THINKING THOUGHTS
12/29/2000
10/3/2008

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Thinking thoughts are thoughts for their own sake, thoughts as thoughts, thoughts as an end in themselves.


Rules about love.
Baby boomers aging.
Mind shapes world.
Simplicity adds to the spectrum of possibilities
If there were witchcraft.
Thoughts on September 11, 2001.
It is our duty as human beings to inspire one another.
An appetite for magic comes to us naturally.
It is not enough to say “life is change.  Change is all there is.
Behind virtue lurks greed, and thus ethical systems exhaust themselves.
Advertising: the art medium of our time (a prophetic thinking thought from 1981)
  
 

 

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Love and Compatibility

We are mistaken if we think we understand the limit of what can be.

We think we understand the nature of love well enough to make rules about it. We say, “If you loved me, and we suppose that we can utter a conclusion that has meaning.

But there is no rule. Nothing is incompatible with love. Love has no more to do with anything else than the weather has to do with the day of the week.

6/26/2003
 

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Old Is Younger Than It Used to Be
Our generationthe generation that came of age in the sixtieshas carried its youth with it into old age. Consequently we are much younger than our grandparents were when they were our age.
2/26/2003
 

 

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Formative Mind
Magic, religion, and myth are all transformational.  And so are art and science.  They are the imagination of man working to give the world a human meaning.
11/26/2001
 

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The Complex Life
I have a love of complexity that I suspect many others do not share.  I suspect that others do not share it on the basis of their reactions to it, which typically range from bewilderment to frantic resistance. I have an instinctive bond with those who do share it, a fellowship with a small but not insignificant minority. 

Simplicity has an undeniable beauty and power, and I am attracted to it as one among many possibilities; but I believe that a simple life would suffocate me.  To me the Buddhist robe and bowl represent realism as fundamental as it gets, and I am full of admiration for them; but as long as they represent anything at all, they are encumbered by a layer of complexity that I have added and that does not inhere in them; to see them as symbols is to fail to see them.  But in my construction, everything is fraught with meaning; meaning and symbol and metaphor are among the elements, like nitrogen and xenon and ytterbium.  My basic reality will coincide with that Buddhist simplicity only in the instant in which it exceeds it, at my death, when not even clothing or food have relevance any longer.

When I practice Zen, I learn to break through my own overlay of complexity and see Ding an sich.  But when I practice Zen I am actually sitting within a circle of simple truth that adds a level of complexity to my being the moment I stand up.

Even more than complexity, I have a love of chaos and disarray as a rich and unprejudiced source of possibilities that can have no existence within the strictures of tidiness.  All combinations are possible, leaps are possible, leaps across boundaries occur naturally, subtle links and Indralike reflections abound.  Every separate thing coruscates with potential, and the secondary dimensions of which metaphors are made shine as lucidly as the primary.  The synapses among heterogeneous elements, whether disparate concepts or items of knowledge or physical objects, create bursts of luminance, moments of brilliance, of full-spectrum diamondlike rainbow light that I experience internally as an almost palpable radiance.  I can see the radiance, taste it, feel it emotionally, and be swept by it in a kind of intellectual rush that has an orgasmic quality, even in minute doses.  This is not unlike the joy of learning, the pleasure of insight, and the receipt of inspiration; but it occurs in a multiplicity of tiny ways in trivial everyday experience, a source of pleasure and entertainment as much as of deep life-altering illumination.

It is no judgment on the perfection of simplicity to say that I cannot attain it; I hold myself below those who can.  To those who have an aversion to complexity I extend my regrets for any discomfort caused but offer no apology.  Instead I say this:  ambiguity is another path to enlightenment.

11/10/2001
 

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Hexerei
It occurs to me that in another time and place I might have been regarded as a witch.

For if there is no magic, if the words and deeds of men and women are only words and deeds, if there is no summoning and controlling the forces of nature, if there are no forces outside the forces of nature, then what is a witch but an ordinary person, perhaps an ordinary person like me?

