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.

1 Comment

  1. Rereading this post later in the day and looking at these lines of mine:

    . . . 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.

    And I think that Varela would disagree with that sentiment, that idea. In fact, the Zen Buddhism he spoke favorably towards was very much a rigorous disciplined approach to organizing and understanding and interrogating first-person experience that drew on 2,500 years of religious tradition.

    My own sentences imply something more amorphous and less structured and less dedicated – at least on the face of it – to a comprehensive dialogue with subjectivity, self, ego, world, et cetera.

    Two somewhat lengthy quotes from Varela (from the above-referenced dialogue with Poerksen) that I think support this idea:

    Buddhism – sustained by qualified techniques of self-examination – trains reflection that may be re-enacted in one’s own experience and deals, amongst other things, with the essence of mind, the notion of the self, and the concept of a static and localizable identity. The weakness of Husserlian phenomenology and its central orientation toward experience is that it lacks a well-described and directly applicable method to examine experience: the techniques of Buddhist meditation as practiced for 2,500 years include such a method. This is the reason for uniting Buddhism with phenomenology and cognitive science.

    He is right about Husserl. Bracketing is a very effective practice but there is very little material out there that really gets into the “how” of it (plenty on the “why”).

    Anyway. A moment later, Varela says:

    This study of human experience, which is gradually moving into the center of cognitive science and is accompanied by a real boom of the investigation of the mind, requires knowledge, training, and a method; Buddhism supplies this method. Running around in gardens does not make people botanists; listening to sounds does not make people musicians; looking at colors does not make people painters. And in quite the same way, cognitive scientists who want to focus on the analysis of their own experiences and the study of the mind must first be taught to be experts. They need means and methods to overcome their ordinary sense of reality, to experience immediately the perpetual activity of the mind, and to restrain its unceasing restlessness. The Buddhist techniques of meditation lead to experiences and insights that would be unthinkable without such methodical schooling.

    This reminds me of Ken Wilber’s point re Hegel: Hegel was brilliant – nobody was more brilliant in the west, nobody was closer to the fundamental truth – but he lacked a yoga, a means by which to embody and actually tangibly bring his insights out of the merely mental/philosophical/etc. I paraphrase wildly of course.

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