Thursday, November 16, 2006

Thoughts and How to Think Them: Don't Get Stuck on Smart

Good question, Stu! What is death all about, anyway? That’s an example of something that would require a very lengthy post, which I don’t really feel motivated to do at the moment. Another reader, Brian, suggested “top film recommendations for spiritual seekers.” That’s also not as easy as it sounds. Yes, I am a film school graduate, but that was in 1982, and I’ve seen very few films since then, since they almost always disappoint me -- and I have very low expectations. All I ask is that a film hold my attention, which they rarely do. In a truly great film by a great director, every frame is captivating, with or without dialogue. That’s why I can see a film like Double Indemnity over and over, because each shot is so beautifully composed.

Speaking of rhythms, dissolution, and life and death, the psychoanalyst Bion (pronounced bee-on, by the way) had such an elegant model for the mind. He was my inspiration in trying to arrive at an abstract system of “empty symbols” to map the spiritual domain. It is not that my symbols are in any way “superior” to the realm they address, much less to the revelations they seek to comprehend. Rather, like science, they are abstractions that allow for “communication and storage” of ideas and experiences. They are like sound money -- only good to the extent that they can be cashed in for the gold of pure experience.

Bion used just a handful of symbols to map the psychological dimension. One of these was what he called PS<-->D, which is an abstraction from Klein’s delineation of the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions, discussed in last Friday’s post (11-10-06). You needn’t be familiar with Klein’s concepts to understand that Bion looked at them in the way a physicist might look at outward phenomena -- say, a falling apple, or the trajectory of a cannonball -- and try to discover the underlying general law that explains both: gravity.

And once you have discovered the general law, you have the makings of a “logico-deductive” system that liberates you from the bewildering diversity of outward phenomena. You have a way to properly “think” about reality. Bion’s system is simply a way to think about the interior world, which is otherwise unthinkable and simply is. Just as the exterior world is a concrete “thing in itself” in the absence of science, the mind is equally impenetrable without a generative way to think about it.

I would argue that scripture is ultimately the same way. Spiritual simpletons believe that it “speaks for itself,” but this is rarely the case, otherwise we wouldn’t have the heroic exegetes and inspired commenters who disclose its underlying unity. I believe “revelation” represents an entire world which must be understood in roughly the same way we understand the material or psychological worlds.

Ultimately, PS<-->D has to do with the unending mental process of breakdown and synthesis, or part and whole, or entropy and evolution. Bion begins with the idea -- observation, really -- that our minds are subject to thoughts, which in turn give rise to the need for a mechanism to think them. Casual observation will reveal how much of your own mind is “untamed,” so to speak, subject to the constant intrusion of these unruly thoughts without a thinker.

This is especially true in most any form of mental illness. In fact, looked at from a certain angle, any mental illness involves unwanted thoughts that are not coming from what we identify as our own ego. Rather, they’re coming from elsewhere. You can say “the unconscious,” but that’s just another word that allows us to imagine that we have understood the phenomenon -- somewhat like primitive people who believe that to name something is to have understood it. But this is a form of pseudo-control that mainly serves to alleviate cognitive anxiety through premature closure, not to advance knowledge.

Instead of using the word unconscious, Bion simply used the symbol O to stand for the ultimate, unknowable reality, or noumenon. Likewise, he used the symbol ß (the Greek letter beta) to stand for “beta elements,” which are disconnected “thoughts without a thinker.” In themselves they are meaningless, but must be brought together in a coherent way by what he called alpha function, which is the quintessence of thinking, or O-->k. True thought is inherently creative, because it brings together a mass of particulars to reveal their underlying meaning. The meaning is paradoxically created and discovered.

What to do with thoughts? Few people realize that this forms the essence of the human condition. For one would think that the obvious answer would be, “think them, stupid!,” but that is rarely the case. The most popular alternatives to thinking one’s thoughts include projecting them (i.e., attributing them to others), denying them, acting them out (as opposed to understanding them), imposing a rigid and artificial coherence upon them, or drowning them in alcohol.

For example, it is a truism that our struggle with Islamo-fascism is with huge numbers of people who are incapable of thinking their thoughts. Instead, they are persecuted by thoughts that they cannot tolerate, which they promptly project into Jews and infidels. This is why we are literally their worst nightmare, as anyone who has visited can attest to. Projected thoughts, which are not under conscious control of the ego, undergo a monstrous transformation and return to the sender in an even more frightening form than when they went out.

