3.05.2015

How I Know Birds Fly for Fun



Decades ago, I was visiting a friend in Maine on this incredible island called Isle Au Haut with almost no people, no electricity, no running water. I'd gone for a walk on my own and was sitting on a rock overlooking the ocean. A flock of birds was goofing around, zipping here and there, flying high then swooping down, weaving around each other. And it suddenly seemed so obvious: they were flying for fun — not for food or ritual, not out of instinct, but for the sheer delight of it.

But how could I know such a thing? Indeed, how do we ever know what's going in the minds and experience of another? This is a classic college stoner discussion: What if what I see as blue, you see as pink? How would we ever know, man?

Light can of course be quantified — which is odd. Color is such an affective experience; it's run through with associations, moods, histories, sensations. But it can also be understood as a wavelength that has a certain measurable frequency.

Numbers — or, more specifically, measurement — are great as they provide the semblance of objectivity. We can all say different things, even see different things — I see blue! I see orange! — but the numbers don't lie. This is, of course, insane. Think about it for a moment: a number on a screen is true while the experience we have — our actual lives! — are not.  I actually find it beautiful in a way, this clarity of numbers. It's the madness of reason.

I do not mean to poo poo numbers or so-called objective measurement at all. It's quite handy and helps us in lots of different ways, especially in the admittedly demented field of medicine. But I do mean to point out the supreme oddity of it, the way we appeal to some abstract markings on a page or screen while ignoring, or denying, our experience. Nietzsche calls this a kind of nihilism, a self-effacement in the name of an abstract ideal.

What this reliance on abstract measurement assumes is that me, my senses, my experience are not trustworthy, that they don't have proper access to the world. I was walking in the Marin headlands a few years ago where there are these cement bunkers leftover from WWII. Presumably, soldiers would sit in there and scan the waters, looking to see if we were being attacked by Japan. This struck me as hilarious, quaint, sweet. But what's odd is my reaction, namely, that we find it absurd to think that actually seeing something is knowing when a radar so obviously knows better.

Our love of measurement also assumes that experience is discrete rather than ecological.  That is, it imagines that there is a subject, more or less isolated, and an object that, too, is more or less isolated. And then we try to imagine how things can possibly be transmitted across this seeming abyss.

But what if this is a faulty assumption and that, rather than subjects and objects being discrete, we are all both subjects and objects that are interconnected through a series of forces both measurable and not? Let's begin by saying I am a thing among things rather than a subject among objects. We are all things — me, you, this monitor and keyboard and screen, this phone, these ideas, these strange smells coming from my kitchen. And we are all connected in varied and complex ways. How, then, do we come to know anything?

Well, certainly not only through abstract, external, quantifiable measurement. That would be absurd. We know how people are feeling all the time even though we can't measure it. And it's not just through the explicit signs of smiles, tears, and words. In fact, often people say they're fine when they're anything but — and we know it! We can see, we can sense, that something is wrong.

How? Affect is transmitted in different ways: you beam your mood to me. This is something we've all experienced dealing with love and sex. You're talking to someone and you know, truly know, that he or she is, uh, into you. They've beamed their desire into you. You can't measure it but you know it.

But affect also exceeds us. It doesn't need to be transmitted per se because we're all participating in it, making it just as it's making us — or making our moods. You walk in a bar and say, Eeesh, this place has an odd mood! Mood is in the air. It's ambient.

And it's not subjective even if it is particular. Yes, you might find the mood delightful while I find it foul but we're both still reacting to the mood. Just as chopped chicken liver reacts differently with my body than it does with yours, the mood of the room interacts differently with my body than with yours. That doesn't make it subjective and unknowable. It makes it objective and perspectival.

