The Limits of Understanding

This book refuses understanding by offering no concepts.
This book belies understanding by proliferating concepts.

I've always enjoyed understanding things. Frankly, I'm good at it. I usually understand things quickly. That is how my metabolism works: I take something in then process and distribute it swiftly. I've always been skinny.

Except when it comes to much of math. I understand some algebra and arithmetic. And I get some big ideas of calculus, maybe. But too many numbers and my understanding fails; things don't add up. All I see, all I "get," is a blur.

But, for most things, I can size up a situation, an idea, a process and begin to figure out what questions to ask, how it all might fit together. Inevitably, I miss something; such is the way of learning. But even the things I miss make sense. Such is the way of understanding.

For most of my life, I've relied on understanding. It's a powerful mechanism. It's made me feel wise, in control, and superior.  Like I have things figured out.

I'm not alone in bestowing such power on understanding. This is one of the premises of a certain psychoanalysis: understand whence your symptoms and the symptoms will disappear. Understanding, in this scenario, becomes the way to health.

And yet I've never quite been content with understanding. Sure, I invested a lot of my life into it, ensuring I could grasp almost anything. Indeed, this is what the university system asks of us: to know and understand. I remember constantly being frustrated in grad school by peers of mine who'd size up an idea with a ready, Oh, that's just Deleuzian repetition. Or: That's Lacanian lack — as if naming it and knowing its mechanics were enough! Which, for me, it often wasn't. I yearned for those ideas to undo me, thrill me, titillate me. I liked being moved, in every sense, by an idea.

But being moved has no place in the academy. Being thrilled and titillated has no place in the academy. And being undone sure has no place at all. The entire institution is committed to the opposite: to sealing up, to mastering, to owning through knowledge and understanding. This is why the academy focuses so much on scholarship rather than thought: it wants to know ideas, cite them, not live through them.

Here's the funny thing, or not so funny thing, as the case may be: I've understood that understanding doesn't suffice. I'm still in the realm of understanding. I'm still in the realm of seeing how it all fits together, being able to articulate it, even with an air of weathered wisdom. My will to understanding is insidious and voracious: it wants to transform everything into itself — which is to say, into a neat, effable package.

A book that's long stymied me is the Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. It does not offer a philosophy or dogma. It offers situations and ways to navigate those situations. The only overarching principle I can make out is that you live every day as the day of your death. After that, the book never adds up — at least in understanding. The way of the samurai is precisely a way: it is a practice, a doing, not a knowledge or understanding per se.

Meditation makes this all  clear. We can talk about meditation — what it is, its different theories, meditation as mindfulness, meditation as critical inquiry, meditation as transformation, as nihilism, as joy. I've definitely come at meditation with many different understandings. But all that vanishes when I sit down and meditate. Which, of course, is one effect of meditation: it is not something to be understood. It is something to be done.

Yes, understanding is a doing. But it is a different doing than, well, doing doing. And this not to say that there's something wrong with understanding. On the contrary, it's great to understand things! There's a pleasure and there's something else, too: there's a foothold, something to step into, a place and a way to step outside oneself. The trick, however, is not to let the foothold be the end because most ideas demand eliminating footholds all together. To only understand an idea is not to finally grasp that idea.

The beautiful thing about meditation is that there is no place for understanding in the act itself. Of course, an understanding is part of it. For me, it's how I might situate myself — why I might practice a certain way. But this understanding quickly reaches its limit and the demand for a practice takes over. It's no longer a question of why you're doing this but of how you're doing it. It's all performance, all a doing.

Meditation, then, is not a not doing. Even wu wei, action through inaction, is not not doing. Both are quite demanding as a practice, as something you do with your body, your mind, your time. They demand a posture of standing in the world, towards the world, with the world — and with yourself. This posture is as visible as it is invisible. Meditation is not just sitting there. It is a state of poise, relaxed and alert. It's a matter of holding your shoulders, your arms, your head a certain way — not because of a dogma or understanding but because such is the way to facilitate the end of understanding.

Of course, this is not just true of meditation and Taoism, though they provide such perfect models. It's true of, say, Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus. There are a lot of ideas in that book; it produces and proliferates concepts at a dizzying pace. In fact, it's so abundant that understanding becomes overwhelmed — and, at some point, silly. The book disorients and reorients, introducing a different practice of making sense, of understanding. It's a practice of multiplicity, of play, of generosity. After all, what could be more absurd than someone being adamant about multiplicity!

This doesn't stop the academy, of course, from trying to suck the life — which is to say, the practice — out of Deleuze and Guattari. Fortunately for me, I'm no longer an academic. I don't have to understand anything anymore.


When the Scaffolding Comes Tumbling Down

I have a friend who is a fan of medicating, as it were. He, like most people I know (myself included), has an elaborate pharmacy he uses to propel himself through the day — and with gusto! — from coffee to kratom to booze to pot to whip-its to Ambien to whatever. Note than none of these are illegal. And so a little of this, then a little of that, and the day goes on without catastrophe. Mind you, this is a highly productive person with his own business and happy family. (I add this aside as I hate that drugs are generally seen as an ugly agent, even if they often are for many people to whom I mean no disrespect at all). He refers to this all as his scaffolding.

I love this word, this image: scaffolding. It's poignant in that it holds up a structure, helps maintain a structure, but is not itself a structure. Existentially, we all rely on scaffolding in different forms  — those things that hold us up.

