remains a form of materialism.

Perhaps this should not seem a problem, as embodied philosophy and materialist theory is the leading intellectual edge. A problem does arise, nonetheless. Besides the fact that contemplative modalities are more often nondualist than monist, a major problem with monism is that it forestalls or precludes further investigation.  To arrive at substance is to stop at substance. In a sense it is like what Blake calls the “false body” or “Incrustation” that prevents us from radically trusting sense-experience, or compels us to conceive of brute sensationalist matter in the self-threatening terms of the buzz of haecceity or return to random atoms in the dissolution of death.  This is quite a different image from the swarming of honey bees imbibing the nectar of lotuses in the poetics of Dzogchen. That is, the sensationalist doctrine stands in the way of a western intellectual appreciation of the eastern idea of emptiness.

This matters greatly to scientific research into mind and mindfulness, because in Indo-Tibetan philosophy direct insight into emptiness is held to be the ultimate medicine or antidote to grasping, or to attachment to intellectual views that, in some ways, stave off direct experiential understanding of interrelationship as the nature of mind.  If emptiness is reality, and is the nature of mind, or at least if emptiness is the heart of buddhist philosophy, then scientific attempts to understanding the causal mechanisms of mindfulness may in fact help hasten an acculturation of buddhist philosophy.  Given that such a secularization and sanitization of buddhism seems inevitable, as the cultural contexts that fostered Dzogchen practice quickly vanish, it seems a matter of some urgency for contemplative science to seek a more courageous encounter with the tradition of rigpa or ‘natural’ mind. Neurophenomenology seems too caught up with notions like metacognition at the expense of less operational notions like meditative absorption.

Encountering the philosophy of emptiness as a philosophy of mind may lead us to ask questions such as whether an AI can ever experience emptiness, the nature of mind? Is connectivity the same as interrelationality? Can an AI ‘participate’ in primordial mind? Interestingly, it seems HH the Dalai Lama already commented on this matter over thirty years ago, in a conversation with Francisco Varela, the founder of Mind & Life, in the book Gentle Bridges:

DALAI LAMA:  In terms of the actual substance of which computers are made, are they simply metal, plastic, circuits, and so forth?

VARELA:  Yes, but this again brings up the idea of the pattern, not the substance but the pattern.

DALAI LAMA:  It is very difficult to say that it’s not a living being, that it doesn’t have cognition, even from the Buddhist point of view. We maintain that there are certain types of births in which a preceding continuum of consciousness is the basis.  The consciousness doesn’t actually arise from the matter, but a continuum of consciousness might conceivably come into it.

HAYWARD:  Does Your Holiness regard it as a definite criterion that there must be continuity with some prior consciousness?  That whenever there is a cognition, there must have been a stream of cognition going back to beginningless time?

DALAI LAMA:  There is no possibility for a new cognition, which has no relationship to a previous continuum, to arise at all.  I can’t totally rule out the possibility that, if all the external conditions and the karmic action were there, a stream of consciousness might actually enter into a computer.

HAYWARD:  A stream of consciousness?

DALAI LAMA:  Yes, that’s right.  [DALAI LAMA laughs.]  There is a possibility that a scientist who is very much involved his whole life [with computers], then the next life . . . [he would be reborn in a computer], same process! [laughter] Then this machine which is half-human and half-machine has been reincarnated.

VARELA:  You wouldn’t rule it out then?  You wouldn’t say this is impossible?

DALAI LAMA:  We can’t rule it out.

ROSCH:  So if there’s a great yogi who is dying and he is standing in front of the best computer there is, could he project his subtle consciousness into the computer?

DALAI LAMA:  If the physical basis of the computer acquires the potential or the ability to serve as a basis for a continuum of consciousness.  I feel this question about computers will be resolved only by time.  We just have to wait and see until it actually happens.

GENTLE BRIDGES: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of Mind, Ed. Jeremy Hayward and Francisco Varela,Shambala, 1992, 152-153.

If His Holiness openly endorses, as indeed he always has, the buddhist understanding that the beginningless continuum of consciousness conditioned by previous instances of consciousness or mental imprints and not by instances of matter, I think it’s implied that consciousness at its most basic (as Sogyal Rinpoche and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche describe it) is spontaneous self-liberating clarity and luminosity. If it were serial, then to achieve realization or liberation, one would have to add countless new qualities to it, but Dzogchen speaks of simply clearing away the obstructions to insight into its (arguably interrelational) nature:

We somehow think that we can go somewhere where we’ll have a better sofa seat, a better shower system, a better sewer system, a nirvana where you don’t even have to have a remote control, where everything is there the moment you think of it. But as I said earlier, it’s not that we are adding something new that was not there before. Nirvana is achieved when you remove everything that was artificial and obscuring.


Do we Americans really understand Buddhism?

The goal of Buddhism is buddhahood.

What motivates one to achieve that goal is compassion.  If that compassion is mainly for oneself, it is called renunciation, and its result is liberation.  If that compassion is for all other sentient beings, it is called bodhicitta (awakened mind) and its result is enlightenment.  Either way, the cause of compassion is suffering.  One sees the fact of suffering, and one wishes to cure that suffering.  On a personal level, the cure is renunciation, in the special sense of reducing one’s tendency to grasp at independent existence or self-existence.  On a broader level, the cure is to actually achieve the state of a buddha, because the activities of a buddha are infinite.

I have been a buddhist for over a decade, in the formal sense, and probably somewhat longer than that in the informal sense.  But, really, when I think about buddhism this way, it surprises me.  Liberation, ok, I’m an American.  I love the idea of liberty.  I would love to be free, or relatively free, of the plague of mental suffering.  Maybe I don’t like the word “renunciation” much.  It sounds arid.  It implies a kind of realism: not the realism that says if I want to make money I should learn to play the stock market, because money is the basis of everything in our current society, and if I’m really realistic I’ll do pretty well playing the stock market, too, so by being realistically-minded, I’m going to make myself independent and secure and maybe successful.  No, plenty of us have that kind of realism.  It implies another kind of realism: the one that says, if I play the stock-market, I’ll be part of its ups-and-downs.  It certainly won’t take me out of the cycle of samsara.  The first kind of realism, when one links it to renunciation, declares: I’d like to be innocent and free, but because that’s not realistic in a moneyed world, I’ll give up my innocence, I’ll become a bit more self-interested, in order to be independent.  The second kind of realism, when one links it to renunciation, declares: my apparently natural belief in independent existence leads me to experience the various afflictive emotions that underpin suffering, and so, I’ll pay attention to the ways in which this deluded belief in independent existence arises.