11/10/2001
 

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Thoughts on September Eleventh
A painting I wish I could paint:  American refugees in Mexico.
The attacks on September 11th were a trial balloon from which the terrorists gained a tremendous amount of information about us and our responses and our weaknesses.
The use of airplanes to deliver death by violence is an exact analog of the use of mail to deliver death by powder:  perversion of a conventional and pervasive system that is internal to our borders and that we cannot purge of danger.
Destroying one's comfort in the familiar, such as the delivery of mail, has a profound psychological effect.
We should learn the names of the heroes of September 11th and teach them to our children along with the names of Davy Crockett and Ethan Allen and Nathan Hale.
Having something to say about the event and saying it:  that's who we are.
England under Henry, Mary, and Elizabeth, when church and state were as one:  perhaps the British understand something about our enemy that we cannot comprehend.
11/10/2001
 

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Child of My Mind
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?
—Robert Browning

I was pregnant for nine months, in some sense an expectant mother for quite a lot longer than that, and a prospective mother for a very great deal longer than that—indeed, from the time the x and y chromosomes came together to determine the sex of the zygote that was to be me.  And in all that time I have also had a mother of my own.  Yet in the first fifteen minutes of motherhood I suddenly understood so many new things about the parent–child relationship that it was as though I had been seeing with only one eye, and that half blind.
     Needless to say, the succeeding years of parenthood, seventeen and a half at latest check, have offered me many more occasions to rethink past interactions with my parents from another point of view.  But I shall never forget the quality of illumination of that first quarter hour of bondedness to a new being on the planet.
     I am now in the earliest stages of an unsought but not unwelcome new role, that of teacher.  Like every other new experience, it is fraught with revelation.  Like the experience of parenthood, it puts me on the other side of a relationship that has been deeply familiar to me my whole life long and shows it to me in a new light.
     My student sought me out, came to me, and humbly asked me to teach her the art of my profession.  I have been an editor for twenty-two years.  This appeal came at a time in my life when I had already concluded that I was probably at the peak of my powers, such as they may be, and had not yet begun to lose either content or process knowledge.  I saw that this meant I had reached the so-called generative stage and that now, if ever, it was time for me to teach what I know.  But to me this was simply a passive recognition; I had no intention of translating it into action.
     That step was taken for me, in a modest way, when I was asked a year ago to train an aspiring junior in my workplace.  I had an apt pupil and very much enjoyed the interaction, as well as the exercise of thinking through the principles of what I do and identifying which could be taught.  But training and teaching are not the same thing, and within the limitations of a work setting each of us was in some real sense only performing an assigned task.  Having a stranger see what I do, recognize it through the lens of art that is already hers, and implore me to transmit my understanding to her in a way that resembles the dharma transmission of Zen was a wholly new experience for me.  My first reaction was to withdraw and consider the question for three days in order to clear my head of any self-inflated notions brought on by an excess of admiration.  I wrote in an e-mail message:
  

You have the distinction of having written me what is probably the single most flattering message I have ever received (not counting outright love letters and seductions).  I have to take care not to let it go to my head and instead pay attention to the sincere request and honest offer it contains.  For that, I need to reflect for a few days and not leap to my feet and start dispensing pearls for the pleasure of seeing them snatched up and cherished.  I do not believe that I have sufficient strength of moral resolve to have a disciple without being corrupted by the experience.


