Synecdoche (Part Two): Little World

Fool's Cap Map of the World. Unknown origin c.1580-1590

Fool’s Cap Map of the World. Unknown origin c.1580-1590

In the first part of this article, we discussed how each person, in coming to understand how they construct themselves as the self-entity they take themselves to be, must in the process come to understand how all others do too. In other words, self-knowledge is not particular to the individual, because the self – in essence an embedded, accumulating and by graduation morphing narrative and body schema – comes into being by identical means in our species. Each of us remains unique in many ways, such as in our formative experience, our psychological make-up, conditioned traits, genetic inheritance, and in our individuated physicalities. Yet that which we regard as our quintessence, the enduring internalised construct we each unquestioningly hold as the self and the aspect of ourselves which we most intimately cling to, is little more than a formulaic pretence determined and governed solely by means of evolved, unbidden and unconscious processes.

Each character has a given name, societal position, cultural identity and perhaps a hierarchical status; yet all such markers are in part a figure of speech, or synecdoche, denoting an undeniable correlation with countless others. The markers delineate superficial distinctions alone, and the greater the number of them, the more we remove from our understanding the underlying truth of the other’s commonality with us.  In much the same way, in our coming to understand how the worlds we ourselves inhabit are constructed, we see also that same world as a synecdoche for all others. How I relate to my home and environment, my relatives and loved ones, those I engage with out of chance or necessity, and those whom I depend upon or those who depend upon me, human or non-human, all make up my little world. It is a relational world, an interactive adventure forged from myriad connections, surprisingly few of which do I have great control over.

The argument against this is to assert that such correlations are facile, that how can I, a materially secure Westerner living in a largely strife-free state, possibly share any commonality with the oppressed and malnourished other on, say, the Indian sub-continent?  Are these conditions not worlds apart, if only qualitatively? Well, in examining human suffering, we find it has a common genesis, proceeding as it does from the mind. For example, we commonly mistake unpleasant bodily sensations for suffering, failing to distinguish between physical pain and the attendant overlay of mental anguish. Is the suffering of the wealthy financier who contemplates suicide at her portfolio’s decimation greater than that of the homesteader in sub-Saharan Africa facing a crop failure of a few sacksful of grain? Objectively, then yes, these are worlds apart, yet the subjective suffering of each may be qualitatively indistinct, even in their wildly differing experiential settings.

Geography of Twitter. By Eric Fischer, Washington, DC

Geography of Twitter. By Eric Fischer, Washington, DC

And what of care and affection; are we to suppose that our world as comprising love is any the lesser or greater than others? Ought we to suppose the human instinct to loving solicitude is greater than that of our fellow creatures? Who amongst us knows what human love is as distinct from other forms of animal love, and whether it is qualitatively superior? Am I so arrogant as to suggest my altruistic benevolence is any the greater than that of my pet Border Collie, for it seems far from being so? If I am unable to define precisely what constitutes this world aspect, how am I to know that those of other animals are not simulacra of my own, there being no original and authentic love-world other than the one as represented by the many – is this not a truth hard to refute? I may describe a personal world of felt affection, yet in doing so prescribe but a figure of speech alone, a synecdoche for all worlds inhabited perhaps by most beings of sentience.

My little world is forged at the interface between psyche and otherness, between ideas and the world as impressed upon my senses. Those impressions and the precise nature of that otherness differ in every detail from the next person’s, yet the means of forging are identical. This shared action results in distinct narratives of course, and it is these that are held to in our bids to assert the pre-eminence of individuality over commonality. I want to believe I am, if not special, then unique; yet that is only true in the differing stories of what I am and what my little world is. To those without privilege to my narratives of self and world, my assumed mantle of uniqueness is meaningless, and the same is true of theirs to me. We may here be at a cold and sterile juncture, yet it also is a starting point from which we may begin to introduce the binding agents of humankind – our innate qualities of kindness and compassion, of empathic understanding.

So what, why should I care about such ideas when I have altogether more pressing concerns? What is the point in abstracting notions such as these from the warp and weft of daily living, the place where I earn my crust, feed my children, and work on my betterment as a means of personal fulfilment? Perhaps the answer lies somewhat starkly in the evidence, and which seems to me to be in a state of constant deterioration. We live in a polarised world, where theists fight theists and atheists argue against both, where the wealthy seldom flinch in their impoverishment of others, and where power-hungry and psychopathic leaders crush the potential of all they have dominion over.  Is it not time to find our common humanity, or even our common animality? We humans are destroying our sole environment; we are chasing down the darkening corridors of economic systems at the point of failure. Can we not rest awhile so as to perceive our little worlds as one?