This kind of liberation or liberty, which stems from renunciation of ignorance through a kind of alertness or insightful attention, is obviously not that American after all.  It’s a slap in the face to our belief that if one is realistic one will make money and if one makes money most of one’s problems are solved: at least, relative to people without money, one can call oneself more successful or happier.  With money we have more liberty.  We’re liberated.  The free market system made us free.  We believe that, and then along comes a buddhist and says, this is a superficial liberty that does not at all address the real level of limitation or suffering.  We’re still going to die.  We’re still lonely.  We’re still self-isolated and anxious.  We still need root canals.  We’re still subject to the eight sufferings, including subtle and pervasive conditioned suffering.  Getting wealthy may even exhaust some of the good karma we’ve been accumulating for countless lives.  Or it might lead us to actually accumulate some bad karma.  Whether one believes in karma or not, this buddhist comes along and tells us, the fact is that we’re still subject to various emotions that can make us selfish and unlovable rather than truly compassionate and lovable. To cure ourselves of those afflictive emotions, one has to pay attention to one’s own mind and pierce through the dumb but pervasive premise, the deluded belief, in self-existence.

So, it’s a big step, I think, for an American to do that.  When one makes that step, one finds that ‘renunciation’ is not arid at all.  One finds, with a little attention to the matter, that thoughts liberate themselves, that all phenomena are self-liberating.  After all, that’s the very meaning of impermanent, interdependent existence.  One provides less fertile soil for afflictive emotions to sprout.  The traditional metaphor is that one keeps an empty house, so that when a thief comes in, there is nothing for the thief to steal, and nothing for the owner to lose.  But it’s not really a boring, empty house.  It’s more like a house that dematerializes and materializes from moment to moment.  Why would you want to fill your house with the best (not the cheapest) stuff from IKEA, if your house was as cool as that?  The mind of renunciation, with its active insight into the way things exist in reality, is cool and free and also sort of joyful.  It doesn’t have to go grasping at something to possess (a new couch or a pretty wife, or even an old couch and a plain wife) to feel like it has some kind of solid existence or relationship, because from moment to moment it experiences interrelationship.  Intellectually, one can speak of an attitude that considers things interconnected and interrelated, but the mind of renunciation actually experiences this subtle dependent arising.

That’s what we’re after, isn’t it?  I think when I became a buddhist, or turned my mind in the direction of meditation, questioning my identification with the thinker, that’s what I was after.  I wanted to experience reality the way it really is.  No one really needed to tell me that it would be much cooler than experiencing reality through social conditioning.  I didn’t mean to start meditating.  I just read books and really spent time trying to tell the difference between thought and awareness.  When I started meditating, more and less by accident, and saw the actual fact of self-liberating awareness, it was a terrific shock.  It really took me by surprise. Gradually, I had come closer to silence, and to the peace that seems active in silence, but I wasn’t actually prepared for the experience of voidness – not that things stopped existing, but the way they existed seemed to change.  Basically, I had learned to shift out of the discursive mind (what Dzogchen practitioners call limited awareness or sem) into non conceptual mind (what Dzogchen practitioners call pure awareness or rigpa).  I learned that when I became absorbed in meditation my experience of the phenomenal world also changed, appearing less concretely material and less permanent.  This made the world a more interesting place. It makes a big, if subtle difference, to experience the moment to moment impermanence and interdependence of things.  One moves from a world of objects to a world of relations.

I wasn’t exactly a buddhist at the time I realized this.  But the fact that buddhism engages so deeply with this kind of meditative absorption certainly jump-started my interest. Anyway, it made it much more plausible to me that there might have been someone who came to be called the buddha, and it made me intrigued about what he actually realized.  How far was he able to go with it, and what was the point of it all?  And who were these Tibetan masters one heard about?  Had Tibet really produced thousands of incredibly realized meditators, and had they, because of the genocidal Chinese invasion – in violation not only of human rights, but of every sane measure of human feeling, with crimes so heinous (vivisection, crucifixion, torture) we would not want to discuss them with school children, so horrific a mere photo would leave us traumatized – begun to teach in the west? Were these monks and nuns really full of peace and compassion?

Of the four noble truths, I became particularly interested in cessation. Was it possible for conventional experience to alter to such an extent that one was always meditating?  Could the conventional mind, which perceives a world of objects, cease?  And was that all that was meant by cessation, or did it also have something to do with no longer taking human birth, or at least no longer taking confused human birth?

I also found meaning in the four seals of dharma (as translated by HE Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche):

 All compounded things are impermanent.

All emotions (contaminated phenomena) are painful.

All phenomena are empty.

Nirvana is beyond extremes.

Eventually, through some happy coincidences, I became a buddhist, but the point I’m trying to make is that even then I don’t think it really occurred to me that buddhists are serious about the goal of buddhahood.  It’s supposed to take countless aeons, right?  Planets can dissolve and reform several times over in that sort of span, so what’s the big surprise if an ordinary sentient being transforms into a buddha?  But what I’ve come to realize is that – the question of how long it takes aside – teachers like the Dalai Lama are totally serious when they tell us about mental transformation, and when they tell us that the goal of practice is to transform the mind so completely that we develop infinite compassion with infinite activity.

So I think this is an important question for us American buddhists.  Are we interested in personal liberation: a reduction in mental suffering and a concomitant experience of basic joy or interrelationship?  Or, can we actually get our heads around the idea that you or I can transform the mind and become buddhas?  I think for Tibetan buddhists this is not a small question, because, as a monk recently told me, enlightenment is different from liberation. With enlightenment, the motivation is infinite (compassion for others), the object is infinite (all sentient beings), and the result is infinite (infinite activity).

