Confessions of an Ivy League Dropout


Month: April, 2014

Emily Dickinson on “The luxury to meditate”

I found an Emily Dickinson poem today with some interesting, if merely fortuitous, wording. I like to think she’s talking about the luxury of seeing without knowledge, in the same vein in which Spinoza and Blake do. That is, it’s a luxury because the dualistic mind subsides. There’s nothing to grasp at. Only suchness. Dickinson couches this insight in the language of ecstatic Christianity (as Blake almost might) and in the language of romantic love (as Blake probably wouldn’t). It may in fact be a love poem couched in the language of ecstatic Christianity, but I like to think that what she means by “thee” and “Presence” and “Countenance” is one and the same as “luxury” and “sumptuousness.” That is, I like to think she’s not talking about any person or religion per se, but precisely about the “luxury to meditate.” As the great Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna described it:

Without annihilation and permanence,
With no coming and no going,
Not a unity, nor a plurality,
Fabrications quieted, the supreme bliss!

In a sense, it’s the luxury that’s right there when all forms of knowledge or naming (that is, all forms of partial attention or inattention) subside in silent pristine attention:

THE LUXURY to apprehend
The luxury ’t would be
To look at thee a single time,
An Epicure of me,
In whatsoever Presence, makes, 5
Till, for a further food
I scarcely recollect to starve,
So first am I supplied.
The luxury to meditate
The luxury it was 10
To banquet on thy Countenance,
A sumptuousness bestows
On plainer days,
Whose table, far as
Certainty can see, 15
Is laden with a single crumb—
The consciousness of Thee.

Tao Te Ching: stop being holy

All we really need to do, I sometimes think, is read a good translation of the Tao Te Ching, like the rather free-handed one by Ursula K. Le Guin. I read it as a text about immanence or the virtual:

The valley spirit never dies….
Forever, this endures, forever.
And all its uses are easy.

Stop being holy, forget being prudent,
it’ll be a hundred times better for everyone…

…what works reliably
is to know the raw silk,
hold the uncut wood.
Need little,
want less.
Forget the rules.
Be untroubled.

Be broken to be whole.
Twist to be straight.
Be empty to be full.
Wear out to be renewed.
Have little and gain much.
Have much and get confused.

The best door’s unlocked and unopened.
The best knot’s not in a rope and can’t be untied.

What others teach I say too:
violence and aggression
destroy themselves.
My teaching rests on that.

To know enough’s enough
is enough to know.

blunting edge,
loosing bond,
dimming light,
be one with the dust of the way.
So you come to the deep sameness.

That’s why the wise
want not to want,
care nothing for hard-won treasures,
learn not to be learned,
turn back to what people overlooked.

Heaven will last,
earth will endure.
How can they last so long?
They don’t exist for themselves
and so can go on and on.

We are led to believe a lie (2): the eye altering / alters all

Medicine is an interesting word, here, because (speaking of adventures in the spirit world) once some years ago a friend invited me to experience his own personal path of learning, the Native American Church. And, because I knew what an intelligent investigator he was, and what genuine respect he was showing me (without the slightest hint of wanting me to join his path or be converted to it) through the invitation, I easily accepted.

It involved sitting in a teepee all night, as the medicine, water drum, and rattle was passed around and each person led the medicine songs. The songs were incredibly beautiful, and only grew in beauty. Leading the songs was an old Lakota roadman, who dressed all in black and joked about being a scarecrow, because if he walked around in full regalia, people would all keep staring at him. This way he was anonymous. Just an old Native American truck driver. In the center of the teepee was a bright beautiful fire that burned down into a bed of living red coals, like the pulsing heart of the planet. At one point I looked down at the grass and dirt under my legs, and I saw an inexpressible tapestry, in precision detail, of every form of animal life on the planet, all flowing one into the other. A few hours into the night, I was so absorbed in the songs that I literally had no consciousness of time and self. It was just like a flowing ceaseless river, older than the beginning, but ever new.

Suddenly I was nothing but a bodiless mind at the top of the teepee, looking down at everyone in the circle below. Laughter welled up, wonderful mirth, and there was a realization (I can’t say I realized, because an “I” can’t realize this, constitutively) that all my life I’d been looking at the world backwards and upside down, identifying with the little me in time and all of its identifications and attachments, instead of with the spacious awareness unbound in time. Choosing bondage not freedom.

When Blake spoke about believing what we see in “Auguries of Innocence,” that’s what he meant. The eye can alter, if we allow the “I” to be altered, or allow ourselves to see:

He who doubts from what he sees
Will ne’er believe, do what you please.

If the sun and moon should doubt,
They’d immediately go out.

