The relevance of old things

21 June 2012

I am at a bit of a hinge point in my career, as I’ve just graduated with a master’s degree but have elected to take a little time before applying to a doctorate program. It’s as good a time as any to ponder the relevance of my chosen area of expertise. Of course, I tend to ponder this fairly often anyway, but right now I’ve got a pretty wide open near-future in terms of scholarship, so I get to try out a few different options for narrowing my focus further…

So here’s one thought: old things remain relevant. Why? How? In what cases? My decision to study Indian Buddhist philosophy is by necessity an argument that at least some old things, at least some old thoughts, remain relevant in at least one sense or another. One strong argument to make would go something like this: although Buddhism “died” in India many centuries ago, the philosophical (and cultural, etc.) influence of Indian Buddhism continued in India and elsewhere, hence it is worth looking at what continues today to form a foundational or at least complementary part of the worldviews and philosophies of so many people around the world. True, but I am more interested in looking into the philosophy itself in Sanskrit from centuries ago, not the contemporary cultural and other remnants and resonances still to be found. This argument, while I find it basically convincing, is not sufficient for my purposes.

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Who are you…

13 June 2012

Who are you to judge…? These words, as so many others, don’t mean exactly what they mean, do they? Firstly, they are only so often meant as an actual question. Rather, they often suggest, “You should not be judging. You are not entitled to judge,” or some such thing. Secondly, the extent to which they are indeed signifying a question, it is one with only two possible answers: (i) “No one, you’re right”; or (ii) a bit of biographical detail intended as a warrant (“Well, it just so happens that my mother was a such-and-such…”). An answer like, “A human being!” is typically seen as arrogant or dismissive or ignorant. But this answer, too, hides further meaning. Often if “Who are you to judge?” is replied with “A human being,” this reply implies a dismissal of the supposed exclusivity of the matter in question. Bigoted terminology is one example of such a sensitive subject. Should I be excluded from the conversation sparked by Gwyneth Paltrow’s recent tweet? Or ought I not even want to be part of the discussion? Etc. “I’m a human being!” would, in this context, mean that this topic is open to everyone, and would imply a criticism of the view that there should be any question of its openness. (As it happens, I’m unconcerned with Paltrow’s tweet, and I don’t think being human is unto itself a good reason to join the discussion, to say the least.)

But, as is my wont, I’d like to read this bit of dialogue more literally and see what comes of it.

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Saying little about doing what I do

10 June 2012

I can say I study Indian Buddhist philosophy, though I am far from a specialist. I have a long way to go in that regard. And yet I have already found my chosen focus becoming narrow and specialized enough to make it extremely difficult to actually talk about with or even just describe to other people. This is a very grave concern for me, because the impetus for my studies is that I would like to relate worthwhile thoughts and strategies for life from my particular interpretations and investigations of various texts and traditions. I.e., I’d like what I do to matter to people beyond the handful of folks like me who are interested in studying Sanskritic philosophical texts. I’m aware that I will have to become very good at doing high-level scholarly work on a specialized area, and I believe there to be great value in the specialized work I hope to become capable of producing. I cannot (nor should I) expect that all of my work, or even most of it (especially at first), will be relevant in the way I hope to someday achieve. But I think it’s worth being concerned about now so that as I get a little deeper into my specialization I remain aware of the increasing challenge of someday making this stuff relevant.

See, for me philosophical thinking generally is not only relevant but concretely relevant in an everyday sort of way. I’m curious about how world views come into existence, how they seem to exist in an individual conscious continuum like a full-fledged and coherent system, and how they nevertheless remain in flux and incomplete. Why do we act as though we believe ourselves to have completed worldviews when we are so aware of our unavoidable ignorance? Why do we imagine ourselves to form our worldviews, rather than viewing ourselves as products of the worldview we inhabit? When are we correct to do so, when are we misguided, and when do our ideas about how we experience the world deviate from our actual experience of the world? These may sound like abstract questions, but for me they accompany our every action, every moment of our web of relationships. But in a sense this concreteness is just an intuition. It’s not something of which I have a firm, easily expressed experience. I can only say that it’s true and hope at some point to recognize it more fully and put together the right sentences to capture and relate it.

