When we are young we are told stories about the world and how it operates. I am coming to believe our purpose in life is to constantly develop new and better ways of seeing and understanding.
Below is a short biography in ways of seeing as I have experienced them.
I was driven first into depression (around age eight), then into nihilistic cynicism (teenage and twenties) and then nearly to suicide (several times from age 18 to 30) by a failure to match my experience of reality with the thing things I was told about the world and how it worked by teachers, family members and the media–most of the distress came from an experience (both my own and seeing the suffering of others, either individually or in aggregate) of suffering and its causes that simply didn’t make sense within the framework of the paleo-conservative, Catholic authority figures and their narratives of personal responsibility.
The experience of suffering wasn’t what drove me crazy, the disconnect, or cognitive dissonance between my perceived reality and my received reality caused a lot of isolation and psychological opposition, creating a sort of physical and intellectual adversarial-ness (spellcheck tells me that is not a word but I just woke up from a nap) that led to a lot of angst and grief.
This is not a complaint about the way I was raised, the consensus-enforcing authority figures in my life were operating under an ideology that made sense to them and thought they were imparting values that would turn a bookish space-cadet into a productive member of society. I am to blame for my failures to understand and my rather shocking political incuriosity–it was easy to grasp the anarchist/existentialist rejection of values in my early teens, but it took me nearly the same number of years to discover Marxism.
*side note* a huge amount of parenting a toddler is teaching them to contextualize their big feelings, adequately describe them, then develop a mutual understanding that said feelings are impermanent. In order to teach a screaming three year old how to do so, you must be able to do so yourself.
Anyway, my theory here is that we all walk around seeing holes in reality (why are there so many homeless people in such a rich country? how are we a leading food exporter and yet so many people experience hunger? see generally other questions of external angst) and we plug those holes with ideology, which is frequently disguised for the middle class as “common sense.”
There is a difference between experiencing something, understanding something intellectually, and understanding something through direct experience. The third is what shifts our experience of reality, sometimes shifts it so radically we permanently alter our personality. Hopefully for the better.
I started writing what amounted to a biography of shifts in seeing, but it was boring and I don’t want to actually tell stories about myself. Here are short, impersonal versions of things that have altered my experience of reality.
Critical Jurisprudence and New Institutional Economics are both theoretical frameworks that seek to situate law and the economy within the human realm–namely that each is a set of imperfect rules administered and participated in by actors with limited information and occasional (I would argue frequent) lapses in rationality. Critical Jurisprudence suggest that gaps in knowledge and understanding are filled in with personal bias. I prefer the less-loaded term ideology and I’m not an academic so I don’t have to be picky about verbiage, so I’ll use that moving forward.
Essentially the process of the operation of law is somewhere between Kafka and Kierkegaard–a monstrous, frequently illogical bureaucratic machine with no benevolent, omniscient controller, run by True Believers or humans seeking desperately to make the impossible “leap of faith” that will square their experience with their received, normative ideas about how things should work. Theories of justice and equity are largely impossible under the modern American legal framework, and mostly revolve around an equation of suffering for money or vice-versa.
New Institutional Economics posits that all institutions are perpetuating mechanisms in a feedback loop–human worldviews shape behavior, behavior in the aggregate reifies into institutions (economic, political, or otherwise), those institutions shape and manufacture culture, which then shapes human worldviews. When the institutions are founded on flawed ideas (such as the United States Constitution, garbage document, should be burned, etc), the culture they perpetuate will be flawed. This is the long way to say “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” But, this is important, having an intellectual basis for this understanding rather than an intuitive basis for same, is the difference between feeling crazy and not feeling crazy. And middle-class white kids lack the understanding through direct experience of structural injustice, so an intellectual understanding is an important first step on the bridge to empathy.
Historicization was a Barthesian assault on bourgeois notion of “common sense”–an attempt to understand everything by situating it within a socio-economic context. Basically the Existentialist credo “existence precedes essence” applied to everything, not just the individual human spirit. Essentializing is effective and pernicious because it is a shortcut to sense-making: one less thing to think about when you are distressed and squeezed by the machinations of late stage capitalism. By essentializing phenomenon (the laziest and most obvious essentializing statements are the sexist and racist tropes we hear about “all women” and “all minorities”) we no longer experience them–we experience them ideologically rather than phenomenologically. This is obviously the preferred outcome of those who profit from ideology, marketers and politicians.
Historicization is an important tool for developing compassion, especially for those who have wronged you. In essence (ha), historicization is an attempt to look at historical factors or individual behaviors rather than label people as violent or lazy or intelligent. It requires a re-wiring of the snap judgement, investigation and sustained attention outside of ourselves and an ongoing examination of our own thought processes. A mighty scary proposition for an atomized and economically precarious society.
Less politically, Do Nothing studies, a name I just coined for the work of Jenny Odell (seriously, read How To Do Nothing) examines how our attention modulates our relationship to the world–shallow, fast moving attention creates a surface-level, cursory relationship to the outside world, leaving us bored and numb to the many fascinating beings and things around us. By lengthening and deepening our attention span, we discover that literally every person, animal, plant and object on earth has a fascinating history. The more sensory input we are confronted with, the less time we spend on it and the less value we get from it. Consider scrolling images or walking through an art gallery, passively receiving sensory overload (a writer in Current Affairs made a great point about the “pornographic consumption of images” and how we are trained into making snap judgements of images in a matter of seconds or less), versus sitting with an object of art (or even a normal snapshot) in contemplation for twenty or thirty minutes. Which one allows us the time to navigate and understand our emotional response? Which one provides us with a richer understanding of the world?
Odell’s main takeaway is the longer you pay attention to something the more interesting it becomes, and a side effect, the more interested you become in exploring other phenomena. Attention is a feedback loop.
