Monday, September 11, 2017

My Significant Other is the Kosmos: Return of the Aesthetic Jedi Part 6 - Adventures in the 5th Dimension

There is another factor involved in process that is not quite directly related to time but is just as fundamental.  If we take Einstein's cue that time is the fourth dimension (space-time as some would say, binding time with the three dimensions of space) then perhaps the other dimensions need to be teased out a little.  Depth, width and height bring us location in space, which is obviously one way of determining our physical place in a process, the fourth dimension of time determining when we are in a process, and the four together describing a pretty good map of the process in general.  I would suggest that, at least in terms of a process, there is a fifth dimension, and that fifth dimension has everything to do with orientation.  In other words, not just where we are, at this time, but what direction are we pointing toward?

Let's think back to my youth and that reading of 'War and Peace'.  At that time in the process I'll call 'my development' I was, shall I say, disoriented.  A friend at the time labeled it 'Modern Americanitis', a borderline pathological condition exhibited by many of the boomer generation as the counter-culture of the sixties collapsed with the end of the Vietnam War and the demise of the hippy movement.  In my case I was drifting without clear orientation, and because of this the arc of my personal development was more than a bit fuzzy.  When I read the Tolstoy novel and experienced that aesthetic moment I already had a place in three dimensional space and fourth dimensional time, but the fifth dimension of orientation was tenuous and shifting.  What that profound aesthetic moment did was establish a definite orientation, and with that the developmental process could proceed. 

Of course there were many such moments that helped adjust my orientation toward creativity.  One memorable one was a visit to the Mark Rothko Chapel near Houston, just sitting quietly surrounded by those amazing color-field paintings.  Another came years later in a cathedral in San Francisco listening to a performance of Benjamin Brittens's 'War Requiem', a performance which left the audience of several hundred in attendance in a stunned silence for many minutes after the conclusion, nary a clap or bravo as we all tried to absorb what we had just experienced.  And perhaps to reorient ourselves a bit.

While recently pondering this idea of orientation as the fifth dimension I happened to pick up another book on Buddhism - 'Zen and the Psychology of Transformation', published in 1955 by a French psychiatrist, Hubert Benoit.  This is a deeply thoughtful and densely written book by someone who had obviously spent many years exploring the nature of mind both in the context of western psychoanalysis and of Zen Buddhist philosophy.

Benoit's book is primarily a series of essays exploring the Zen Buddhist notion of satori, something akin to enlightenment, or Christ Consciousness, liberation or ultimate freedom.  It was here that I was given a slightly different but essential interpretation of the Buddhist Doctrine of Dependent Origination, which I have written of previously.  In that discussion I declared Dependent Origination as fundamentally a doctrine of cause and effect.  In speaking of the attainment of satori I might have stated that that attainment would be the result of the correct series of causes - perhaps many hours of sitting meditation, contemplation of Buddhist teachings, of following the Way of the Eight-fold path, other words, follow the recipe, the 'practice', and satori will occur: cause and effect.  However, Benoit points out that, according to Zen Masters who have achieved satori, satori is not caused, is not the result of effort; it is in fact already here now, closer than the tip of your nose.  You and I are just blind to it.  Then he quotes the Buddha himself on Dependent Origin - "This being so, that happens".  Notice the subtlety here - the Buddha didn't say "This being so causes that to happen".  It is rather, "This being so is the condition for that to happen.  It took me awhile to grasp this subtle distinction, but once I did it became apparent that "This being so, that happens" could potentially be rephrased as "This orientation being so, that happens".  The orientation doesn't cause that to happen, it is a necessary condition for that (satori, or perhaps a delicious fruit pie) to happen.

And so, in the context I'm exploring of aesthetic experience, orientation suddenly becomes an important element that is influenced, or perhaps we might say adjusted, by the condition that the aesthetic experience creates in its interaction with the receiver of that experience  ( or, to hearken back to the philosopher Charles Taylor, the web of interlocution that is a condition of that experience).

I'm thinking things start to get very interesting when one finds oneself wandering in the fifth dimension.....

To be continued...

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

My Significant Other is the Kosmos: Return of the Aesthetic Jedi, Part 5 - Demise of the Oopsters

Oops.  Quite a concept to arrive at given the rather stunning scientific revelations vis a vis evolution and the Big Bang.  Next time you take a look at some of those aforementioned Hubble Telescope images say to yourself  "oops" and see how that holds up as an explanation.

