On Reading Francisco Varela

Again, what A Course in Miracles did was organize my thinking about spirituality in a way that made clear the many seams, fractures and canyons implicit in that thinking. ACIM created problems it could not on its own resolve.

In this sense, the course was not unlike so many other spiritual and religious experiences in my life – zendos, Catholic churches, Unitarian Universalism, psychotherapy, hallucinogenics. Each effectively expanded my experience just enough to negate itself and thus drop-kick me into a next-level wilderness. Lifetimes pass, or seem to.

Yet there are answers, and there is a way to live in the “wilderness,” such that one no longer needs to practice the art of escape or consent to mere survival.

For me, this way – these answers – arrived in the tradition of second-order cybernetics and constructivism, in particular the thinking of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Studying them was like the difference between a hand-sketched map and full-functioning GPS system. Giving credit to this transformative experience is impossible to convey in a few paragraphs. No doubt I am still very much a learner, still figuring out precisely what these men shared, what that sharing entails, what it asks of me, and so forth.

Yet as I have been preparing to go back into Varela’s work I find myself reflecting on what might be a general rationale for doing so. That is, if someone asked me, why are you reading Varela as if your life depended on it, what would I answer?

Well, I can’t answer really, but it turns out that Michel Bitbol more or less already did in his essay “Neurophenomenology, an Ongoing Practice of/in Consciousness.” There, Bitbol characterizes the overarching nature or spirit of Varela’s work as being fundamentally pragmatic and disdainful of traditional labels. I find these sentences vastly clarifying.

Just as Wittgenstein rejected any accusation of being a behaviorist, an idealist, or even a pragmatist (because he was immersed in a practice of behavior, of mental life, and of everyday linguistics and pragmatics, instead of holding some theoretical version of these practices), Varela could easily reject any accusation of holding any one of these “isms” because he rather prescribed immersion in a multidimensional practice of phenomenological examination and scientific inquiry.

In other words, there is commonly a sense of seeking out a calcified static “theoretical version of a practice” (be it ACIM, Catholicism, Buddhism, constructivism, et cetera) that one can finally and ulimately hold and call “true” when what is called for – when what is actually happening – is an immersive lived experience of those practices.

In other words, one doesn’t “find” anything – one merely gives attention to what is happening, and lives it, as it is given. That living is transformative because it is in the nature of an ongoing transcendence, a radically loving process that excludes nothing (because it is mutual, circular, entails the other, et cetera).

Bitbol suggests that to embrace this particular scholarly ethic means “[r]ecovering the fullness of lived life rather than remaining trapped in a restricted version of it expressed by a theory . . .”

Bitbol is focused here on Varela’s approach to the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness. I don’t know that I am too stressed about consciousness so much as with addressing a “problem of living,” which is probably more aptly framed as a “problem of being happy” in a deep, serious, sustained and natural sense of the word, where this “happiness” cannot be separated from a practice of giving attention.

I don’t know what Varela – a dedicated scientist and so far as I can tell an equally dedicated Zen practitioner – would say to that. I think – and my ongoing study and practice aims to clarify – that he would approve, at least generally.

Bitbol does make the point that Varela’s scientific approach cannot be effectively separated from his spiritual approach, a stance that seems especially relevant to me.

In the same way as a Zen practitioner, the Varelian neurophenomenologist does not strive towards some solution to a standard problem. He rather exercises a ‘living and continuous reaction’ (Batchelor 2000) that makes such a problem irrelevant.

I would rewrite Batchelor’s phrase as “living and continuous response,” and otherwise agree that what matters is not a formal set of rules to which one steadfastly adheres but rather a gentle and sustained attention given – gifted – unto the world that our living brings forth.

I am moved by the following emphasis set by Varela in a spirited dialogue with Bernhard Poerksen:

Absolute reality, in my eyes, does not dictate the laws we have to obey. It is the patriarchal perspective to proclaim the truth and to decree absolutely valid rules that constrain, limit, and eradicate opportunities. What might be called absolute reality tends to appear to me as a feminine matrix, whose fundamental quality is the opening up of possibilities.

It seems to me that we make structures – social, mental, collective – that are basically patriarchal, in the sense of restricting our experience and understanding and corralling us into fixed postures that admit only faint and compromised strains of love. Varela – like his teacher Maturana – speak to a vision of living that embraces the feminine as antidote to patriarchy in order to bring forth more fully and wholly our capacity for love.

That is why I read – am reading – Varela. That is the specific way I am served by it. It renders me – who so profoundly needs the rendering – more fit for service.

