Tuesday, April 09, 2013

maiden voyage

 photo IMG_3657blog_zps8a9ddcdd.jpg on sunday i gave the first in a series of philosophical dialogues, the title of which was 'esoteric mysticism'.

it was a wonderful experience, a perfect maiden voyage in my life as a tiny-scale philosopher, with a small but committed audience, and a fascinating discussion at the end.

 a discussion which of course got me thinking again (incorrigible, i know). and since the audience has gone home by now, and the next dialogue is only next month, and the new topic has nothing (or very little) to do with mysticism of any kind (it's about children) (hmmm... maybe not entirely unrelated). anyway, i digress. here i am, on tuesday morning, with ideas that are sort of related to the discussion we had, and i want a place to put them, for myself and for whoever else. so here they are.

 the discussion we had after the talk got me thinking... about 'thinking' itself, actually. something one of my wise friends said (it always is), although i don't remember who or what, led me to this idea that until this moment i had deeply misunderstood the nature of thinking as a human biological process.

and here is how: to me the biological processes in the human being/body can be roughly organised along a continuum of agency. for instance, lifting up a cup of tea, tying my shoelaces or typing on this computer are processes of my organism which i would consider to be highly agentive, meaning i do it because i have consciously decided to do it, and if i don't want to do it, then i won't. on the other end of the continuum, there is all these neurotransmitters going through my system, sending information one way or another, there is my kidneys doing their kidney thing, my blood cells travelling through my veins, and a million other things going on right now in which i have absolutely no agency whatsoever. i cannot stop them except by stopping my entire organism (i.e. dying), nor can i get them going again once they stop simply by deciding to. in fact, i am never aware of them, and even visualising them in my mind does not lead to me experiencing them in any real way. 

and then of course there are all the in-betweens, such as the heart-beat, which i can be aware of, observe quite consciously, and even influence in the short-term, but only indirectly (by going for a run).

or, slightly more agentive, there is breathing, which i can actually consciously stop for a quite a while, or modify more directly (by doing breathing exercises). still, though, if i stop breathing for too long, my breathing will start again whether i like it or not, and if i should happen to 'forget' to breathe, no worries, my breathing will take care of itself.

now 'thinking' is of course also just a biological process of the human organism. i say of course, although since i was raised in this particular modern western society, with its centuries-old tradition of defining the human self as a highly abstracted thinking entity living (and often imprisoned) in the body, this is not actually terribly 'of-coursish'.

 moreover, another result of this culture that is mine is that even if i go so far as to admit that thinking is not fundamentally different from the other examples named here, when asked to place it along the agency continuum, i would be tempted to say it was most like lifting a cup of tea or typing on the computer. because we do think we are the agents of our thoughts, don't we? we take Mr Descartes' famous words to heart: thinking is clearly something we 'do'. and more than that, it is also something we take responsibility for. in fact, in many religious traditions thoughts can be sinful. and sin by definition involves the highest degree of agency.

 so i am the agent of my thinking. really??? in the face of the evidence, really???

for one thing, as any meditation student would gladly tell me, and as i can confirm for myself anytime i have ten seconds to waste, i cannot stop thinking. ever. not even (perhaps especially not) if i work very hard at it. not even if i use all the powers of my mind. i cannot stop thinking if i want to, nor do i stop thinking when unconscious (welcome to the world of dreams). surely, the fact that thinking continues in the absence of my conscious mind should have been something of a clue....

then there is the fact that the contents of my thoughts are completely and totally out of my control. how many times have i not been told (by myself and by others) to think happy thoughts, to not stress out, not worry, not fear, not dwell on disaster. you'd think, if this was actually within people's power, that nobody would ever have another anxious stressful thought as long as they lived....

hmmmm..... so, having considered the evidence seriously, here is my new tentative conclusion: apparently, in terms of agency, thinking is closest to heart beating. i can influence my thinking, but only indirectly (through meditation, a brisk walk, etc.), and without real control over the actual effect. i cannot stop thinking for the life of me, and it (the thinking) will only stop when the rest of me does too. amazingly, it turns out i have more control over my breathing than over my thoughts.

this also means i have no responsibility in the traditional sense for what i think. in fact, it means i am more 'being thought' than that i 'think' at all.

in this context, what is truly amazing is how much of my attention goes to this particular uncontrollable process of my biology, as opposed to how much attention i pay to all the other, equally important and equally uncontrollable processes. and here is that cultural bias again, together with the deep misunderstanding. if thinking really is like the heart-beat, then it simply does not deserve to have this much of my attention diverted towards it day after day after day.

which brings me to the question Sam asked on sunday: what would the world be like if just for one week i applied the same amount of attention i habitually dedicate to thinking to my breath? aaaah! so that's what all the buddhist/mindfulness teachers are going on about. meditation in every-day life. i think i am starting to get it now. and i'm willing to give it a try.

but what do you guys think? ;-)