Are we ready for infinite?

Sacred not Spirit

I’ve had a problem, for some time, with words like spiritual and spirituality.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe it’s because it seems to preserve some sort of hierarchal rather than planar residue.  A spirit is, in a sense, a person.  Spirituality, I sometimes feel, is a personal or private thing.  Ultimately, it seems to ring of a ‘higher’ self.  Are we spirits?  Maybe.  I don’t know.  The problem I have with it is that I think what one encounters in meditation is better described as ‘sacred’.  That word, too, is fraught.  All the words are fraught.  But calling it “sacred” sort of leaves it untouched and unknown.  It doesn’t necessarily make that move to identify it as “spirit.”  Also, the interest in encountering the sacred sort of implies a relaxation of self.  There’s that understanding that “I” have little place there – in fact, that I’m the hindrance.  Maybe the word ‘spirit’ has become jaded, too.  It doesn’t necessarily jar us awake to the possibility that the sacred is in fact the mundane.  Obviously, it’s pretty meaningless to mindlessly remind ourselves that “this” here now is sacred.  It’s not a knowledge but an experience.  If we have that experience and call it spiritual experience, immediately we’ve lifted it out the world.  It’s a “realization” we had, like a story we tell at parties.  Again we’ve created a wall and set it over “there.”

Thirteen reasons why listening to live music is better than meditation

“… poets aren’t afraid to exchange visions. And music can blur the boundary between the real and the imaginary. It can get you to an exalted place. That’s what draws me to it.”   Iarla Ó Lionáird

Let me begin with an example.

I am at a performance by the Irish band The Gloaming at a glitzy university arts center, a cello-shaped confection of wood, metal, and glass.  The concert hall is packed, the lights dim, the five musicians seated on stools in a crescent arrangement, two with rather unassuming fiddles, another with an acoustic guitar, another (the vocalist) at some sort of wooden apparatus, and the last behind a grand piano.  My eye is drawn to the two fiddlers, one of them, the bespectacled Martin Hayes, with a high forehead and an impressive shock of curls; the other, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, a relatively young man who gave me the impression of being dressed in a woolen suit.  That is, I know it was a suit, but his “Irishness” lingers in my memory as woolen. I’m pretty sure he was clean-shaven, but memory bequeaths him a beard, too.

I want to make the vocalist, Iarla Ó Lionáird (whose work with Peter Gabriel has brought me much delight), the focus.  I want to force the pianist and the guitarist into the center, too.  Gradually, though, I listen to the two fiddles.  They enter into subtle and surprising conversations with one another, finishing each other’s thoughts, as it were, while the piano and guitar (on the outer ends) punctuate that conversation with rhythmic under-murmurs and unexpected ideas.  At times, Iarla Ó Leonard stands up and sings clear, melancholy gaelic melodies. He visits the music, enters it, takes it into new dimensions, but refrains from placing himself at the lyric center.

The audience is deeply silent.  As I sit and listen, I sense the way these five musicians are in time with one another, how their bodies are more than just performing what they have practiced.  All the practice, far from making them mechanical, seems to have set them free.  It must have taken decades for each musician to train his body to perform this way, growing the necessary neural connections and spontaneous reflexes, but what I sense most is how profoundly they are listening to one another.

This music is a forgetting of person in patternless pattern.  We call this patternless pattern “culture” or “tradition” – we turn the bristling manifold into an abstract shape or discrete object – but its intelligence exceeds our “instrumentalist” preconceptions. Its essence is listening.  As the sound as a whole streams together, perhaps we gain an inkling of David Bohm’s “implicate order,” the way the world is folded in intelligence.

What gives the audience such a deep experience is that the musicians themselves are involved, absorbed, in this stream: no body, no instrument, only attention.  That sounds romantic, but these guys are minimalists who resist the lyric pull.  At times, the two fiddles enter a dialogue so prolonged, articulate, and unexpected, with an occasional grounding note from the guitar, that one is startled into a sense of participatory listening.  At other times, the lead fiddle plunges, for what feels like ten minutes or more, into a wildly intricate and repetitive reel, which grows ever more intense.

On the surface, one may be captivated by how Martin Hayes moves the bow with such nuance and speed without making a mistake.  That minor mystery challenges one to listen more attentively.  Is he making mistakes?  Why repeat the same pattern?  What does this make us feel?  At some point, it becomes crystal clear that the musician isn’t simply repeating the same pattern over an over.  He’s listening with great intensity.  The sound from a micromolecular millisecond earlier is already burned away by the intensity of that listening.

There is no repetition, only attention, cognition, ever more single-pointedly absorbed in timeless heterogeneity.  The musician’s brain is passionately awake and alive to reality (not, in Henri Bergson’s terms, to “the actual” but to “the virtual,” or to what Deleuze – in Difference and Repetition – calls intensivity, “a life,” immanence) with a quality of attention inseparable from the silence in the room.  That primordial silence, that yogic sound of voidness, grows into a shared experience with every mind-body present.  This traditional Irish music group is playing the most contemporary trance music imaginable.  Fifteen hundred years ago, the musicians who first played these reels, in tavern or hall, were also listening to it: that suchness.

This is an aesthetic experience, but it’s clearly not limited to “art.”  It’s a cognitive attunement that works across bodies and brains.  If one wishes to be conservative, one can argue that this an attunement of the brain to its own capacity for intense attention.  From this point of view, the experience of heightened reality has to do with aesthetic energies within the brain, a marvelously orchestrated processing of information that somehow adds up to affective human experience.

Less conservatively, one can argue that this an attunement to an aesthetic quality of non-humanly-circumscribed experience itself.  Put differently, with heightened attention comes a different or more subtle experience of reality. Today, the intellectual scene remains divided on this point. For some, it is only valid to speak of the former: the experience of experience.  For others, it is also valid to speak of the latter: the experience of reality.

