Zen Teachers?

 

So, I’ve been doing a lot thinking about Zen teachers, about what it means to have a teacher, about what a zen teacher even is, and about what it means to be a zen student, especially in our particular, modern, Western context or situation. So, let’s talk about that right now!

I guess you could say I’ve predominantly been a kind of a self-taught Zen practitioner. I’ve gotten deeper into Buddhism and Zen from practicing meditation, reading various books, watching videos, listening to podcasts, dharma talks etc. It’s only been in the past several weeks that I’ve found a teacher, that I’ve joined a Sangha, and that I’ve taken the Refuge vows and the Five Precepts. In other words, my forays into Buddhism, and now Zen, has been something of a self-guided or self-directed multimedia production.

Yet, the more I continue to study Zen, the more I realize how much the role of a Zen teacher is emphasized. Zen literature is overwhelmingly littered with examples of would be zen students desperately searching for a teacher, often times doing so with great difficulty.

One of the more famous stories is the story of Huike (hwee-kay) trying to convince Bodhidhamra to take him on as a student. Huike stands in the snow all night, the snow piles up to his waist. Bodhidharma still refuses to accept him as a student, and so in an effort to prove his sincerity to Bodhidharma Huike cuts off his own arm and gives it to Bodhidharma. It’s only then that Bodhidhamra relents and takes Huike on as his student.

Now, don’t get me wrong I don’t think this story is literally true. I think its a highly mythologized tale. However, like all mythology, its purpose is not to convey a facticity of historical events but, to convey a deeper meaning. In this case, I think part of the purpose of this story is to suggest that becoming a zen student and finding a teacher is difficult, it isn’t easy, it will take some effort, and it will probably cost you something.

Dogen, himself, writes that “You may have to climb mountains and cross oceans when you look for a teacher to inquire about the way.” In other words, according to Dogen, seeking out a teacher, seeking out training, one must take on a perilous quest to find one. Dogen seems to suggest that its so vitally important to have a teacher that he even goes so far as to say that “If you cannot find a true teacher, it is better not to study (Buddhism) at all.” That seems like a rather bleak prescription.

Now, I can’t help but think about the fact that the world has changed dramatically since the time of these quasi-mythical tales of Buddhist seekers traversing to far-off distant lands, risking and limb (especially in the case of Huike), all in an effort to find someone to provide them information, guidance, and direction. This was not a world of high-speed data and an always-on internet connection. Their world was a world in which google searches had to be performed on foot, their search results could take years, if they came at all.

If there is anything I have learned throughout my academic studies of world religion, it is that religion can be extremely adaptive to cultural and contextual change. Religion seems to be constantly reevaluating itself and its orientation to its particular time and place as the social world continues to shift forward.

This is not to say that there is not always a fundamentalist, orthodox, or conservative element that remains. There will, perhaps, always be those who cling rigidly to the classically accepted and well-fortified demarcations of their religion’s ideologies, those who are unwilling to alter or expand the borders and boundaries of their religion.

Yet, it seems to be an undeniable truth of most religions, that within the changing contexts of each new age or era there is to be found some form of reformational endeavor (i.e. the emergence of varying denominations and expanding theologies in Christianity, the evolution of the different schools of Buddhist thought and their corresponding philosophies, etc.).

In each case, the devotee is tasked with answering the question of what it means to be devoted to their particular religion in their particular time and in their particular place. They must ask what their religion or philosophy means in the present moment. A Christian must grapple with what it means to be a Christian and what Christianity means in what whatever socio-cultural context it is present within. A Buddhist must come to a cognizant understanding of what it means to be a Buddhist and what Buddhism means here and now.

Ok, so I’m not totally sure that I think of Buddhism or Zen as a religion, although there are probably those who do, and clearly that is how they have been traditionally defined. Regardless, I think it remains true that whether we are talking about religion or philosophy, we must recognize that times change, people change, things change, everything changes, and if the ideas that we value are to continue to be of any value they must change as well.