I don’t want to say that Buddhist philosophical thinking, more specifically, is also relevant for me in a concrete, everyday sort of way, only because the phrase “Buddhist philosophical thinking” is not actually all that more specific than the phrase “philosophical thinking,” if at all. But I will say that certain Buddhist concepts and techniques strike me as relevant and worthwhile. Nevertheless, I am in a curious in-between spot at the moment. I know some stuff, but the basic insight I have is that I hardly know anything. I’m not ignorant only in the sense that I know that I’m ignorant. It puts me in a bit of a bind. The philosophical blogger in me wants to riff off various terms and topics found in various Buddhist philosophical texts. The scholar in me wants to keep quiet and spend another few years reading and translating, etc., before feeling confident saying much of anything. These two voices in me find one another valuable, but also a little foolish. So, in the meantime, I guess I’ll just be vague…

My love song for William Shakespeare

1 June 2012

I love Shakespeare. I’ve read all his plays, some several times, though none near as closely and caringly as I hope someday to have. I’ve read a chunk of his sonnets and found fascinating the interplay between the lies and truths and puns spoken by his many characters and the playful reflections found in his individual poems – this despite the fact that I’ve hardly scratched the surface of such close reading. Nevertheless, I wonder if my love of Shakespeare is not strongly colored by my love of J. Alfred Prufrock’s pathetic love song. It’s not only Prufrock’s acceptance/assertion that he is not Prince Hamlet, but just an attendant lord. (There’s an amazing kind of making-to-be that goes along with self-recognition, and a correlative unmaking that goes along with self-abnegation.) Not that one should really wish to be Hamlet… But it’s also Prufrock’s whole style of self-investigation. It’s no surprise when, towards the end of his song, he asserts that he is not Hamlet. One doesn’t ask, “Why would you be thinking about such a thing anyway?” He is the star of his own little show, as we all are, but not the star of anyone else’s. Anyway, I don’t have the time or focus or knowledge to go on an in-depth reading of Shakespeare via Prufrock, or Prufrock in terms of his reading of Shakespeare, or any such thing. I only offer this quick reflection, that often when I write fictional characters who have profound anxieties, they evoke for me the language of Eliot’s clever mockery of the language of the characters of Shakespeare’s many universes. Yes, they recall, for me, lines and characters and feelings from the Shakespearean corpus. But always in the course of drowning to the sound of human girls’ voices. Some day in the future I’ll devote a little more care and thought to this, and perhaps will read Shakespeare and Eliot again, and more closely. One can only hope.

Spring cleaning

12 May 2012

Sometimes, while spring cleaning, I find old scraps of paper with odd little notes scribbled on them. Sometimes I’m lucky and there’s some hint at the date or occasion that inspired the writing, and I can go back to a feeling I’ve otherwise forgotten, and put back together, in some fragmented way, the experience of a younger me. It’s a fun little journey to take. Just as often there is nothing on the page but a few words, and I have to linger over the tension between the feeling the words evoke in me, and the ignorance of what phase in my life they come out from. Sometimes I feel a little embarrassed when the words don’t seem well-composed, and I wonder whether it might have even been quite recently that I felt such clumsy feelings and expressed them so clumsily. This is a fun journey to take, too, and perhaps even more valuable; the first kind of journey helps me feel compassion for a younger me, whereas the more fragile journey, the one cloaked in a more apparent sense of ignorance, pushes me to treat my present self more compassionately. I’m alone with words I have to own as my own. In the case of the note I’m about to post, I know it was written a couple of years ago, though I can’t remember exactly what I had in mind. No bother. I’ll make the words anew by typing them here:

How much family you’ve got
the better to eat me with


And friends — infinite.
I wish only for a little
piece of you, but that
this piece might remain
steadfast —

I don’t want to lose
you each time I feel
drawn in…

it hurts not
knowing how
i affect you

O, these I lack, to make you garlands of, and my sweet friend…

7 May 2012

It happens so quickly you haven’t the time to notice, and the response it generates is so mild and acquiescent, you’d almost never realize you just hurt someone you care about. I’m talking about random, unnecessary, and insignificant cruel remarks. Or, at least as I’d argue, they seem insignificant.

The example I enjoy best is one that I think illustrates just how oddly unnecessary and yet how clandestinely cruel these sorts of comments can be: a friend mis-remembers the name of an actor, or identifies the wrong band in guessing who performs the song playing on the radio. You laugh vigorously and ask how in the world your friend could have gotten that wrong. You grab the nearest person and point in your friend’s face and relate the mistake. Maybe you don’t even bother saying aloud, “What an idiot!” Either way you make the message clear: your friend should feel humiliated. But for what? … Worse yet, when you ask your friend what could possibly have been going through that thick skull, the response is muted: I don’t know! I’m such an idiot. Maybe you even let it go, only to have your friend grab the nearest passerby and ask if they can believe what a dumb mistake they’ve just made…