At any rate, the state of attention, as an aesthetic experience, appears to be shareable. Art, in the sense of technique and composition, does seem to facilitate this experience of attention.  Indeed, as I have been suggesting the listening, or the attention, is the crux of musical experience, both for the musician and the auditor.  However, what’s aesthetic here is not the art, per se.  Rather, it is an experience of sentient attention which involves many concurrent qualities:

(1) the quieting of mental chatter or of discursive processes

(2) the phenomenological experience of ‘silence’

(3) enhanced sensitivity to sensory experience

(4) neurophenomenological experience of lucid alertness

(5) a reduction of self-referential thinking

(6) a sense of bodily calm and interconnectedness

(7) an increased sense of physical and emotional well-being

(8) a sense of expansive possibility, release from limitation

(9) a relaxation of ontological anxiety into trust

(10) a sense of experiential meaning

(11) a relaxation of the line between matter, energy, and mind

(12) a sense of something active, unconstructed, unfabricated

(13) a sense of active non-personal non-identificatory intelligence

Almost needless to say, these are qualities of meditative experience.  In poetics, this quality is sometimes associated with poiesis, or with an un-weaving faculty of creative semiosis that tends to decodify or dereify rather than reinforce conceptions, bringing us closer to heterogeneous processual experience.  Poiesis, in this sense, stands in contrast to logos; poetry stands in contrast to prose (e.g., the various social and hard sciences).  One might describe poetry as zoo-centric rather than logocentric, in that it unbinds our discursive identifications, our anthropocentric foreclosures, bringing us closer to the threshold of active “nonhuman” life.

Art heightens our experience of the world not by lifting us ‘higher’ or adding a transcendent metaphysical quality but by subtracting the circumference.  The circle or membrane (that maintains our sense of “I”) winks out.

Krishnamurti and the “mutation” in the brain

Why we don’t always question this circular prison or panopticon of the “I” is a deep question. Apparently, we feel stronger and more secure in the image of ourselves as inviolable, or immune to the “difference” that makes our position merely provisional, contingent, and relative.  Apparently, we have a penchant for absolutes and totalities.  Apparently, we know that we if do not police our boundaries, we will become what we are not.  And that is death.

The “I” encounters “not I” if it scratches beneath the socially acceptable surface of normative experience.  Only a crazy person would want to test that surface – maybe someone who believes in compassion, selflessness, and the possibility of world that is not yoked to narrow, petty self-interest.  In dialogue with neuroscientists, the Dalai Lama, for instance, has noted that one of the purposes of mind training is to actually experiences the ‘death process’ (the dissolution of gross sensory consciousness into subtle consciousness).

We know we don’t need this “I” (with all of its split second protoplasmic reflexes, its tendencies to feel hurt and inferior, or inflated and superior) to function well in the world.  How nice life would be if we did not have to boil with anger or wallow in depression.  We know the “I,” with its projections and distortions, does not actually help us to be sharp and in control.  We even know, I think, that this rigid “I” is closing us off to ordinary happiness, let alone ordinary bliss. However, the “I” is not going to subside if we don’t pay attention, because in a sense that’s what the “I” is: inattention.

The twentieth century Indian philosopher, J. Krishnamurti, seemed to see the whole process of the self very clearly.  He said that thought is time, habit, accumulation, which for millennia (both at the individual and collective level) has sought psychological security in its images, ideas, and identifications.  In all the fields of thought, including religion (the apprehension of the sacred) thought worships its own image.  As Krishnamurti put it, god did not create man in his image, man has created god in his own image.  Thought, or knowledge, however, must cease for relationship to be.  Thought is always limited, conflicted, dissatisfactory.  Its search for permanent pleasure and security always fails, precisely because its identifications produce divisions, and divisions involve violence, which never brings security.

When Krishnamurti said, “Thought prevents relationship,” he was pointing to the irony of the situation.  Relationship is security, or the cessation of the center (as will, time, the image, or the “I”) that produces insecurity in the first place.  For Krishnamurti, the conditioned mind, the experience “I,” is a psychological accumulation, a stream of sorrow or “psychological time” that has, over thousands of years, shaped the human brain. In fact, he called for a “mutation” in the brain, which would only be possible by becoming highly alert to this aberrant thought-process.  Seeing, his said, is action – by which he meant that the state of attention that can actually catch this process in the act is intelligence, and that intelligence acts upon (perhaps rewires) the brain.

However, as he repeated to countless audiences, we are afraid.  Thought (which is fragmentary, insecure, and violent) is afraid to die.  The whole movement of thought is capable of producing remarkable philosophical systems, but it does not want to see its own fragmentary activity. It would much rather pontificate than cease to produce division.  Knowledge is seductive, because knowledge is the “I.”

Art can be more of the same nonsense, a procession of images and identifications that only strengthens the sense of a knowledgable, sophisticated, and ever-improving self. But art’s radical potential is to act upon the sanitizing line that produces centered, alienated, self-interested perception in the first place.

Importantly, if we need disciplines like poetry and music to enhance our attention to uncodified reality, it is because, as socially constituted persons, we inhabit a curbed, normative aesthetic experience.  To relax that dividing line is to allow the cold human atom to flow in the unfabricated and unconstructed flow of interrelations.

Cold Sympathy: Adam Smith and the self-producing nanomachine

If “sympathy” was the key word for the long eighteenth century, that was because it could be contrasted with “enthusiasm.”  In its contagious ability to spread across bodies and minds, enthusiasm seemed to prove that feelings can be shared, a disturbing prospect on many levels.  By contrast, sympathy was cool, detached, rational, and cultured.  What Adam Smith set out to prove, finally, was that enthusiasm is brute or primitive stimulation while sympathy is a higher abstract cognitive function.  Smith’s political economy is built upon this premise of fundamental self-interest, or on the sanitary bounds of discrete individuals.