Also, I’m not trying to downplay the significance of a zen teacher or the potential importance of having a zen teacher. Honestly, I’m not nearly knowledgeable enough to know whether or not a zen teacher is still so necessary in the this burgeoning world resplendent with readily available resources and information. What I am trying to do is mindfully recognize the significant ways in which the world we are all presently a part of has and continues to change.

For instance, Rob Bell is a Christian speaker, writer, and thinker, and in one of his books that I read years ago called Velvet Elvis he writes about the necessity of adapting and evolving our ideas:

“Times change… We learn and grow, and the world around us shifts, and the Christian faith is alive only when it is listening, morphing, innovating, letting go of whatever has gotten in the way of Jesus and embracing whatever will help us be more and more the people God wants us to be.”

Full disclosure, I’m not a Christian or a theist but, I still think he’s making a really important point here, and one that can easily be applied to Buddhism, or any other tradition or idea for that matter.

Everything is impermanent. Nothing is static. Nothings stays the same.

Not only does everything change but, everything is in the constant and never-ending process of actively changing.

The world around us is constantly shifting and as such, we must continue to learn, grow, and evolve. Our traditions, beliefs, or ideals are alive only when they are listening, morphing, innovating, and letting go of whatever has gotten in the way, and embracing whatever will help us continue to learn and grow along the way.

In fact, my Zen teacher recently wrote an article about being a Reluctant Zen teacher, and he makes a very similar point.

“I think we should be re-evaluating our devotion to authority figures all the time and that we shouldn’t be accepting things on tradition alone. And, as teachers, I think we need to constantly be re-evaluating what we’re doing and making sure we aren’t doing things that drive a lot of people away or don’t work.”

“I wonder if we make a mistake when we think that models of practice that worked in India, China and Korea should be used here. Should we be making our own way instead?”

“I also wonder sometimes if we could reform Zen for the west, in the same way that a few organizations like Insight Meditation Society have been able to reform Theravada.”
So, if we’re going to explore this approach we have to begin to ask “what is a Zen teacher?”

In his book, What is Zen?, Norman Fischer explains that “A Zen teacher isn’t a person; a “Zen teacher” inevitably involves a world, a context.” On the one hand a “Zen teachers exist in the context of Zen teaching, Zen communities, a Zen practice environment, so finding a teacher means finding a community, a sangha, a teaching, a context.” But, I also can’t help but think there’s more to it than just that.

As I mentioned Earlier I now belong to the Morning Sky Zen Sangha. In our discussions there, we’ve been going through The Mirror of Zen. One of the verses that really sticks out to me is verse two which says the following:

“The appearance of all Buddha and Patriarchs in this world can be likened to waves arising suddenly on a windless ocean”.

One way to interpret this verse, as my teacher does, is to say that there is no separation between you and the teacher, both the teacher and student arise from the very same ocean of one-ness, and that “we tend to worship teachers or put them on a pedestal or something” and this is a bit of a mistake. But, also I think that you could read it another way.

Teachers, Buddhas, Patriarchs, arise suddenly, sometimes unexpectedly sometimes from unexpected places. What I mean to say is that because a Zen teacher “inevitably involves a world, a context” and because of this kind on inseparable oneness, anything and anyone that arises can potentially be your zen teacher.

A zen teacher is anyone and anything that you garner experiential wisdom and knowledge from.

I did a four part series on Montaigne and Buddhism (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). Michel de Montaigne was a French Renaissance writer/philosopher, and certainly not a Buddhist but, while I was reading Montaigne’s essays, it felt as though he was teaching me about Zen and Buddhism, at that moment Montaigne became my Zen teacher.
Returning to my Zen teacher, Daniel Scharpenburg, he says that “the role of a teacher is more about reflecting you back at yourself rather than being above you”

In his book, Sit Down and Shut Up, Brad Warner makes the same kind of analogy when talking about a Zen teacher. He says that
“You need to have a mirror to be able to fix your hair or apply your lipstick properly. It’s certainly physically possible to do these things without a mirror and there are no laws against it. But you’d have no real idea what you actually looked like until you walked outside and everyone started giggling at you because you’ve got lipstick all over your nose. A good Buddhist teacher can be your mirror. The teacher, in turn, learns to use her students as a mirror in a similar way.”
Brad Warner explains the following in a post on his blog:

“If you’re serious about finding a teacher, you’re probably going to have to do some work looking for one.”