Cooperation and Coordination are Love

Institutions arise out of mutual acts of coordination among individuals who have as their goal a shared beneficence. For example, my neighbor and I have an agreement – I mow his lawn in spring, summer and Fall and he plows my driveway in winter.

The institution is neighborhood, the coordinating mechanism is barter, and the mutually beneficial outcome is obvious.

This rose showed up in a corner of the front yard this year . . . a lovely surprise, a welcome unintended visitor . . . and I think of it frequently when I think of how beauty finds a way to come forth in my living, as if insisting I remember – and bring forth in my own inept and stumbling way – love.

I consider this a kind of love. My neighbor and I perceive needs, enter a dialogue, and meet those needs in a way that works for us both. This is possible because of the attention we gave both to our own living and to each other’s living.

The principles that underlie this successful endeavor can be summed up as follows:

1. The question “what do I need” is yoked to “what can I give?”; and

2. The other person is a fellow human observer who could be our own self.

Approaching conflict and problems in this light – with these questions as guides – has helped me to better practically embody these two tenets of Heinz von Foerster:

1. A is better off when B is better off; and
2. Always act so as to increase the number of choices.

The effectiveness of this model is mostly local. My driveway is here; bartering with folks who are one hundred or one thousand miles away is far less likely to be fruitful.

All living is local. We live where our bodies are (but not only where our bodies are) and so love, as an embodied call-and-response in a community, broadly defined, is also local.

But clearly the effects of our living have ramifications beyond what is local. Even if those effects are so subtle as to all-but-unnoticed, they still exist. Von Foerster’s tenets still apply.

Take, for example, the decision to eat almonds. It takes approximately 1.1 gallons of water to grow a single almond. And the vast majority of almonds are grown in California, a state suffering a long-standing water crisis.

Eating a single almond is not going to make impact that crisis in a substantive way, but cumulative acts of eating – or declining to eat – almonds will.

Our living is not separate from the living of others – humans, animals, plants, et cetera. This is not a mystical observation but rather the recognition that through economic, ecological, political and other networks, we cannot act without effecting, however subtly, the rest of the world.

Thus, Alexandr Kropotkin could say of human solidarity in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution:

It is the unconscious recognition of the force that is borrowed by each man from the practice of mutual aid: the close dependency of every one’s happiness upon the happiness of all; and of the sense of justice, or equity, which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own.

The suggestion Kropotkin makes – and I make, too – is that this sense of mutuality is natural and inherent. We don’t have to invent it or teach it so much as encounter it and then allow it its full expression. What stands in the way of being kind? What obstructs our awareness of love?

How do we do this? By giving attention to our experience both as individuals and as members of a vast interwoven living collective.

When we perceive a need, be it hunger, safety, comfort, thirst, entertainment, or something else altogether, it’s okay to seek to assuage that need. But in doing so, can we also give attention to what we have to give? Can we ask how the way we meet this need increases the number of choices? Can we ask how meeting it makes others better off as well?

In our current cultural climate, when meeting needs related to the body, we tend to buy stuff – food, drink, clothing, entertainment. Comfort is for sale. But there are other ways: we can make things ourselves, re-purpose something already on hand, trade, barter or potlach or go deeply into the question of whether the need must be met at all.

I am not suggesting that money is evil and fiscal exchanges are evil. Money is just symbolic of rates of exchange, and the exchanges executed are in some sense neutral. However, I do notice that there is something in money – its ease-of-use perhaps, and its symbolic nature – that tends to stymie creativity and generosity that are inherent features of our being.

In part, this is because money quantifies value, and we aren’t good at discerning when this quantification is helpful and when it’s not. It’s fine to say a cup of coffee is worth a buck, and to set that as a rate of exchange. It’s harder to say that I love you X many dollars worth. In fact, it makes no sense at all. Love doesn’t work that way. But we can think it does. We can behave as if it does. And plenty of us do.

So money – indeed, any symbol which we substitute for value in our living – makes it harder to notice the other as a human observer who could be our own self. The focus shifts from the human meeting other human in living relationship in favor of the symbolic exchange. We confuse the two exchanges. We end up craving the symbol – idolizing the symbol – rather than bringing forth the mutual happiness the symbol can deliver.

When we see the other merely as a node in an exchange, readily interchangeable with someone else, the injury is not just to the other but to our selves as well. That is because I am better off when you are better off. Fear of scarcity lessens; envy lessens. When we are happy in a natural serious way we do not perceive one another as competitors but neighbors – as brothers and sisters in an extended family. Our natural empathic abilities are brought forth and what they bring forth in turn is love.