Response to Ivhakiv (2) Why the ego is no fun

Also, since Ivakhiv advances several interesting observations on why the ego, in its effort to grasp at what is actually empty, grows frustrated and seeks, in it suffering, to dominate, I have to add that Blake had an amazing handle on this. When Blake wrote, in “There is No Natural Religion –

If the many be-
-come the same as
the few, when pos-
-sess’d, More! More!
is the cry of a mista
ken soul, less than
All cannot satisfy

– he was pointing out that the experience of dissatisfaction is not constitutive of sentient existence. It’s not that Buddhists are pessimists who believe that everything has to be renounced because everything is basically dissatisfying. [This, by the way, reminds me of a comment Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche made, about liking Rajneesh better than Krishnamurti, ostensibly because it takes balls to own like a hundred Rolls Royce’s and thus mock the whole idea of hedonism, while austerity just leads to humorless, self-reifying righteousness. His opinion at that moment, I think, not mine].

No, the point is that – whether Zizek likes it or not – meditation can really lead to happiness, of a kind, because we recognize a basic mistake we’re making. We grasp at objects of desire, only because we misunderstand. We think we are separate from material interrelations to begin with. We REALLY think that. We experience ourselves as somehow bounded, individual, discrete. We hope to find security in identity and knowledge, when it in fact produces insecurity. When we meditate, we have the opposite experience. The bound between I and not-I relaxes. This terrifying taboo relaxation (you’ll go mad, you’ll be possessed, you’ll stop going to work) turns out to be blissful and bracing: it makes one more alert, more attentive, more present. The “keyless rhyme” – not the buzz of the fly, but the subtle sound of active immanence – that Dickinson quietly spoke of comes close to us, because there’s no division. Instead of grasping at man-made structures for security or permanence (with the cry, more, more), we let go of identity to allow relationship (Blake’s “all”).

It’s not an arid renunciation at all. It’s easy. As Lao Tzu wrote, “The way is empty, / used, but not used up…. Forever, this endures, forever. And all its uses are easy.” How else would cave meditators sit for decades? They’re not crazy. They’re not isolated either. The suchness, the interrelatedness, the bliss or wisdom of it all visits them. They’re with the whole world, in living interrelationship. It’s not about finding oneself, but about entering interrelationship, undoing that awful curse of alienated personhood, that cult of identity, that we value so much. They can come out of their caves and be much more robustly spontaneous and individual, and it’s not out of some kind of pity, but out of real joy.

So, here I’ll end:

“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



No face, no eyes, no image.

No knowledge. No teacher.  

No one can enter.  

Its manifold doors are too small and many.  

It is to become infinitesimal, negligible.

It undoes itself before it can be.

No door.  No key.  

Response to Ivhakiv’s Wondrous Riff – “Better – than Music! – for I – who heard it-“

I was reading earlier today about a breakthrough new treatment for people paralyzed from the waist down. It involves, I gather, electric shock, which somehow (almost along the lines of the vague but miraculous medicine of a Hollywood film) jumpstarts the brain to start receiving signals across what had been an irreparable communication gap. I’m happy to learn about this as there are a couple of wonderful people in wheelchairs in the building where I live. As a romanticist (and therefore mindful of the ongoing legacy of wild early nineteenth century speculations about galvanism and vitalism) who frequently finds himself teaching Frankenstein (one of my favorite novels, next to Mrs. Dalloway and Nightwood), I can’t help but get excited about electricity. I mean, I fry myself daily god knows how much sitting in front of this computer.

Anyway, not to be crass, but I feel like I’ve had something of this sort of electroshock therapy today, in coming across a spectacular blog called Immanence by Adrian Ivakhiv, a Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont. Here’s someone who’s been blogging for a few years now on the critical currents that interest me most, particularly the potential confluence of French theory (Deleuze, Latour) and Indo-Tibetan philosophy. Discovering Ivakhiv is kind of timely for me. I’ve just learned that, after a truly harrowing ordeal, I’ve made it, by the skin of my teeth, through the qualifying process. Well, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche (who, incidentally, was the first lecturer I ever heard speak at my university, because he gave teachings a month before classes began) always writes that the purpose of practice is to destroy one’s ego, so I’ve got nothing to complain about. Besides, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche made it pretty clear that everything is impermanent and living as if anything truly mattered (from a place of attachment) was plain childish. I’m in academia precisely for the kind of conversation that Ivakhiv is fostering, and the rest of it is rather illusory.

So, that’s why I think I should take a moment to verbalize my overall response to what I’ve gleaned from his readings of such issues as Zizek’s debate with Buddhism, Nagarjunan ecophilosophy, the complementarity of Derrida (deconstruction) and Deleuze (constructivism), and the potential for an encounter between western critical theory and a nondualist, contemplative, eastern “metaphysics of immanence.”

In a word, I think the hardest thing to write about is silence. Intellectuals and philosophers tend to write ‘around’ it.