      Over those three days of reflection and pondering, I found that my thoughts centered in my sense of inadequacy to the task and fear of misleading, mispromising, miscalculating, misunderstanding, misdirecting, misinterpreting—in short, misdoing—and thus betraying the supremely delicate trust placed in my hands by someone who had chosen me as a guide.  I saw great risk of harm through simple human failing, and no way of safeguarding against it save my own humility and the strength of the student.  I saw that faith in the strength of the student was part of my obligation in the reciprocal relationship that I was beginning to define in my mind.
     At war with those thoughts of inequality to the task were confidence in my own skills and a sense that it would be an act of arrogance to hoard them, not forgetting that everything I know I learned out there in the world where many others have learned exactly the same things I know and many will again; there is really nothing special in doing what I do, however oblique, mysterious, and undefined it may look to someone who does not do it.  Still, I acknowledge the art in doing it well and enjoy the exercise of the craft.  It would be a pleasure to share that understanding with someone who has both the aptitude and the appetite for the process.
     Moreover, I found in myself a conviction that instinct would lead me and that at any given moment I did not have to have a detailed map of the future of our task, only a clear vision of the goal and a perception of the next step.  Most of all, I thought that the student would show me what she needed in the same way that a manuscript shows me what it needs from me as its editor, and that all I really had to do was use my intuition and reflect the student’s own knowledge to her on a model that is part Socratic, part therapeutic, and part Zen.  In this way I could draw out of her the answers that were already in her and let them lead her to her own realizations instead of pouring knowledge into the vessel of her mind:  a pure constructivist model of teaching, to which I had not thitherto thought I subscribed.
    My thoughts turned to the teachers who have had the most profound effect on me and to my past contemplation of the question of the flawed teacher:  the teacher who cannot live up to the precepts he espouses before others and the standards to which he holds his students.  This question arose while I was studying Zen with a teacher who has not always been known to practice what he preaches, to the great indignation of some and, tragically, to the spiritual harm of others.  Many a fine teacher has stood accused by his public, weighed in the balances of his own teachings and found wanting.  Should a teacher be his own best student, the faultless model of the principles he professes?  There is something in us that judges more severely a person who presumes to teach others than it does the learners under his care.
     And yet no one expects the Olympics coach to skate better than her star athlete or the vocal trainer to outsing Pavarotti.  In answer to the cruel adage “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” we reply that teaching itself is an art and that those who can nurture a talent in others are possessors of a talent necessarily different from that of their students.
     Can I learn from a flawed teacher?  Yes, I can, and indeed, I must, if I am to learn from a teacher at all.  For that is the only kind there is, unless we grant an exception for Jesus, called the Christ.  The teacher may not be, need not be, and perhaps even cannot be a perfect example of the practice of his teachings; and yet he can teach perfection, and there is no hypocrisy in that.  Euclid defined a perfect circle, and we can understand a perfect circle in geometric terms, existing as a kind of Platonic ideal; but not even Kaz Tanahashi with his exquisite brushstrokes can draw one.  His painting invokes the ideal but does not become it.
     From a very young age I have seen teachers as ordinary human beings and have never been overly impressed by their stature, their knowledge, or their authority.  I saw them as people who wake up with frowzy hair, have to brush their teeth, wear old clothes on Saturdays, and worry about bills.  This view comes of having parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles in the teaching profession and seeing them as people first, masters of the classroom second.  I have admired, revered, and adored a number of teachers in my time but have never forgotten that they were ordinary mortals.  I call upon them now as ordinary mortals to inspire me as an ordinary mortal to do what they do, imperfectly but sincerely, with all the inspiration I can muster.
     For if we are, all of us, but ordinary mortals, then where does our sense of the divine come from?  If none of us is exempt from the laws of nature and the everyday necessities of life as a material being, then who shows us something that seems to go above us, beyond us, and lift us up?  In my life there is no theological answer; it is a human answer.  It is simply that we can show one another what we cannot ourselves attain.  We can conceive of perfection even though in our limitations we cannot embody it.  We can never draw a perfect circle, but we can think of it.  We can entertain abstractions and sustain a notion of an ideal, and we can, to our sorrow, see how things ought to be even when we are powerless to make them so.  When we preach those ideals, we run the risk that others will think we are arrogating their perfect expression to ourselves, and in exposing ourselves in that way we sacrifice ourselves.  But in fact we acknowledge from the outset that we cannot do what we teach to others—and neither can they.  Nonetheless it is our duty as human beings to inspire one another.  In so doing we elevate ourselves, and when we reach our limits, we may find them set at a higher level than we had believed.
     In the end, having moved through circle upon circle of self-examination and reflection, the question of what I would do came down to a simple act:  an exchange of gifts.  My would-be student gave me the gift of asking for a gift from me.  I accepted her gift and said yes, forgiving myself for falling so far short of what I believed a person ought to be in order to be worthy of the honor, and trusting the student to take what she needs from me until it is time to move on.
     Now, thinking of how I may inspire my student, engage her in a process of creating her own learning, and show her from my own experience how to reach and possibly transcend whatever level of excellence I may have been able to attain, I am for the first time seeing myself through the eyes of my own teachers, just as motherhood showed me my parents.  I am understanding at last why my achievement meant more to some than grades:  why some took such pride in accomplishments I thought were mine, why others took so personally their disappointment in my poor performance.  As a student I knew which teachers inspired me, but I also thought that that inspiration was an emotional response and was arrogant enough to ascribe my successes to my own efforts.  Now I see that their minds gave birth to knowledge and understanding in me.  They, as human and flawed and short of the ideal as I, could nurture with care and pride the seed that was mine and give birth to something new in me.  They could place knowledge before me and foster understanding and watch me experience the thrill of mastery, and in observing my progress they could experience an excitement of their own that I could never share until now.  They could also learn from me as I showed them which of their efforts led to success, and more, as I ventured on my own.  My father always said that his best students were those who taught him something, and now I begin to understand.  I see that I was a student but also a mirror and a symbol and a badge, a kind of intellectual progeny; I was a child of their minds.  And more:  my fellow students and I made our teachers grow in the fulfillment of their own potential.
     And now I see with gratitude that it is my privilege to enter the student–teacher relationship from the other side, ready to share the light I have and gain back greater light, having through one process and another been a student all my life and now becoming a student of being a teacher.
 