If you are a student of A Course in Miracles you might remember Ken Wapnick’s insistence that the course says nothing about behavior. This is mostly true. But even Ken – especially near the end of his life as his learning clarified – understood the course in terms of relationship. He urged students that whatever they were doing, to make it about the other person. Going out to dinner? Make it about the waitress, the cook, the other patrons. Driving to work? Make the drive about the other drivers. This is entirely consistent with von Foerster’s suggestions. And it is a healthy and helpful way to be an ACIM student, if that is one’s interest.

The metaphysics actually take care of themselves. Either we find satisfactory answers to the questions raised or the questions just stop figuring so intensely in our thinking. What matters is our happiness, at which you are an expert, albeit possibly one who is in denial about her skillfulness. The fruits of happiness are peace and its roots are love. Service – which is simply devoted attention given to the other, who is our self seen another way – is a helpful way to nurture joy.

Thus, we give attention to the other, and to the opportunity the other presents to bring forth in our shared living, relationships of mutual beneficence. You might think of these institutions – these formal notices of love – as “creations.” Trading recipes, watching the neighbor’s dog, listening when you’re tired, sharing the harvest . . . in this way we are being human, which is a way of bringing forth love.

Spiritual Teachers, Spiritual Parents

The human observer has a specific neural architecture (brain) which is instantiated in a specific perceptual system (body). Allowing for neural a-typicality, which happens, all human observers are having an approximately similar experience – language-based, tribal, biased, et cetera.

we are rebuilding an old flower garden, long-abandoned . . . here is a step on a stone path we are slowly restoring for wandering feet.

Thus, the world that you see and think about is not vastly different than the world that I see and think about – nor is it different from the world that Jesus saw and thought about, or Nisargadatta, or Helen Schucman or Eckhart Tolle.

Please note that I did not say those worlds are precisely identical. Obviously there are differences. Rather, my point is that those differences are closer to trivial than not, at least in the sense that allowing for cultural differences, you could readily be in dialogue with Jesus, Nisargadatta, Tolle, Helen Schucman or me.

This because it goes to the essence of our longing for masters, gurus, teachers, et cetera. We are parented beings. We are followers, going where the tribe does, and doing what helps the tribe get along. We are built that way. So when we ask “what do I do with this interior emptiness/loneliness/confusion/pain” we naturally look for parent figures – priests, ministers, gurus, therapists, teachers – to help us figure it out.

And, just as naturally, because there is so much seeking for these types of figures, there are folks who step into those roles, with varying degrees of efficiency and effectiveness.

Who is your teacher? Who are you following?

Personally, I am moving away from overt spiritual language – satsang, miracle, enlightenment, soul. I am also moving away from folks who purport to have what others do not (I’ve personally had experience X and will now sell or otherwise convey it to you).

The language piece arises from a desire to maximize communication, to enlarge the dialogic circle. The steering clear of the professionally enlightened piece arises out of a recognition of our utter mutual dependence on one another. Our equality has clarified to a point where it is no longer feasible to elevate individuals to exalted status, even temporarily. We all belong; we all bring something important to the table. Without the other, we are not. Period.

So what is the alternative to specialized spiritual practice overseen by some master figure?

last year I cleared an area given mostly to deadfall, the abandoned corner of our little orchard . . . this year wild violets are growing, their lucid purple like touching the hem of God’s Mother’s gown. . .

One possibility – one being slowly brought forth in my own living – is dialogue premised on equality, where “dialogue” is understood in a Bohmian way – i.e., without agenda or other constraints, and with an intentional focus on honesty and open-mindedness. I also understand “dialogue” to be less formal than Bohm typically imagined it. That is, the dialogue is not only when we purposefully sit down in a circle to share, but also when we are just chatting en route to the grocery store, cooking dinner, scrubbing windows, waving hello in passing, et cetera.

In a slightly dramatic sense, I am suggesting that our lives be given wholly over to simple attentiveness and openness. What happens, happens, and we will notice it, and respond to it, and share about it honestly and directly, and then other stuff will happen, and the cycle of our living will go on like this until our bodies encounter some block or hurdle which cannot be overcome and so they lay down a final time.

This practice moves me in the direction of love, and moving in the direction of love begets a natural inclination to serve others, which happily enough speeds one’s passage to love.

What does this look like in practice?

For me, it means being careful with language. When I find myself leaning on complicated spiritual ideas or windy poetic abstractions, I ask if there is a way to explain this that a child would understand. Since there always is – else why else share at all – the question arises: what am I really doing by using language in ways that minimize or otherwise impair communication?

It is a good question for one inclined to hide behind wordiness.

Another thing is being sensitive to the fact that I don’t know everything. A lot of what I do know surprised me when I learned it. Why should tomorrow be any different? So I have to go slowly and humbly, trying always to keep in mind that more will be revealed. Who I condemn today I may need to turn to for guidance tomorrow. The shelter I destroy today I may discover a need for next week or the week after.