Synecdoche (Part One): Little Person

 

New Zealand, air hostesses from 1965. Courtesy NZ governement archives

I am just a little person, one person in a sea of many little people who are not aware of me, yet each potentially a simultaneous understanding of the other; each, in a sense, a simulacrum or synecdoche for all others: if I understand myself sufficiently deeply, then in that moment I understand the other, however remote my presence to them. This is not to say I can appreciate their specific complexities, of course, and the detail, the true intricacy of any given life, remains forever removed from that quota of awareness I am privileged to. Each little person, tagged with their own unique package of characteristics, is still a synecdoche though, potentially at least, for all the little people out in the sea of otherness. The word means literally ‘take with something else’, so conveying the idea that even a partial representation alone is sufficient to apprehend the whole, or vice versa.

This sounds rather fanciful to the contemporary mind, conditioned as it is in a belief as to the total, inarguable individuality of each little person. What an appealing belief this is too, for this same little person here finds a seemingly plausible counter to a reluctantly intuited sense of homogeneity, which word itself derives from the Greek ‘homogene’, meaning ‘of the same kind’: Homo Sapiens. Even though each of the little person’s internal organs are replaceable with those fished from the sea of many little people, even though their blood, hair, bones, limbs, eyes and hands can be substituted with biological or manufactured alternatives, still the little person resists the evidence, demanding their status as a uniquely enduring entity. It is of course the mind itself that insists upon countering the intuited and actual homogeneity, and the mind, so the little person believes, belongs to them.

New Zealand, air hostesses from 1959. Courtesy NZ governement archives

This raises a problem, for if the little person’s physicality is all but totally interchangeable, then at what point during this theoretical process does the supposed possessor of the mind cease to exist? When does the point arrive at which we can no longer claim the mind belongs to any little person? If we hold to Physicalism, or Hard Materialism, we assert the mind belongs, if not to the little person, then to the organ of the brain. Should we be an Eliminative Materialist, we say there is no mind, and so no such question arises. I resist these philosophical perspectives, for to me there is a non-locality of awareness, meaning it arises both within as well as about what we think of as the little person, and whilst we call this aware experience ‘mind’, I do not adhere to any Cranialism; it’s not exclusively headstuff. In accepting this, we logically must ask whether the mind is under ownership.

Ownership implies agency, or self-determination, and it is belief in this that makes the little person feel unique and autonomous, directing their life just as all others would theirs. Yet this owning agent is never verifiable other than as consciousness, for it is only ever a belief that resides within and as that consciousness. Now, all conscious displays are themselves non-local simulacra, representations of otherness that are neither the little person nor any owning agent, and which clearly may never be evidenced outside of consciousness. This means the little person is always a thought-construct, a put-up job forged by mind and subsisting in otherness but never in essence itself. Should this hypothesis obtain, then the little person is a synecdoche for the entirety of others in kind; this is because every little person, being a fabrication of mind, comes into apparent existence in an identical manner.

New Zealand, air hostesses from 1970. Courtesy NZ governement archives

Where are we? We heard that the mind persists in countering a reluctantly intuited homogeneity of all the little persons. Further, we said the mind forges each little person as a thought-construct, and that the little person does not exist as an enduringly instantiated entity – just like a house, a car, or a computer, its parts are interchangeable. Beyond this, we learned the mind produces only conscious effects as verification of its own fabrications, and that these subsist universally for all the apparent little persons, being as they are culled from the same sea of otherness. And lastly, we found that the hypothesis as a whole demonstrates that each apparent little person is a synecdoche for the sea of many little people. So, in understanding myself sufficiently deeply, then in that moment I understand the other, which was the assertion of the opening paragraph and a challenge to the curious mind.

In the ‘Ship of Theseus’ paradox, a parallel question is raised: in replacing a wooden ship plank by plank, are the ongoing resultants still the original ship?  In point of fact, only the conception itself endures across the constant transitioning. The ship, as known, is not a wooden construct; it is a thought-construct, a fixed conception presenting to any observing little person, all of whom create each the other in identical fashion. Each parallel the ship in that their structure constantly mutates whilst a sense of enduring selfhood smears out across the whole, forged in mind in homogeneous ways. Now, if the little person turns the mind in on itself reflectively, they in time realise that they must be more than a thought-construct, a belief. They see that the little person whom they believed they existed as was a synecdoche: a motif in play which in its perfectly clear seeing brings knowledge of all of its kind.

