“Blessedness is not the reward of virtue, but virtue itself. We do not enjoy virtue because we keep our lusts in check. On the contrary, it is because we enjoy blessedness that we are able to keep our lusts in check” Spinoza, Ethics, V, Proposition 32.
“Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed & govern’d their Passions, or have no Passions, but because they have cultivated their Understandings.” William Blake
As a graduate of an Ivy League college, I was required to spend nearly two years in the core curriculum, steeping myself in the western canon. I had a strong interest in eastern culture, too, which led me to courses in eastern epic literature, comparative religion, and the history of Taoism, alongside courses in British Empiricism and Continental Philosophy. The confluence of these different interests led me to focus on the poetry of the British Romantics, who continue to inspire contemporary readers with an emphasis on the artificial bounds set by reason or knowledge on the capacity for sensation. The romantics saw imagination as an alternative to knowledge, less because it involved escapist fantasy than interrelationship. Imagination does not “know” the world; it all sensation of the world to inform the mind, in ways that modify the mind. It all sensation itself to present an implicit challenge to ways in which we know the world that inadequately imagine the world.
Graduating with a BA in English, I was less interested in becoming an expert in romanticism than in learning how to imagine the world. With all that momentum of inquiry abruptly freed from any specific curriculum, I found that I could not simply go back to normal. I was no longer a good consumer. I’d become acutely sensitive to social institutions that passed themselves off as a way of life. I walked out of movies after ten minutes, appalling my friends. I had lost the taste for distraction.
What I found, when there was nowhere to turn, not even books of philosophy or poetry, was that the world, or reality, was not at all the way I thought it was. Objects did not exist the way I thought they did. “I” did not exist the way I thought I did. In short, I found myself meditating on emptiness, which involved an active peace or bliss, a sense of interconnectedness that was not intellectual. I was upset about it.
I had put all that time and energy into an Ivy League education, but not even the wise old professors who I had loved the most, some of them as homespun and full of homilies as Joseph Campbell, had even hinted that one might be able to relax one’s sense of ‘knowledge’ enough for thought, in all of its superficiality, its grasping at concepts and objects, at forms of identification, forms of permanence, to end.
Not that thought can end, but if one takes its activity to be self-centered, fabricated, arid, reactive, reifying, then it seems that mode of experience can subside enough for the basically spontaneous, selfless, blissful nature of both reality and mind to emerge. One could call it a living quality of silence. That’s just a description. Silence is just a word.
I felt upset with the superficiality, the informativeness, of the education I had received – a barrage of concepts advanced with professional confidence, a kind of assurance that never acknowledged its incompleteness and inadequacy. Did it not involve an implicit bias against, if not tacit proscription of, imagination? The “I” or identity, it seemed to me, had remarkably thorough defenses, institutional walls of the kind you only find in Blake’s “London.”
How can a university raise a billion dollars a year in funding yet fail so colossally at even hinting at an antidote to, or end of, analysis? Why was something as simple as mindfulness so ignored? Why was propositional meaning given such exaggerated emphasis? Did it say something about the links between intellect and power? I felt betrayed.
The loss of the taste for distraction, for knowledge and experience in all of its countless forms, goes hand in hand with non-distraction. It’s not something one can do. It’s an ending of doing, of hoping.
Admittedly, I speak of an institution as it existed in the past, which may have changed in ways of which I’m not aware. And, I don’t miss the irony that it was in fact learning to analyze and think critically that pushed me into an attentiveness that had lost its taste for distraction.
What really struck me as false and unjust was that until then I had supposed this sort of thing was only possible if one either was a yogi, monk, martial artist, or Zen practitioner. Really, there were two stance one could assume: one stance was to style oneself as an Asian person trapped inside a western body. One could start eating with chopsticks, change into slippers when one entered one’s apartment or house. One could sleep on a futon and even buy a tatami. Alternatively, one could be a born again New Ager. One could ‘wake up’, remember one’s soul-purpose, listen to the crystalline hum of synthesizers, eat organic food and let the light in one’s eyes show everyone that one had consciously chosen to incarnate at this vibrational level in this time of the earth changes. Om. Growing up in suburbia was a just an illusion, and underneath one’s mundane identity was a member of the Rainbow Tribe emanating from an immortal Soul Ray to help humankind evolve to a state beyond violence.
The choice was tough, because these two sides of the “me” generation – the ascetics and the hedonists – disliked each other. I still think it’s probably better to sit still for hours on end at risk of social humiliation should one fart or fidget than to believe, heavens forbid, in the insult to even a ten year old’s intelligence implied in the “law of attraction.” Anyway, it’s all hodgepodge, all borrowings and mishmash, whether you like the hard Zen road or the soft New Age road. There’s always a grain of truth in all of it, and the person you should trust the least is the person who sounds like they can tell you what the nature of the mind really is. Maybe that’s why the university just doesn’t go there.
But that creates its own problems. Big problems.