For me, there is also an increasing emphasis on finding what works and working it. Three simple examples: exercise (in addition to chores) is very helpful to me; certain dietary restrictions are too. Drinking way less coffee is also helpful. Those things are challenging in their way but their positive impact in terms of physical energy and mental clarity and optimism are undeniable. So work them.

the flower garden from a distance, with driftwood culled from Bronson Brook set just so . . .

Similarly, in the classroom where I spend a great deal of my professional life, it helps me help others if I am more forgiving and flexible and less stern. There is in me a tendency to run a tight ship on a tight schedule to a non-negotiated end chosen by me. But my students learn better and write better when I am less dictatorial and more in the nature of a cheerful coach.

So those are some personal examples. That is what it looks like for me; of course it will look different for other folks. What makes sense to me as a practice – attentiveness, emptying out of attachment and investment, dialogic relationship – may not make sense to others, not even a little. We are where we are.

I speak from a sense of quiet joy. Having discovered something that works there is a desire to share it, hopefully with minimal drama and egoism. The little light I have is yours; all I want is to share it with you.

Observation and Description of Phenomena

In a way, the so-called spiritual process is akin to noticing – and then sustaining in awareness – the distinction between what is happening and an observer’s description of what is happening. The description is not the thing.

observing rocks and glass culled from an earl morning walk on the river

Say that I am sad. You say, “Sean is sad. I can tell by the tears flowing down his face and the way his body sags as if burdened by a great weight.”

Your description of my sorrow is not my experience of sorrow. It is not even close to the feel of wet tears on my cheeks, the salt as they reach my lips, the sagging of my skeletal frame, the mental struggle to put words to emotion, the desperate longing for relief . . .

Moreover, your description of sorrow is relatively simplistic relative to the sorrow that is actually occurring. The occurrence is complex to the point of ineffability. To truly accurately describe sorrow you’d need to evoke biology, chemistry, physics, human history, linguistics – literally the whole cosmos.

This is a simple point but we overlook it constantly: descriptions are not the processes they describe. And since the world is made of processes – everything is changing, shifting, moving, even if at scales that are imperceptible to human observers (plants growing, say, or the sun burning out) – our descriptions are at best pale imitations with limited utility. At worst, they actively confound and misdirection our living, making us unhappy, unhelpful and unproductive.

In a sense, there is no way out of this. Human observers describe what they observe. Everything is given a name and categorized accordingly. Everything is ascribed motivation, rationale, history, goals. Everything is placed in relationship with everything that it is not it. Human observers build a world this way. Their living constructs their living.

Description is also a process, albeit one that implies a stable central describer – a self who faithfully report what she perceives, whose perceptions can be trusted. But as we all know, upon investigation and inquiry, that “self” cannot be found in an objective sense. The concrete narrative center it implies is an illusion.

And yet life goes on. The world goes on.

But “goes on” is a description according to an observer.

But the observer is a process that is being observed “going on.”

It is as if no matter what path you take, you end up at the same place, which is neither a beginning nor an end but merely a realization of circularity and recursivity.

This is maddening at first – as if we are trapped in a maze. One temptation is to spiritualize it – call the recursivity “infinity” and “eternity” (which are descriptions 🙂 ). Another is drain it of joy through reduction by saying it’s just atoms and quarks and what not (but see how “just” is a description 🙂 ).

The important thing is to see that we are not excluded or separate from the process. It inheres in us, the way blue inheres in blueberries. We are one with it. And seeing this – the simple natural fact of it – then it becomes a source of peace and joy and service.

So the point is not to cease describing, which is not possible anyway, nor to undo or end or amend observation which is also not possible.

keeping a place to sit with one another . . . under the apple trees, watching the horses

Rather, the point – or practice, if you will – is simply to give attention to the descriptive process while not conflating it with what is being described. It is a bit of tightrope walking; a delicate balancing act.

But it is helpful because it loosens our sense that there is something at stake here – a life, a self, other selves with whom we are in relationship. Relieved of this ontological burden of defense, we are free to be happy and serve others, which extends our happiness.

Or that is one way to say it. There are others.

On Being Wrong (And What Comes Next)

A lot of my thinking over the past year rests on an assumption about observers, namely, that cognition and perception are observer-dependent, and thus cannot provide access to any absolute Reality or Truth.

Yet notice that for this assumption to justify the conclusion, it has to be interpreted as being actually real – that is, that the observer is a real object with real capabilities that can be known and measured.

But my conclusion states the precise opposite of that!

sean reagan
in the dark . . .