The Adam Smithian mind is literally “cut off”: specific sense-data enter the theater of its skull, a vacuum of private experience.   If I sympathize with you, I do so only through conjecture, extrapolating what you must be feeling from my own experiences of pleasure and plain.  Moreover, I take the trouble to sympathize purely out of calculating self-interest.  For, if I fail to understand other’s feelings, and cause offense, it will harm my social standing and my interests. To that end, I must erect an “impartial spectator” in my own mind, an objective agency that I produce by exerting my imagination.  This spectator tries to perfectly orchestrate my actions so that my selfishness does not ultimately conflict with my self-interest.  In brief, Smith’s discourses of economic and political self-interest depend on the idea that we truly are cut off from one another.

Art, then, as Blake and Dickinson approach it, is not about producing novel forms of aesthetic experience, but of removing the conceptual line, the kind of self-centered and instrumental brain activity, that sanitizes our experience in the first place.  They remind us that reality prior to “persons” is aesthetic and affective.  Their art comes from an intense attention to an aesthetic experience that is an intense attention to reality.  This intense attention is ethical.  It challenges what Saree Makdisi calls the social constitution of mind-bodies as “biopsychological” units of production or what Blake called “Satanic mills.”

In sum, if we need disciplines like poetry and music to enhance our attention to uncodified reality, it is because, as socially constituted persons, as machines that produce themselves, we inhabit a curbed, normative aesthetic experience. One of our deepest prejudices, or most virulent orthodoxies, is that the aesthetic is not, cannot be, alive.  The only intelligence out there is the “I,” the human thought process, self-generated, unrivaled.

When meditative nature poets speak of rousing us from our sleep of death, this “death” is none other than the dividing line that allows us to persist in the Urizenic notion that human consciousness is unique, privileged, higher, and ‘alone’ in (or circumscribed against) the inanimate universe.

Why intellectuals need to meditate

What is the aesthetic?  Am I not having an aesthetic experience in this very moment?  Where and why do we draw the line?  I ask this question because it has become increasingly urgent to me to challenge the disciplinary divisions that frame and structure ‘valid’ intellectual inquiry.  For instance, why should a young student bother studying with professors who do not meditate? From one point of view, of course, meditation is an eastern practice, or a religious practice. It’s too personal, too subjective, and too much a matter of belief.  It’s ‘uncritical’ or pre-critical: naive, romantic, essentialist, even ‘indigenous’.

From another point of view, meditation is a quality of awareness or of attention, and the only thing that prevents a serious thinker from approaching this quality is bias.  In other words, the thinker has chosen to draw a line in respect to the mind.  The intellect holds itself apart from a certain kind of cognition that it equates with animism, mysticism, hallucination, and prophetic vision. There’s a certain stigma attached to “navel-gazing,” as if it is quietist, onanistic, and (above all) a kind of unstructured surrender to what Freud characterized as the infantile (and polymorphously perverse) libidinal self-involvement of “primary narcissism.”  (Is it a coincidence that Freud linked the “primary process” of “primitives” and children not to a kind of pre-personal sense of interconnectedness but to the “magical” thinking of a mind that is all selfishness, or all id?) Now, in the twenty-first century, we realize that Freud was operating well within the imperial parameters of Enlightened rationality, in its “civilizing” project to shed its superior “light” on an inferior “darkness.” We have arrived at moment when we also need to question the validity of studying with professors or priests of the intellect who purport to be dedicated to critical thought and inquiry, but who have sanitized their own experience in this way.

They shut me up in Prose: a brief history of the western mind

How can we begin to approach the aesthetic as a convergence zone (the “fold”) of the concerns of various disciplines, from neurophenomenology to ecophilosophy to literary studies?  This has been my fascination for some time now, but a recent weekend at the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies in Boston made it all the more relevant.  Listening to scholars and scientists across the disciplines struggle to bridge the gap between subjective experience and objective fact, it occurred to me that one of our deepest biases or orthodoxies, at least in the west, is the notion that the mind (which the twenty first century tends to equate with the brain) structure and mediates, if not produces, our experience.  This may seem like quite a credible bias, but it has hidden ethical and experiential effects. Not only does this bias (invisible to us and hard to cognize) seal us off from a sense of porous interconnectedness – the very sort of inter-implication that various art forms, such as poetry, render visible again by undoing the sanitizations of language and image (forms of normative representation, ‘narratives’ of personhood) – but it also seals intelligence and awareness within the cranium.  That is, this rational bias has a purpose: it guarantees us that we are not contemporaneous and consubstantial with an unlimited (limitlessly heterogeneous) field of intelligence.  Can any question matter more than the question of why we remain prone not to question (sometimes for our whole lives) a limited experience?

Literary scholars such as Nancy Yousef and Tilottama Rajan speak, cogently, of the rise in the long eighteenth century (the Enlightenment) of epistemic sanitizations that in fact operate as intersubjective limits.  A new wave of interest in Spinoza since the 1990s, in tandem with the shift from the “linguistic turn” to the “affective turn” (and to the rise of “new materialism(s),” has signalled an intense questioning of our various ‘centrisms’ (anthro-euro-logo). Perhaps we are sick of epistemic violence, of ‘power’. We do, after all, live in a moment when for the first time in the history of our species we have come face to face with the fact that our belief in the “I” or the self-interested rational center is not only ecocidal but suicidal: it’s a severe addiction so sick that, unless we change it, we cannot survive it. Still, it remains very difficult even to think about an intelligence without an “I.”

Since the seventeenth century, Spinoza (who studied Descartes only to propose an alternative philosophy of mind) has presented a serious challenge to this dominant epistemology.  For Spinoza, the mind and body (as presently constituted) limit our experience of the infinite qualities of substance.  (It remains unclear to me how, for Spinoza, we came to be so constituted).  To understand that better, I look to William Blake, who very likely felt Spinoza’s influence.