“There’s value to working for things that are important.”

You’re going to have to search. You’re going to have to keep your eyes and ears open, especially in unexpected places, and maybe with unexpected people. You’re going to have to cultivate a kind of open-awareness.

Perhaps, as Dogen says, we do need to climb mountains and cross oceans to find a teacher but, maybe that’s not so much an external journey any more. I think we all have mental mountains that we need to traverse, as well emotional and psychological oceans that we will have to cross if we ever hope to reach the other shore. And what if its the process itself, the journey itself, that is the teacher? What if its the effort and the act of scaling the internal mountainous terrain and sailing across these treacherous and tumultuous seas that teaches us the most?

Maybe its the search itself that is the teacher?

Dogen writes that “You should remember that how much you study and how fast you progress are secondary matters. The joyfully seeking mind is primary.” Dogen places special emphasis on the “Way-seeking mind” (doshin).

He says that “wisdom is seeking wisdom” – I think, in a way, he’s suggesting that the act of seeking wisdom is an indication of wisdom or wisdom is attained by the very process of aspiring to wisdom. There is no distance between the two – aspiration is itself a kind of attainment or maybe the aspiration is indicative that you have already attained it, its something you already have. So when he talks about the “Way-seeking mind” or when says that the “joyfully seeking mind” is primary – I think it is an emphasis on the eager openness of beginners mind.

There’s an article I read a few weeks ago by Norman Fisher called “No Teacher of Zen”. In it recounts another Zen story, in which Huangbo says “Don’t you know that in all of China, there are no teachers of Zen?” Imagine his students confusion, their teacher announcing that there are no teachers of Zen – obviously they had questions – if there are no Zen teachers why are they there? Why are there these places of Zen training and study? Why are there people like Huangbo who have set up these places of Zen training and study? Huangbo clarifies stating, “I don’t say there is no Zen, only that there are no teachers.”

“the teacher can’t teach you.”

“there are no Zen teachers because Zen isn’t a teachable subject matter or skill.”

“students are responsible for their own practice and their own awakening. No one can communicate a truth worth knowing; the only worthwhile truth is the one you find uniquely, for your own life.”

What does it mean to be a student? Perhaps, to be a student of zen it is not to be so fundamentally devoted to a particular ‘teacher’ but, instead to rooted to the practice, rooted to the quest, to search, to the study. Perhaps, it means constantly scanning the horizon in search of any person, place, or thing that can teach you.

Someone recently sent me a great quote from a book called The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out by The Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje. I think it summarizes what I’ve been trying to get at in this video and I think its a great place to end.

“The teachings and teachers are ubiquitous. Reality is your teacher. Everything that appears can become your teacher. The four seasons can teach you. Anything can be a teacher of Buddhist teachings. Anything.”

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“God is Dead”: Nietzsche, the Death of all ‘Gods’, and the Birth of the Postmodern

A few months back I completed a graduate course examining 19th-Century thinkers and writers. As part of the course work I wrote a research paper and  presented a brief presentation on corresponding to the topic of that research project. In other words, this was a wonderful opportunity to continue my ever-present exploration into the work of Nietzsche. Here, I focused primarily upon his concept of the Death of God, attempting to ground the idea contextually and attempting to explore the idea’s implications by offering a kind of close reading of Nietzsche’s parable of the madmen. I hope you enjoy it! Feel free to leave a comment. Please ‘like’ the video on YouTube if you’d like to see more of these.

What’s in a Name?: Is ‘God’ in Need of Upgrade or Obsoletion?

I must admit I’m certainly not one of the most original thinkers; a thinker? yes, original? probably not so much. I try to counter-act my apparent lack of originality by at least being well-read. I’m usually reading between 5-7 books simultaneously and I scour the Internet and social media for articles of interest with the hopes of happening upon an unseen connection that may spark a bit of inspiration.