Is this clear? It is like I am saying “only the perceiving cognizing human observer is real – everything else is conditional, relative, uncertain, et cetera.” If one looks at it this way, it’s incoherent. It presupposes the reality of the body – of the observer – in order to argue that nothing is real (or certain or true . . . ). The premise undermines the conclusion.

So perhaps I am wrong, or at least deeply confused. Then what?

I might conclude that bodies are actually real and that the world they construct (via perception and cognition) enjoys an actual non-trivial correspondence to Reality. The dead really are dead and the living really do need to eat and sleep.

On that view, a path like A Course in Miracles – and other contemporary approaches to nonduality – are wrong. Embodied duality subject to time and space is the only God there is, and it doesn’t give a damn about our feelings. Kneel before the microscopes and telescopes! Pledge thy fealty to Feynmann!

On that view, religion and spirituality are only useful to the extent they modify our behavior in the direction of helpfulness, kindness, gentleness, et cetera. They ought to be evaluated the same way we evaluate pharmaceuticals – run tests under strictly monitored conditions, gather up data, and then go where the data says go.

A lot of us don’t like that but . . . what if it’s where logic and experience take us? Would that be okay?

Another possible conclusion is to realize that presumptions notwithstanding, we are still left with the observer. There is still this experience. If one explanation for it falls shy of accuracy, and another one doesn’t feel sufficiently magical or otherwise appealing, why not look for others?

Is it possible that a pure approach to nonduality is coherent? That is, to argue that there is only awareness with its unbelievably rich tapestry of experiences, including the one of being a human observer with her intimately dualistic worldview? That everything – from gravity to cancer cells to bullets to pansies – are all merely appearances in, to, and as awareness?

That even this self is an appearance? Even this precious apparent center alternately calling itself “Me” and “I?”

Often, faced with knotty dilemmas such as these, I fall back to shrugging. I can’t prove Eckhart Tolle and Ramana Maharshi and Rupert Spira wrong. Feynmann and Maturana and Nagel can’t quite totally convince me they’re right . . . So maybe the best thing is to adopt whatever posture works best. What’s right is what works!

What’s handy about that is it lets me skip the hard questions and instead focuses on defining “works” and how to go about accurate measuring.

Say I want “works” to mean “most efficient at securing a natural and serious happiness throughout the collective,” and I am going to measure it through happiness indexes, food security, statistics on global death by famine, war, disease et cetera.

From a nondual perpsective I can say, well, yes, all that are appearances in consciousness but . . . it makes me happy. And being happy seems to help me make you happy, so . . . yes. We’ll do that. Even if it’s merely appearance.

Is that enough? To just say “hey – nondualism works for me. YMMV. It’s all good!”

What about my neighbor who believes a patriarchal Christian worldview is what makes people happiest? And his standard for measurement is how many women are only able to do what their fathers/husbands/brothers allow them to do?

Must I do battle – epistemological or otherwise – with my neighbor? What if he tries to convert me? What if he tries to convert my daughter?

Or what if my neighbor is a physicist and she mounts a well-sourced, well-articulated rational argument in favor of simply accepting bodies as objects in a universe subject to physical laws. I can’t refute it. And it’s at least moderately predictable (in a Bayesian sense). Adopting it makes me more productive and efficient, and productivity and efficiency help promote this “natural and serious happiness . . . ”

Must I accept her argument? Must I put my crucifixes and tarot cards and A Course in Miracles away?

I don’t think these are trivial questions! Which is not to say they are all equally valid or even answerable. But they do seem to follow from my premise: which is that the premise I adopt viz. human observers may, in fact, be bullshit.

When faced with a seam in the foundation, it’s a good idea to take it seriously.

How do we know anything? How does knowing matter? Is there some degree of unknowing that is acceptable? What degree? Who decides? Who will help us? And how will we know?

Where do we go from here?

Dialogue as Love

Recently I wrote this sentence:

There is no other way because we are already what we seek: are already the very home in which we long to rest.

It was in the same paragraph as this little gem:

We are love.


Deadfall past the horse pasture . . .

I try to be careful when writing that way. It’s not that the given statements are wrong per se, but that they are poetic in a way that allows for – perhaps even instigates – confusion. And the goal now is to be less confused. Better things happen when confusion abates.

If you read those sentences – now or back when they were first posted – did you like them? Was there a little shiver of yes? A little mental click like finding just the right puzzle piece? Certainly there was for me. Else why would I have written them?

“We are love” and “we are already the home in which we long to rest” are resonant because they link the self (“we”) to a couple of powerful words: “love” and “home.” And it’s a favorable association.

