Crafting Gentleness

Friday, February 09, 2007

Philosophical stuff

Wordiness Alert! If you don't like wordy philosophical discussion you might do well to avoid this one!

This is from an email exchange I have been having with an Advayavada Buddhist. It gets a little abstract at times, but language is never paramount in any of this. It's about possibly finding multiple ways to talk about what it means for me to experience relationship. There are many simpler ways to talk about relationship, of course, but my father is a philosopher and theologian, and my early training in thought was in long discussions with him about life, the universe, and everything, so occasionally I enter this register of language and play around a little. The how of relationship and attitude, how I am with people, is still way more important to me than the subtlety of language, and still way more challenging as a practice.

The way I think of it is that uncertainty is a constant and variable aspect of our experience, and that any attitude dominated by the expectation that uncertainty can be or should be eliminated leads us to grossly misrepresent that experience. So, when any so-called 'path' is designated as 'truth' in a certitude sort of way as, for example, a necessity to be followed, I feel it often tends to invite people to the promise of the elimination of uncertainty, which I understand as being very unhelpful. (I once attended an aikido dojo in Santa Barbara which was really an aiki dojo - the 'do' ('way') you got to work out for yourself!)

The more we ascribe to the elimination of uncertainty, as I understand it, the more distant we allow ourselves to become from the presence of agency and possibility in our lives. The more we ascribe to the elimination of uncertainty, the more likely we are to find that mind/body, thought/thinker dichotomies resonate with how we would like to make sense of our experience.

For me, paths of gentleness (not 'the path to gentleness') simply happen when

(i) we can work out how the elimination of uncertainty pervades our lives in many many ways (discernment/ awareness) and
(ii) work to diminish the power of those architectures of thinking in our attitudes and relationships.

For me, in true (mar dhea) (Irish phrase close enough to '...not!') gentleness there is no sense of 'beyond ourselves' but a richer participation in relationship and a more helpful and more appropriate political engagement with the available possibilities of everyday life and embodied hope (that is not located somewhere else).

I think the word 'totality' can perhaps be misleading, offering for many people some promise of perfect unity or perfect harmony. If I find the word leads my own thinking to that place of meaning I will avoid it, as it leads we where I know I do not wish to go. I think we do well to remember the histories of totalitarianism across the planet, and the lengths people often go to defend their totalities.

For me the 'thinging' process in and of itself, the declaration of the 'existence' of something, tends to be a subtle act of arrogance that infers that my experience is exactly equivalent to reality and that others must simply recognise that reality. For me, that speaks of a deep (often so deep as to be hidden from one's awareness) disrespect for the experiences of others. Instead of worrying about what does or doesn't exist, I am more interested in dynamics/process and how experience(s)-relationship( s) work(s).

In the following, I was responding to someone's contribution where they said that they live in relation to a sense of 'totality' as the entirety of existence becoming over time.

So, do you conceive of this 'totality' as a sense of relationship or as an abstract entity-in-process of sorts? Personally, I gravitate towards the sense of relationship, whereby it's less about thinking in terms of the entirety of existence and more about working to settle into an attitude of relationship in which I find no need to aspire to any 'totality' because the experience of relationship for me makes that sense of 'totality' a non-issue.

I suppose it's the sense that I have that relationship (or the entirety of existence becoming over time, for that matter) isn't terribly interesting to me. What's interesting to me is how relationship happens, and, more importantly, how I myself participate (in and through the disposition/attitude I craft) in the constitution and calibration of relationship. In short, I'm less interested in identifying a 'what' and more interested in using some sense of 'how' as a guiding aspect in my relationship(s).

For me, it's only really the 'how' that I can be significantly responsible or accountable for (and, if I'm pushed to it, I'm not sure that there's much more than the 'how' in our experience of experience, if that makes any sense?).