One passage in his posting about Nagarjunan ecophilosophy caught my attention in particular. Ivakhiv is musing on the thorny question (raised by Zizek) about why Buddhist meditative absorption would lead to any sort of spontaneous ethical state, such as compassion. I take him to argue that when we experience the groundlessness of our own condition, we naturally feel compassion for others who are in the same situation:

In Buddhism, the claim is more radical and profound: it is that a fundamental compassion for all dependently-arising entities like us will emerge as a direct consequence of experiencing the “groundlessness” of our own being. What’s generally meant is the kind of graduated experience of that groundlessness that comes out of the diligent practice of the eight-fold path. Simply pulling the rug out from one’s own self-construct, as can happen in psychedelic experience for instance, will not necessarily do it (though it might). The claim, then, is experiential, processual, and relational, and can only be tested empirically. The Buddhist sangha (community) provides a “safe” vehicle for its testing and its fruition.

I’m sure he’s skimming over a good deal of his thought on this matter, simplifying it for convenience. However, I think it’s important to jump into the conversation at precisely this point. The Dalai Lama talks about the importance of carrying on analytic meditation in meditative concentration, possibly because the people who tell us that the “I” or the thinker completely ceases in meditation are misleading us a bit. The Dalai Lama makes the point in fact that some wrongly propagate the view that there is no I. The more valid aim is to destroy the false “I” (the notion of an independent, permanent, essential self) but not the one that conventionally exists. So, it’s a deluded aim to try to stop all the thought processes in oneself.

It may seem counterintuitive, but what the Dalai Lama seems to be advocating (and I’m no expert, so this is just my own blind blundering) is that we avoid the pitfall of thinking there’s a pure state of absolute mind: in fact, that’s the false I to be eradicated. The ordinary, conventional self is fine the way it is. We don’t have to get rid of it. All we really need to do is to acknowledge that it is neither essential nor permanent but contingent, dependently originated, and impermanent. I might be dead wrong, but this seems a very kindly attitude, one that could lead to humility and humor.

This is why I bring up silence, and also why I take exception to Ivakhiv’s account of the groundlessness that disrupts our self-constructs. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to deny this groundlessness. But (as John Rajchman explains in his excellent little book on Foucault), this notion of the “void” (something Rosi Braidotti criticizes, too, in her essay on thanopolitics) is a modernist notion with which (to me) the more interesting French philosophers (Foucault and Deleuze, but not Lacan and his quasi-heir Zizek) broke. Thupten Jinpa’s Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy: Tsongkhapa’s Quest for the Middle Way has been a particularly helpful book for me personally on these matters. It seems that part of what Tsonghkapa points out (as does an anti-nihilistic Nagarjuna) is that emptiness and voidness aren’t what we think they are. We really have to be careful when we talk about groundlessness. The wonderful example Tsonghkapa gives (if I recall) is that one begins to study philosophy, and one thinks that all conventional experience is mistaken, and so ordinary people are deluded. Much later, when one begins to understand interdependent origination, one realizes that the old man who never studied anything is basically more accurate, and less arrogant, in his view than you had been at your smartest. It’s not a matter of denying conventional experience, or proving it doesn’t exist, but in understanding it properly, without bullying.

So, I’d question whether compassion arises for meditators because they experience groundlessness and realize that all beings are also, whether they know it or not, based in groundlessness. Maybe that’s one way of putting it, but it seems to psychologize the matter. It’s hard to trust any sort of psychological realization. Something tells me that’s not a very deep thing, unless we’re meant to understand that it’s not an idea but an experience. Even then, when duality subsides, it’s not as though one encountered this awful buzz of nonbeing.

This is, actually, a subject I hope to explore very soon through a reading of William Blake’s “The Fly” and Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died.” These are both extraordinary. My argument about them is that it’s only the dualistic mind that interprets immanence or bliss as terrifying bare life. It’s the distinction that Braidotti hijacks from Agamben (who hijacked Foucault): is zoe natural sweetness or is it brute life? Well, it’s all a matter of perspective. Knowledge (the cogito) encounters it as a terrible destructive annihilating impersonal force. Something else – what do we call it, imagination? or Keatsian “half-knowledge” – encounters it as natural sweetness, or unfabricated interconnectednesss. Spinoza (who sparked off Deleuze) is really a key thinker here, with his notion of imagination as a more accurate notion of substance than knowledge: when we imagine, we register the present of other powers in ourselves, or the interrelationship of ‘bodies’ or affects that actually modify the knower. Another important interface is Bergson, who sparked in Deleuze and Guattari the idea of the “counter-actualization of the virtual.” That is, relaxing our conceptual activity into the quality of experience that remains virtual (as active interrelations that can’t be converted into subject or object of knowledge) undoes the actual (the reified experience). Blake’s “There is no natural religion” is a key text here, worth checking out again.

