The Politics of Internal Transformation –
The following is Part 2 of a two-part series. In this piece I take up the challenge of beginning to apply the theory of adaptive cycles to the processes by which we weave our perceptions into a coherent world. If Part 1 was on the academic side, this is decidedly more personal, exploring subjective states I have experienced, and their possible implications in terms of social history. Click here for Part 1
When I look out my window I see houses across a small valley, and the leafy tops of the trees that grow between the houses. The morning is hazy, and all the different surfaces of this landscape reflect the soft light toward me. The rays of light pass through my retina and become impulses along the branching lines of my optic nerves. My brain weaves these various scraps of visual sense data into a stable and familiar picture, and the sounds of birds singing and traffic on the 101 get woven in as well. My mind does all this work constantly, building on all the similar work it has done for years, re-composing a coherent-seeming world in which I can continue to seek out the things I need and want, preserve myself from what I do not want, and tune out all the rest.
One surprising recognition I have had lately is that the world I perceive – the houses on the hillside across the valley and all that surrounds them – is not, in fact, truly separate from me in the way I typically assume. When I look, I find that there is no me apart from these sense impressions and the memory of similar experiences of contact back through time. And, like other human beings, I myself am the product of a long, complex evolutionary emergence that has shaped my eyes and ears and mind to receive the sense impressions out of which I weave this picture of the world. It would be just as true to say, in fact, that those sense impressions of the houses across the valley ARE me, at least as much as anything else – my memories, my image in the mirror, my name – are me. And this basic error, this mistaken assumption of separation, explains why the kind of self-interested engagement described above – where I seek more of what I like and less of what I don’t – is always a deeply frustrating experience. When I stop making this error – when I open to the way in which that hillside across the way is not separate from me – I experience a sense of presence that arrives with an intensity verging on the ecstatic, but that also remains stubbornly mundane. A shift take place, an easing of tension in my shoulders. Often, a small bubble of elation will rise from the center of my chest to lift the corners of my mouth. Something stops not-fitting would be one way to describe this experience, but, at the same time, the mortgage still needs to be paid, my daughter needs to be delivered to dance class on time, and, at any moment, the Spanish Inquisition may show up at my front door. But perhaps the most interesting thing about looking out and being greeted by a world not-separate from me is how the experience registers not as a new discovery but, rather, as the affirmation of something I have always known.
The kind of fleeting recognition I’m describing here happens more often when I’m alone. It’s more challenging to have this experience of non-separation when other people are around, and the reason for this is how confusing and mysterious it is that they too could be not-separate from the world, which suddenly includes me as one of its minor details. Above and beyond the abrupt and, in my view, totally scandalous demotion this represents for me, I really just don’t get it, don’t understand how I could be so central and also so peripheral at one and the same time. In my confusion I assume, quite embarrassingly, that I was imagining the whole not-separate thing. Immediately I collapse all the way back into a hard-shelled creature scuttling along in search of the best deal I can claw for myself in a long, competitive haggling with an uncaring world. My sense, lately, is that this subtle cycling through states of connection and collapse – analogous to the four stages of adaptive cycles I wroteabout in Part 1 of this post – happens continually, right on the edge of my conscious awareness.
Lately, I’ve found it helpful to view this odd fact about other people – that they too are not-separate from the world of their experience – not so much as a puzzle I must solve, but rather as a mystery I can be curious about. It occurs to me that I experience then something like the sense of wonder that can be found in the wide eyes of infants when they catch your gaze – that studious intensity it’s so much fun to get lost in. For a baby to recognize another being looking down over the edge of the crib, they must already be entering what the influential psychologist Jacques Lacan termed the “mirror stage.” This is when the period of “symbiotic” union with the world of experience ends and the child begins to impute his or her own existence as a separate ego-form or self based upon what he or she sees in the eyes of the Other. The infant will become very interested in how the eyes of the Other respond to what they see. If those eyes are lit up with love, kindness, perhaps even longing, a warm bath of comfortable endorphins will wash over the infant’s nervous system. And if the gaze of the Other is full of anger and aggression, a buzz of destructive adrenalin courses through the infant instead. As the child matures, he or she will begin to theorize about what causes positive versus negative reactions in the gaze of the Other.