Affect — invisible states of the world — exceeds us. And affect is not just for people. Rocks, lakes, chairs, and words are all affective. Everything is affective. Affect is strange in that it manifests particularly — differently in my body than in the rock's — but is not immanent to a particular body. It exceeds things. Affect is invisible, more or less discrete, and moving. It doesn't as much come from bodies as it is the very stuff of the world — along with dirt, oxygen, metal, skin, and whiskers. This life is as virtual as it is real, as physical as it is affective, as visible and it is invisible. And we sense it all; such is empiricism.

We know things not through the abstraction of fact — this quinoa ball has 14 grams of protein — but through lived experience: when I eat that quinoa ball, I'm full (or not)!  Facts are one way to make sense of things but they're not how we know. We know because we live through the world as part of the world. (We say so-called facts to position ourselves in the social and to ourselves.)

When asked how he knew the fish were happy as they swam, Chuang Tzu replied,

I know the joy of fishes
In the river
Through my own joy, as I go walking
Along the same river.

(Thomas Merton, "The Joy of Fishes" in The Way of Chuang Tzu — a book I highly recommend)

We know the world not because we're removed from it but because we're enmeshed with it, because it exceeds and envelops us. We literally share experiences, even with birds. 

3.02.2015

Breaking Good: "The Good Wife" Meets "Breaking Bad"



Like many people I know, I've become obsessed with "The Good Wife." And it struck me at some point that it follows an odd grammar for television, but a grammar I'd seen before — in "Breaking Bad." Both shows disrupt, indeed derail, the common formula for serial television. Rather than having characters relentlessly perform themselves — Ross is always Ross, Rachel is always Rachel (why do I always use "Friends" as my example? It's humiliating) — both "The Good Wife" and "Breaking Bad" give us something else: characters who are in flux. Alicia and Walt are in a state of becoming — not becoming anything per se, just becoming. The shows are propelled not by the sameness of the characters but by their change.

What seems conspicuous is that both explore, to a greater or lesser degree, the conditions of becoming within the confines of culturally defined gender roles. Walt wants to be a man — but a man as he's been fed it his whole life. What sets the whole mayhem of the show in motion is not just his cancer but the way he's provoked by Hank. From the outside, Hank is a man's man. The show undoes this by revealing his anxiety attacks, his self-doubt, his fears. But his persona is all man, as it were, and he goads Walt, even acting as the surrogate father to Walt's son.

Walt feels emasculated — by the students in his class, by his former lover, by his former colleague who cuckolded him, by his boss at the car wash, by the medical profession, by his looming poverty, and it all comes to a head (ahem) in his castration by Hank. So what does Walt do? He sets out to dominate. If he just wanted the money, he could have had that. But he wants the masculine power as defined by our culture — the power to physically control: "Say my name!" He wants to be the one who knocks. And it's, of course, what kills him. Masculinity in our culture is a zero sum game. (This is not to say there aren't ways of being a man that are not violent or dominant. It's to say that those are the major modes, as it were.)

Just like "Breaking Bad, "The Good Wife" opens with its main character, Alicia, at a juncture. She's been the dutiful politician's wife — proper, respectful, doting while he philanders, bribes, scares, dominates, does what he wants. But now her husband is humiliated and in jail. So she tries to return to the work world and, as we learn in a flashback, her self-deprecating and insecurity will not suffice. But nor will fear and domination. And so she flirts. That is the device, the tool, culture has left her. Her intelligence, her capability, her knowledge are not enough, at least not at first. She has her sexuality and she uses it, subtly but knowingly.

Her sexuality moves into the background. But she maintains her tether to masculine power through her husband. She doesn't divorce him because she needs him — if I were still in college (and it was still 1988), I'd say she needs his phallus to wield her power. She can't just dominate and intimidate the power Walt does (or at least tries to do). The mechanisms of control and senses of self are different for her as a woman than they are for Walt. She is constantly assessing whether she's doing the right thing, if she's being proper whereas Walt heads into rampant amorality, if not downright cruelty, without a second's hesitation. His power lies in breaking bad; hers, in playing, and playing with being, the good wife.