 

Images courtesy of New Zealand government archives: http://archway.archives.govt.nz/ViewFullItem.do?code=14847710

Nonsense and non-duality

Photography: C. Frank Starmer, Singapore

Photography: C. Frank Starmer, Singapore

For those unfamiliar with the term, Nondualism is a philosophical principle emanating primarily out of Hindu culture and spirituality. It asserts the possibility of viewing all experience devoid of implicit notions of subjectivity and objectivity, of selfhood and otherness. This positing of an awareness undifferentiated by any assumed subject or self, has perceived similarities with many philosophical and religious traditions, from Mystical Christianity through Sufism to Zen Buddhism.

Whilst descriptions of the non-dual principle differ culturally, it remains broadly identical in concept. The experience of non-duality, meaning the actualised knowledge of it, this however, escapes any verbal description. Because of this, and due also to its sporadic actualisation, the tenet itself is open to widely divergent interpretations even amongst adepts. We could also say that any and all interpretation fails at the outset, as the knowledge is itself not susceptible to any mode of conceptualisation.

Nondualism is a profound and almost elusively subtle principle, and one which has gained increasing traction in The West. And yet it’s not merely an abstraction, not simply a philosophical construct nor a fanciful religious hypothesis. It’s ascendance in Western culture is no accident, and neither is its durability, it having been rigorously tested for three millennia. So the lived actualisation of this impersonal, non-dual awareness was seemingly always latent within the human animal.

Okay, so that’s a very general outline of the subject of this article. Yet what of its significance here, for those interested in psychological and emotional well-being? When the chips are down and life’s tricky, what’s in it for you and me? Is there any usefulness in this obscure principle of non-duality; can it extend meaning beyond the dusty confines of philosophical discourse and can we come face to face with it in daily life? With the audacity of a little hope, we can surely say ‘maybe’.

And yet it’s not actually a case of hope, and certainly not one of belief. Non-duality, or if you prefer, non-self, is both approached and actualised by the receptive and open mind. It’s not a matter of the intellect, so is not produced by the piling together and arrangement of thought. As to its usefulness, we need first appreciate that any prolonged emotional disturbance, or subtly enduring dissatisfaction, must recur and attach in self-entity, thus appearing to happen to ‘me’.

Now in non-dual awareness, the appearance of this ‘me’ is absent. This means the idea of ‘me’ vanishes both as an assumption and as a point of centrality around which experience accumulates. We remain consistent in our sense of being as before, and as a social construct we too must of course persist as some loosely fixed self-entity. What dissolves is the identification with any implied narrative of ‘me’ as a locus and subject of experience. Ergo, there’s nothing to which dissatisfaction may attach.

So this answers the question of ‘what’s in it for me’, and to be clear, the answer is unequivocally ‘nothing’. The question came from a perspective of selfhood, in which ‘me’ is taken as a subject or experiencer synonymous with a benefitting self. This same self was that which assumed its own substance and continuity, and as a consequence came to believe that dissatisfaction attached to the imagined continuum in a parallel progression. All of this fails to pass scrutiny and is invalid.

In non-dual awareness, both selfhood and otherness are apprehended as mental constructs. There is no subject either to which awareness appears to channel, or which is thought to grasp outwardly at otherness. The awareness is seamless and is recognised neither as appearing ‘here’ or ‘there’, which again are known as constructs and values of the sensory system alone. ‘Here’, ‘there’, ‘self’ and ‘other’, are still understood in a conventional sense, yet are known just as conventions; they’re notional.

‘But this is nonsense!’ I hear you screaming. Well, yes, it is non-sense. It is awareness knowing itself as itself and prior to the learned demands of the sensory system which conventionally overlay it. As I said, the experience of non-duality escapes any verbal description, and yet it’s valid to point to it nonetheless. Why so? Again it’s a useful principle, and one which extends meaning in daily life once actualised. This meaning is deeply significant, and as explained just above, is beneficial.

So how does one explore non-duality; where does one (or two), start? Here, I differ from many contemporary proponents in recommending the adoption of a contemplative system of discovery. This generally isn’t what people want to hear, particularly if they’ve heard or read others’ suggesting the redundancy of method and structure. Whilst it’s true that non-dual awareness doesn’t come into being formulaically, it’s assisted by receptivity, openness and a passively enquiring mental outlook.

