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Thursday, May 9, 2013

You'd Better Free Your Mind... Instead?

Wisdom, Set To A Beat - From The Eponymous "The White Album"

No, not "instead" - only "first." Because it's a necessary step in the business of freeing all minds. Because what our minds create, and tend to, is a commons, too.

The philosopher/musician John Lennon likely understood this - though maybe only in that tangential way that artists apprehend the ineffable - as he wrote this piece of rhetoric. In the atmosphere of those days - the late 1960's - the caution of Matthew 7:3 ("Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?") was certainly called for, and it was the genius of the avowed atheist to be alert to such matters.

Both versions of this finger-wag have their own Rorschachian pitfalls to the unenlightened1 The one that I am focusing on here concerns the word "instead." While the biblical version isn't quite as explicit on this point, as a practical matter it is prudent to limit one's attention to one's own "log," at least as long as it persists. Which, for the un-free mind, pretty much will always persist if even as an evolving form. And minds are always and forever forbidden freedom in any absolute sense2.

Don't mothball the incense-and-chants just yet, though (you probably would do well to do so anyway, but that's a whole other conversation.) The humility of recognizing the bars of one's own prison is a worthy bit of enlightenment in and of itself. I do, however, want to move past that particular felicity and imagine that one has peeled a layer or two off of the onion. That one has experienced the awe-fullness of that ultimate nervous breakdown, has "touched the hem," and come out the other side without the requirements of medication or committal (I'm not joking about that, either.)

Or rather, to explore the question as to just why would one, should one, aspire to that stance that is concerned with that decompartmentalization of thought we variously call "enlightenment," or the "free mind."

One obvious answer is that it is inarguably "healthy." But the pursuit of health can be a terribly narcissistic affair and, as such, this reason obliterates any opportunity for true mental health. One way out of this paradox is to assert that my healthy mind serves, in its small way, to smooth the world.

Yes, that is the start of it.

The Pollution of the Commons

We, as human beings blessed/cursed with self-awareness, live in two realities. One reality is the real reality - the objective world of Nature and the Cosmos. The other is a virtual reality - that construct of social hierarchy that we burn most of our adrenal fluids within now, that with which we have most wittily walled ourselves off from Nature's assaults. Well, at least the annoying daily ones like the usual vagaries of weather and hungry beasts that tend to be a bit stronger than we are - we're of course not completely spared the occasional slap up side the head, with earthquakes and volcanoes and hurricanes and tsunami serving to remind of us our place.

With two realities, we have two "commons." As human beings of high wit, it behooves us to pay serious attention to at least two other aspects of the real reality: Finite resources and pollution. We've proved our mettle in dealing with predators and the weather - we did that long ago - but we are embarrassingly infantile when it comes to resources and pollution. That said, there is some waking going on on those fronts3, and one can be excused if one anticipates some maturity on the horizon. If we don't kill ourselves off first, of course. There's always that.

Now, our virtual reality, with its football games, its rocket ships and shopping malls, universities and prisons, iPods and newspapers and books and guitars... there're clearly no resource limitations there4, but as regards pollution... now there's an externality that intrudes upon both "realities." In the real world, we're talking about toxins and fences (yes, fences) - in the virtual reality, I speak of those things that brings us murder and injustice and oppression and mayhem and war.

One can hardly argue that these are less dangerous than volcanoes or mercury poisoning. They are of at least as much concrete concern. And, to put it simply, it is the compartmentalized mind(s) that give rise to this pollution.

The pollution of the commons is "why" it is a personal duty to pursue enlightenment. A fragmented mind is too much in thrall with its own ambitions to thrust pacifying prescriptions upon the world (and, as one discovers at the end of it, one does not end up proposing "prescriptions" at all, but that is ineffable and well beyond what can be discussed here, at least for now.)

In bringing up the reference to fragmentation - to compartmentalization - I return to the "health" reason, hopefully avoiding the narcissism that accompanies such concerns by keeping in mind what has just been said about the pollution of the "virtual" commons. Another "why" is because health is good, and it does indeed project itself outwards, in its small way, towards "smoothing" the world.

The "How" is in the "Why"

If we look at the fragmentation of the un-free mind, we can hopefully see some of the ills that cascade from our compartmentalization (see Come Together, below.) So we must naturally seek to understand our experiences in the context of the whole of the contents of the mind. This is apparently not a natural impulse in man as he exists today5, and as such requires a bit of willful effort.