In some sense, what drives both is survival. But the meaning of survival is quite different for them. Yes, Walt wants to survive cancer — or, rather, to survive by providing a future for his family (money and meth won't cure his disease). But that's mostly bullshit. He wants to dominate. As he says, he's not in the money making business; he's in the empire building business. Alicia needs to support her family as her husband is in jail. And this is a very real fear for women: financial destitution (I'm not making that up; that is a well researched sociological finding, whatever that means). But both Alicia and Walt are dead inside and need to survive as human beings within the cards dealt them, within the structure of identity, class, and gender that limit them. 

I had an interesting conversation with a female friend of mine who, like me, had recently become obsessed with "The Good Wife." She believes that what drives Alicia is care for her children. I countered that, like Walter White, she has an emerging will to empire. But, unlike Walt, she can't — nor would want to — dominate through physical violence. She uses what she knows — the law, just as Walt uses chemistry — but she also uses sexuality, misdirection, and her relationships to men. Different tools, different ways and means, not such a different will. 

Of course, the shows are quite different. "Breaking Bad" comes out swinging like gangbusters and doesn't relent. If all human relationships are chemical as the pilot of "Breaking Bad" suggests, then Walt is a highly reactive element. When he comes in contact with other elements, there are often explosions. Alicia is less immediately volatile but her reach is, in a way, greater for being more subtle. She sends ripples far and wide.

We see this in the grammar of the two shows. "The Good Wife" is looser — more characters come and go, more small reactions take place, ripples move from the social to the work place to the political. The show is brilliant in this fashion; it doesn't constrain itself very much, not even in its tone and style. "Breaking Bad" is highly focused, denser, more regimented, each shot and exchange something exquisite.

Of course, while we know what happens to Walt in the end, while he has his reckoning, we've yet to see how Alicia ends up (if there is such a thing as "end up"). We don't know quite what drives her. Or, rather, we know that it's not one thing. Yes, she cares for her children. Yes, she wants to feel alive. Yes, she has some will to empire. She is multiple. But both shows give us the pleasure, even if sometimes painful, of watching life become.

2.22.2015

Soft Eyes



I've certainly been in relationships in which even the smallest actions of my lover demand my attention. I see her decision to go out with friends, to lunch with a male work acquaintance, to knit, to sleep with her back to me as meaningful, as a statement about me. And I know I've felt this same attentive gaze from the eyes of lovers — my innocuous comments become amplified, the stuff of drama, of tears, of retribution, of life and death itself.

I know when I see like this it's because I'm locked into one world of meaning. Everything she does flies back to me, as if on a rope — hard, fast, merciless. There is no sense that there are other worlds in which she operates, social worlds, existential worlds, historical worlds, physical worlds, metaphysical worlds, cosmic worlds. No, my eyes are limited in their scope, seeing only the immediate social significance to me. At times like these, my eyes don't flex, don't give, don't receive the breadth of information available. They're stubborn, inflexible, hard. 

Soft eyes is a phrase I borrow — poach? steal? — from "The Wire." It comes up a few times but it's only explained once, when Bunk takes Kima out on her first homicide. You know what you need at a crime scene? Bunk asks. Soft eyes....You got soft eyes, you can see the whole thing. You got hard eyes, you're staring at the same tree, missing the forest.

Hard eyes have a focal point already picked out, even if they don't know it. Hard eyes are knowing, in the worst possible sense: they reach their conclusion before seeing the scene. Eyes like these are too hard for the world to make an impression on them; information comes from the inside out, from ideas, from preconceptions, not from the touch of things. Soft eyes, meanwhile, stand back a bit, let the scene unfold. Soft eyes actually see what's there — the multiplicity of worlds, the teem of information, all those planes of existence intersecting (or not). It's a different kind of knowing.