3/11/2001
 

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The Well of Magical Desire
What accounts for the human appetite for magic?
     On a getaway weekend in the San Lorenzo Valley, my husband and I were remarking on how many religious retreat centers and facilities have established themselves in that area of the Santa Cruz mountains.  He observed that the twenties and thirties had seen the spread and popularization of religious movements of various kinds in this country.
     “If we were to look back into the history,” I remarked, “I’ll bet we’d find that this was a sacred site to the Indians or whoever were the oldest inhabitants of this area.”
     He shot me a speculative look, as though gauging my degree of seriousness.  “Do you believe there are places like that?”
     I asked him to specify exactly what he meant by “places like that.”
     “Sacred places,” he said, “where people can feel some sort of magnetism or vibrations, where they can actually feel themselves in tune with some kind of power.”
     “I’ll answer your question,” I said, “but first I really want to know what you think I’m going to say.”
     I was wondering if he thought I found the idea compelling enough to overcome or even just slightly affect my hard-nosed skepticism.
     “I’d really like to hear.  I think you’re going to say no.”
     “What I say is that I think there are places where people have a feeling like that,” I said, “and so they use religion or magic to explain it.”
     That is the essence of my view of belief in supernatural powers, whether magical or divine, whether described in terms of gods or men or devils, human or superhuman agencies, dogma or spells and incantations.
     "And if the Hindus find out about it,” I added, “they’ll pour colored powders on the spot, and then it will be sacred.”  In fact, I knew that there were already ashrams in those hills; I was speaking facetiously of what it takes to make a place holy.
     I went on to explain that my thinking on this is tied to my view of man as a creature who habitually and compulsively explains:  who, confronted by behavior or phenomena, immediately starts to form hypotheses about them; who begins describing them in the present tense, just as this sentence is doing; who seeks and finds patterns, who observes and records, seeks cause and effect, and predicts.  It is in the nature of our minds—our dharma, if you will—to do this.  Probably it was an adaptive trait from the outset.  Seeing patterns and predicting events tells us where to place the altar stone—and why; when to begin planting and when to harvest; when to put in to port, when to run for shelter, when to invest and when to sell our shares.  When we can’t see the agency, when the pattern involves powers we can’t recognize, we hypothesize other beings or realms or forces.  [Note:  This last sentence marks the precise point at which something rational and intelligible turned into bullshit. What follows is sketchy and incomplete because once I left the rails I never really got back on them again.]
     When we experience something that we can’t explain, we may appeal to science now, but the older science is magic or the supernatural.
     Anyone who could claim to influence the powers or explain the mysteries would have extraordinary influence over other people.
     Our appetite for magic, then, is connected not just with our desire to explain phenomena and to influence outcomes but with what we are as beings.  And it is our feeling about what we are, our own awe-struck reverence for ourselves, that makes us think of the subjective experience of being us as something magical, in the same way that places become known as sacred spots.  We are overcome by the wonderfulness of ourselves and have just enough becoming modesty to call it by another name.