Curiously, even the Buddha, some 2500 years ago, knew better then to say oops.  I ran into that insight recently when I decided to actually get some basic understanding of Buddhism by reading a book on the subject ("Essentials of Buddhism - Basic Terminology and Concepts of Buddhist Philosophy and Practice" by Kogen Mizuno, a contemporary Buddhist scholar.  Highly recommended, clear and concisely written).  It seems there is a fundamental concept in Buddhist thought known as "The Doctrine of Dependent Origination".  To quote Mizuno, "Phenomena are impermanent, constantly undergoing change.  This change is not arbitrary; given the requisite conditions, each cause produces an inevitable effect.  This principle of change is called dependent origination".  In other words,cause and effect, without exception.  Things don't happen out of a vacuum, they are caused, and each cause is itself the result of a cause.  To quote Mizuno again, "this change is not arbitrary." (italics mine).  So much for oops, at least according to Buddhism.

In general terms this statement is self-evident; hit a billiard ball with a cue stick, it hits another ball at a certain angle and sends the second ball to another destination - cause and effect.  Nothing special there, even an elementary school student can figure that one out.  So why is dependent origination a fundamental concept in Buddhism?  It's because Buddhism's primary religious concern is not with billiard balls, but with the alleviation of suffering.  The Buddha's very first proclamation after returning from his awakening experience and period of meditation on that experience was what he called "The Four Noble Truths".  The very first of these noble truths (noble because they were beyond the mundane and everyday) is the truth of suffering.  Yes, that was the very first utterance of his teachings, the truth of suffering.  The second noble truth is that suffering has a cause; and there you have dependent origination.  Suffering doesn't just happen, it is caused.

At this point you might be thinking that Buddhism is an awfully pessimistic religion, and in fact many have criticized it for just this emphasis on suffering.  But hold off on that criticism!  The third noble truth is.....suffering can be alleviated.  It can be alleviated because it has a cause, and by eliminating that cause you eliminate suffering.  And then, you get the fourth noble truth - the way to eliminate suffering, known as the eight-fold path.  So there!

I won't go into detail about the eight-fold path, or what is known as the chain of dependent origination, both of which are worthy of exploration in another context.  However, it's interesting to extend the concept of dependent origination out to the entire universe and stumble upon the truth that everything is dependent on everything!  Now extend it back in time to the big bang and you realize that dependence goes all the way back in known history.  To put it another way, it's all one ginormous process!!  (If you have a picture of me right now with a tiny angel on each shoulder strumming a guitar and singing in my ear "All is one, one is all, kumbaya my lord, kumbaya" I can't say I blame you.  But I do request that you delete that image immediately, and while you're at it empty the trash bin.)

There's that word again, process.  And of course, process always involves time.  Dependent origination involves time - cause followed by effect.  Development involves time.  Aesthetics involves time.  Kundalini activation involves time.  Evolution involves time.  And, a process over time is going somewhere.  If you're a Buddhist you might say that somewhere is either nirvana or samsara, liberation or rebirth into the world of suffering. A Buddhist might also say if you're aware that you're in a process of dependent origination you have an opportunity, through understanding the causes, to effect where you're going, suffering or liberation from suffering.  But first you have to understand that you are in a process to begin with.  We are not just stumbling around aimlessly, making the best of it until we die.

We are, in fact, always in a process, and I would suggest that that process is moving toward... value, pulled by value attractors - the good, the true, the beautiful in so many words.  That's why aesthetics is so importance, because it engages a process of movement toward value through dependent origination - cause and effect. Because I feel the value attraction of great literature I hear a radio program reading part of War and Peace, causing me to read War and Peace, causing me to reorient myself in a creative direction, setting in a chain of causes through dependent origination that culminates (for the time being) in the words coming out on this very page.  And some completely different chain of dependent origination, possibly going back many years, culminated in you reading these words.

 I think we're going somewhere.

To be continued...

Friday, May 5, 2017

My Significant Other is the Kosmos : Return of the Aesthetic Jedi Part 4 - Oops?

OK, now we have established another element in our exploration of the aesthetic moment, the element of process.  Which of course implies time,continuation, movement...and dare I say, development.  Kind of sounds like evolution, doesn't it?  And to use my borrowed metaphor in a previous posting, the aesthetic moment did not happen, it's HAPPENINGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG...