Jobs are probably the most pervasive form of scaffolding. They give people an identity — I'm a coder; I'm a UX designer; I'm a chef —but they also structure people's time. They give people a clear, presumably inarguable (although I'd beg to differ) reason to get out of bed in the morning. It gives them some place to go, a reason to have their bodies doing this and that. It gives them purpose. Take away their job and whatever would they do? How would they spend their time? Who would they be? In Silicon Valley, and its culture, a job is no longer just a job. It's a way of life. It's a scaffolding so pervasive it seeks to take over the structure.

Of course, in reality, people are frustrated and fatigued from their jobs. Which is why they have Netflix and Amazon and Hulu and HBO. They have their shows. Shows become a way for people to distract themselves from their fatigue and frustration. This same show culture mocks the housewives of old who needed to see their shows at all cost — their soap operas. But it's all the same thing: scaffolding to keep people from standing alone, naked, with nothing to define their time or grab their attention.

This is not to say that these shows are bad or that watching them is bad. Jeez, I watch all kinds of things. I am not criticizing. I am, however, pointing out that jobs and shows are part of our scaffolding. You can hear the panic, feel the dread, when the WiFi is down. Whatever shall we do? What will amuse us? Where will we sit and what will we look at?

The scaffolding pervades — porn, politics, the new restaurant, Tinder, Facebook, the news. It's all so many things to demand our attention, keep us distracted, so many things to fill the day so we never have to reckon the various miseries that pervade our lives: our self loathing, our horrible childhoods, the relentless crap we tolerate in our romantic relationships, the soul suffocation of work, the fear of death, the actual deaths of our loved ones, our own impending demise.

I am not saying everyone is unhappy. What I'm saying is that the mere fact of being human inevitably affords us a certain amount of misery. Communication goes astray at an alarming pace (some would say always); desire provokes and goes unsated; love goes unrequited; parents get frustrated and scream at their kids, making both miserable and guilty and self-loathing; those closest to us die. I'm not being a pessimist. I am stating the obvious: living is fucking hard. And so we construct scaffoldings of different sorts to keep the pain at bay.

But what happens when the scaffolding comes tumbling down?

For me, my scaffolding involves a litany of substances — of course — but more integral is a certain sense of a solitary, knowing self. This is how I've imagined myself in the world: alone, outside the social (despite having been married and having a kid; a scaffolding is a story as much as anything else) and always understanding the way of things. Coffeen: the smart guy.

I clung to this notion, this conception, this support for decades. I cling to it still. The thing is, it's giving way. I suddenly find myself 47 years old, nearly broke, and alone. Yes, I have a child. Yes, I have some friends around the country. But, somehow, I've managed to keep them all at arms reach — or further. And my understanding of things? It looks terribly silly in the blinding light of my sister's death and the horror of trudging myself through the everyday.

Over the past few months (if not longer), this scaffolding has begun to give way. It became obvious to me when I went to New York in October, my first time home since my sister's funeral. And I was devastated, overwhelmed by memory, an inchoate swirling affective teem. It was not a series of images or events I was recollecting: it was my life all jumbled, all the sensations, all the loss, all the loves, all the death, all the violence, all at once, here and now. I was gutted, a bumbling, mumbling fool. So I upped my booze and my kratom and my Ambien which, perhaps needless to say, only made the scaffolding less steady. Still, back in SF, I doubled down on my pharmacopeia.

And then Christmas came and I couldn't turn to my usual litany of substances as I was sick as a dog. And then this sickness got worse. Desperate, I got a script for an awful antibiotic, hoping despite everything that it would restore order. But it did just the opposite: it made the entire scaffold collapse. I began crying hysterically all day and night as a steady stream of misery drowned me — alone and lonely in my shitty little rented house. (This is an actual side effect of the drug, Levaquin.) And I now understand Nietzsche when he says that when he was sick, he was not sick at bottom. For me, however, my sickness went all the way down.

Take away my coffee and cocktails, my kratom and pot; take away any work to distract me; take away my loves and desires; take away my shows as I've seen them all too many times and now they've begun to ring false; take away my philosophical ramblings and my witty repartee (a generous interpretation, no doubt); take it all away and what is left? This blubbering fool.

Laying about trying to maintain....something...I've been rewatching Breaking Bad. Hank is a character whose scaffolding we see give way. His good old boy machismo is no match for the horrors he faces — killing a man in a firefight, then seeing co-workers killed and maimed in an explosion, then being shot. He's afraid to say he's afraid; he's afraid to show himself a blubbering fool: he's afraid to be vulnerable. So he tries to double down on the machismo, despite relentless panic attacks. This only takes him so far so he retreats sullenly into his bedroom, ordering rocks and minerals like a lonely woman buying clothes online at 4:00 AM.

There is no such thing as no scaffolding. Indeed, the structure — who we are — and the scaffolding are entwined. But when the scaffolding gets too rigid, it can't support this human structure that moves, changes, that suffers in new ways. My scaffolding has been the scaffold of the solitary young smart ass — horny and quick and hyper critical: the smartest, randiest guy in the room who just wants to be left alone. But I'm older now. I move slower. My main tether to the world, my site of unconditional love that was always there, is there no more.

And so I need a new scaffold, one that can bend with me when I heave over in pain. One that can give way and allow other people to see me, to see my pain, to help me. I suppose this is why older people turn to Buddhism, to a practice and philosophy of acceptance. Without the vigor of youth, without a steady scaffold, all we have left is this. And this is what Buddhism presumably offers: this, just this — a scaffolding that's always changing to fit its structure.

I'd like to suggest that within us all is a blubbering fool — a scared, lonely, bag of flesh that just wants to love and be loved, to be known, to be held. And that much of our scaffolding impedes this, impedes love, impedes intimacy because it defers vulnerability. Because we work so hard to maintain the scaffolding, we neglect this blubbering fool, this beautiful, grotesque being. And so neglect this all too human life.