There is a lot to see when we look at the world. Look outside your window right now. Sure, you see trees — maybe — sky, clouds, cars, pavement, other houses. Now keep looking. See all those branches, all those leaves. See all the pebbles in the concrete or, more likely, the stains on the asphalt. See the cars but now begin to notice the undulation of the metal, all the little nicks, the way dust and dirt settle on the hood, the windshield, the mirrors. See the way the sky is not a uniform blue but rather shifts intensity and hue throughout. And this only begins to address the visible aspects of what we see. Add the invisible states that, yes, we see — the affect and mood — and the information we take in quickly approaches the sublime.

If we were to see all the information that was available as our eyes scanned the plains (and planes), we'd be insane, schizo, overwhelmed, shut down, sent in hundreds of directions at once. When we claim to see the world, we already see it as categories of things — cars, trees, bugs, roads, people. We size things up, drop them in their proper category, go on with our day. This is not bad; it's necessary. This is what makes us social, human, lets us live.

But that doesn't mean all seeing is the same, that either we see everything — and are pummeled — or see only what is already known. There are different degrees of seeing. Some people see hard, often. I remember when I was in college and took a course on Derrida and deconstruction. Afterwards, regardless of which class I was in or what books I was reading, I'd somehow find the same will to metaphysics and its inevitable undoing. I thought I was open to the world, letting it flow. But then a professor of mine, an intellectual historian named Bruce Kuklick (don't know how I remember that), turned to me one day after I'd made another of my predictable comments and said: "You're like a meat grinder; it all comes out the same." I was, and remain, humbled by this.

The fact is I've not only had hard eyes much of my life, I've sought out hard eyes. This is what makes an expert an expert (in the McLuhan sense): they already know. Think of the psychoanalytic film theorist who discovers Oedipus, lack, the mirror stage in every movie she watches. So when I started studying philosophy and critical theory, first in college and then another seven years in grad school, I was training myself to see the world in a certain way. Hard eyes are one symptom of the academic disease.

At the same time, I was learning to see more softly. This was due in part to my steady ingestion of  LSD and magic mushrooms. They were helping my eyes loosen their firm grip on things, showing me swirls of being and becoming both terrestrial and cosmic that flow through all things all the time. My training for hard eyes was being met with a will to soft eyes,  letting the world flow as it will.

And then I began to see how a collection of hard views might yield soft eyes. That is, I began to take in lots of different views of the world — from Derrida and Foucault, from Deleuze and Guattari, from Plato, Hegel, Kant, Lyotard, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, William Burroughs, Carlos Castaneda, Jesus Christ. It was then that I realized I'd never be an expert, never be an academic: I liked seeing all these different perspectives at the same time.

Still, hard eyes are hard to surrender. Maybe I could see softly when I read books but those hard eyes would return when it came to people. We've all experienced that awful feeling of stone eyes sizing us up before we've even had the chance to speak. I know I've been seen that way just I've seen others that way. It's an ugly way to see the world, shutting it down, stopping it cold in its tracks.

Soft eyes are more generous. They lend themselves to the world, let impressions form, however strange, however disconcerting. Soft eyes respect things by letting them be rather than judging them. I think of it like this. When I'm in a relationship, there are always things that drive me apeshit — she judges people too readily, leaves her knitting everywhere, makes up strange stories about where she's been. My instinct is to judge, to see her actions as about me, as a personal affront. But to be angry is absurd as that's just how she is! So why should I judge her? Just let the damn woman be! 

Soft eyes love. Hard eyes may often feel like love as they reach and grope for things, try to possess them. But that's not love. That's desire, maybe, or more like that's insecurity posing as desire posing as love. Soft eyes relax and are relaxed. They let the other person be in all her quirks and nuance, in all her strength and weakness, in all her ways of going.