The other person in this conversation that I was having had referred to 'experience beyond our common-place experience', by which he meant 'a deepening of our experience of existence or, if you wish, a transcending of our everyday experience to enclose (as much as possible of) the entirety of existence'.

See, for me, these are contradictory dynamics. For me a deepening of the experience of experience predominantly calls forth a deeper presencing of oneself in what (how) happens to happen, not transcending our everyday experience, but embracing it warmly, listening more deeply, settling into experience like the settling of a pint of Guinness, coming to less and less inappropriate participation in the cause of more helpful relationship.

I have no desire to enclose the entirety of existence, indeed, personal and political 'enclosure' is the focus of a good half of my academic work, by way of critique. For me, the verb 'to enclose' can easily speak of an attitude that is anathema to an attitude of listening and deep respect for the how of happens.

He also made reference to the the two-truths doctrine of Madhyamaka: conventional truth and ultimate truth. You can find a brief outline of the ideas at or, more specifically in relation to Madhyamaka,

I once discussed the issue of language such as 'ultimate', 'absolute' and suchlike with a buddhist monk from Tibet, who agreed with me that these English language terms tend to grossly miscommunicate the heart of the meaning to be found in the hearthsong from which such ideas arose in the first place. The English language terms have a distinctly different colour from the earlier concepts; longer, darker shadows; heavier gravities. They speak to experience in extremis (for me, they speak to the elimination of uncertainty) rather than to an embrace of the everyday, of differently-experienced common uncertainties.

Similarly, the concept of the 'elimination of suffering', a quite frequent pan-buddhist mantra, doesn't ring all that true for me, for so much of my life (most) isn't about suffering as such, but about uncertainty of varying degrees, often simmering quietly, often murmuring gently, often whispering warmly. If I dedicated my life to the 'elimination of suffering' rather than the negotiation of uncertainty or the crafting of experience I feel I would be wasting an awful lot of transformative energy! :)

In my own language (or at least in the most abstracted version of my language which I don't tend to use all that often) I like to think of the constant and variable play/balance/imbalance/resonance between the experience of being-in-common and the experience of difference-in-common; the being-in-common aspect being for me how I might otherwise think of the always-already available possibilities of 'presence' and/or resonance; the difference-in-common aspect being how I think of the dynamic variabilities of conflict, place, person, change and so on. I'm not sure if that makes sense to anyone? In this way, being-in-common for me is not about common ground as much as it is about the common experience of experiencing experience (which is experienced differently by each of us). Starts getting a little wordy after a while! ;)

Being-in-common: for me, we don't share experience, or experiences, but we do share the experience of experience. This is more than wordplay for me.

Difference-in-common: the experience of experience for me is one of constant and variable change and constant and variable difference. Neither change nor difference are terribly interesting to me; the effects of particular kinds of change and the consequences of particular kinds of difference are, however. Difference-in-common is for me the condition of always-already participating in the play of influences and power, where power is not understood as control, but rather understood as the ability to vary the experience of oneself or another. Thus I don't think that people can helpfully be thought to give or receive power. Rather, I understand that we can all come to a greater awareness of the ways in which we always-already exercise power in that play of influences, and of the ways in which we can exercise power (agency being that ability to do so) in less misrepresentative and more helpful ways to become more present, less inappropriate, less anxious, more mindful, and more gentle in our attitudes

As it happens, I have often thought that my undualistic thinking in terms of being-in-common and difference-in-common (yes, there are two categories here but I don't think of them as being separate - think yin and yang) lines up more or less with what I have since found in writings on conventional and ultimate truth/reality in Buddhist writings, respectively. It's just the translations of Buddhist texts into English that I mistrust, and it's unfortunate that I can't speak/read Tibetan, to pick a language, but I have found some helpful exigesis in Shambala magazine occasionally on some of the richness of meaning implied by various terms in their home contexts. For me these undualistic terms are mere starting points for a deeply political and deeply personal project of hope and gentleness and hope in gentleness.


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