Language has power. Certain words and phrases resonate for us, often intimately. There is no way around this – it inheres in the human experience – and so all we can do is give attention to the experience of resonance and see what, if anything, reveals itself.

Often, we conflate interior congruence – that little shiver of yes, the joyful mental click – with the actual truth of the proposition. That is, we read “We are love” and it feels good and so therefore it must be true. But we don’t actually inquire into it: we don’t test it, we don’t tease its many strands into the open, we don’t look for alternatives, we don’t examine our biases.

And there are plenty of true facts that don’t instantiate any interior frisson in the first place. “Groundhogs have four legs.” Yawn. I mean true, but . . . yawn.

So there is something special about some words and it’s worth digging into this to figure out what exactly appeals to us and whether in our happiness we are accepting a level of confusion we should really be opposing.

Take a word like “love.”

Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as love. When someone says “love,” they intend for the word to cover their personal felt understanding of ideal human behaviors, social obligations, historical patterns, et cetera.

“Love” is just a symbol that points to a welter that no single syllable in the universe could possibly reliably contain. It’s like saying that reading the word “wet” feels the same as swimming at night in the sea.

You have two choices when I use the word “love.” First, you could enter into dialogue with me. You could start by asking: “what do you mean when you use this word?” And then work with me for however long it takes to understand what I mean with what I say.

To be in dialogue this way requires time and patience and care. It is demanding. It is form of service, perhaps. To give attention to another human being in the deep way of truly aiming to understand what they mean when they say “love” . . . is itself – as I understand and use the word – an act of love.

The other option – the default option and so the easier option – is to correlate my use of the word to your own interior welter. That is, you implicitly  assume that I must mean what you would mean if you had used the same word. A lot of our human communication is predicated on just that kind of assumption.

The problem arises when my use of the word and your use of the word are so apart they could almost be different languages. Then, every subsequent move in our communication only widens the initial divide. We fall further and further apart even as we think we are moving in sync. A lot of our human problems arise from  just this kind of ongoing error.

Why do we accept accept this division? Why do we refuse to see it is an error? Why do we deny its ruinous effects?

These are important questions.

What matters is not the word that we use but rather the person who uses it. When we are in dialogue, what works is to see the whole person before us, and to be aware of what it is in us that prohibits us from seeing who is before us. Words are helpful in that meeting – that mutuality – that bringing forth of love – but they are just words. They are not that to which they purport to point.

Our practice is to live lightly with language, ever aware of that to which it points, and unafraid to do the hard work of bringing clarity to confusion.

The work is to go slowly and be careful – to be filled with care – with respect both to our wordiness and the wordiness of others. What do we mean when we say “home” or “love?” What do others mean? How shall we know?

How shall we be in dialogue, you and I?

Meaning and Now

In a way, then, what we are saying is that coherence is a natural condition towards which we naturally move – in thought, in action, and so forth. And then something obstructs that – usually our proclivity for identifying self and thought – and so we become incoherent. The problem is, incoherence is very good at masking itself, at seeming to cohere. Often we feel that we are the only sane person in a welter of insanity and irrationality. In this way, incoherence continues unabated because we never actually see it.

So if we can have a dialogue with one another – or even unto ourselves, if the conditions are right and we have some facility in that direction – then we can begin to identify what is distracting or blocking us from our natural condition of coherence. We can begin to see where we get stuck, and this is extraordinarily valuable. If we are jealous of somebody’s intellect, or the way they express their ideas, and we can get very close to that jealousy without actually indulging it – treating it as a movie almost – then we can begin to undo our connection to it. We can begin to see it as an idea, a sort of facet of a shared mind, a part of a larger stream. We can choose to let it simply drift away. Why not?

We often assume that the quality of our thoughts is such that they ought to be enshrined. They appear to us like cathedrals, like the altars inside the cathedrals, and the icons on the altars in the cathedrals. They have such gravity! And while thought is very powerful indeed and we oughtn’t disdain it on those grounds, we can also see – this is very important – that there is something, some self or ground perhaps, which can reflect those ideas or not as it wills. So the thought itself is not really very important. It’s like milkweed dander.

We begin to see that the problem with thought then is the importance we give it – we are doing this! It is like A Course in Miracles says,

The secret of salvation is but this: that you are doing this unto yourself. . . Whatever seems to be the cause of any pain and suffering you feel, this is still true” (T.27.VIII.10:1,4).

And so we slowly relinquish that. We loosen our stranglehold. We learn perhaps that we are not especially interested in loosening it! Or that we want to cling to some types of ideas and not others. Or that we can let it go only to grab it back a few hours later. But just cracking the veneer a little, seeing how there is something independent of thought . . . it is very healing, very relieving.