In one of many meanderings into social media and forays into the world-wide-web of information I came across an article on Michael Dowd‘s website entitled, “God is Reality Personified, Not a Person.” A great title for sure and an intriguing read.
In the article Dowd’s primary thesis is simply this: “God is not a person; God is a mythic personification of reality…not an invisible friend or otherworldly entity.” Agreed! He goes on to specify that “ALL images and concepts of God are more or less meaningful interpretations and personifications.” Anthropologically speaking, this point simply can’t be overemphasized.
In this regard, Dowd highlights the fact that “we humans have always been in an inescapable relationship with a Reality that we could neither fully predict nor control.” Similarly, I do think the concept of ‘God’ was an important stepping stone in the evolution of humanity. At one time it was an idea that held an immense functionality (Prof. Lloyd Geering gives a wonderful talk on precisely this point, you can find it here). It served as what Ken Wilber might call a “Theory of Everything”. However, as Wilber explains a good theory of everything is “not fixed or final” but, rather is one “that has served its purpose if it helps you get to a better one” (xiii). In other words, ‘God’ functioned as a kind of a prehistoric/ancient innovative technology, and like most technologies, over time may have become outdated, outmoded, and obsolete. In this regard, I wonder if perhaps theologians, in their total reliance upon what they believe to be the necessary preservation of the ‘God’ hypothesis, are, in effect, trying to force dial-up to function optimally within a Broadband world.
It seems that many theologians and religious thinkers, whether liberal or conservative, radical, orthodox, or heterodox, weave such an elaborate, complex, and, an often contradictory tapestry in an effort to make the idea of ‘God” work, one cannot help but think to ask, “if it takes such an immense amount of effort and strain to justify a particular idea, perhaps the idea itself is fundamentally flawed?” Even though I have garnered much from various theological thinkers and many religious academic or intellectuals, I still wonder if ‘theology’ carries far too much baggage to be genuinely helpful and if ‘God’ is far too value-laden to be of use. Paul Van Buren goes so far as to suggest suggests that terms such as ‘theology’ and ‘God’ are “either meaningless or misleading.” Thus, the more I have ventured into the studies of history, human origins, language, ethology, ethnology, neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, and ecology, the more I think that Geering has a point, perhaps as he suggests ALL ‘talk’ regardless of what it is about cannot be anything other than ‘human talk’, and ‘theology’ is nothing other than anthropology (Geering, 3). (This is not to say, however, that I think that there are not paths to think beyond the ‘human’; see The Ecological ThoughtEcology Without NatureLarvel Subjects.)
It seems then, (although I may be mistakenly oversimplifying) that we have one of three options. Though I can’t say at this time which if any of the three are better or more helpful:
1) neologism  –  in this case that is re-naming ‘God’, inventing new words, phrases, concepts, or ideas to be used in place of ‘God’.  This seems to only offer more confusion rather than more clarity, as it would only be an elite or select few that would maintain any sense of familiarity. Here, I think of Caputo’s “Event”. This is a beautiful concept but, as a friend of mine astutely observed, “what everyday person hears the word ‘God’ and thinks of the event?”
2) re-appropriation – in other words, preserving the verbiage, rhetoric, and ‘name’ of ‘God’ while reformulating its contents and meaning. For example, another friend of mine takes the Paulinian idea, “God IS Love” quite literally, suggesting that whenever and wherever there is love, there is God. In his usage Love is God. Here, he simply uses “God” as a kind of symbolic place holder/synonym for love. While I can sympathize with this move to an extent and while I’m sure this re-appropriation works for him individually. I think it similarly succumbs to the same pitfalls of neologism. There seems to be a break down of practicality, praxis, and performance. We simply do not engage with “god” and “love” in interchangeable ways when observing the realm of everyday religious practice. Love is a verb, not a noun, personal or proper. Love is not and should not be an ‘object’ of devotion, worship, prayer, veneration, or observance. Love is an action, it is enacted, it is performative. (But, in this idea’s defense, perhaps, ‘God’ needs to go through a re-verbing process.)
Dowd, too, alludes to a kind re-appropriation in his article:
[W]e see an enigmatic power operative in our everyday lives, giving us our life and all good gifts yet also limiting us in nearly every conceivable way, and finally taking our lives away. This is real life! This is reality as it really is, whether or not we like it. There can be no argument whether or not this reality exists. If you don’t want to call it a power, call it a force, an up-against-ness, or simply the universe as it really is. As Bultmann points out in his essay, we are not talking about some metaphysical idea here. We are talking about an unavoidable actuality. Words may fail us, but we all know this reality intimately, personally.

