Archive for the 'appearances' Category

Stories we tell

December 25, 2013

I was talking to Gita about how sometimes recently I become so aware that something that occurs is just what happens when some energy happens to manifest in a certain way, like what happens when the wind meets a flag or a sail and we see the flag wave or the sail billow.  It’s just stuff that happens, the tail wagging on the dog that we happen to be able to perceive far more easily than we are able to perceive the rest of the dog.

Because so often we instead accord these tail-waggings (greater) significance.  We put them into narratives.  Illness occurred in this person because they ate the wrong foods (did the wrong thing), that person met their soul mate because they networked appropriately (did the right thing), this person found a treasure in their attic because they were industrious (were deserving), that person lost their business because they were not industrious (were not deserving).

This isn’t the “you didn’t build that” issue, it’s the “things happens as the result of long and complicated processes most of which we are not aware of.”

Some of us accord even more significance to things.  We see patterns, we see synchronicity, we see metaphor.  I got clobbered in a class once when I tried, with my best technique I had learned elsewhere, to analyze what the monsters in Cavafy’s poem about Odysseus might represent.  Different styles of literary interpretation or criticism use different techniques or assumptions — I think we accept that.  When we apply different techniques to the interpretation of life events, we sometimes get clobbered, too.  Exhibit A is the  label “conspiracy theorists.”  Some secular rationalists clobber people with religious faith, and vice versa.

But what I’ve observed is this.  Our accepted way of combining events into stories is just that, an accepted way of combining events in stories.  To see this, a person has to view what goes on in this world from “outside” of it.  If people do this in some ways, they fall into distress and dysfunction and we have mental illness.  If people do this in other ways, we have witnessing and detachment — which some people also consider pathological.  But once you go there, you can observe that consensus reality is just a group choice, it isn’t necessary or compelled by anything.  You just have to make sure you can toggle back and forth between consensus reality and witnessing it from without, if you want to be able to continue to navigate in society.

Once a person “bursts the bubble” of consensus reality, then they can see that “stuff happens” not in a fatalistic way, but in an observational way; it is that which happens.  It is that which happens that we are adapted to seeing.  Our attempts to make stories out of what happens that we see is more the aberration, more the foreign intrusion, than the occurrence of something that looks like an outlier, that doesn’t quite fit with our storytelling assumptions.

Maybe a person can get to the point of having a perch from which to perceive the world from the outside without first seeing the world through more intensive patterning.  But it is certainly one way to do it.  And once a person does it, then they can see that not just the intensive patterns are an artifact of perception, but that the more widely accepted patterns of most people are, too.  And then a person can process what happens, as simply what happens.  Gita called that “beginner’s mind.”

I sometimes say that I go to Gita when I need to hear what I don’t want to hear.  This time I could see the category is really “what I need an outsider to observe and relay back to me.”

Sometimes Gita  clarifies for me the name for a concept in a different way.  For example, I was using “unisex” where “androgynous” was the more accurate label for what I was referencing, and she corrected me.  We humans do pick one another’s nits, they just aren’t always material nits.

What I personally got out of what Gita observed back to me is not actually the point of this post, but I will end with it anyway.  For me, what she did was to tell me, in effect, that I had arrived on the outskirts of where I was headed, namely my beginnings but with an “I” aware or conscious in a way that I hadn’t had before.

The surface

January 4, 2013

I’ve witnessed many people’s discovery for the first time that it is actually a known phenomenon that living in a situation in which appearances don’t match reality is stressful.  Many react with a kind of, “I thought it was just me who had trouble dealing with it.”

There’s an aspect that is related, I think, to a disjunction between appearances and reality that concerns me a lot — the development, and then maintenance, of a false self.  The false self is not connected to the soul, God, the universe, forces greater than ourselves, etc., in the way the true self is.  So, if we get too caught up in a false self, we diminish, and as a practical matter, lose, our spiritual support.

I spend too much of my time and energy supporting people with my own spiritual energy who don’t learn how to access their own.  It’s a form of enabling, not something admirable.  I find myself doing it especially when societal norms deem me responsible in some way for the other person’s behavior or well-being — it’s a way for me to mitigate the problem somewhat, a way to take some of the edge off the behavior of the other person.

It’s exhausting.  (As I said, I’m not endorsing the practice.)

That dynamic gives me an incentive to try to get people and our culture to value the true self, and not reward the development of the false self, so that they’ll access their own spiritual support.  A challenge for me in working on this is that I need to, I think, be encouraging and nurturing to the people who prefer to develop a false self — if I get impatient and show my frustration, I think I make the problem worse.  But I also need to be firm and to redirect them in their attitudes, behavior, even patterns of thinking.

I am aware that I need to work on patience kind of generally — on being more patient and also on not feeling discouraged or angry with how effective I think my work is — to develop an attitude that helps me just keep on plugging along.  I’m pretty good at reading the writing on the wall that others who have gone before me have left behind.  So I catch myself when I want to throw up my hands in despair or in disdain or in denigration of my efforts.  I would much rather do a small piece of this work well than expect too much from my own efforts.  Just as I am aware of the people who have come before me and of the people alongside of me, I am also aware that there are people who will come after me.  Sometimes trying to push something too far undermines the entire effort — like the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  I’d rather a second camel be hired.

What we see

October 16, 2011

I was at the Porter Square T stop in Cambridge, MA earlier today, and it was windy enough for the mobile sculpture above the station to catch my attention as I waited for the light to change.  I suspect that the structures are supposed to represent hot air balloons, but they’ve always looked to me like ice cream cones.

There was a song I used to hear on a children’s show years ago that had a verse, “‘Look there, Daddy.’  ‘What do you see?’ ‘I see a horse in striped pajamas.’  ‘No, that’s not what it is at all; people call that a zebra.’ ‘I see.  But it still looks like a horse in striped pajamas to me.'”

I can see the balloons, I can see the zebra, I can agree that the other interpretation is outside of the consensus.  But I’m not sure I’m willing to give up that other, alternative interpretation, either.

I think there is a distinction between one’s own idiosyncratic interpretation (in which I might put my ice cream cone interpretation) and participating in other ways of seeing that we don’t include in consensus reality.  A mild example in this second category might be interpreting a situation in which a self-help group insists on keeping a lot of old books in the bag members take turns carrying to the meetings, just in case they are needed, as representing that members carry around “old baggage” that probably should be jettisoned, too.

Spending time in non-consensus reality has its risks, both personal and social.  But I’m not so sure that our current version of consensus reality is so “accurate” itself that paying undue deference to it at all costs is the answer, either.  I sometimes wonder whether that wasn’t what Socrates was getting at.  I like to think that if instead of trying to get others to agree to see things in other ways, we just help other people develop themselves, eventually something will willingly shift, and we’ll get where we need to go with less risk in the process to the messengers.

Searching for piety

August 9, 2011

I read a comment to Diane Ackerman’s column in today’s NYTimes that included an aside about experiencing, or not, people who are truly pious (it’s the first comment, by Gemli of Boston).  I was startled by this, especially because I live in the Boston area, too, and I have encountered here what looks to me like true piety.  Of course, the pious people I have met have low profiles, sometime unprepossessing exteriors and presentation, and perhaps would not be given by everyone a sufficient hearing to reveal their piety, but that’s part of the mystery as I see it: we encounter the people we are ready to learn from, kind of the flip side to “when the student is ready, the teacher appears.”