But no matter how sophisticated your mind, you are still subject to this constant PS<->D dynamic, just as, no matter how healthy your body, you are still subject to metabolism (building up) and catabolism (tearing down). In fact, if we were to look at biology in a Bionian way, what is life itself but the dynamic interaction of M<-->C (metabolism<-->catabolism), so to speak? If we say that metabolism is the essence of life, we would be very wrong, for in order for biological life to exist, there must be a “death” aspect built into it -- a tearing down in order to rebuild, a disorder out of which a more robust order will emerge.

Now, there are many, many people who may outwardly look cognitively sophisticated, but who are simply holding on to a hypertrophied D function in order to avoid the persecution of PS. This would include most university professors, politicians, and theologians -- in fact, probably most intellectuals, who superimpose a grid of (k) over O and essentially “call it a life” insofar as their cognitve development is concerned.

In short, intellectuals -- for the simple reason that they have high IQs and are therefore capable of more intellectual defenses -- arrive at an ideology (which is actually much closer to a myth) and then use it for the rest of their lives to keep persecutory thoughts (i.e., “uncertainty”) at bay. This is how you explain a Noam Chomsky, for example -- someone who hasn’t been troubled by a proper thought in 40 or 50 years. Instead, he has a rigid ideology that represents the death of thought. But he projects this psychic death outward and calls it “America,” something about which he actually knows nothing. Rather, it simply serves the same purpose for him as the Jew does for Borat. Just a place to put unwanted thoughts for safekeeping. But you will notice that Chomsky is no less persecuted for it. In fact, his life revolves around doing battle with his own unwanted thoughts and ironically calling the tedious exercise “progressive.”

Not to belabor the point, but you will see this same process in the most vivid terms on the idiotorial pages of the New York Times or on websites such as dailykos. No thoughtful person could possibly confuse what Maureen Dowd does with “thinking.” Rather, she is simply “managing” persecutory thoughts in the best way she knows how. It helps that this defensive process is culturally sanctioned by her hidebound tribe of primitive and parochial Manhattanites.

Are there conservative ideologues who do this? Of course. Anyone who superimposes a rigid system of thought over reality is a pseudo-thinker. Having said that, it is nevertheless possible -- a commonplace, actually -- for an idiot to be on the side of Truth or a genius to be a proponent of the Lie. Countless wackademics are obviously stuck on smart. (The substance of the individual's virtue often accounts for this, but that is a topic for another post; suffice it to say that many geniuses are nevertheless rotten.)

Now, this is not to day that certain unyielding truths cannot be won from the formless infinite void. Of course you can do that. But these will tend not to become dogma. Rather, they will serve as “stepping stones” for higher and higher syntheses. That is, your thinking will not become static as a result of pulling a couple of big fish out of the psychic ocean. Rather, these fish will literally “mate” and produce a third thing. In this way, a healthy mind is inherently dynamic and trinitarian, constantly giving birth to higher and deeper unities.

There is no end to the process, perhaps with one exception -- the nondual mystic who has identified himself entirely with O, the ultimate reality and ground of being, the timeless tip-toppermost of the poppermost, all-embracing secret center of depth, the meaning of Within, first and last Truth of self, knowing without knowledge all that can be unKnown, existence to the end of the beginning, which tomorrow never knows. You know -- that spaceless and placeless infinite, supremely real and solely real, our common source without center or circumference, no place, no body, no thing, or not two things anyway: blissfully floating before the fleeting flickering universe, stork naked in brahma daynight, worshiping in wonder in a weecosmic womb with a pew, it is finally....

And even they do not linger long in the nothing-everything. They either come back as bodhisattvas, or bang back into existence from nothing to something, or perhap take the shape of a household gnome who will help me write another unnarcissary soph-help book. Please, Petey?


jwm said...

Films for spiritual seekers:
Here are two.

Spirited Away
by Hiyao Miyazaki.
Possibly the best movie I have ever seen.

Nacho Libre
Just out on DVD- There is one line in the film (which I will not give away) that, in light of our discussions here, will have you howling. An altoghether charming and uplifting piece.


Gagdad Bob said...

Yes, by the director of the outstanding Napolean Dynamite. There's an example of a recent film I really enjoyed.

"Tina, eat your ham!"

Evan said...

Movies for seekers?

Treasure of the Sierra Madres

"It's your dinner, Tina! Eat it!"

Ben usn (ret) said...

Sargeant York.
'Nuff said.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like youre describing people who know everything and understand nothing. Chomsky and his ideas are a perfect example. Stunning intellect without the wisdom of your average high school janitor.

Jenny said...

Blog Idaho has this link on his site today - a child prodigy artist - just WOW!

freelance radical said...

Poor Tina!

"Thoughts Without a Thinker" ......Mark Epstein?

Jacob C. said...

"A cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." - Oscar Wilde, who knew what he was talking about