The Dupe of Looking Inward, or Wisdom Lies in Empiricism

So I'm standing in front my bathroom sink the other evening, the night getting deeper and darker, and as the water ran, I felt a bit discombobulated. My first instinct, at least at this point in my life, was to try to ground myself. And, for some insane reason, this translated into me closing my eyes, or it felt like I closed my eyes, and launching into some insane inner monologue — or would that be a dialogue? — in which I tried to convince myself to be present. What a demented thing to do! How the fuck am I supposed to be present when I'm interrogating myself, talking to myself, judging myself for feeling discombobulated.

And then I opened my eyes and saw the water running. I reached into it, cupped it, immersed my face in it. And then I was present. And then any disorientation, anxiety, discombobulation vanished in one great, silent woosh!

The image of the searcher, of the seeker, plagues us. We imagine that the person who looks for answers, who asks the so-called deep questions — Who am I? Why am I here? — is on some road to discovery, to greater truths, perhaps even to ultimate truths. We believe the answers lie within. So we burrow, we interrogate, we judge ourselves: You weren't present, you fickle moron! Be present!

Alas, there are no answers hidden within in. There is no depth. There are no questions. To ask questions, to mine oneself, is nihilistic and only perpetuates the very sensation that initiated the query to begin with: anxiety, feeling lost, out of place, discombobulated.

O, I could say and write that word over and over: discombobulated. It performs itself so well, so elegantly, despite its unwieldiness or, rather, precisely because of its unwieldiness. The word pops and mutters and reels, like the experience it names.

Here, then, is where the world is to be found. Not in exploring yourself or being true to yourself; not in asking big questions; not in antagonizing the inner voice to speak more, question more, judge more. No, the answer always is: there never was a question and everything you need and everything you need to know is right here (am I quoting Sinead? So be it).

Standing in front of my sink, going deep within only perpetuated my personal mayhem. Well, mayhem is hyperbolic — my discomfort. But leaning into the water, hearing its sound, feeling its temperature, its weight brought me right to where I already was: right there.

The myth of depth is dangerous. As Foucault argues, it is what inaugurates the very conception of the pervert, the criminal mind, the endless interrogation that will out your truth through relentless, endless, infinite discourse. Turning inward is not the answer. That's what they — you know who they are — want us to believe. It is a disconcerting collusion of philosophy, epistemology, religion, "self-help," and the police state (or what Foucault called, at one point, an episteme).

There is no depth. And turning inward isn't wise; it's idiotic. Asking deep, philosophical questions about life and your place in it is even stupider. There are no questions as there are no answers other than: this is this. This is it (pace Alan Watts). All there is is all this.

The world happens at the surface. And I don't mean surface as opposed to the depth; I am not privileging the transient pleasure over and against the long lasting truths of the world. I'm throwing out the whole damn schema.

The surface of the world is run through with physical sensations of sound, smell, touch; it enjoys speed and intensity. And it's also run through, at the same time and along similar pathways, with ideas, concepts, affects, moods. The visible and invisible world are intertwined (thanks Merleau-Ponty!). When I left my "inner" monologue telling myself to be cool and leaned into the running water, I was leaning into life itself as it was happening — which always, necessarily, includes moods, ideas, notions, concepts, affects.

You can't brush away the water to find the truth. Turning inwards is a dead end, literally. The world is neither in here nor over there: it's right here, right now — this. The so-called wise man doesn't seek answers or look deep inside himself; he doesn't ask why he's here or why there's something, not nothing. No, he just leans into the water, washes his face, and quietly — or even exuberantly —smiles.


Akilesh Ayyar said...

If "all there is is all this," then "turning inward" is just as much "this" as running water. The splash of water is no more or less "this" than self-interrogation. "Asking deep, philosophical questions about life" and indeed the "disorientation, anxiety, discombobulation" are also "this" and in criticizing that activity, in calling it "idiotic," you are engaging in the very "judging" of yourself you decry. And if there "never was a question" there would be no need for you to have written that phrase, indeed no way for you to have written it...

Daniel Coffeen said...

This is one of the great complexities of Taosim (he says not really know much of anything about Taoism). Yes, this is indeed all there is: whining, depression, ecstasy for the matter, are all equally part of this, constitutive of life, perfect in their way.

And yet we — or perhaps I — want peace, joy, I want to live an affirmative life. There is, then, a certain practice of "looking inward" that has certain effects (and affects). One of these is that said inward looking is an abyss that breeds discontentment. Of course, I could say: embrace this inward gaze and, voila, I am joyful and affirmative. But what happens at that point is that I stop looking inward! That peace and joy come from affirming, not searching. So the moment I affirm my search, the search ends.

It is, then, not a matter of drawing a line between this and that but between a practice of joy and a practice of kvetching. I think. Practice might be the wrong word, too loaded with religious nonsense. And so I'll say praxis, at the risk of sounding douchey.