Keeping in mind that this something is natural can be helpful. We are not inventing it or calling it into being. We are simply paying attention to what is going on – in ourselves, first, and then by extension in the dialogue itself. There is a sort of energy and our attention is in that. It is like we thought we were looking at a painting of a river when suddenly we discover that we are actually standing beside it in truth. Nothing changes really except the quality of what we’re seeing. There is a clarity. There is a kind of electric feeling, as if somebody just turned all of life on for us. There is this movement and we – without worrying it – are part of it.

And yes, it comes and goes. Or it seems to. In truth, we step in and out of it. But the more accustomed we become to it, the more we will offer our “selves” to it. That is the beginning of creativity and peace.

Creating Meaning, Undoing Blocks

If we say that coherence is meaning that flows through us – and by extension – through society without blocks, then we should be clear on what those blocks are. If we compare meaning to a river, what blocks a river are dams (deliberate constructions) and fallen trees or eroded banks and so forth (which evolve naturally). Obviously, the blocks that impede the free flow of meaning – that cause incoherence, say – are not fallen trees and dams. They are thoughts. Or, better, they are habits of thought.

So what we are suggesting then is that meaning flows until it encounters some thought or pattern of successive thoughts that gums it up. These blocks are pernicious, even dangerous. At best they breed confusion, a sort of continuing daze, but at worst they render us murderous and destructive. So getting to them and undoing them is important. But how?

Obviously if they blocks were easy to find or dissemble then we wouldn’t have come to grief. So there is work involved in this – real work. But still. What does it mean?

I have suggested in previous posts that we are moving in the direction of coherence when we are aware – that is, when we are attentive in a sustained and energetic way. This attention is not active in the traditional sense. It isn’t trying to find problems in order to solve them. Rather, it simply wants to observe – to take not without judgment – of what is going on. Its objective is seeing – a clear and sober seeing.

When we watch our thoughts – the movement of our minds – we will begin to see that certain things will cause blockage. We might compare thought to a stream, right? And everything is just passing by, slow and steady, and then suddenly the image of a parent, say, shows up and suddenly we are feeling all sorts of things – anger, sadness, confusion. And other images fly up as well – of our childhood, of certain arguments, family holidays and all that.

What is called for is not to follow all of that – not to leap into the river, clutch at the flotsam and go flailing along with it. Instead, we just calmly observe the movement. We see the intensity, its effect, what flows from it.

What we might also see – or catch a glimpse of – are the lenses through which we perceive this stream. We might see how we actually judge the thoughts. I shouldn’t feel this way about my father. I am being disloyal or subhuman even. And we begin to see how those lenses affect what we are seeing – indeed, in essence, they become what we are seeing. Mothers should do this, children should do that. Family means this. All of that shapes what we are seeing. It is actively shaping it.

A moment of insight can flow from this – we might begin to intuitively appreciate that we are doing this to ourselves. That the thoughts are not separate from the thinker. The one is moving in the other. Indeed, the one is the other. So we see that the block is not some external fact or truth or reality but simply a habit of seeing, of judging really, that stymies the capacity of meaning to simply continue moving.

Thus, we can find our blocks by carefully watching what is going on inside of us. The idea of the parent as a block is an old one, even a stereotype, but perhaps makes clear the point. There are obvious blocks but the blocks can be quite subtle. Nor are they limited to the past. It really requires a great deal of sensitivity to perceive them and – having perceive them – allow them to be pass, keep drifting on.

It is a process. We are learning to give less importance to thought. By becoming more aware of thought – which functions both as river and block – we are becoming more sensitive to how meaning is made and how it moves. This sensitivity will move us away from grief and towards peace and healing. It is a very important undertaking for this reason.

Coherence is Natural

When we talk about coherence, we are talking about meaning that is not blocked in any way. It is not running up against various psychological or cultural blocks. Like water seeking lower ground, it simply flows where it will. This idea – and the image of the water – is helpful in that it can provide a model for how to approach our experience of coherence.

Most importantly, we cannot force coherence. That is a sort of violation, a fundamentally incoherent act that can neither nurture nor sustain the state of energetic clarity we are talking about. We have to allow meaning to find itself – to create itself, if you will. What is called for is not will power or vision so much as a sort of vigorous attention to the whole.

We want to see – to perceive – the blocks without actually doing anything about them. That is a big change in how we are used to thinking and in how we relate to our thinking. When hurt shows up, we are not going to try and make it better. When resentments show up, we are not going to say: well, I shouldn’t feel that way because so-and-so never did anything to me. It can seem right and natural to respond to unpleasant emotions by trying to heal them or avoid them or squash them down but what is called for is simply to allow them to be and then to observe them.

