Confessions of an Ivy League Dropout


Category: Speculative Realism

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.


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?