A version of Odell’s idea can be found within the concept of Shusso, or “inner beauty” of a plant. One of the components that distinguishes Japanese flower arranging from Western flower arranging is that rather than thinking purely formally or compositionally about an arrangement, Ikebana practitioners strive to clearly see and express the inner beauty of the plant material they work with. Doing this at all, let alone well, requires you to carefully observe plants as they grow in the wild. How their overcoming of obstacles in their quest for sunlight cause slight curves in their stems and trunks, how their forms sway in syncopation with other plants in the breeze, how their characteristics change season to season.
A before and after, for visual thinkers:
In the pre-critique photo the maple branch is too “full” and static–despite being more “natural” in the sense that it has been manipulated less, it conveys neither the movement of wind in the trees nor the sense of impending frost an autumnal tree branch should do. Also the purple zinnia is truly beautiful and I loved it but the color was clashy. A lesson in not including something just because you like it. In the post-critique photo one can feel the change of the season, every leaf feels precious and like it might fall at any moment. The daisies are curving to follow the lowering arc of the Sun through the sky, taking in the waning sunlight for as long as possible.
I have practiced meditation for about 4 and a half years now and my main practice involves the Brahmaviharas, or the four sublime attitudes taught by the Buddha. They are metta (lovingkindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (uplifting joy) and upekkha (equanimity).
Basically, you take one of these four emotional registers as your object of meditation and direct it at yourself, or another person, or all living beings. BONUS BEGINNER MEDITATOR PROTIP: Start with metta and the other ones will appear in sequence. BONUS INTERMEDIATE MEDITATOR PROTIP: also they are all the same feeling, just more subtle/refined. BONUS ADVANCED MEDITATOR PROTIP: They are fabricated movements of the mind and subject to the three characteristics of existence (see below, probably).
Anyway, lovingkindess is something I understood immediately and some study and meditation made compassion (a sincere desire for the suffering of oneself/others to cease, coupled with action in line with that desire) and equanimity (the imperturbable peace of the mind with respect to the arising and passing away of internal or external phenomena) is pretty easy to figure out.
But mudita, or uplifting joy, didn’t make much sense to me. Western Buddhism is a project of ongoing literal and cultural translation–not only do you have to find the appropriate language for a concept, you have to parse cultural practices, syncretisms and ideological concretions and find ways to communicate some frankly woo-woo stuff within an idiom of “rational materialism” our prevailing cultural idiom (which is in quotes because I think it’s bullshit outside of specific and narrow scientific uses). Basically you have to historicize Buddhism.
Anyway, back to mudita. It seemed to me based on the name it should be a riotous, big, energetic feeling, but that feeling is piti, or “rapture” in Pali, and is a specific psychosomatic response to mental collectedness, but it’s placement within the four brahmaviharas suggested that it was more refined than compassion, which is itself more refined than loving kindness, which is itself a pretty chill feeling.
Recently I was on a brief retreat with a meditator who suggested “seeing with appreciation” rather than “uplifting joy” and then in one of those synchronous moments Bhikku Analayo suggested the same thing in the next book I read.
Seeing with Appreciation involves an even longer digression into Dependent Origination and the core theory of Theravada Buddhism, causality.
When you see with appreciation you are experiencing their miraculous nature. I don’t mean in terms of flying or always baking perfect croissants, rather recognizing that each individual moment represents a miraculous coming together of an unfathomably complex web of causality that is utterly un-recreateable. In some sense it is historicizing experientially rather than intellectually, or seeing without ideology. Here’s a dive into Dependent Origination and Causality to explain further.
The shortest teaching the Buddha ever gave was:
When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn’t, that isn’t.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that
The concept is loosely translated as “specific conditionality” and is expanded into a theory of dependent arising (or dependent co-origination, again Western Buddhism is frequently a linguistics project).
Dependent Arising is a radical deconstruction of our own mental processes. Basically we have formations, or proto-thought patterns (Thich Nhat Hanh calls it habit energy), which activate when we experience sensory input. Sensory input itself is a complex process where our sense organs interact with sensory object and specific subconsciousnesses related to sensory input, which is then pattern-matched through a process known as “name and form”, which then leads to feelings. Not feelings in the “emo” sense but feelings as in “this feels good, this feels bad, this feels neutral” sense. The technical term is hedonic tone. These feelings then prompt craving into action–I like this, I don’t like this, which creates clinging, where we tell stories about how or why we like or do not like something. This then births action (a thought, a word, a physical action) which then creates a karmic residue, strengthening or weakening the formations/habit energy, subtly reconditioning our way of perceiving ourselves and our reality.
Sounds complex, but it happens dozens of times a second and taken in the aggregate, forms what we mistakenly refer to as our “self.” The Buddha’s key takeaways are that the process is impersonal, that our concept of self is impermanent and ever changing, and that ascribing a sense of self to this collection of impermanent processes creates the suffering we experience.
The goal of meditation is to understand the above paragraph or two via direct experience.
Whether or not you want to believe in Dependent Origination, I appreciate you taking time to read through the above. Because Seeing with Appreciation is basically experiencing directly the quiet marvel that is all of these streams of dependent processes coming together to produce the current moment. Taken without the Buddhist esotericism, think about going on a walk with a friend–whole factories have to first be created to produce your shoes, thousands of generations have to live and die to migrate you and your friend to the geological territory you are walking on. Trees and birds and flowers have to evolve. Enormous machinery for building roads and sidewalks have to be constructed and used. Quarries have to be dug. Dinosaurs have to die and convert themselves into hydrocarbons tens of millions of years ago. Even the simplest acts involve titanic movements of matter and energy across thousands or millions of years.
We are all borrowed sunlight and all of our problems stem from us thinking we were ever anything else. It’s a far journey from nihilism and despair, but I’ll take it.