Water finds lower ground, doesn’t it? Rivers wind their way to the sea. Of course we can block them – with large man-made dams maybe. Fallen trees can block them. But water has a way of persisting in its direction. It has a sort of insistence to it. Read John McPhee’s wonderful book “The Control of Nature.” It is an early classic in the genre of coherence studies, though I doubt McPhee saw it that way. Human beings dam up the Atchafalaya and it just undoes all our efforts.

That is a way of saying, by analogy, that our psychological blocks can be quite sophisticated and quite deep-rooted but meaning persists. Coherence longs for itself. Perhaps we can say it that way. And we are really helpless in the face of that longing. If we allow water to simply flow where it will, what remains is a landscape in which we can reside with some degree of certainty and comfort. But if we look at the landscape and try to force the water into an accommodation, well, that is not going to be so successful.

So we have to see that. Seeing that means that we are going to be less invested in “defending” our blocks. We will begin to see that they are not so important, are actually quite insignificant. It is a sort of surrender to meaning, right? We are saying that the landscape – the interior landscape – has a form it will assume but we are not charged with building or shaping that form. And so we call back in a sort of passive way, allowing our intensity to manifest in our awareness rather than our activity.

To simply be with the movement of meaning – its shifts, its currents, its energies – without judging it or interacting with it is really a gift. It is a gift because it is healing and so we benefit from it. There is a lot of focus in traditional religions (probably no-so-traditional religions too) about inner peace but with their heavy emphasis on form, these institutions never really get us there. Everything is codified and reinforced and so forth. You have to sit on the zafu this way for this long. You have to say this prayer before eating that wafer. It all amounts to forcing meaning along a certain path. I know a lot of my friends – particularly Buddhist – will resist, if not resent, this characterization but I think there is something to it. I think there is some value. Coherence is new. What has passed is not going to be so helpful or fructive.

So again, we do not have to do anything other than pay attention. This is going to be challenging at first, but sooner than most people realize or expect, its benefits emerge. Some light enters and once there is light, the darkness is undone. So we begin to see that we can do this – we can pay attention – and we see that to which we pay attention if forever new, forever unfolding. And in a sort of penultimate sense, we see at last that even our attention is unfolding – is part of the whole enfoldment. Like water rushing down hill for the slow-streaming river, what we are doing is natural and even easy. We might even say, it is.

Damned Lies!

Romney Damages Our Already Hurting Political Dialogue

To be coherent is, in significant ways, to be honest. If it is raining, we are coherent when we say “better take an umbrella for our walk. We are incoherent when we say, “that’s not rain falling from the sky – it’s liquid sunlight.” The difference is important because incoherence tends to breed additional incoherence. In the instance case, it means that a lot of people might get wet, and then angry, and then take their anger out on someone.

Incoherence has a way of spiraling into itself.

In that light, it is discouraging when politicians “spin” the truth. That is itself a dishonest phrase. The truth is not up for a vote – it is what it is. We can try to gussy it up and we can ignore it altogether, but we can’t eliminate it. No matter how the stakes – winning or losing an election, say – when we break faith with the truth, we are behaving incoherently. And the consequences naturally follow – rancor and distrust, rigid partisan line-drawing, curtailed dialogue. And those, in turn, can lead to economic catastrophe and war.

Coherence matters. Telling the truth matters.

That is why it is so discouraging to see Mitt Romney dissembling in such a reckless way. His claim earlier this month that Jeep will be shipping jobs to China has been debunked on so many levels and by so many people – it’s just flat out wrong – and yet he continues to make it.

Obviously, the stakes are as high as they will ever be for Mr. Romney. He has been running for President for many years – and dreaming of it for even longer no doubt. If he loses this campaign, it will be his last. That’s a big deal. We can all appreciate the stress and anxiety that attends him right now. And, of course, he’s in the midst of a presidential campaign which is its own sort of crazy. All in all, the inclination to lie is understandable.

But it is not – repeat, not – forgivable. When we lie, whatever the scale, we obscure what is true. We render it incoherent. We have obligations – to ourselves, our families and friends, our broader communities and even – it’s true – the world – to tell the truth. If the truth is inconvenient, well, that’s part of coherence. What does the bumper sticker say? It is what it is.

It remains to be seen whether Romney’s dissembling will enable him to win Ohio and perhaps the national election. If he does, his victory will be at best an incoherent one. And there is little to suggest that he is interested in healing it. Indeed, the evidence suggests that when Mitt Romney’s back is against the political wall the first casualty is truth. He seems to regard it as infinitely malleable and forever at the surface of his ambition. We deserve better – we really do. Our political dialogue is already injured – all Romney has done is drive the stake a little closer to its heart.