The Challenge of the Everyday

I believe in my last post I chose a misleading example — writing. Writing is more or less monumental; it is a discrete event, a happening that takes place outside the drone and hum, or within the drone and hum but not quite as part of the drone and hum.

A better example, methinks, is getting dressed. Or taking a shower. Or eating breakfast. Or going to the bathroom, washing dishes, brushing teeth. You get the idea: everyday things, banal things, things that we do regularly and often as the basic maintenance of daily life.

These are the things that slip readily into habit: we do them without paying the least attention. Perhaps that's the way it should be. After all, who wants to pay attention to washing the dishes, especially when there are so many other things to think about — what Deleuze means by pure immanence, for instance, or how you can somehow seduce your co-worker or whether you need to cut your toenails.

But there is much in washing dishes — the sensation of warm water on your hands and running through your fingers, the way soap plays along sponge and dish, the give of grease. The wonders of the universe reside within that banal task of washing dishes. (Eeesh! Do I sound like a Buddhist?)

There's a great little essay by William Burroughs, "DE, or Do Easy" in "Exterminator!" Every task, he claims, has a rhythm, a mode. The trick is to find this mode, to heed the circumstance, to pay attention and, suddenly, you're doing easy. I like this because it stays in the realm of thermodynamic system thinking: it's about expenditure of energy.

But I do believe there is a beauty as well, and not just an efficiency, to heeding the moment, to truly enjoying the feel of bristle on gum or water on hands. After all, that is life happening. Just because it's banal doesn't mean it's not of value. This is all there is.

This, in a sense, democratizes experience. Rather than there being a hierarchy of events — these are important, those are not — this approach ushers in a field of endless wonder and differentiation: the world flows with the contours of itself, an undulating plane of intensities.

But this is truly demanding work. At every turn, habit is a temptation. To heed each and every moment, to live through every moment, to live well with things however seemingly banal, this is the great challenge of life. It's so demanding that we — or I do, at least — fill the empty space with noise — tv and news and music and porn and work and texting and anxiety and chitchat, all distractions from the banality and yet each, of course, so banal itself.

This is why the shows about people surviving incredible events don't do it for me. It may be cool that some dude survived being lost at sea for two months. But show we someone who can survive bourgeois life, day in and day out, and truly heed their lives and I will be awestruck, dumbfounded, torn asunder.

Kierkegaard says that the person of faith — the knight of faith — a rare if not impossible person — lives simultaneously in the infinite and the finite. With each step he takes, he moves from the finite to the infinite and back. There does not seem to be anything extraordinary about the knight of faith. He doesn't glow. He lives his everyday life but he does so extraordinarily. That, alas, is the task at hand: to live the infinite within the finite.

Any schmuck can rise to the occasion. The trick is to heed all occasions.


Jeff M. said...

This resonated with me. I love washing dishes when I'm stoned. All the sensations you mentioned are wonderful -- as well as the sense that one has one's own style of washing dishes. I divide all the dishes into classes and wash each class separately. (My latent classism slipping through?)

Unfortunately, I rarely enjoy this experience when I'm not stoned.

What if modern, urban life is just too bruising to human consciousness to be alert in the way you are talking about?

This is a little off topic, but I've been toying with an idea for a short story I want to call "The People's Masochist." The premise is this: in the near future, technology has created a means to eliminate almost all pain and discomfort, but at a price: everybody exists in a kind of walking coma most of the time. The protag weans himself off of his daily dose of anesthesia and lives in pain. The experience is so transformational for him that he runs for President of the United States on a platform to regulate the anesthesia industry. In the press, he is mocked as the "The People's Masochist," while others accuse of him be a sadist, because he purportedly wants to see people suffer. Etc.

Anyway, I guess my point is that the kind of concentration of attention you're calling for will necessarily include a lot of painful sensations.

Daniel Coffeen said...

This is great, Jeff, and confirms what I wrote about the efficacy of drugs. Pot is really fantastic for helping us heed the everyday. It's a most generous plant like that.

I hear you on the horror of urban life. But life is life and there is always pain and suffering. Is this preferable to feeling nothing? I say, without hesitation, absolutely. I've experienced the difference and I have to say that nothing is as horrible and terrifying as nothing. And pain, emotional pain, is beautiful in its way.

Write the story. I think the trick will be not to make it too explicitly allegorical or too didactic.

li'l girl blue said...

Haa haaaaa I am SO delighted you made that Buddhist comment. The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh talks a lot about doing the dishes. This post is a completely stunning description of mindfulness.

It's taking me a while but I am gradually getting through your rhetoric lectures online, and while listening I have spent a great deal of time going "...dagnamit that is so freakin' Buddhist!!!"

