Archive for the 'human thinking' 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.


January 7, 2013

I think I’m one of those.  Actually, I think we all are, whether we’re effective at being one or not.  I think we are conduits for forces we are only dimly aware of.  Sometimes the forces mix with us and what comes out is, for example, art, sometimes it is addictive behavior or even psychosis, sometimes theoretical physics, sometimes a combination of things, including a combination of useful and destructive things.

What I have thought vaguely for a while is that I can hear some interesting things that I could never have thought of, and that I can translate them into words and try to communicate them to other people.  I want to let those interesting things come through into the world — they are more helpful than what I could come up with through my intellect.

What I think I’ve spent years doing is cleaning out my apparatus, the conduit apparatus within me.  I think someone had used it for relationships and acquiring stuff and influencing people according to what that someone wanted.  I think it had been developed well enough to do that, and that it was kind of like this person finding someone else’s fully loaded laptop and using it to pick up girls and pay off lobbyists.  It got kind of corroded and bent by being used for personal gain and attachments.  So it took awhile to get the junk and dirt out of it, retrieve some missing pieces, and get the thing up and running as it is intended to be used.

It takes a fair amount of effort for me to hear what I hear, and it often comes best as a reaction to reading or hearing what somebody else is saying.  I focus on the hearing part, including maintaining a good connection, and I tend to give shorter shrift to the translation and presentation part.  If I lose the connection, then the whole point is lost, so that’s why I put my energy there.

I have wished for a collaborator who would focus on the writing and translation part, but Gita has steered me away from that configuration — she thinks I should be doing the whole undertaking.  I struggle with the writing.  I think in parentheses and footnotes and gerunds — how to get those curlicued and nested thoughts into linear form, into short, declarative sentences, and into something that others can follow is a challenge for me.  And taking the time and having the patience to explain it all and not leave too much to be gleaned from between the lines — that’s a challenge for me, too.  Willy used to talk about how programmers get bored after figuring out the gist of a programming problem, and often are impatient with subsequent steps, including the debugging stage.  I’m probably like that.  Once I feel satisfied myself, I have to discipline myself to go further with the project after that — I either don’t hear a call to communicate it well or I override that call with some nonsense of my own (including residue from having a number of people tell me I don’t write well).

I feel somewhat better about the process of learning to communicate when I think of it as finding my voice.  That, in turn, leads me to recollecting the intentional misreading (by a friend of a friend) of the Latin phrase “cave canem” (beware of dog) into “cave caneam,” beware lest I sing.  (The friend of the friend is Debbie Roberts, who I think is a professor at Haverford College.)  I like the idea that somewhere inside of me I have a powerful voice, if I can only find it.  Again, to get back to where I started, I think we all do, it’s a matter of realizing our potential.

Compound accidents

June 5, 2012

I found an interesting spiritual story about the sort of accident I was beginning to understand in my last post.

In this story, there’s a pair twins, boy and girl.  They share a consciousness.  The boy is sent to religious school but not the girl even though it is she who had those nascent skills.  He struggles there.  She has him bring home his learning and she understands it better than he and tutors him.

This arrangement works fine until it’s time for the student to do a particular exercise, and then the impediment of the boy causes him to have a negative experience of it.  The warning signs to his teacher that he was not ready for the exercise may have been obscured by the fact that he had learned the previous skills through the facilitation provided by his twin sister, through imitating her on the surface and having her performance of each skill interpenetrated within him providing the depth of the learning.

The teacher then tries to help the “boy” take flight spiritually, not realizing he is actually trying to help a pair of people who are intermingled.  The weight of the boy makes him crash, the lightness of the girl sends her way too far up into the spiritual realms.  The boy ends up with spiritual acrophobia, the girl ends up with great difficulty reentering her regular consciousness.

This accident leaves the twins unable to remain in each other’s company comfortably, but unfortunately, being in each other’s company actually contains the resolution to their situation.  Because now when the two are together, the boy hears all the spiritual transmissions of the universe, many of which he can no longer hear on his own.  His presence provides her with stability to stay happily anchored in the physical world.  But he pushes her away, because he doesn’t realize that the very thing he finds unnerving about her presence is the very thing that can help him, that his hearing all these spiritual transmissions in her presence overwhelms his capacity for thinking — he can’t think his way out of a paperbag when she’s near him.  He can’t stand that, in the aftermath of this accident they had together, he has become overly fond of thinking and not using other parts of his mind, especially the part he was using when they crashed.  When they are together he is forced not to think, he is forced to use that other part of his mind, and if he stayed in her presence, he would learn to sort out the signals and work his way out of his regression.  She is bringing him something he cannot do on his own.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to want to give it a try, at least that’s her impression.  And she knows enough to know it’s his choice to take an affirmative action, that she can only leave the entire situation but cannot actually dance this step in the interaction — taking the step to spend time in the same room together — because it involves his willingness.  He seems to think that some day the time will seem right to him, but she worries it’s just a story that he tells himself and that “in the meantime” may be too late.  I think she feels a lot like someone on stage trying to temporize while she waits for another actor to come on stage.  If he isn’t going to emerge from his dressing room or his cab or whatever in time, maybe he should allow his understudy to take the stage.