Perhaps, reading this description, you’re rolling your eyes. Just having a little fun, and the like. We all find ourselves on both ends of this kind of interaction daily. It’s almost like talking about the weather. But, if we’re just having a little fun, it won’t hurt for me to ask: Why? Why is this our idea of a little fun? Does it feel good, after all? Does it establish in our friend’s heart that we ought to be trusted and respected, and that we trust and respect our friend? Or, as I’d obviously argue, does it do the opposite? Imagine just a tiny little wound is suffered – by the friend, by the friendship, by oneself – on such an occasion as this; namely, when we all but tell our friends, even if somewhat quietly: You ought to be ashamed of yourself, and feel small, and foolish. Imagine this wound being re-opened at each such instance. How are we to trust our friends, be vulnerable with them, learn and cultivate intimacy with them, if we can’t even make insignificant errors without being ridiculed? Do we not curse our parents for their overly critical attitudes? Do we not lash out at lovers who say hurtful words? Why should we tolerate such bland and insignificant cruelty among friends…? Read the rest of this entry »

Leisure, suffering, philosophy, and Joni Mitchell

21 April 2012

That first part is perhaps a bit too grand a title for this post. (Though maybe Joni will save me.) I’m thinking today about how much leisure is involved in my practice of philosophy and my reflections on suffering. As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m wary of self-pity for privilege, as much as of self-congratulation. I’m privileged, and I suffer, and some of my suffering is connected with my privilege. Etc., etc. That I have so much time – free time, it would be right to say – is the pinnacle of my privilege, and though its dangers are as great as its opportunities, I’ve been able to take advantage and focus my life towards self-awareness (which I think of as super important). I’m extremely grateful for this, but I also often enough forget to be grateful. It is, after all, despite all my whining over the years, very hard to actively understand the minds of others, and so, for the sake of ease, I treat people coldly and from a distance. For many people spending a bulk of their work and leisure time on philosophical reflection would sound like a nightmare, or at least a major bore, so it’s helpful to remember there’s no inherent value in what I do, other than that for me it is inherently valuable. But I also feel passionately that there is potential value for everyone in what I do – both whether they themselves want to and are able to partake, and just to whatever extent I myself do it well – which means there’s also great responsibility.

A long time ago someone said that all things are characterized by three principles I’ll now badly translate as: they are impermanent, they are in tension, and they are not identical with or reducible to themselves. Probably even longer ago some adult cracked wise about youngsters thinking they’d live forever and taking their youth for granted. I’ve long wondered whether these two sentiments are not themselves in pretty sharp tension with one another. (How better should we have been enjoying our youth?) But moreover, I’ve also long felt both were hogwash. Not necessarily the “taking for granted” part itself, just that exclusively the young do such things. Endlessly lamenting the loss of youth (rather than, say, mourning it) has long struck me as being whatever the hideous underbelly of “taking one’s youth for granted” might be. And which youngsters, I had wondered, really think they’re going to live forever? How many people’s lives have not been touched by death, by the confusion and pain of the death of a loved one, or the death of a loved one’s loved one, of a loved pet? I’m not sure I know anyone in my age range who hasn’t known a classmate to die before the end of high school, before the end of college. These are stark examples, and it doesn’t take the death of someone close for the fact of death to make its way into our thoughts. It doesn’t take adulthood for us to reflect on the bizarre question: What will it mean for me to die? (What does meaning mean if I am dead?) And yet, our concerns remained, through high school, through college, on less cosmic concerns than the fact that we all die eventually, and that many of us may die soon. I’ve long held this notion – that there is some bit of wisdom adults have that they are right to wistfully and arrogantly remark on in our presence as if we just couldn’t yet understand – to be obnoxious and misguided. Read the rest of this entry »

Poem :: Conveyor

13 April 2012

Check out this post over at the Conveyor Magazine blog, which features a piece by photographer Allen Chen and a poem, “Three Times,” that I wrote in response to it. In about a week there will be a second post featuring a photograph Allen composes in response to a different poem of mine. While you’re over at the Conveyor blog check out some of their other recent posts. There’s a lot of great stuff!