We are accustomed to walling off aspects of our daily life from each other. We go to work, and we have "happy hour." We tend to the tedium of "normal" daily life, and then we go on "vacation." We indulge, support and pamper a troubled family member, but we pull the switch on the electric-chair because, well, "that's different." In similar manner, we swoon and sway in solidarity with our families, our communities, our countries - but we'll damn sure bomb the fuck out of the "other" if the other fucks with us. Once in awhile, when we bother to notice, we acknowledge that maybe the "other" feels the same way we do... but we quickly retreat into that's-just-the-way-that-it-is "reality." (The "reality" we're talking about is, of course, the virtual, man-created one.)

That is compartmentalization. That is the fragmented mind. The "how" of enlightenment is, quite simply, confronting this with brutal honesty. One of the problems we run into with this is apparent whenever such brutal honesty overwhelms us - it is all the world like a nervous breakdown. Indeed, if one survives it by using the medicine and incantations of modern society, then so it remains a nervous breakdown and success is measured by the strength of the re-resurrected walls within the mind.

I'll admit it now - no matter how strong you think your mind may be, it's traumatic. The measure is what you do with it. Today, in this society, the odds are against you. It is not a matter of shame to retreat back into the perceived safety of what was before, because the alternative can be madness, and even without such an outcome it remains profoundly daunting.

But, some do manage. So... hope.

Come Together

It's all about the "othering."

One wonderful thing about this whole crazy subject is that it is holistic. Efforts towards healing made in one sphere ("real" reality) have equal benefit to the other ("virtual" reality,) and vice versa. "Real" reality and virtual reality come together.

When one becomes enamored with - or overly identifies with - a self as distinct from the world, one tends to shit on it in one way or the other. Even a reasonably benevolent relationship with the "other" breaks down tragically under conditions of stress. One can "other" Nature - and strip her of resources and poison her soil. One can "other" a neighbor and justify feeding oneself and one's own at his expense. One can combine the two and hoard an objectified resource gleaned from "Other" Nature and deprive it from those "other" people... because it's survival of the fittest, and in a fragmented world, we're competing, not cooperating. There's no objective value in placing the survival and prosperity of your neighbor on the same plane as you or yours' own.

When the neighbor, or Nature, is not seen as the "other," then this dissipates. One cannot put the cart before the horse, however - the fragmented self will never see any sense in this (outside of this bit of "idealized" intellectualism, of course) and cannot truly act upon it - nor should it.

For as long as we "other" our own self(s), there is really no reasonable way to expect otherwise as regards the outside world.

The "othering" of our internal selves is a subject for another time. All I will say for now is that it this malady that is at the root of "love thyself" and non-judgmental self-appraisal. For just as we flit from work to play, so do we inhabit different selves as we do this. The man that embraces his child is not the same man who slaughters his enemy, yet they reside in the same mind. And they do not speak - to the extent that they are even aware of each other, they maintain a wary suspicion of the "weaknesses" of the other.

Until the awe-full nervous breakdown, of course.

Come Together - Abbey Road


1I hope the reader will momentarily forgive this condescension as the essay unfolds.

2A mind - a self - can only exist in partition from the whole. Its very existence, or identity, is dependant upon a primal distinction from "everything else." This can be a point of despair for those who pursue an (ironically) idealized version of enlightenment, but that's the rough justice of reality. It most certainly shouldn't be, as I hope this talk will make clear. While the mind may be an infinite "Glass Onion," there is a profound value in its futile unpeeling, a value that rests in the very effort to do so. The stance taken in this effort contrasts sharply and meaningfully against one which narcissistically reinforces and guilds the self.

Realistically, the closest one can come to being "enlightened" is the recognition that one is not enlightened. For the purposes of this talk, the enlightened mind is the free mind, the decompartmentalized mind. It is, not incidentally, my personal view of the matter.

3Yes, yes... I speak mostly of industrialized, "Western" man here but, my personal nostalgia for hunter/gatherer life aside, I don't think it serves anyone well to place too much weight upon the adaptations of more primitivist culture:

One, while there certainly exist today pockets of humanity that seem to respect balance, let's not forget that we - the "rapacious warrior class" - came up from this stage of humanity as well and for whatever reason transitioned to our current sorry state. As can be said with all backwards-looking idealizations of historical eras, there was clearly not an equilibrium to be celebrated or to be wistful over.

Two, the world is/was a "bigger" place in past circumstances, and most certainly shielded even the most conscientious tribes of people from at least some externalities.

That said, there is much to learn and admire from such culture, most certainly given our current behavior.

4Except, of course, it takes resources to make these magical things, so it's important to remember that the "infinite" potential of our mental world rests upon, and is ultimately constrained by the "real" world.

5My "mentor" Jiddu Krishnamurti placed the blame for this squarely upon our tautologically dysfunctional approach to the education of our children. I'm in no position to disagree with this, and the challenge remains as to how we break this cycle of abuse. Why, more enlightened people, I'd say - strive for the "tipping point."

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