I imagine you have probably seen it already but Gus Van Sant made Burroughs' story into a film in 1978 called "The Discipline of DE." It's pretty rad.

Greetings and ongoing thanks from Melbourne, Australia. Ain't the intertubes grand!?


zeroreference said...

Jeff, interesting idea, but really how is complete numbness anything but another form of pain? As you describe it in your post, at least, the contrast between the two states is small. Brave New World, which sort of trods into this territory), contrasts this bliss of a pig in shit with the full range of human experience, extreme in both suffering and joy.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Li'l girl blue: Thanks for commenting and for the GVS reference — I'd never seen this. YouTube to the rescue!


As I say often, I am not versed at all in Buddhism — almost zero. The little I read is fantastic but so different, in a way, than things I think. I never see simplicity; I see teeming complexity, infinitely baroque images, like a Julie Mehretu painting.

Is there a place in Buddhism for such density, such worldly teeming — not conceptually but aesthetically?

This interwebs is amazing indeed.

li'l girl blue said...

Oh absolutely and necessarily! I'm an atheist with Buddhist tendencies myself, and therefore hardly an authority, but...as I see it, take an example like Queneau's Exercises in Style where there is an infinite proliferation of perspectives that leads you to understand that there is no actual event, only interpretations of it. This struck me as particularly Buddhist because through infinite complexity comes the helpless and liberating realisation that there IS NO THING - no definitive self, no fixed immutable world etc. It's possible that part of the breath-catching nature of Julie Mehretu's work is that it seems to capture this state of dynamic change. Her works aren't a static representation of a single moment, a fixed truth; she somehow manages to portray...impermanence, I guess. She's bloody amazing.

Also regarding aesthetic density, I've always understood the simplicity aspect of Buddhism as a kind of Blakeish infinity-in-a-grain-of-sand-eternity-in-an-hour sorta deal. Although that is the thinnest possible blog comment friendly reduction of it.

I need to practise writing about this stuff. It's twisty.

Nathan said...

@ li'l girl blue: Not to hijack this thread but I have a question that I'd really like to ask someone who knows something about Buddhism! I've always been confused about what the role of desire is in Buddhist philosophy. From what I understand, there's attachment, attachment leads to suffering and the objective is to escape the cycle of suffering by somehow escaping attachment. Now, assuming that I'm not totally off base there, it would seem that desire, as the dynamic force of attachment which drives us from one attachment to another, would be a fundamental obstacle to the realization of this effort to escape from suffering. But, this effort itself must be driven by a sort of desire, so desire can't be purely negative. Or maybe it's regarded as a sort of means to an end (enlightenment) beyond which its power becomes superfluous: one is no longer attached even to desire itself?

I have a feeling that this aspect of Buddhism is generally misunderstood or misrepresented in the West since we have our own notions about desire which tend to be very negative. I'm thinking here of the attitude shared by the Abrahamic religions. But then, on the other hand, there are Western philosophers, like Nietzche and Deleuze, who view desire precisely as a positive condition of existence. In the case of Deleuze, desire is literally productive and the means through which an emancipatory thought and politics must be engineered.

So, how does desire work in Buddhism? Does it have value or is it purely negative? Am I over simplifying or just completely off base here? I'd love to get your thoughts.

Jeff M. said...


I read a lot of Huxley when I first started getting interested in writing, and all my "sci-fi" ideas seem to be colored by his worldview.

I haven't really figured out the conceptual problems of the story, but it is interesting that you mention the degree to which pain and numbness are neighbors. All I have written of the story so far is a long speech the protag gives. Here's the beginning of it.

Good evening.

To most of us, the world offers but two options: numbness or pain. There are still some who can convince themselves that the absence of sentience is a reasonable facsimile of pleasure, but let’s just say that there has to be whole a lot of them in one place for anyone to gin up the courage to vociferously defend that position. In their solitary and silent moments, they know that it is mistaken.

Many have called me a dogmatist because I insist that suffering is the only path to human dignity. I am accused of being a Fundamentalist as well as a nihilist; a reactionary as well as a radical; a blithering idiot and a clever deceiver. The media mocks me as the People’s Masochist, but I wholeheartedly embrace that designation. I wear it like a badge of honor. Because, my friends and fellow Americans, it is an honor to suffer in the name of the billions of people who have been systematically conditioned to never to feel anything.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Nathan, dude, that is an incredibly lucid laying out of a question. I wanna know the answer, too.

li'l girl blue said...

Hey woah woah, I’m just some random chick who spent a bit of time living in a monastery c’z I couldn’t face the idea of getting ‘a real job’; I feel a bit odd fielding your exquisitely worded question given that I am a dabbler merely. So because I am not really able to answer it I’ll just bat it about for a bit and see what happens...