Hmmm....aesthetics as an element of evolution?  Physiosphere to biosphere to noosphere, rocks to roses to Rumi, as I have suggested in the past.  We've all seen those magnificent images taken by the Hubble telescope, described by some scientists as Deep Time.  How is it  that those images are so...beautiful?  Just a bunch of rocks, really, when it comes down to it.  And yet those apparently lifeless masses of hydrogen and helium and the rest of the periodic scale are somehow saturated with aesthetics (For those inclined toward cynicism this statement may suggest anthropomorphic projection.  I would suggest they ponder the fact that bears in the wild have often been observed sitting passively watching a beautiful sunset - bearopomorphic projection, perhaps?)

So, we might say evolution itself is an aesthetic process.  And evolution is certainly development, an unfolding change toward more complexity, toward a broader or deeper  or higher state (whether hydrogen atoms to stars, acorn to oak tree, human fetus to human adult).  Implied in this is the notion of a beginning, that place in time when a new process emerges to travel its course through time - the Big Bang, the Spring rain that goads the acorn, the sperm crashing into the egg.  Aesthetic processes also have beginnings.  How do they come about?

You might remember my story of reading 'War and Peace', and the subsequent process of creative unfoldment that emerged in my own development.  The reading was certainly the impelling energy, but in fact it was that day listening to the radio that was the true beginning, the catalytic moment if you will.  What did I sense in that 30 minute rendering that convinced me to read the novel, which in turn steered me to the creative life that is to this day 40 years later still unfolding?

Value.  Somehow in that skillful radio reading I sensed value - not quantitative or instrumental value, but qualitative value.  And this was more than just the value of a delicious meal, or an entertaining movie, or a good read.  This was what I would call a hyper-value.  From Buddha to Plato to Kant we've had names for these hyper-values - the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.  These hyper-values are so powerful that even a sniff of them seizes our attention.  They are what the philosopher Steve McIntosh labeled "value attractors".  They attract us through our desire (eros) for just these hyper-values of truth, beauty and goodness, whether we are conscious of that desire or not (and the unconscious part of that eros for value is what always catches us by surprise when it suddenly bursts through the veil of our personal maya).  In that short reading of Tolstoy's work I sensed the truth of the relentless ugliness of war, the good of our empathy with its tragic victims, and the beauty of the heart-felt rendering that Tolstoy had brought forth.  I caught a sniff, and that was enough to turn a young, 20-something lost soul in a new direction, to allow a new process to emerge.

I'd like to share with you another such catalytic moment, one that might just give you a little sniff of what I'm talking about.  You might remember in the beginning postings of 'My Significant Other is the Kosmos' I spoke of an existential crisis of meaning that I was plunged into in my fifties.  I had, so to speak, lost the scent, and indeed lost all sense of who I was, why I was here, what was I doing here.  Nonetheless I managed to cowboy-up and proceeded on a fog-bound search for... who knows?.  I read a lot of philosophy in those days, and came upon multiple references to an author I was unaware of, Ken Wilber.  One day I was in the philosophy stacks of the Denver Main Library and came upon several of Wilber's books.  Picking up the thickest one, titled 'Sex, Ecology, Spirituality', I opened to the introduction and read the first page.  I'm going to quote that first page here:

"It is flat-out strange that something - that anything - is happening at all.  There was nothing, then a Big Bang, then here we all are.  This is extremely weird.

To Schelling's burning question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?," there have always been two general answers.  The first might be called the philosophy of "oops".  The universe just occurs, there is nothing behind it, it's all ultimately accidental or random, it just is, it just happens ---oops!  The philosophy of oops, no matter how sophisticated and adult it may on occasion appear - its modern names and numbers are legion, from positivism to scientific materialism, from linguistic analysis to historical materialism, from naturalism to empiricism - always comes down to the same basic answer, namely, "Don't ask."

The question itself (Why is anything at all happening?  Why am I here?) - the question itself is said to be confused, pathological , nonsensical, or infantile.  To stop asking such silly or confused questions is, they all maintain, the mark of maturity, the sign of growing up in this cosmos.

I don't think so.  I think the "answer" these "modern and mature" disciplines give - namely, oops! (and therefore, "Don't ask!) - is about as infantile a response as the human condition could possibly offer.