Notes:

  • Magical powers
  • Magical thinking
  • Magic & religion
  • They have to assert their belief that hard in order to sustain it.
  • Arthur C. Clarke:  Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
  • The Harry Potter phenomenon:  the appeal of magic and a charming character and the gratifying notion that wizards have to learn their skills and work as hard as anyone else under systematic training in order to master their craft
  • J. K. Rowling was quoted in an interview as saying that the appeal of the Harry Potter books is related to our desire to have a little magic in our lives—wish fulfillment and the fantasy of being in control.
  • Effecting change—speeding transformation—or preventing change, which is in effect an infinitely small sequence of changes offsetting changes:  stasis as illusion
9/27/1999
 

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Change
Everything living depends on change.  The breeze stirring that branch above us is moving the leaves in such a way that—who knows?—the exact same combination may never recur.  Change is what allows me to breathe in and out, allows my heart to beat.  Without it there is no life or even death.  The fact that we cannot go on as we are is the only thing that enables us to go on as we are.
9/27/199
 

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The Selfishness of Virtue
When I was about 13 or 14, I came to a somewhat cynical conclusion about virtue that I formulated exactly thus, taking a certain wry intellectual pleasure in the rebellion it represented:  Virtue is that which most tends toward the comfort of others.
     At that point in my life I was surrounded by people (parents, schoolteachers, Sunday school teachers, ministers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and Camp Fire Girl leaders) who devoted vigorous attention to teaching my peers and me what was considered to be virtuous behavior.  In analyzing what that consisted of, I saw that the more I followed their precepts, the more I was simply serving them; in other words, teaching virtue to others is essentially a selfish act.  That is how I saw it as a junior high school student, and the thought still lingers in my mind after all this time.
     There is an implicit bargain that goes with this:  I’ll serve you if you’ll serve me.  Calling it virtue makes it sound like something to aspire to and attain for the good of one’s character, but really it’s nothing so elevated.  It’s more like Miss Manners’ rationale for avoiding rude behavior:  so we don’t all feel compelled to kill each other.  (It also brings to mind what Huston Smith wrote in The Religions of Man about the four commandments that all cultures and ethical systems have in common, because if they don’t, then they won’t survive.)
     At the age of about 25 or 26, I saw that the principle driving life is simply “more”:  more air, more water, more food, more time, more sleep, more love, more cars, more video games, whatever. Tropisms.  The principle is the same, whether it be tree roots seeking water, cheetahs hunting gazelles, or you making a trip to the supermarket.  About two years ago, I added to that concept the understanding that our natural state is a state of deprivation; left to ourselves, we run out of things or use them up or wear them out and need more. And so I dismiss any philosophical system that begins with a premise such as “By nature man is a happy creature” or “The natural state is a state free of pain.” We are not naturally a happy animal.  We are naturally a hungry animal, from the moment of birth (or before) onward.  We are born wailing to be fed, and that need drives us all our lives.  Our natures impel us to act to relieve the pain of want.
     For us thinking, scheming, and hoarding creatures, the secret is in knowing what’s enough.
Last night I read Lewis Lapham's column in the November 1999 Harper’s, about how in this age of downsizing and consolidation we can combine the concepts of heaven and hell and eliminate a lot of redundancy.  This morning I had my latest thinking thought.  As usual it came in two parts.