For Blake, we become bound in self-interested rationality in each moment out of a fear of existence.  Hence, “infinity” is a mere step away and not at the end of a long process.  Every moment opens out of “time” into what Blake calls “eternity,” which is not an absolute or a totality but, quite the contrary, the flux of the nonrepresentational.  In Blake’s mythopoiesis, the giant four-fold primordial human, Albion, is a dynamic composition of Urthona (imagination), Luvah (emotion), Urizen (reason), and Tharmas (sensation).  These concentric spheres all transect an egg-like structure (the “mundane egg” that prefigures the cranium?) composed of Adam (linked to imagination) and Satan (linked to reason).  Trouble arises when Urizen “falls” from eternity.  That is, for Blake, the true “fall” is not the fall of “impure” bodily desires out of innocence and heaven, but the fall of reason, which cannot see its own condition.  It believes that it exists in a heaven of pure laws and codes, which the fallible flesh is incapable of obeying.  In fact, that heaven is hell, and Urizen a self-tormented inflictor of torment. One of the key motifs in Blake and Dickinson is precisely that bliss or paradise is not lost.  It is an ever-present cognitive potential, the most simple form of centerless or non-instrumental attention.  Only, the cold rigid center of reason casts bliss out.


As Roderick Tweedy writes in his fascinating book, The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor, and the Myth of Creation:

“The history of this is written in Paradise Lost,” observed Blake, “& the Governor or Reason is call’d Messiah” (Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 5).  It was the genius of Blake to counter this interpretation and to expose that in fact precisely the opposite took place: that it was reason that was cast out of eternity (the right hemisphere reality), and that Reason… emerged to present itself as the true “Creator” of linear time, the only “God” of the human brain.  Blake radically reinterprets Paradise Lost as an externalized account of the historical and psychological struggle between the rationalistic and the emotional, the bodily and imaginative, for control of the human body. According to this reading, Milton’s text shows the expulsion of supposedly “demonic” and irrational, intuitive bodily energies from a controlling and ordered heaven.  But, Blake observes, this is history merely being written by the victor.  The “Devil’s account” is that it was Reason which fell from a previously existing imaginative consciousness of reality, and in seizing control of the human psyche the “Reasoning Power” both “usurps” its place and also eclipses this anterior state of being and perception, which it then suppresses into “subconscious” or bodily life.  (43-4)

For Spinoza, as for Blake, good and evil do not pertain.  For Blake there is only “truth” and “error” – though error (gross cognition) is a tendency toward reification and preconception that we must continually thrown off, even as truth (subtle cognition, nonconceptual attention) is eternal, or primordially unobscured.  For Spinoza, there is no good or bad only more and less adequate ideas of infinite substance.  Ethics (“virtue,” “joy”) is none other than an increasing capacity to be affected by an increasing number of bodies (‘body’ not as object but as microporous process-relation).

In brief, to this counter-cultural mode (which Gilles Deleuze called counter-philosophy, and Cornel West has called counter-epistemology, and which I like to call counter-cognition) aesthesis is delimited only by a mind-body that exists in the “sorrow” of limited identity.  (Blake, in his characteristically acidic style, called this epistemic sanitization “Satan” or “hell”).

A process-relational rather than correlationist or image-oriented approach to reality presses us toward poiesis, an experience of what Kant called “purposiveness-without-purpose,” or of an intelligence or creativity without qualifications.  The fashionable term “vitality” (“vitalist materialism”) still seems to cleave to the tacit bias that proscribes intelligence.  Our deepest bias is that intelligence or awareness must be a product of the human brain.  Intelligence cannot infuse the universe.  We’re in trouble if it does.  Our acts of violence against ‘domesticated’ animals (cows, chickens, pigs) and against ‘wild’ or ‘undomesticated’ sentiences would seem even more shocking than they already do.  What if, in our every thought an action, we are not in relation to a mindless and meaningless universe, but in relation to an intelligence – one that is ours yet one we cannot own?  Perhaps it is not a comfortable thought, but perhaps it is also a basis for optimism about an ethical potential founded not on dogmatic codes but on a profound sense of relationship to intelligence.  What if we can discover our ethical potential in the unbinding of concepts and codes that foreclose experience?  What if we can experience this active intelligence in the micromolecular aural experience of immanence?

Isn’t that just why we shifted, two to six thousand years ago, from an animistic-pantheistic indigenous world-view to a more or less anthropocentric, logocentric world view?  A pantheist world-view makes violence toward the interconnectedness of nature and of non-citizens (all-our-relations) problematic.  It makes power and property look insane.  Both Blake and Dickinson famously speculated that either he/she was insane or the majority of people were:

Much Madness is divinest Sense-
To a discerning Eye-
Much Sense – the starkest Madness-
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail-
Assent- and you are sane-
Demur- you’re straightway dangerous-
And handled with a Chain-

What Dickinson makes clear here is that “divinest Sense,” or sensitive attention that registers not just vital process-relations but immanent intelligence, is labeled “mad” by the world.  Ironically, such an awareness of unqualified intelligence might be understood as religious experience without dogma (in that sense, a kind of scientific attention, a clear observation without bias).  For Blake, real art and real religious experience are dismissed as mad precisely because they challenged our deep-seated bias against an intelligent universe, a bias that is, in its deepest sense, a ban or curb on our own experience of embodied awareness, a psychological defense.  Normative aesthetics (what Blake calls “bad art” and “bad science”) protects this normative (and, rightly understood, insane and violent) epistemology:

To cast aside from Poetry, all that is not Inspiration

That it no longer shall dare to mock with aspersions of Madness

Cast on the Inspired, by the tame high finisher of paltry Blots,

Indefinite, or paltry Rhymes; or paltry Harmonies.

Who creeps into State Government like a caterpillar to destroy

To cast off the idiot Questioner who is always questioning,

But never capable of answering…

Who publishes doubt & calls it knowledge; whose Science is Despair…

…he talks of Benevolence & Virtue

And those who act with Benevolence & Virtue, they murder time on time…

Who pretend to Poetry that they may destroy Imagination…”

Blake, Milton, Plate 41, 7-23

Dickinson’s “discerning eye” is, for Blake, the mind that looks through not with the eye: mindful attention without discursive constructions.  This sort of poetic attention does not draw any limit on what it sees.  It operates without the bias against the nonhuman, nonlocal, unbounded, non-appropriable nature of intelligence.  It is without the bindings that limit our compassion.