(Apologies to anyone who is actually well-versed in this stuff as I relentlessly misrepresent and oversimplify!)

Basically everything you have said is correct – craving IS a fundamental and unavoidable obstacle to the cessation of suffering. Because the nature of all things is ever-changing, craving and attachment can only ever lead to suffering as one inevitably loses whatever it was they thought were after. The ‘goal’ (hmmm, even that word highlights the sneaky circularity that you point out) of meditation is freedom from craving and aversion: freedom from suffering. And a key part of achieving that seems to be managing to unhinge yourself from the useful evolutionary quirk of seeing yourself as...a self. And seeing things as things. It seems that when(if?)you understand that life is characterised by impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-being, then desire ceases to exist.

At this point it’s important to remember that the Buddhist tradition is not merely theoretical but also physical. The idea of ‘realising’ something is not simply a case of ‘oh yeah I see what you did there’ intellectualising, but actually going through a long-drawn-out process of silent contemplation fraught with boredom frustration pain and distractions in order to observe your own mental processes and comprehend them on a level that actually rewires the brain itself.

One of the things that fuels my ongoing fascination with Buddhism and specifically meditation is the nature of that very step from paradox to possibility. If you have ever done a Vipassana retreat or any other long-term barebones woo-free meditation you quickly notice that the very 'desire' that I think you're talking about pops up with regularity in your thoughts. If you are willing to put in the hours on the cushion with lost and deadened legs disinterestedly observing the chattering inanity of your own mind, you are clearly motivated by desire of some description, be it for peace or calm or insight or some kind of whacky transcendental experience or whatever. What you also notice, is that SOMEHOW, through steadfast and vigilant and dispassionate observation, you can begin to separate yourself from your instinctive positive and negative reactions. I won’t go into that here because it’s neither the time nor the place plus I’m not sure I can adequately describe it without sounding like a bit of a loony. But, at the risk of reliance on anecdotal evidence, it does happen.

I’m actually studying psychology in order to kinda nut out a bit more about exactly how this works on a neurological level. (Plan B after failing to become a nun – go back to school!) Why would thinking about thinking in this way result in heightened empathy, or off-the-scale activity in the front left bit of your brain?

Sorry if this all seems like a lengthy exercise in question-dodging bollocks. I’d be unforgivably exaggerating my knowledge of Nietzsche and Deleuze if I were to describe it as limited. The abbreviated answer to your lovely query is a shrug and a “Dunno.”

Jeff M, I really like what you have written. Best of luck bringing the rest of it into being!

li'l girl blue said...

Ooops that was loooooong.

Nathan said...

@ li'l girl blue: Sorry to put you on the spot, but I really enjoyed your response. Your point about meditation being physical, or not merely intellectual, makes a lot of sense to me. The idea of rewiring, reconfiguring brain and body, or brain through body and vice versa, seems significant. Perhaps desire isn’t overcome but reorganized, redistributed. So, instead of desire producing the avaricious self, it’s reorganized to produce the enlightened self. And this reorganized mode of production doesn’t express itself through craving, through attachment, but something else altogether. So desire persists in the enlightened state but in a form unrecognizable…

That’s my attempt to interpret your response through Deleuze and Guattari. A blatant projection, but I kinda like it.

Thanks again for your generous response to my question. Really, great stuff.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Wowzer. Li'l girl blue: that was amazing — freakin' smart, thoughtful, and heartfelt all at once. I am thoroughly humbled to have this exchange take place on this blog. Thank you thank you and Nathan, too.

I helped a student once writing his thesis on the physical components of religious practices of transcendence. This was nearly 17 years ago but I remember him writing about davening, the Jewish practice of rocking during prayer, being a kind of propulsion. I love that.

The point is I like this very practical, material aspect of Buddhism and religion in general — it's less a belief than a posture, quite literally.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Oh, and Jeff M: Keep going, please. See where it takes you, where it takes us....thanks for posting what you have here.

li'l girl blue said...

It's difficult for me to convey just exactly how rapt I am that you guys liked some words that I strung together in a line.

I also have a weekend project now- getting acquainted with this Deleuze chap.

I like him already.