It’s generally assumed that infant development is a series of steps in the “right” direction, the direction of “reality.” But some modern cognitive scientists, Francisco Varela, for example, tend to agree with the non-dual wisdom traditions of Asia that our sense of separation is itself deeply delusional. Lacan, certainly, viewed the mirror stage as the beginning of a long flight away from the real into the neurotic alienation that is viewed in the West as “normal” ego development. For Lacan, the confusion of the mirror stage is cemented by the acquisition of language, the symbol system that allows us to navigate the social sphere, but that also seals us from our own groundless being. After this fall from Eden we are pursued by a sense of lack and diminishment, and a longing for completion. In our confusion we do crazy, destructive things like construct huge civilizations that drag the planet toward what Paleontologists now refer to as the third “great extinction.”
“Emptiness is the ultimate protection,” the Tibetan saying goes. “Emptiness,” as you may know, does not refer to “void” but rather to “empty of form.” Knotted with philosophical subtleties, the idea basically underscores the way any object or separate thing can be viewed as a complex set of factors arising together in an interdependent fashion that includes your perception of it. Part of the reason it’s so hard to express the nature of “emptiness” elegantly in a post of this kind is that words themselves are so much about the separateness of things, the “form” aspect of the pen that is, insistently, a pen. From the point of view of Buddhist psychology both these poles of the pen – its form aspect, and its emptiness or co-emergent aspect – are equally valid. The famous “middle way” of Buddhism involves holding both extremes in mind at the same time. Our problem, our “suffering,” arises from our inability to maintain this balancing act. Specifically, we have a strong bias in the direction of form.
It’s easy to see the Darwinian survival value of this bias – seeing the “form aspect” of the cave bear galloping toward you is central to your ability to pass your genetic material on to future generations. Today, though, the interlocking challenges of environmental degradation and social injustice that threaten the species can be traced to this same bias. I’m persuaded that this little glitch in human software explains certain mysteries – such as how, on our astonishingly abundant jewel of a planet, we could be so bent on self-elimination, and be pursuing exactly that with such single-minded fervor and devotion. It seems fitting that the urgent issues confronting us would prove so difficult to solve precisely because they are so complex and emergent – so much a result of the interconnectivity our reductive rationalism – our bias in the direction of form – runs counter to. Time to rebalance, in other words, in the direction of a protective “emptiness.”
Many people find it easier to form an emotional relationship to a state of mind when it is reified into a deity figure. Do that with this slippery concept of “emptiness” and you end up with the deity worshipped for millennia in large parts of Asia – Shiva. In the West the ancient Greeks handed down to us a version of Shiva, and we call this deity Dionysus, god of madness and ecstasy. You might be more intimately familiar with Dionysus than you realize – Sigmund Freud smuggled him into the culture in the guise of the subconscious mind, which he derived, to some degree, from the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. From this point of view, when you go visit a counselor or shrink you are actually talking to a kind of priest mediating your relationship to this powerful archetype.
For me, an even better place to worship Dionysus is at the theater. Whatever the specific content of the play or performance, what we cherish most, if only covertly, is the conjuring of an illusion of “reality” that we can experience fully, form and emptiness reconciled. Buttressing each other, shoulder to shoulder in our seats, we discover the courage to witness together the appearance of reality rising up out of nothing to dance for a while under the lights, and then dissolve again into nothing but the memory of our applause. Here we find Shiva, the dancer, who, in the Tantric traditions articulated over a millennium ago, weaves continuously through a cycle of creation, preservation, concealment, revelation and destruction. I find it comforting to note how well this sequence harmonizes with the four stages of adaptive cycles – rapid growth, conservation, collapse and renewal. The fact that some environmental thinkers have arrived at insights similar to those of ancient Asian wisdom traditions would seem to underscore the strength of these ideas, and to encourage us to revise our habits of mind accordingly.