Sunday, January 27, 2008


Tall Girl and rr both objected to my characterization of the psychologizing cosmology (in Subversion, below). I felt that uneasiness, as I wrote it, that indicates falsehood, that little twinge that tells you you're repeating words, rather than really thinking. Or at best, that you're using a private shorthand for something too complex to be laid out in full.

I left out important pieces. What I called the psychologizing cosmology bears no necessary relationship with psychology as practiced today. "The bounded view" is perhaps implied by a therapeutic model that places heavy emphasis on the personality (and its disabilities) having been formed in childhood. But it's not just "the bounded view of human existence," -- the view that consciousness arises as an emergent property of brain, and dies with it, and that in the interval between those two events, it sits locked inside the cranium. (It's worth remembering, even within that view, that the organ of thinking is properly the nervous system, not the brain, and a great many complex perceptions and nervous command decisions are made in places other than inside the skull. We're cosmologically, not scientifically, committed to seeing the head as where consciousness is located. -- But that's another issue.) It's not just that. It's also a sort of naive realism, a belief that the way we perceive the world corresponds exactly -- or even closely -- to the way the world is. It's the combination of these two things that is so suffocating. The former is emblematic of the latter, and so I use it as a shorthand; but it's the latter that's really deadly, regardless of what cosmological views you hold. If you believe in how you imagine things, and you sternly restrict how you imagine things to the bounded view, you create for yourself a very tiny, very cramped world indeed. The world Freud inhabited was a very small, airless world. It's no surprise to me that towards the end of his life he found himself unable to read poetry. He'd convinced himself that all the things that poets -- even Shakespeare, that most worldly of poets -- spoke of were unreal. Nothing was real but anxiety and desire, playing out in a world that was exactly as it appeared.

All this is commonplace enough, and most of us pay lip-service to the idea that the world is not as we perceive it, nowadays. But that's not enough. It's not enough to let the thought cross your mind that the world is larger and more complicated than we see it to be. Because in our heart of hearts -- and especially when the chips are down, which is when it matters most -- we really believe in our perception of the world.

Which is why tantric practices can be so important. It's of only minor importance, if any, that I practice believing (for instance) that I have a thousand arms and a radiant white body and that I am infinitely compassionate. But it's hugely important to have the experience -- the experience, not the thought -- of inhabiting a world that is utterly different, and being a person who is utterly different. I am not "really" Chenrezig. I know that as well as you do. But after having had the experience of being Chenrezig, I know -- in a far deeper way than just having the opinion -- that I am not "really" Dale, either.

Meditation on emptiness, of course, is the other commonly recommended way of undermining naive realism. Most of us find it less embarrassing. More intellectually respectable. But it takes a lot longer, for most people, and there are people who don't take to it easily.

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