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Joseph said...

trying to post this for the seventh time. I'm giving up on posting my full response because blogger won't accept the number of characters, and won't allow me to make two posts in a row. so, I'm going to wait until someone else posts below me and then post the second half of this post below them. may seem a non-sequitur when it happens, but you've hereby been notified :)

fun stuff... lil' girl, I think the union of your knowledge, intuition, skills of inference and skill of literary craft are much more interesting than any reference to "expertise" on the subject of Buddhism. I've quite enjoyed your writing as well.

few things. regarding Buddhism's treatment of desire, the paradox is glaring, and this is not lost on its philosophical adepts. the issue can be elucidated through two Buddhist allegories. briefly: the first says that to achieve enlightenment, one must want it as much as someone who is on fire wants to jump into water. the second says that Buddhist teachings are like a raft: you use it to cross the river, and then leave it on the other bank -- you don't carry it with you thereafter.

paradox is affirmed and utilized in Buddhism in many different contexts, but often with the same purpose: to get one to finally move one beyond analytical striving into an experiential understanding that transcends analytical discrimination. this is perhaps most evident in the Zen practice of the koan: a story and/or paradoxical question which the adept presents to the novice. the novice is asked to answer the question correctly, which he fails at numerous times, and with each failure must return for many hours or days of contemplation upon the question. finally, the novice achieves a realization beyond his analytical strivings for an "answer", and is regarded as a novice no longer. paradox is also present in many forms of meditation often associated with Buddhism in which one attempts to stop thinking, but inevitably finds oneself thinking about not thinking. this, again, is a paradox that can only be resolved by transcendental experience. thus, from its founding tenets, to further outlying dimensions of Buddhist tradition/practice, paradox holds primacy. here's something else I wrote on the topic to Daniel recently:

"what Buddhists mean by emptiness is that nothing has any intrinsic identity, no "svabhava". now, a Buddhist teacher named Nagarjuna came along and said: "wait a sec, if nothing has any svabhava, than what about the teachings themselves, or the very words I'm using?" from this came the Mahayana Buddhist school of Madhyamika -- and this, as well as Zen Buddhism, are the two I think you may be able to appreciate. the paradox posed by Nagarjuna brings about an effulgent affirmation of all things, in that he acknowledges the quotidian, "conventional truth", and its metaphysical substrate, that nothing has svabhava, as "ultimate truth". I could go on, there's much more to say, but, you see, emptiness and fullness are not so distant, in fact for me they are effectively, palpably the same, or at least they are two sides of one thing, a path from either side leads you into the same experience (yin and yang are both in and of the Tao). I'd like it if you'd check out this article (one of the best I've read on Madhyamika), with consideration to its treatment of paradox, emptiness, and how its counter-position to your view of language's significance might lead to the same qualitative experience upon one understanding either:

li'l girl blue said...

Thank-you Joseph, for actually addressing the question that was initially posed! I was going to read the text you suggested prior to replying but it is quite lengthy and worthy of intense study so I'll reply first.

In a moment of post-post esprit d'escalier I remembered a similar analogy for the function of desire for enlightenment; that of a ladder that you no longer need once you've ascended it...slightly more baffling to visualise than the evocative fire/water combo!

Peripherally relevant: seems acquainting oneself with Deleuze takes somewhat in excess of a weekend! Plus I'm not sure how much headway I'd be making if it wasn't for the context provided by this exchange. Good ol' context - giving frustrated grey matter a bit of a leg-up since small times!


Joseph said...

thank you too lil one.

regarding Buddhism's relation to complexity, I would say first that Buddhism is not a big fan of the uncontrolled mind -- what is often called "monkey mind". Buddhism doesn't advocate entirely eschewing mind (by most opinions), but it does advocate 1) sensitive awareness of the workings of the mind, 2) intense discipline of mind -- that is, control of thoughts and feelings ("where there is anger, remove anger", etc.). this can be regarded as ascetic, but these are also beginning teachings, and there are different teachings for different levels of attainment -- different "truths" (as evidenced by Nagarjuna's ideas, which I'm actually presently reading the primary text of for the first time). so, once one has gotten to a certain level of attainment, there may be other effective practices -- other 'upayas' that he takes on from there which wouldn't seem as ascetic.

but Buddhism, also, in the mindfulness it promotes, affirms the world's complexity thereby, by noticing with sensitivity the intricacy of experienced phenomena. one Buddhist meditative practice is to label (similar to Husserl's 'bracketing') each event one is experiencing -- each step, each sound, each breath, etc. monks spend days in this sort of meditation, moving veeeery sloooowly :)

lastly, again Daniel, I think that Hinduistic and especially tantric philosophy and practice would be much more your taste in terms of Eastern thought: it's got the perspectivism, the explicit affirmation of aesthetic abundance and affective/energetic sensitivity, the affirmation of pleasure and pain, a science of somatic/tactile attunement, a science of perception and thought, and the view that everything including the banal is of the divine -- and much more.

lastly #2: those discussing this short story idea about numbness vs. pain should see the movie 'Cold Souls' -- same underlying premise, though I think your treatment of it is substantively novel. came across this quote from Rousseau today that seems especially poignant: "Men live tranquilly also in dungeons. Is that enough to make them contented there?" cheers.

Ali Md said...

very interesting,,,that your share this ,,,

i think this picture of life has temporality and it must been there, in life, all times