The receptive and pliant mind lends itself to an intuitive ‘seeing’ which is non-verbal and uncontrived by thought – it’s not empirically or discursively arrived at. It’s not, in this case, new knowledge derived by means of old knowledge. Neither is it any representation of the sensory system such as a mood, any mental state, or feeling – it is non-sense. And much nonsense is written about non-duality too, some out of ignorance or egoic pride, and some because it defies clear categorisation.

So, this principle is potently beneficial, is actualised in receptivity, pliancy and gentle enquiry, and is brought to mind through being pointed to. In my view, the best pointers avoid allusions to the spiritual or divine (where?), the esoteric or the mysterious (what?), and the rigidly formulaic or prescriptive (how?). Whilst actualised non-duality is indescribable, pointers to it need not confound the hearer unnecessarily nor worthlessly engage the dubious. Awareness alone must know itself.

Opinions and the illusion of certainty

License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

Perhaps one of the great current clichés, and one which we come across daily in the media, is that back-handed utterance ‘they’re entitled to their opinion’. It almost sounds as if the opinion holder should be grateful for not being denied their thought processes and the liberty of free expression. What’s implied by the phrase is a sense of tolerance and open-mindedness, yet simultaneously it’s insinuated that the other is misguided. The issuer of the cliché at once seeks to establish themselves as liberal minded, tolerant and right thinking. Politicians communicate relentlessly with sub-text in this way, their odious pursuit of one-upmanship being forged in a stock-in-trade Orwellian double-speak.

In a similar vein, many of us at times distort language and opine so as to manipulate by suggestion. We may subtly disparage the views of others, and seek covertly to impose our own in their place. The ether-borne caterwaul of subjective frothery screeches at us daily on forums and in the blogosphere. Everyone must have their say, to offer up their cherished opinions to an overwhelmingly indifferent world – just as I do here. That’s not to say that influences fail to be exerted in this labyrinthine process; they of course are. Yet most of the consciousness shifting is infinitesimal, such that we may wonder quite why it is that we take proceedings so incredibly seriously; but still, we do just that.

I think we can say that there are broadly two primary motives attached to the process of opinion manipulation. In the first, there’s the attempt to gain some material advantage in the external world – the power-seeking politician, the greedy marketeer, the status-seeking careerist, and so on. Then there’s the purely egocentric motivation of wanting to demonstrate our correctness so as to feel more secure in our personal identity. Here, we aim to build upon a personal narrative in which we come to regard ourselves as inherently perspicacious and savvy. Whether or not this lofty appraisal is shared, it’s our embedded belief in it that counts. As long as we have the illusion of certainty in our ideas, then all is well.

And that phrase is really the nub of it – ‘the illusion of certainty’. This is what generates the fiery passions that so often arise when, in the company of others, we take our (and their) opinions too seriously. Why does debate become ‘heated’; what do we gain by adding a feverish overlay? When observing this in action, we find the overheating debater tends to come across as less plausible, as somehow trying a little too hard to be convincing. We see in them a flaming of the passions which appear to serve as a propellant only for their own sense of certainty; all of which suggests they’re not quite as certain as they project themselves to be. Religious fundamentalists tend frequently to behave in this way.

Almost all certainty and perceptions of correctness are partially illusory – an unfashionable viewpoint, relativism being rather frowned upon in some circles. This deriding dismissal allies with humanist and meliorist tendencies: the belief in humankind’s progressive power to induce improvement in the state of the natural world. Such thinking might imply that the opining of the human mind – a function of the brain of a species of Great Ape – could at times exert a supra-natural capacity. And yet here we are, two centuries away from environmental catastrophe and far closer still to global economic collapse. So has our consensus of opinion led to any certainty of progress, or any proven correctness?

As a collective, the illusion of certainty in our best shared opinions has demonstrably failed us, and continues to do so in ever-threatening ways. On the level of the individual, we see a similar propensity to assume certainty where there is none and so persist in manipulating others with fallacious self-validations – illusions of our own correctness. We fear that should we appear uncertain, to doubt and to waver, then we’ll be judged as inadequate, as not capable of apprehending the obvious. And so we jump to form opinions and adopt them in belief, then defending those ideas with fervour. And should the evidence stack up against us in time, we quietly withdraw the belief, safely away from others’ notice.