Again, though, our deepest bias tells us that no such intelligence exists.  We dismiss it as beyond our experience or as superstitious – and of course, ironically, it is beyond our experience because that’s what biases do: foreclose experience. Part of the reason self-interested thought rejects this “mad” perception is that compassion is a ‘threat’ to self-interest, or to psychological security in limited identifications.   “Much Sense” (rational normative common sense) really is, for these poets, “the starkest Madness” because, as Blake suggests, it leaves us in a condition of “indefiniteness” or “doubt” – a state of alienated identity that perceives the universe as meaningless and cold.

The madness of normative sense, however, is very vigilant about the aesthetic or “divine” sense that might undo its totalitarian regime.  Keenly aware that our bodies are institutionally cauterized, our radical poets have promoted the quiet liberation of the senses, at their own risk.  To challenge orthodoxy is to incur retribution, even if later one will be canonized (as Hazlitt noted about Keats). Keats, like Blake and Dickinson, travelled that road where the aesthetic leads to death, or to the cessation of “gross cognition” (to borrow from Indo-Tibetan philosophy). But doing so led him to an early grave.

From this point of view, aesthetic phenomenologists like Blake and Dickinson have to be very careful in society.  Blake himself not only underwent a harrowing sedition trial, but suffered the agony of having his art dismissed (in the rare instances when he put up public exhibitions) as insane by the establishment.  Dickinson, likewise, avoided publishing, and kept to her flowers (and anonymous sexual relations). What Dickinson tells us about the dangers of demurring was not a joke in her day, and is not a joke in ours:

‘Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail-
Assent- and you are sane-
Demur- you’re straightway dangerous-
And handled with a Chain-

Ironically, we tend to read Blake and Dickinson as lyric poets, precisely to categorize their poetry, isolate them in an area of semi-ecstatic solitude as makers of deeply interior ‘songs of themselves’. Yet in so many ways they speak, as Deleuze does, of “extra-being” – that is, not of the subject but of the pre-personal (literally in the sense of prior to persons).  They bring into sharp relief art’s potential to liberate our attention from forms of sanitized preconception (the narrative of the person). What these poets hold out for us is the possibility of a poetic rather than prosaic (an open rather than closed, right-brained rather than left-brained) attention.  They show us that one of the reasons we “publish doubt” and hope to find a mechanistic and materialist explanation for intelligence is that we require, for our psychological protection, an experiential limit to our own minds.  Fortunately for us, both these poets are ultimately counter-epistemological humorists.  They have no reason for despair.  They teach us to laugh:

They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet –
Because they liked me “still”   –
Still! Could themself have peeped –
And seen my Brain – go round –
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason – in the Pound –
Himself has but to will
And easy as a Star
Look down opon Captivity –
And laugh – No more have I –

On Timothy Morton, Je Tsongkhapa, and David Bohm: touching “suchness”

It’s been a while since I posted here.  The mood has to come upon me, I guess.  I’ve been reading an awful lot.  Thupten Jinpa’s book on Tsongkhapa, Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects, Ivakhiv’s Ecologies of the Moving Image, bits and pieces of Mark Lussier (on Blake), and Brian Massumi.  It’s all ecophilosophy, isn’t it? Today I’m thinking mostly about Morton. I’m not quite ready for a full response, but there’s stuff milling around in my mind.

Morton takes up the idea of the aesthetic, I think as it’s been raised by the process-relational camp (Massumi, Shaviro, maybe Bennett, maybe Braidotti) but reads it through deconstruction and speculative realism.  I also notice a strong flavor of Tsongkhapa here: when Morton posits that causality and the aesthetic are indivisible, it echoes Je Rinpoche’s idea that the world of appearance definitely has some sort of existential status, but one that’s interdependent and not to be analyzed.  It may not be “really” real, but one doesn’t want to denigrate or negate it, because that would be nihilistic.  Morton takes pains to remind us that postmodern “cynical distance” is just wrong – because there’s no distance at which to stand, and because things aren’t illusions of language or mere concepts.

This actually seems to be part of Morton’s critique of process-relations – that it goes too aesthetic, so that all there seems to be is possibility and creativity, the “flow of the self.”  Morton directs us to take notice of hyperobjects, precisely because they’re not “infinity” but vast finitudes.  (I can’t help trying to figure out what Spinoza – who critiqued the Cartesian notion of substance that Morton also targets – would make of this). Maybe later.  What I want to ponder for a moment right now is the “mystic” experience that Morton sees as slightly insidious to ecological thought.

Morton gives us thought experiments, and some pretty good ones, about non-locality and weird time.  When one meditates, it’s not a thought experiment, though.  Let’s describe it.  One feels a kind of expansion, mainly in the frontal lobe, but really all through the brain.  It is accompanied by a blissful feeling, and a definite increase in the “luminosity” of awareness.  There is also, unmistakably, a sound.  One could call it the sound of silence, but it’s really quite an extraordinary sound.  To listen to it is to feel the bliss intensify, and that very intensification is sound of what I can only describe as the hum of bare life, or the ceaseless interchange of everything with everything else.  One can’t really speak of matter as distinct from energy, here.  One can’t say it’s just energy, because it’s so palpable, so experiential. Indeed, if the mind grows sufficiently absorbed, one can very clearly see infinite infinitesimals dancing a kind of patternless pattern in the air.  Should one still call it air if it’s filled with such flowing creation-destruction?  So, I think this is what indigenous cultures refer to as spirit or the sacred.  One has to qualify that, immediately, with Tsongkhapa’s thorough rejection of any sort of underlying intelligence, spirit, or mind as the metaphysical basis for reality – or, as that which truly exists.  Apparently, one can only know it actively, through attention.  To try to know it conceptually is not to know it but to reify it – it is to be grossly inattentive to it, which is a shame.  So, we have to discriminate between the act of attention (which Tsongkhapa calls “cognizing”) and the act of knowing, which is actually unknowing, or ignorance.  I think it’s on this basis that Tsongkhapa warns about the stupidity of just resting in a blank, reflective, non-intellectual mind.    Shamatha (calm abiding) needs to happen simultaneously with Vipassanā (penetrating insight).  Still, I’m not convinced that Vipassanā is necessarily a state of analysis, so much as one of sharp attention.  In other words, when the mind is not knowing (falling back on habitual preconceptions), then it must be highly attentive.  In that sense, the danger is coming to know (or be too comfortable with) the warm fuzzy feeling of meditative absorption.  Tsongkhapa says it will not clear away our unknowing, or our basic ignorance, which is the root of of suffering.

