Archive for November, 2011
If you believe in something called “motor control”, then the non-volitional action underlying the concept of Wu Wei will appear odd.
Imagine a busy road in which many cars manage to drive at high speed, without crashing. If now, one driver makes a very serious error, his car goes places it should not go, maybe turning over, and crashing. In a conventional account, we say he “lost control”. In the account suggested here, you might better say he “regained control”. For all those cars that do not crash, clearly they are not being controlled. Rather, they are integrated as components within a larger system, the trafic flow. The conditions that allow optimal traffic flow include clear road markings, good visibility, road-worthy cars, non-drunken drivers, etc. When one driver crashes, that system has collapsed, and the car is now acting independently. So the car+driver system has, in a slightly odd sense, reasserted its autonomy, made itself independent, and regained control. But with that, there is clumsiness, ineffectiveness, and a crash.
Wu wei is action without the clumsiness of a locus of control.
Postscript: This distinction parallel’s Terrence Deacon’s account of orthograde and contragrade processes. The cars that act as components within a superordinate domain of autonomy illustrate the former. The car that makes itself independent, and then collides with and threatens the domain of ordered driving, illustrates the contragrade.
The buddhists have a fairly well worked out description of 6 senses, which are (oddly) the 5 familiar in the West: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste, and a sixth, which is thought.
First off, note that the familiar five provide a bad description of the sensory component of our being. Smell and taste are not separate. Touch is not one, but a whole host, of senses, including heat, vibration, pain and gentle touch, and then there’s all the proprioceptive and vestibular stuff. OK. But to Western eyes, the notion of thought as a sense is a bit peculiar. We actually don’t have a good account of what thought is, so this is interesting. How do we make sense of thought as a sixth sense?
Most notions of sense are predicated upon a split between organism and world. But everything we know about consciousness assures us that the domain of present phenomenal experience arises from the embeddedness of an organism in a world, without a dualistic, causal split between these two co-defining things.
In psychophysics, there is an old distinction between prothetic and metathetic features of a stimulus, or a sensory channel. Consider sound. Some features of sound are of the “how much” variety. Loudness, for example. Sound can be overly loud. But frequency of a pitched sound is not of this kind. There, the discriminations we make are of the “what kind and where” type. A note cannot be unbearably high pitched in the same way that it can be unbearably loud. The “too much” features are prothetic (brightness is another such), the “what kind” features are metathetic (color or hue belongs here).
If we reject the inner/outer distinction, and acknowledge the difficulty in trying to force a divide between subject and world, then much of thought appears as a primarily metathetic modality specific way of bringing forth a world, not really different from many aspects of vision or audition. Perhaps we should talk to the Buddhists.
Meister Eckhart, the 14th Century Christian mystic, spoke of the unity found in mystical experience, saying “The eye by which I see God is the same as the eye by which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye are one and the same – one in seeing, one in knowing, and one in loving”.
When mystics from all traditions speak of the mystical experience, this unity that transcends any individual being is a constant – in both theist and non-theist traditions alike.
My friend, Wei Wu Wei, repeatedly says “The eye cannot see itself”, paraphrasing Francis of Assisi, who noted “That which you are looking for is that which is looking”.
The recurrent use of the notion of seeing, and the impossibility of seeing the spark of subjectivity with which we identify, speaks of a single insight, resistent to expression in dualist language. I frequently speak of experience, as if it were a thing. Experience is not that which is to be found in the world; it is that which gives us a world in the first place.
But perhaps my other friend Victor, curator of a wonderful Indian sculpture park, put it best thus: “A single point can not be grasped”.