Opinions, beliefs, certainties – these are all thoughts that we identify with egoically. That means we take these thoughts to be ‘mine’, as essential to my ‘self’, and as formed by ‘me’. But for this identification, they’re largely harmless, merely stuff floating through and recurring within the mind. We may notice their reiteration, yet there need be no egocentric attachment involved such that we feel defensive of them, needing to sustain and validate their appearance as if it were essential. Many people live in fear of being proven wrong in their opinions; they take great care to qualify and make watertight whatever they say. For them it’s as if to err is taboo, to be proven fallible, to be proven human.

If we suffer from this deadening attachment to our opinions, remedies may include speaking less guardedly, or at times acknowledging uncertainty and an absence of a definitive view. In not constantly and zealously asserting our supposed certainties, we become approachable and more pleasant to engage with. We see that the former imposition of our imagined correctness had created barriers as the egoical self stood alone on one side of an imaginary fence. If we just try sitting on it now and again, or even leaping over it occasionally, we find it’s not as uncomfortable as we’d thought. The illusion of certainty is seen to be just that, a pipe-dream of infallibility that fooled no-one but ourselves.

A friend seeks contentment the hard way

Photo: Jorge Royan, Argentina

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

He was born into an assured middle class comfort, a guarantee of a private education and career to follow. His future classmates would go on to become cabinet ministers in government, bankers and CEO’s. A few became artists with no real need even to sell their work. Like him, their future would be cushioned with inheritances, trust funds, contacts.

By his mid-teens, these privileges had begun to jar with his sense of individuality. He felt he was being led along a path of someone else’s choosing – his father, his teachers, what used to be called ‘the establishment’. There was a feeling of an enforced cronyism which he felt deeply reluctant to conform to. So he decided he had to rebel.

And what does a privately educated, rebellious British schoolboy do in the 1960’s? – he becomes a communist. Attaching to an ideology which fed his youthful contrarianism made him feel he was charting his own course in life. He was wrong-footed by the Czech invasion, but his thinking was by then set. He would be a grafting wage-earner.

Being both an idealist and a romantic, he set sail for Ireland where he would sell his labour working on a travelling fair. Never quite feeling accepted and a little hurt for all that, he returned to England, toiling shifts in factories. His political ideology became more sophisticated. He cultivated the speech of his co-workers. But he was still a posh boy.

And he couldn’t shake it off. There was an irrepressible haughtiness to him, still that exaggerated springing gait that his kind affected during their elite schooling. Still he fought it; still he believed that only by conforming to his absurdly fake self-image would he find contentment and feel comfortable in himself. He sought authenticity in play-acting.

‘Why do I always seem to provoke people? No matter how hard I try to befriend them, they always end up wanting to attack me in some way’. I had to be honest; it was a sincere question from a very dear old friend. I told him it was his fake image that was being attacked. Hard as he tried, people saw right through the pretence; they were offended by it.

Of course, we all have a self-image that we nurture and project. In that sense, my friend was only doing what we all do. We inhabit a narrative of our personal identity, an epic tale of what and who we are. We cling to this so dearly such that it becomes embedded as belief – we believe the story correlates to reality. And if we believe it, why shouldn’t others?

This on-going narration is largely responsible for sustaining our sense of selfhood. We keep the thing knitted together with the flow of our thoughts and perceptions, and all that those mental phenomena give rise to in action. Along with our bodily feelings, our running analysis of our situation and our undeniable sense of being, this narration feeds the self.

But this sense of self is not identical to our authentic being; it doesn’t correlate to the actuality of our being. It is, for the most part, merely this mental creation of the narrative. We can manipulate the narrative as much as we like, we can be as extreme as my friend and fabricate a new story; but it’ll never authentically disclose our being to itself or to others.

There was nothing wrong with being born into privilege. My friend had no need to disown all that entailed. It’s incredibly hard work fictionalising a life. It took my friend most of his adulthood to realise the futility of attempting this. All the while, he believed his authentic self truly was a fairground worker, a night-shift operator, a revolutionary.

He exhausted himself in attempting to inhabit these fake identities. He offended and disturbed so many people in his clumsy, transparent masquerading. And when people were provoked into attacking him in some way because of it, he tried even harder to deceive by manipulating the attackers’ own feelings. This cleverness only made matters worse.

Our authentic identity isn’t a narrative creation. It doesn’t need working at with story-telling and charades. We don’t need to create an acceptable self to project to the world, let alone an unacceptable one. Such manipulations are only ever mutations of inauthentic selfhood in any case. In seeing through this great deception, our authenticity is realised.