Limitations of codes

September 13, 2011

David Brooks writes in the NYTimes today about how young people think about moral questions.  He seems to come out in favor of relying on traditional cultural frameworks for thinking about them.

When I lost a baby years ago (she’d be 26 now), I didn’t find any of the cultural frameworks available to me very helpful.  Judaism told me that unless the baby had lived 28 days, mourning rites were inappropriate, secular law treated her as a full-term baby, and my reality was somewhere inbetween.   Judaism doesn’t recognize my adopted children either, as I understand it, only the “mitzvah” of my caring for them.  These are not the moral issues at issue in “If It Feels Right …,” but to me they reflect what moral codes do — they reflect limitations as much as they reflect insights.

I ordered a book on hockey rules recently.  I used to turn on the TV when my parents went to the opera and left me alone, and I learned to tune in to hockey games because unlike the movies on late at night, they didn’t get scary.  But I never could figure out some of the rules, and that has been in the back of my mind for a long time.  Hockey, to me, is a fine context for a book of rules.

But I find books of spiritual understandings paraded as rules kind of like overly literal interpretations of poetry.  I don’t think mystics feel moved to foist their understandings on others, but rather develop themselves and go forth among others to interact with them as their understandings have helped them to be able to do.  I think the people who feel compelled to codify what they hear, need enough ego to want to do that, that their understandings are probably distorted, or at least we should be on our guard for that.  Much of what passes for spiritual experience seems to me to be confusing emotional fantasy with spiritual experience, or visions of the simple future with a spiritual experience.

I think some people think spiritual experience and enlightenment are flukes, that we should not aspire to them at all and navigate the human world without them.  The story of Adam and Eve could certainly be read in a way to support that.  But I think that would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  I sometimes wonder if that’s the position of people who struggle with participating in these experiences themselves.

Which brings me to my concluding point: should I assume that others should be on a spiritual path similar to my own?  I do believe that spiritual understanding does lie within each of us, within us all, and that it’s gaining access to it that is the challenge.  Should everybody be trying to gain access to it?  I think so, but I can see that until we do, we may need some amount of reliance on others’ understandings; I just don’t think we should mistake those for some kind of Truth, especially when they are necessarily translated into language for others’ consumption.  And I think that we should be open to the possibility that following others’ understandings may give us cover for not recognizing all the impacts of our behavior on others, and what we might want to learn from those impacts.

Consensus Reality

July 28, 2011

What if our agreed understanding of “reality” is such that it cannot be sustained, that it contains the seeds to its collapse?  What if it needs a little tweaking?

Perhaps because I’m no economist and perhaps because I tend to see in other people’s thinking ideas they may not have intended, I see in Paul Krugman’s notion of the “Confidence Fairy” the possibility of another fallacious belief as well.  I think Prof. Krugman’s Confidence Fairy is about the claim that what the private sector needs is “certainty” in order, for example, to create jobs (and that certainty will be produced by tax cuts and lax regulation).  But what I’m wondering is this: maybe we have  a collective assumption that whatever we decide to do can be made to serve the greater good well enough to keep our human society perking along, that there is some equivalent of “grace” to ensure things work out okay.  This would be a “Confidence Fairy” who sort of picks up after us, and my concept of her would be that she’s a fantasy of our confidence that our behavior has no impact (instead of a fantasy that the only missing ingredient in our situation is confidence in the future through some sense of certainty — that deficiency I would recast as a lack of faith in forces larger than ourselves).

As I discussed in my post about Rumi and Shams, if we are willing, the universe will block our human missteps.  But willingness is necessary, not for some moralistic reason, to my way of thinking, but because willingness makes us sufficiently open to greater forces to allow them to work through us.  If we are strong-arming everything through our intellects and have closed minds, this “universal help card” doesn’t, and can’t, help.  Grace requires some amount of cooperation on our part, might be another way of thinking about it.

The last factor I will mention here is how we reinforce our misunderstandings with our words and our thoughts, and become trapped by them.  “If we can think it, it must be true” clearly isn’t our belief when we hear ideas from others we don’t share, but I think we are more prone to believing it about our own words and thinking.  I hear this notion as an undercurrent in some theology and philosophy in western cultures.  If our thinking is merely human cognition, it may easily be a “sport,” an aberration that has no universal significance and should be quarantined, if you will, restricted to its original context.

I think our dry human thinking needs to be informed by an openness to other human mental activities, in order  for us to remain on course and not go astray.