Here, Dowd says that “For me to look into the awe-filling fullness of life and pronounce the name “God” means a commitment of my life to reality-based living…Reality is my God, evidence is my scripture, and integrity (living in right relationship with reality and helping others do the same) is my religion.” Yet, Dowd, when quoting Rudolf Bultmann. poses what I think is an important question to consider: “Why call this mysterious power ‘God’? Why give the enigma, the mystery that drives us this way and that and hedges us in, any other name but ‘the enigma’, or ‘fate’?” These are questions I have constantly asked myself when it comes to ‘God’. Perhaps, we should simply let our yes be yes and our no be no, in other words, perhaps, we should simply let ‘Love’ be love, let love stand on its own two feet, unmasked and unfettered. Why can’t we simply let the enigma be the enigma and let mystery be mystery? Are these not strong enough ideas and words on their own? Or am I being hypocritical here? Elsewhere I have written about how much I admire the philosophical use of language, that is, the way in which philosophy dramatical alters the meaning, significance, and content of common place everyday language in ways that are then anything but ordinary.

Finally…
3) rejection/abandonment – letting go of ‘God’, disengaging from its usage, dismissing its utilization, and declining its employment. Many credible thinkers that are steeped in theology suggest just such a route (Geering, Cupitt, etc.). This needn’t be an antagonistic maneuver. It can be reverent as it can recognize that these ‘theorizations’ have been useful in the past but, they have served their purpose.
 As a committed non-theist/atheist I must confess that I greatly lean towards rejection and abandonment, as I have no use spiritual or transcendent aspects of ‘God’ but, as an equally committed academic student of religion I still recognize that there is a kind of ‘power’ and magnanimity in the word and concept of ‘God’, especially in its ability to encapsulate and evoke that which is of ultimate concern.  I cannot say with any absolute certainty that complete rejection is actually the best way forward. I am simply unsure. Consider the immense immanence, materiality, and earthenness found in the following passage by Zen Buddhist priest Brad Warner from his book Hardcore Zen:
 
Everything is sacred. Every blade of grass, every cockroach, every speck of dust, every flower, every pool of mud outside a graffiti-splattered warehouse is God. Everything is a worthy object of worship…Truth announces itself when you kick away a discarded bottle of Colt 45 Malt Liquor. Truth rains on you from the sky above, and God forms in puddles at your feet. You eat God and excrete truth four hours later. Take a whiff—what a lovely fragrance the truth has! Truth is reality itself. God is reality itself. Enlightenment, by the way, is reality itself. And here it is.

Do we replace the word ‘God’? Do we invent whole new trajectories of ‘God’ language? Do we maintain its usage, its structure, and completely overhaul, renovate, and remodel its interior content? Or do we simply walk away, tip our hats, count our losses, and make for the exits, discarding the verbiage by the wayside as mile marker monument to where we have been and how far we have come as a species and culture? I don’t know…

What’s in a name? But, more importantly, where do we go from here?

Smokestack

I just recently finished reading a book my therapist ‘prescribed’ to me; Healing Your Emotional SelfI won’t go into too much regarding its content here. I’m planning on writing a post regarding a few thoughts, considerations, and critiques of what I found in the text. Overall, however, I though the book was helpful and informative. As I was looking through my highlights and notes, I came across this short poem that I wrote in response to a mirror therapy exercise, an activity the book’s author is a prominent advocate of. In this particular exercise I was instructed to simply look and the mirror and describe what my face and body revealed. This is what I saw. I thought it might be good to share it. Let me know what you think.