So, back round to the main point, there’s something about meditation that we shouldn’t reduce to the psychological, or to any sort of logical insight. That is, we shouldn’t frighten away the thing poor Dickinson scholars, who may know the minutiae of her mundane life, seem to miss (in my opinion): the attempt (in poems like “I tie my hat – I crease my shawl” and “Better than music – for I who heard it”) to address the way that the quieting down of conditioning occurs simultaneously with the deconditioning rapprochement of vibrant matter, or natura naturans, or blissful unfabricated awareness. The image a Dzogchen teacher from Tso Pema once gave was this: does your mouth open first and then you fall asleep, or do you fall asleep and then your mouth opens? They happen at the same time, don’t they?

I’d love to stop on that wonderful silly image, which really sums it all up, but I can’t help but try to get to the point. We’re too hung up on the idea that the mind, and awareness, is unique to human beings, or limited to human brains. If compassion arises for the meditator, it’s because the so-called groundlessness we’re talking about is an illusion of language, an incomplete concept. We may not be able to talk about the reality – precisely because to produce knowledge about what is in silence is to be inattentive to the silence. And inattention is just conceptual grasping. Let’s just say, compassion might be part of the inexpressible quality of what Spinoza called the infinite attributes of substance.

“We are led to believe a lie / When we see not thro’ the eye”

Ok, so the preconceptions are so heavy, and that’s how it is, having a mind, isn’t it? I did have one unbelievable professor in the Ivy League. He was the brother of quite a celebrated fantasy author, though I didn’t know that. He wasn’t bored while lecturing. He wasn’t complacent in his knowledge. He taught Blake. Yes, he taught a bunch of other poets and writers, but what he really taught was Blake. That’s the amazing thing, what an impact Blake has had on so many people. It’s mind-boggling. Anyway, one of the most mind-altering thing this professor ever said (and he said it about Shelley) was that what the poetry was really about was that the world had been imagined inadequately. We ALWAYS imagine the world inadequately. This we call knowledge.

It’s a tricky thing to talk about, because the California entrepreneurs have got hold of this. A handful of techie geniuses are supposed to transform the technoscape every other year now, because of their visionary imagination and lucid aesthetic sense. They didn’t let preconceptions blind them to the possibilities. They had that Zen beginner’s mind.

Fine. But let’s ask why Einstein, whose insights seem simply beyond human, but who had a human heart indeed, was a Spinozist. I’d say it’s summarized in one of his most quoted statements:

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.

But it’s not enough to hear someone’s words and sort of get the gist of it. That’s like drinking the wine but not getting intoxicated. There’s a moment when the brain grasps something and the words fall away like husks. You get the germ of what made the other person try to communicate in the first place. So why was Einstein a Spinozist? Maybe because Spinoza thought imagination was closer to a clear idea of substance than reason. Like my old professor said, when we imagine we know we’re not adequately grasping the way this human experience really is. So it’s not just that we come up with fanciful ideas, or mentally put together images we’ve taken in from the ordinary world, composing them in curious combinations that don’t actually exist. No. It’s because we know that our knowledge is reification, or inadequate imagination, that we allow ourselves to be in what Keats called “half knowledge.”

Instead of pretending to know the world, we know that our knowledge is a form of capture – image, idea, concept. If the image is foreclosed, a kind of bounded possession or property, then all the mind can do is relax into the impossibility of knowledge. The poet can’t actually help us know the world more adequately. Great poetry makes us realize that our knowledge is inadequate imagination, and that imagination is not production or invention but a more sensitive responsiveness to a world that can’t be conceptualized. Great poetry is the quiet liberation of the senses.

We don’t even know, most of the time, that our senses are blocked by preconceptions. We confuse sensation and stimulation. There’s an intelligence in sensation, a going out from the known to what has never been described. If stimulation conditions us, sensation deconditions us. Sensations don’t have a self to protect, because in fact they modify or alter the self, the identity we bring to experience. Spinoza said that when we imagine we are aware of the presence of other powers active in the composition of ourselves. We are modified by what we are not.

What could be more exciting than this: the Blakean and Spinozist notion that it’s absolutely possible for anyone at anytime to allow such spontaneous self-liberation of sensation from knowledge? The idea that we’re NOT bound in our limited experiences and limited identities. For both Blake and Spinoza, joy or bliss were not only possible. They were real. The rest was blind conditioning. Mechanical knowledge, the satanic mills of mutually exploitative identities.

This is surely how we need to understand the song/preface to his great epic Jerusalem:

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land

One has to cut through the ignorance and even the pleasantness to the medicine, which as Keats knew was no soothing balm, no consolation, but an intense attentiveness that spontaneously dissolved, or undid the formation, of any concepts, any forms of knowledge. For Blake, Jerusalem was the non-conceptualizing state of ceaseless creativity – a creativity that was a pure immanence.