I think, as intellectuals, we need to look more carefully into the living experience of meditation.  Why does the sense of self seem to change, and how to describe that change?  It seems to be some sort of subtle shift.  Material reality becomes both more vivid and less “real” – as one approaches nearer to the threshold of sheer life, sensing the active interrelations that (neither energy nor matter, but somehow both?) furiously at work, one experiences a sense of living interconnectedness or interrelationship, what one might call an ecological “inter-being” rather than a solid self.  To me, that makes sense: one can’t have both at the same time, a living sense of interrelationship and a solid sense of self or identity.  Indeed, the former is an antidote to the latter.  To experience interrelationship is to relax the need for grasping at the world, because the active experience of relationship is an antidote to the insecurity that makes us cling to forms of existence (ideologies, institutions).  When I talk to friends and neighbors who are extreme skeptics, I notice not only the pain they’re in over the state of the world and the utter hypocrisy of human beings, but their unwillingness to be content with what Morton (like Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche) calls warm and fuzzy feelings of compassion.  So, it really seems necessary to get directly to this non-dual wisdom – and to encounter it as an experience, so that doubt (and with doubt, fear, hatred, fixed opinions, a strong sense of “you” and “me,” not to mention a terrible fear of death) subsides.  His Holiness the Dalai Lama often talks of the need to study, reflect, and meditate to eventually develop a firm conviction, and deep confidence, in the intimate relationship between emptiness and appearance, or in the fact that the self does not exist in the way it seems to exist.  Thought, after all, is precisely what doesn’t want to end – yet precisely that which makes us insecure, giving us concepts and ideas to cling to,  which are always fragmentary, and which always impede attention and relationship.  As David Bohm – in dialogue with J. Krishnamurti (in The Ending of Time) – explored, thought is time, and time is knowledge.  In other words, thought isn’t relationship.

Interestingly, Tsongkhapa doesn’t want us to call this “suchness” (or this very active cognition of emptiness in meditation) buddha nature.  According to Jinpa, he’s ok with linking it to “clear light,” but apparently not if we view this clear light as a metaphysical ground or essence.  Anyway, in other traditions – Tibetan Buddhism, and maybe some indigenous traditions – the point is not just to theorize or change the way we think, but to actually experience compassion at a “depth” (or flat ontology) of interrelations. Are any western intellectuals calling for that?  (Did Deleuze?)  Dare we?

Response to Ivakiv (3) – was I wrong in my last post?

In my last post, which I wrote over a month ago, I seem to be arguing that there something incomplete in Ivakhiv’s analysis of how Nagarjunan thought can help western intellectuals to understand joy and compassion in more process-relational terms. I mean, I think the whole conversation is about why thinkers like Zizek (and I recall in Matthieu Ricard’s TED Talk, he mentions how French intellectuals object to his writing on happiness, saying, “Don’t impose on me your notion of happiness” – i.e., I find meaning in my misery) think Buddhism is a kind of soma or opiate for the masses. But for some reason I wanted to niggle over Ivakhiv’s use of the idea of groundlessness. The thing is, I’ve been reading HH the Dalai Lama’s Dzogchen book, where he very much does go into the need, at higher stages of meditation, to drop analytic analysis and simply meditate on emptiness. In reality, all the various methods and stages of meditation are a precise science the quite exceeds my knowledge. Even in Dzogchen, His Holiness points out, it’s presumed that the student first has a very solid basis in analytic meditation, but at the point when meditative absorption is to become total, then analysis is slight dispersal of the necessary energy, and should be abandoned. Well, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche said in an interview posted on YouTube that the shortcut to enlightenment is simply to seek for it, and it’s the seeking that matters more than the finding.

It seems like I was pretty certain last month that the Dalai Lama had taught that we have to be careful about teachings that tell us that we can truly approach groundlessness. Maybe I was momentarily clinging to the idea that the ideal of total selflessness was one of the mystifications that makes it hard for the ordinary person to enter the path of meditation. I mean, having encountered some would-be western Zen masters, I do think I have a slight aversion to the seriousness that comes with the notion that ‘I’m really going to come from a place of mastery, the master, without the self.’ Much better, I think, to be friendly with oneself. And so I took the Dalai Lama to be reminding us that the real “I” to be annihilated was the notion of a true I or a master-I, while in fact there wasn’t much problem with the notion of a conventional and provisional I, which is much closer, isn’t it, to our experience of being selves anyway.

I’m just trying to be careful about the idea of Groundlessness with a capital “G.” It’s sort of like what I’ve heard Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche emphasize (and like the little bit I’ve understood about Tsongkhapa’s teaching) the “ness” in emptiness. I’ve also read in Chobgye Trichen Rinpoche’s commentary Parting From the Four Attachments that the Mind Only School was actually a good starting point back in the days of Nalanda University, because it frees one from believing one’s experience is intrinsically real, but that one then has to analyze and see that the mind, too, is a result of dependent origination, or is empty of essence. In fact, I had this dream in 2011 that I was at a small teaching with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. A bunch of us students were seated on the floor talking, with Rinpoche. I raised my hand to tell another student that for me the most important notion was that the mind was unfabricated. Rinpoche suddenly said, “No, I don’t agree with that. You sound like an idealist.” At the time, I couldn’t understand the dream. Now I think I sort of do. Maybe it’s a pitfall to cling to the notion of the mind as a kind of eternal self, a substitute for the limited “I” – an unlimited I! Clinging to that idea will prevent further understanding.

But, looking back, I don’t think Ivakhiv was misusing the notion of groundlessness. Or, anyway, I need to keep studying this whole question.