 

I am tired,
worn,
exhausted,
weathered,
aged beyond my years,
weighed down,
hopeless.
I am a shell without occupancy,
empty,
hollow,
a fireplace without flame,
dark and foreboding,
full of nothing but soot and disuse…

A Centerless Mandala…

There is no quiet at my center.

There is no calm at my core. There is no peace in my being.
 I am inundated by anguish and turmoil.
Chaos permeates to the very marrow of my bones and it cannot be silenced…
In the tumult of where I am found there is no space,
no escape,
no safety,
no reprieve
There is no area that is not tainted by desperation, urgency, despair, and anxiety.
…come visit…

The Pathology of Boundaries…

I recently completed a course in Environmental Ethics. It was incredibly helpful and insightful as I have become increasingly concerned with ecology in both my thought and practice, especially since transitioning to Veganism almost nine months ago. The move to become vegan, itself, was motivated and brought on by a deep and thoughtful engagement with Aldo Leopold‘s Land Ethic from his work A Sand County Almanac, as well as Peter Singer‘s Animal LiberationBoth texts were required reading for a class I was taking at the time, Contemporary Issues in Philosophy. I also happened to be reading Daniel Quinn‘s novel Ishmael during this period. It, too, was quite influential in guiding my decision to become more environmentally focused and thus, to take up the vegan lifestyle. As such, the impetus of my current research and work is centered upon exploring the wider implications and intersections of ecology, philosophy, the humanities, and culture/society. This transition, itself, is something I hope to write about further in future posts.

Below you’ll find a short essay I wrote for the Environmental Ethics course previously mentioned. In this assignment I was asked to briefly reflect upon and respond to Leopold’s Land Ethic from the aspect of Reason, Emotion, or Physical Activity. I hope you enjoy it! Please feel free to comment and respond! I would would excitedly welcome your feedback!

In his editorial introduction to Hegel’s 1827 Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Peter C. Hodgson writes that the impetus or the “main theme” of “Western consciousness” is “the individuality of all things” and that this is especially and most accurately true of “human beings” (45). Individuation, separation, categorization, dissection, and fragmentation, these are but a few of the main ideals that form the basis for Western philosophy and Western psychology. From Social Contract Theory to Self-help and beyond everything is hinged upon the idea of the isolated, independent, and absolutely autonomous ‘subject’. Western consciousness has created a pathological sense or conception of ‘self’, i.e. the subjective I, the Cartesian cogito. Here, even the ‘self’ fails to be a unity but is divided into dichotomous dualisms and false binaries, mind/body, body/soul, or, as illustrated within the forum prompt itself, the clear-cut distinctions between Reason/Emotion/Physical Action.

This also leads to a pathological sense of species/nature which forms the backdrop for not only the way in which humans relate to themselves and to each other, but also to the world and the planet as a whole, i.e. humanity as separate and distinct from each other and humanity as above, opposed to, and/or ultimately separate from the biosphere. This is precisely what Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethics seeks to cure and correct. Leopold writes that “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it” (171). As such, the land ethic, first and foremost, is developmentally psychological in orientation and methodology. It is at once, as Charles Starkey demonstrates, “a psychological theory of moral development and ecological rationality that advocates a shift in the way that environmental problems are conceptualized and approached” (149) and “a developmental change in cultural psychology… that expands the domain of the moral beyond that of human beings, so that nonhumans are afforded moral consideration” (159). Leopold reinvigorates the the fact that “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts” (171). With this comes the realization that “all things are part of the universe, and are connected with each other to form one whole unity” (Berry, 16). As such, the ‘self’ too must be envisioned as an integral whole both internally and externally, an undivided self unmistakably part of the land, responding with Reason, Emotion, and especially, with Physical action. Of what avail are Reason and Emotion if they do not spur one to action? As Marx famously concludes “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it” (574).
Sallie McFague makes clear “We do not have bodies…We are bodies” (16). We are not containers compartmentalized into separate isolated areas of Reason, Emotion, and Physical activity, each one caged off and uncontaminated by the other. We are none other than our material reality, that is, mind, reason, emotion, as a culmination “evolved from” and “continuous with our bodies” (McFague, 16). So, too, should we approach the biotic community, recognizing that we are “evolved from” and “continuous with” the Land.
Hodgson, Peter C. Editorial Introduction. Lectures of the Philosophy of Religion, One-Volume Edition: The Lectures of 1827. By G. W. F. Hegel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 1-71. Print.
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.
Marx, Karl. The German Ideology, Including Theses on Feuerbach. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1998. Print.
McFague, Sallie. The Body of God: An Ecological Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993. Print.
Starkey, Charles. “The Land Ethic, Moral Development, and Ecological Rationality.” Southern Journal of Philosophy 45.1 (2007): 149-175. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Nov. 2013