The other broad answer that has been tendered is that something else is going on: behind the happenstance drama is a deeper or higher or wider pattern, or order, or intelligence.  There are, of course, many varieties of this "Deeper Order": the Tao, God, Geist, Maat, Archetypal Forms, Reason, Li, Mahamaya, Brahman, Rigpa.  And although these different varieties of the Deeper Order certainly disagree with each other at many points, they all agree on this: the universe is not what it appears.  Something else is going on, something quite other than oops......

This book is about all of that "something other than oops".

Did you catch the whiff, the little tug of the value attractor in those opening paragraphs?   I certainly did.  I checked out the book and plowed through its 600 plus pages of text and 300 plus pages of end-notes in four or five frenzied days.  When I was done I rediscovered that woozy feeling of being here and simultaneously being somewhere else, that feeling I had encountered upon reading 'War and Peace' so many years before.  It was a profound aesthetic moment that instigated a process that, again, is still in motion.


To be continued...

Friday, April 14, 2017

My Significant Other is the Kosmos : Return of the Aesthetic Jedi, Part 3 - War and Peace and Process

I haven't yet defined, or evened explored elements of, an aesthetic experience.  If you hold your own definition of an aesthetic experience loosely I think we can agree it is indeed an experience - element number one.  And I hope my description of a Kundalini experience also convinces you that it fits into the category of experience.  I ended the last blog entry with the contention that both of these seminal experiences are also processes.  What might I mean by that?

The notion of process first of all implies movement, and as we know all movement happens in time.  A process is not a timeless experience, and here is where some definitions of aesthetic experience may differ from mine - I've heard accounts of "being knocked off my track", or "time just stood still" at the viewing of a great painting, or any great artistic/creative beholding.  I've experienced this aspect myself, and indeed time can seem to slow considerably or even momentarily stop under the spell of this kind of encounter.  However, my contention is that if the aesthetic moment is truly authentic, if it is the real deal, it will cause a shift within, a shift that has the potential to shape your further development OVER TIME.  It may be so small a shift you may not even notice it in the moment, yet it wiggles in under your skin and becomes that itch that just won't be scratched away.

Let me give you an example of what I mean.  In my early twenties I was in the habit of listening to a local public radio station which had a daily half hour program of great classics in literature being read by an eloquent actor.  One day while driving on an errand I caught a portion of the reading of Leo Tolstoy's 'War and Peace', a chapter describing the disastrous retreat of Napoleon's French army in the dead of winter after their conquering of and then expulsion from the city of Moscow.  In it there is a heart-wrenching account of a single French soldier, defeated and exhausted, half frozen and starving, hopelessly slogging through the barren Russian landscape back to his distant homeland.  He's accompanied by a small stray dog left homeless by the war, attached to the distraught human in its own desperate need for companionship.  Finally the soldier sits at the base of a tree, leaning back on the frozen bark, and simply... dies.  We're left with the image of the lonely dog whimpering and crying, trying to nuzzle his lifeless companion into action.

Listening to the reading left me stunned, the eloquence and compassion in Tolstoy's description striking deep.  At that I decided I would read the entire novel, and so I did over the next two or three weeks (a formidable task, given the length of the novel and the breadth of its coverage of the War of 1812 and its effects on every aspect of Russian society and culture of the time).  When I finally finished the novel I experienced something completely new to me - I felt I had lived an entire lifetime, foreign and far outside my own in late 20th Century America, but as tangible and real.  It was a profound merging of my psyche with the creation of a long dead author published 150 years prior to my reading.

Of course the reading was a process over time, two or three weeks as I remember.  Slowly I sank myself into the stories until I was immersed completely.  Afterwards I was in a dream of sorts for days, half here in my contemporary life and half back in those terrible yet heroic and moving times across the globe.  It is only recently in re-examining that period in my life that I see that the reading of the novel  caused in me that shift I spoke of earlier, a shift that was pivotal in a time when I was young and more than a bit adrift as to what my life was about.  I don't think I was quite conscious of it in those days, but it was there that I turned to the creative life.  I think I knew instinctively that if some dead author could do THAT to me, could shake me in such a profound way as THAT,  then THAT is what I wanted to do.

And so a process was begun, a process that has continued to evolve for decades, and will most likely continue to my grave.  This is what I mean by the element of process in aesthetic experience, an experience and a process that is DYNAMIC, that happens over time, that is you and me developing and evolving always.

There is a phrase in the I Ching:

Adapting itself to obstacles and bending around them,
wood in the earth grows upward without haste,
without rest.

To be continued...