Quick thought on dream-time

11 April 2012

Leaving lucid dreaming aside for the moment, how often do you experience dreams in the present tense? Obviously, when we recount a dream we are later in time than the dream itself, thus we narrate in the past tense, but the time of the dream itself is generally present. (Excepting those dreams in which we remember, or dream, or etc.) Still, when I hear people refer to “believing” a dream to be real during the dream, I don’t buy it. I’ve never had a dream in which I asked or wondered whether I was dreaming or awake and concluded that I was, in fact, awake. In those few instances in which I’ve thought at all about the status of reality from within a dream, I have always then become lucid to the dream. (I’m searching for someone who can claim to be an exception.) Dreams don’t cloak or hide themselves, it’s just that we tend not to need to know they’re dreams, and we tend not to bother asking. (That latter part may be why dreams are useful metaphors for waking consciousness, as we tend not to ask after the status of our waking consciousness, either. (One wonders what lucidity would be in this analogue.)) Do we really “believe” that the dream is real? Wouldn’t a more accurate description be just to say we are dreaming? Sometimes we are inclined to smooth over complexity and seek a falsely simple explanation; other times, though, we muddy otherwise clear waters. I don’t believe I’m awake, either. I’m just awake.

If you ask how I know I’m awake, I’d say that’s a different kind of question. I don’t have to know I’m awake to be awake, but being awake entails an “awake” kind of awareness. If you’d like me to offer compelling reasons that demonstrate I was asleep last night and woke up this morning, I can try and do that. But episemo-phenomenologically that is a different process than the being-asleep and being-awake that I’ve done/been over the past day. That’s what makes lucid dreaming such a fascinating experience: I am doing something regarding dream consciousness other than just doing dream consciousness, which is ordinarily all we do in that state. Reflecting on being awake is easier when awake than reflecting at all while asleep, so it feels less dramatic. Nevertheless, neither do I have to know I’m dreaming to dream, nor does (non-lucid) dreaming imply that I believe myself to be awake. The magic of dreams has nothing to do with deception; it’s just that dreams are dream-like.

This has already become a bit convoluted, though. Is it belief or knowledge? Well, I would say that if we know we’re awake, in that same sense we know when we’re dreaming. If we ask, “Am I awake?” the answer is immediately clear in both contexts. But nor was I experiencing a state of knowledge (and certainly not the kind of knowledge derived from analysis) in or in order to be in either state. So although I’d perhaps grant a kind of knowing to dreaming and waking consciousnesses, I’d want to push back against that a bit. On the other hand, belief doesn’t seem to me to play just about any role in either. When I ride my bike to class I don’t believe I’m cycling. Frankly, I have more pressing concerns. I just am riding my bike. Occasionally I am led to reflect on the present cycling, in which case you can say an awareness of being-cycling is a constituent element of the reflection. But belief seems like a terrible word to describe this. Knowledge, too, seems inadequate. I think saying that I know myself to be biking is to already complicate matters too much. I’m cycling. Maybe I’m also reflecting on my cycling, or on cycling generally, or whatever. But I’m also just doing that.

Reinterpreting the karma/rebirth theory in terms of neuroscientific determinism, or, Another look at déjà vu

8 April 2012

There is so much I wish to cover in this post, and I can only cover all of it unsatisfactorily, so I’ll just jump write in and try not to worry too much about how paltry my efforts will be.

Since I’ve been intrigued and inspired by, broadly, Buddhist thought, I’ve been similarly intrigued by the dual theory of karma and rebirth. The precise theory is framed and conceived of differently in different contexts, but loosely speaking the theory is that action (karma) leads to a rebirth the qualities of which are determined by various qualities of the relevant actions. That is to say, act “well,” be reborn in a “positive” rebirth. For a time I was indifferent to the truth or falsity of this theory. Then for a while I didn’t believe it; then I believed it; then I became indifferent again, but differently than the original indifference. In Intro to Buddhism courses I tried to argue to my skeptical classmates (who were often quite new to this theory other than in the popular “what goes around comes around” version that holds that if you do a nice deed at the beginning of the day, someone might do something nice by day’s end) that it was “not moral.” Why would I say such a thing? Our typical conceptions of morality involve moral guidelines, such as those laid down by a creator god, by which we can judge our actions and by which our actions can be judged. To say that the Buddhist theory of karma is “not moral” is to suggest there is no such outside agent determining which kinds of actions are good and which are bad, but rather just that actions that lead to a rebirth that feels good can be considered “good” and those that lead to an unpleasant rebirth can be considered “bad.” This is not moral so much as it is metaphysical. It “just is that way.” The better in tune one is with how it “just is,” the better one is able to judge which actions are conducive to what we would consider good results. In the meantime, I guess we ought to just follow the Buddha’s guidelines. Something like that.

Now, there is an argument to be made that this is a non-moral theory. But what if the details of my argument were true and the theory were still moral? What might that entail? Perhaps morality is just “how it is” when “how it is” comes into contact with the human mind, human relationships, and human culture. What if morality is just our half-hearted attempt to make sense of how it is?  Read the rest of this entry »