Experiential Alterity…

 

In the forward to his book, As a Man Thinketh, James Allen writes that the objective of the text is to “stimulate men and women to the discovery and perception of the truth that – ‘They themselves are the makers of themselves’ by virtue of the thoughts which they choose and encourage” (5). Allen goes on to say that ” A man literally is what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts” (5).  These passages are quoted not to promote the traditional dichotomy of Cartesian mind/body dualism in which the material reality of one’s outer-world is pitted against one’s psychic inner-world. Instead, they are intended to indicate the “intra-active process” of “a material-semiotic matrix” (Tuana, 57). There is a reflexivity at work in which mind/body, thought/reality, attitude/life, are “performed-and-embodied” (Tuana, 60). In this regard, ‘life’ is “always already” ‘attitude’ and attitude/thought is “always already” reality/material. Nancy Tuana makes clear that “Reality is not composed of things-in-themselves or things-behind-phenomena, but things-in-phenomena” (61). Here, “Entities are not fixed, but emergent” (Tuana, 61).
Life is, as James explains, “present and alive…On freight-trains, on the decks of vessels, in cattleyards and mines, on lumber-rafts, among the firemen and the policemen…There, every day of the year somewhere, is human nature in extremis” (James). James demonstrates that “Divinity lies all about us,…the deepest human life is everywhere,” integrally intertwined with every shift of ‘perspective’, every change of ‘attitude’, and every alteration of thought and thinking (James). Here, every single ‘experience’, no matter how profound or mundane is ‘life-altering’. Every experience is a material-semiotic matrix, in which every ‘material’ experience is a psychological experience and vice versa, there-by altering ‘life’. Whether a breeze, a book, a sunrise, falling in love, or the birth of a child, each contains within it the unimaginable capacity and potentiality for the alteration of one’s attitudes, and correspondingly one’s life. After the death of my grandfather my life was marked by a melancholy, a loneliness, and a sadness which has never left me. The first time I saw a Pollock painting I knew I would never be the same, ‘altering’ what creativity means. With the experience of each reading of Hegel I am awakened, invigorated, and forever altered and changed. Everyday with my wife brings with it the joyous rupture of love’s sting, the vulnerability of what it means to ‘need’ someone, altering what it means to be alive. Every moment with my son is the greatest moment of my life and every experience of my daughter’s affections is rapturous. Every experience of the mundane is at once the experience of the utmost profundity. Every experience of the finite is an experience of the infinite. The absolute fullness of immanence is the excess of transcendence.
Allen, James. As a Man Thinketh and Other Writings. Stilwell: Digireads.com, 2005. Print.
James, William. “What Makes a Life Significant?” Introduction to Ethical Studies: An Open Source Reader. Ed. Lee Archie and John G. Archie. Philosophy.Lander.Edu, 2003. Web. 14 Oct. 2013
Tuana, Nancy. “Fleshing Gender, Sexing the Body: Refiguring the Sex/Gender Distinction.” The Southern Journal of Philosophy, Vol. XXXV (1996): 53-71. PDF file.