This doesn't mean I can never get angry, never judge, never harden my gaze. Rather, it means situating my gaze in that beautiful space where vision flourishes, poised between and amongst worlds. Seeing is neither active nor passive, is both active and passive. Think of it this way. When I'm reading these words, are my eyes grabbing them or are they grabbing my eyes, winding themselves into my very mind and body? It's both and neither. At my best, I let those words come to me as I go to them and, together, we make something new, something interesting, something beautiful. At the risk of sounding sappy, we make love — literally. 

2.15.2015

Of Irony and Humor: On Seinfeld, Socrates, Scandal, Kierkegaard, Carrey, Deleuze, Nietzsche, and David Letterman



No one makes me laugh like my big brother. We'll be Skyping across the world and I'll find myself  heaving and drooling, my entire body convulsing, my face contorted. And I love it. It's rare to laugh like that. As I've gotten older — I'm 45 —, I find I'll say, "That's so funny," while barely breaking a smile. Oh, to laugh fully demands a kind of surrender, succumbing to the world, letting go of ego and propriety as you grunt, wheeze, drool, and fart.

How and when we laugh is not frivolous, something that might be nice but is somehow inessential. On the contrary, in the things we find funny (or not), lurk entire worlds.

I've been obsessed with irony for a long time. It's the topic of Kierkegaard's dissertation, not surprisingly entitled, On The Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates — which, for the record, is hilarious if you're into that kind of thing. He had to ask for a special dispensation to write his thesis in Danish, not the usual Latin, so he could play ironically. In it, he makes these wry jabs at key academics and such. Which, of course, he delivers ironically.

Irony has been the figure of resistance for millennia. I can tell the king I respect him while meaning something else entirely — and even signal to others that I don't really mean what I say. Irony can maintain my personal integrity — I'm not really saying I like the king — while also establishing a community of dissent as others detect my tone. Richard Rorty claims that this is in fact how irony functions: by building complicity among a certain crowd (a minor crowd, as Deleuze and Guattari might say).

A lot of comedy is premised on irony. In a recent episode of "Scandal," the indefatigable Olivia Pope is kidnapped and imprisoned in some secret place, presumably Sudan. She grabs her cell mate, looks him in the eye, and gives an impassioned speech that she is Olivia Pope, damn it, and that means she will be safe, saved, rescued. She then realizes the absurdity of her claim, laughs, and says, "It's funny because it's not true." Indeed, the humor — what there is of it — lies in the radical discrepancy between her known world and the new world in which she finds herself, namely, a world that doesn't give a shit about Olivia Pope. 

Irony posits two realms: the eternal, or divine, and the temporal, mortal, physical. We live in this world with its laws and constraints, its culture and bodies. We think certain things which are defined by words, habit, power, desire, need. But we know there is another world that exceeds this one and that in fact fuels this one. This is the plane of pure Being, of Life itself, that blurs boundaries and makes such silliness of our all too human world.

As Kierkegaard argues, Socrates was the king of irony. His philosophy is premised on the belief that the only thing we know is that we know nothing. And so he goes about Athens pestering people who claim to know until said people either walk away or admit they know nothing. Which is why Socrates speaks ironically: he lives in this world while pointing to the other world.  (This is why Nietzsche considered Socrates a nihilist: Socrates isn't happy until everyone claims to know nothing.)

Recognizing that there are these two planes, we adjust our language accordingly and speak in two registers at the same time, an odd kind of self-harmony (although quite different than the Tibetan monks throat singing or Roland Kirk's flute playing grunting scat). This dual-register articulates the needs of this world — its laws and desires — while pointing to other world, to an Eternity that effaces all our laws and bodies. It lets us be human while recognizing the divine. 

Humor posits a different relationship between bodies and being, this world and that world, life and ideas. In this world of humor, the two planes are not conflated per se and yet they are not radically separate, either. They infuse each other, inflect each other, are intertwined. The mockery of this world by that world — and vice versa — is pervasive, thorough, and mutual. 

