Saturday, March 8, 2014

How to Polish the Mirror

If you could get rid of yourself just once,
The secret of secrets would open to you.
The face of the unknown, hidden beyond the universe
Would appear on the mirror of your perception.

And remember, no matter where you go, there you are.”

Phenomenology is a con ... we think we can do it but it is impossible!
~Gifted existential therapist

It's not easy to get out of our own way. As soon as something enters our perception it becomes assimilated, like food or air, and we are no longer distinctly separate from it. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Does anything exist independently? While the conditions for sound may exist in the forest, if there's no ear within earshot, there's only the concept of sound. How real is an idea? And how real is that idea without a thinker to ponder it?

          Contemplating the great philosophical and spiritual questions is always like falling through the looking glass, if you're doing it right. The world is no longer as it seems, nor are we, and any apprehension of 'reality' or 'truth' is short-lived as you tumble into new understandings, misunderstandings, and more questions. 

          A respected existential therapist I know has tried explaining phenomenology to me, to no avail. When he explains the philosopher Edmund Husserl's idea of 'bracketing' we both end up in fits of laughter, dabbing tears from our eyes. The distinction between consciousness and phenomena (or Us versus The Material, Sensual World) is only possible, Husserl contends, to the extent that we are able to 'bracket' all assumptions about the existence of an external world. I imagine patiently peeling away the layers of an onion till I observe its innermost core of nothingness—except there's no end of layers and patience eventually turns to panic. The truth is, if there's still a self left with which to observe, bracket, or peel, then you're not done bracketing.

          I'm sure a gaggle of philosophers could easily argue against me here—and I'm pretty sure I've got a lot of my facts wrong—but I think self-awareness is probably an oxymoron.There's no fixed self we can pin down, just a changeling we only partly apprehend at any given moment before it morphs into something different. Husserl says, "We would be in a nasty position indeed if empirical science were the only kind of science possible." But isn't he also making an excellent case for the supremacy of subjectivity? Was there a touch of irony when Husserl, the father of phenomenology, bestowed the process of 'phenomenological bracketing' with the fanciful name epoché, alluding to the ancient Greek Skeptics' notion of abstaining from belief? Is doubt the opposite of belief, or is doubt the only valid belief?

          Husserl's concept of epoché is probably as much at odds with empirical (inferior) science as it is with theoretical (idealized) science. If it is true that wisdom always leaves room for doubt, then scientific conclusions, whether empirical or theoretical, are probably bullshit. Believers and atheists are equally suspect; only the agnostic deserves our respect.

          But I flatter myself shamelessly now, since by nature I doubt everything; my only certainty is that we can be sure of nothing because it's obvious we can't know what we don't know. Most people confuse doubt with stupidity, but that's only because they're too stupid or insecure to explore doubt as a viable option.

          I'm full of self-doubt (the highest form of self-flattery). Most recently, since the death of my mother, I've been exhuming my guilt feelings and examining all their microscopic detail. But at what point do I stop? I could peel that onion for the rest of my life and never even come close to the blank essence at its center. In a lightning strike of self-doubt, I start to wonder if guilt is just a distraction from the blank futility that's central to what it means to be mortal. I am nothing without my brackets. The nearer I come to that truth, the more distracted I tend to become.

         Around the time I began to contemplate what I am without [fill in the blank]—without my mother, without my job, without my house, without my friends, without my youth, without my kids, without my books to read, without writing or readers, without passion—I was throwing myself at a (very polite) man who has absolutely no interest in me. As I proceed to abase myself, I detect the queasy tingle of déjà vu, and then I get really reckless. I hear myself and I sound drunk, but I'm not. I remind myself of a lecherous old perv, and that makes me even more reckless. I'm not thinking, but if I were, I might be coaching myself to take absurd risks to feel truly alive.

          But I don't think and I take no risks. Humiliation, horny self-pity, and humor distract me from the empty heart, the futility at the center of everything. Again and again, I rush to fill up the little void—fill it before it consumes me like a black hole. It can be filled up with anything—food, booze, sex, drugs, obsession of all kinds—but most readily it fills with anxiety.

          Optimism is a trait some people are born with, but it can also be a choice. Two thousand years before Husserl contemplated phenomena and consciousness, Buddha said, "We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world." This way of understanding Us versus The Material, Sensual World can answer so many of our troubling questions about the world and our place in it while offering a sense of hope and empowerment.

          Not being an optimist by nature, though, I'm afraid of depriving myself of the organic reflex of doubting. Buddha's words do offer comfort, but for a person of my temperament, they also suggest the need to repress my feelings, moods, and questions and replace my habitual angst with a brainwashing formula. Hypnotism, affirmations, and mantras can reverse our cravings and overcome habitual negativity, and perhaps offer us happiness, but at what cost? Isn't happiness and peace worth everything—including refraining from doubt? Ask anyone who's suffered from debilitating depression or suicidal ideation and he'll tell you, "Antidepressants saved my life—I don't care about the cost, whether in terms of sacrificing my authentic identity or my dwindling bank account." But to reprogram oneself to be happy by abolishing negative thoughts feels at least very a little like self-denial and, at worst, a kind of metaphysical suicide.

          Like Phenomenology and Buddhism, Islam also recommends a kind of thought control, in the form of prayer. Mohammed said, "There is a polish for everything that takes away rust; and the polish of the heart is zikr, the invocation of God." Zikr, which is translated as 'remembrance' or 'invocation,' is often a silent form of devotion in which the the name of Allah or his attributes is repeated over and over throughout the day. Sufis, in this way, fill the void with prayer.

          The Sufi master Al-Ghazali wrote, "Dear friend, your heart is a polished mirror. You must wipe it clean of the veil of dust that has gathered upon it, because it is destined to reflect the light of divine secrets." It makes sense that to fully eliminate the filth we must first acknowledge it, and perhaps even gain some compassionate understanding of our negativity.

          The oldest holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, who died last week at the age of 110, had something to add to the conversation. She was a pianist who had spent many years in a showcase concentration camp designed to distract the public from the starvation, gas chambers and all the myriad atrocities taking place on a grand scale under the Nazis. The lives of professional musicians and prodigies were spared only because of their talent, so they could give death camps the deceptive appearance of being civilized.

          Music saved Alice spiritually as well as physically; it was an experience of freedom and beauty that could not be taken from her. Even if she had been forbidden to play the piano, Alice said, she could always silently invoke the music of Chopin, hear it in her mind, and be moved by its beauty.

          "Even the bad is beautiful," she said. "It has to be." For Alice, then, the void was always filled with music, as it can be for all of us, if we choose it.

“In a Wonderland they lie, Dreaming as the days go by, Dreaming as the summers die: 
Ever drifting down the stream- Lingering in the golden gleam- Life, what is it but a dream?” 
~Lewis Carroll

“Well, now that we have seen each other," said the unicorn, "if you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you.” 
~Lewis Carroll

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