     Part 1:  All the vices boil down to greed.  (Cherchez le buck.)  Hence all the virtues also boil down to greed by their relationship to the vices and also by the relationship they create between ourselves and others.  But greed in itself is nothing but a disproportionate or excessive form of wanting more. Wanting (needing) more is, up to a point, just what we naturally experience as living creatures, and it's the drive that enables us to survive.  It is not a vice unless life is a vice.  It is neutral, like everything else:  it just is.  Wanting more than we need becomes greed, although it is very hard to say what someone actually needs.  Also, wanting more than our neighbor has is greed.  Wanting more at our neighbor's expense is one avenue to the vices.
     Part 2:  By tackling this tendency head on, religions and spiritual systems serve to keep greed in check to some degree.  One reason they all say the same thing is that they all recognize and deal somehow with this fundamental aspect of human nature.  We have to satisfy some wants and needs to survive, but if we overdo it, we not only hurt ourselves but also cause others around us to suffer, and nobody wants to suffer.  Also, when we make them suffer, they become dangerous to us.  We don’t want others around us to cause us to suffer, either.  So we construct systems that serve to counter that suffering-producing behavior in ourselves and in each other.  Take Buddhism and Christianity, for example:  their approaches are drastically different, but this is what they are both doing.  So, then, what happens to a religious/spiritual system over time? Eventually its adherents learn how to use it to serve their own greed, which will win out in the end.  This is the stage that Christianity is at in our time.  Past systems have already been there.  Present and future systems will get there.  Other systems will come along that attempt to accomplish the same aim of countering or mitigating this aspect of human nature.  For a while, they do, and then followers begin to see how to profit by them, and so they undo themselves by the very things that gained them strength.
     This is un unexamined hypothesis, all this last part, this thinking thought.  The older components are things I have had years to dwell on, and I am pretty well satisfied that they hold up for me.  But today’s part 1 and part 2 are new thoughts to me, so I don’t know for sure if I am going to embrace them or not.  It’s a long way from thinking to believing.  Nevertheless, here they are, still fresh and offered for further consideration.
12/21/1999
 

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Advertising:  The Art Medium of the Twentieth Century
A prophetic thinking thought from 1981

Advertising will be looked back upon as the principal artistic medium of the century (& one of its major modes of expression will be recognized as the pun, both verbal and visual).

•  It has huge money resources behind it.
•  It absorbs many of our most creative people, who need to make a living.
•  It has real purpose to it:
      -  Influences our way of seeing
      -  Conveys a message
      -  Organizes our perceptions
      -  Combines skill and imagination, etc. (criteria of art)

Art in other times has also been something more (or less) than “art for art’s sake”—l’art pour l’art:  served a secular or ecclesiastical (or both) power

•  Egyptian, Roman, etc.
•  Medieval church
•  Glorify patron
•  Persuade to a point of view

Those powers are now subordinate to business/commercial/financial concerns, which therefore dominate art as they once did

Contemporary American love affair with the computer
Sci-fi & fantasy coming into mainstream literature
Films, fantasy gaming (e.g., Dungeons & Dragons)
Home entertainment

Computers will paradoxically bring more power to average citizen

Computers the principal art medium of the future?

Psychometric evaluation of  “what is art”—art to be defined in terms of {millivolts?} of response—?biophysiological response

Subjectivity:  make it to please yourself

11/5/1981
 


 
 
 
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