If irony keeps things apart, humor conjoins them without unifying them. Irony is premised on either/or, the incommensurability of the finite and the infinite (and the title of Kierkegaard's great book). Humor is deployed via and. It's not that bodies and ideas are one and the same; it's that the terms of their relationship lack discretion, are multifarious, and delirious. As Deleuze argues, Kierkegaard is a leaper, jumping between worlds separated by either/or. Nietzsche, meanwhile, is a dancer, flowing along the undulating surface of becoming. This is the difference between the comedy of irony and humor: irony jumps, humor dances.

"Seinfeld" gives us irony and humor side by side. Jerry is ironic. He maintains his place in this world while realizing its absurdity. Kramer, meanwhile, is humorous: in him, the different planes of existence meet and play out their odd relationship. We see Kramer become a dog, a pimp, a karate expert. His whole being is consumed by the transcendental plane of becoming. Kramer never knowingly winks, never signals that he knows nothing, never points to the Eternal. While Jerry presents his ego while pointing to its undoing — the premise of his stand up comedy—, Kramer's doing and undoing is commensurate with his ego. Kramer is not a comedian: he is humor happening, the and of becoming — man and dog, man and pimp, man and x.

Jim Carrey is not ironic; he's humorous. Like Kramer, his whole being commits to the transcendental plane as it becomes a local expression of other worlds. He doesn't slyly point elsewhere the way, say, David Letterman does. I always saw Letterman as the modern day Socrates, taking on the silliness and vanity of so-called stars. This is what lies at the heart of Letterman's shtick: all this — these movies, this TV, all of it — gives way because there is another world that's true, that's essential, that's transcendent. Carrey, meanwhile, lives the madness, the delirium, of that transcendental world here and now. He never points elsewhere. It's all going on right here.

So what of my hysterics while Skyping with my brother? On the one hand, it's the madness of this world giving way to another world. Isn't that what siblings do for us, do to us — remind us that despite all our grown up pretensions, our quoting of Deleuze, our fancy jobs, we're really just silly kids, that life is either/or? On the other hand, siblings have that incredible ability to link these two worlds, to fold the beautiful humiliations of our childhood into the humiliations of our grown up selves and, I suppose, vice versa — to be the and. When I laugh with my brother, a laugh resonant and thorough, I am simultaneously drunk on irony and humor, my different selves at once discrepant and intertwined.

2.08.2015

Between Thought and Action



I've never liked the assumed distinction between thought and action. Isn't thinking an action? When I'm thinking about something, I'm certainly doing something. Thinking involves my body, my memory, my time. It's not some ethereal event, happening on some abstract plane. It's work (or, better, play) — my heart rate shifts, my muscles might twitch, my toes and fingers wiggle.

True, thinking rarely involves my sweat, except during anxiety attacks. On the other hand, or on another hand, anxiety might not be thinking at all. In fact, I want to say that anxiety is a kind of non-thinking as it recapitulates the same pattern ad nauseam. I might go so far as to say that anxiety is our ideal of action: pure doing without any thinking at all! But even if I'm very still and my heart rate stays the same, when I'm thinking, I'm acting — I'm adjusting my world view, my understanding of the universe and my place in it. In many ways, what action is more profound?

And isn't action itself a kind of thought? Watching Michael Jordan play (excuse my out of date references), it was obvious to me that the way he negotiated the court was a kind of thinking. When a painter paints, he's distributing the relationship between concepts, ideas, colors, moods, affects — even if he's "just" dripping paint on the canvas. Which is to say, he's thinking.

For me, writing is surely an act of thinking. Maybe, when I was younger, writing was a transcription of thoughts. But, right now, writing for me is the very act of making sense of the world, of organizing it, metabolizing it, distributing it. Which is why I love it so much, particularly this essayistic writing, this blogging, where I can follow threads here and there, feel out the world and the relationship between me, the non-present world, ideas, words, and moods.

And yet, despite all that, there is still clearly a distinction between thinking something and doing that thing. I can think, "I'm so cool!" But that's not the same thing as acting cool. In fact, one could argue that thinking I'm so cool is to act uncool. This is all to say that there is an important distinction between thinking and doing but that the two are related and certainly not opposed.

I've been seeing this incredible shrink for the last year who has been helping me — or talking with me — about life and death. Our entire relationship, and the therapeutic relationship in general, casts an interesting relationship between thought and action, doer and done. After all, he can't change me. That would be absurd, even if awesome. I mean, how great would it be if I could go see some dude, have him tinker with me, and I walk out feeling joyous?!? Delighted!?! Ready to take on the world!?! This is the dream of Western medicine: pop a pill and, voilà, you feel great — happy and erect! If only health weren't an ever shifting  calculus of thought and action one performs alone.

But, no, that's not the way it works. My shrink says things; I say things; we say things together, or not. And I feel the way I feel and he feels the way he feels and on it goes.

Much of what he says feels like an argument. I say to him, "Holy moly! My sister is dead and it freaks my shit!" To which he replies, "Yes, she's dead. Everybody dies — we're not here, we're here, we're not here. No reason to be afraid of it. That would be absurd as it's not only inevitable but good because it's inevitable!"

This is a logical argument. I understand it and find it compelling. I've heard and even taught versions of it for years — in Nietzsche (amor fati: love fate, love whatever happens), Leibniz (this world is the best possible world), Kierkegaard (death is not the sickness unto death; anxiety is). I'm persuaded, or so it seems.

And yet, from time to time, I yell and scream and wail my tears at the fact that my sister is gone. And that others I love will go the same way and that, presumably, I will die, too. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

But how can I freak out when I've understood that it's absurd to fear death? Death is as much part of life as life is in that there is no life without death. This is different from desiring death — which need not be a bad thing but, usually, is a sign of a morbid constitution. Am I some kind of moron, then, that I fear death when I've so clearly understood that death if necessary and, in its way, beautiful?

From one perspective, I've not understood the beauty of death, even if I've thought about it and claim to understand it. Even if I can follow its logic, repeat it, persuade others of its enduring veracity. As long as I freak out, as long as I fear the next moment that might bring the demise of me or those I love, I have not understood this argument

There is a doing that must take place, action I must undertake beyond thinking about it. I have to make what Kierkegaard calls an internal movement. I have to redistribute myself. That is, perhaps I need to think! Or is it that I need to stop thinking and make this understanding an action?

It's funny to me that in order to get me to stop thinking and accept death, accept life as it happens, I encounter arguments that I have to think through but for which thinking is not enough. I suppose this is why there are koans, word-logic puzzles that have no answer but, when contemplated, help bring the individual to a new kind of understanding. In a way, the koan is a trigger for internal movement — a movement from a certain understanding to a different understanding, from a certain kind of doing to another kind of doing, from one kind thinking to another kind of thinking: from thinking to action (even if both remain invisible).

I think again of Michael Jordan or of any athlete, or any person, really, who's "in the zone." I've always loved this phrase, this idea: entering a temporal and psychic and physical space in which you feel congruent with all that is happening, flowing with the world without friction or hiccup. I think being in the zone is the absolute melding of thought and action, a congruence of understanding and doing (which might be redundant because if you actually understand something, you do that thing, regardless of what your thinking tells you).

The Buddhists, among others, offer another mode of self — or of being — that involves neither thinking nor action: observing. Thinking is a product of human construction, of books and ideas and fears and desires. Action is the movement, even if invisible, of these human bodies. Observation, on the other hand, thinks nothing and does nothing.

We all have an observer inside us, some aspect of ourselves that watches ourselves be the beautiful bozos we are — feeling good, being a douchebag, being pretentious, afraid, brave, passive aggressive. This observer passes no judgement, does not intervene. He, or she (it's indifferent to gender), stoically, calmly, just watches.