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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Musical Musings: All Your Tears

To continue with my musings on the songs by Mojave 3, I'd like to say a few more words about the previous post.

The notion of 'loving oneself' I mentioned is related to Buddhist teachings about metta, what is usually translated as lovingkindness (though the word has connotations of friendliness too). The idea of metta has taken on some significance in representations of Buddhism in the West, where it is not uncommon to find individuals struggling with the idea of being kind or friendly towards themselves. Indeed, many of us in contemporary societies tend to have very high expectations of ourselves, often struggling with feelings of self-doubt and projections of inadequacy. I recall reading somewhere how someone once told the Dalai Lama that he or she found it difficult to generate feelings of goodwill/kindness/compassion towards themself, saying that they struggle with feelings of self-worth. I can't remember the exact words but the Dalai Lama said something to the effect of how that's not a skilful way of perceiving the self, that it is important to learn how to be kind or compassionate towards oneself if one is to find true happiness.

Metta or lovingkindness/friendliness towards myself is something I've had to learn since discovering Buddhism. As I've said in the previous post, such a practice is not an exercise in narcissism. Rather, it is said that by cultivating lovingkindness and friendliness towards oneself one also develops the ability to better empathise and sympathise with others, and thereby develop the important virtue of compassion--that is, to love in the fullest sense of the word. In metta meditation practice for instance, the meditator first contemplates on feelings of goodwill towards themself before extending those feelings towards others, including not only their loved ones but also their 'enemies' and to all beings in general. In cultivating this practice, I've experienced a greater sense of ease in my life, but of course I am by no means free from personal hangups. Relatively speaking, while I've been able to relate to others with greater patience and ease, and while I'm committed to the idea of metta, of engaging with others regardless of who they are with lovingkindness/friendliness, I must admit that I still find myself clamming up in some situations. 

I don't know if you've experienced this, but for example sometimes when I encounter a homeless person on the street I find myself turning away, avoiding his or her gaze so that I could avoid dealing with their request for spare change. I'd sometimes catch this reaction and begin to feel bad for clamming up the way I did. Why this fearfulness? Why this unwillingness to meet the call of the other? What do I have to lose or be afraid of? This is why I'm so taken by these lines from 'Who Do You Love?'
Would you like who you were if you met them some place? Would you recognise the lines on a stranger's face?...Would you give me the money if i had your smile?
Anyway, moving on to the next song that resonates with me:

Where's the magic that you wear
That keeps you safe
and keeps you feeling free
Whose arms have held you
that you don't know who you are

Is that music that you hear
a distant sound from a distant year
yeah something changed
and you lost your defense
and now it's gone

Something changed my friend
yeah something changed
all your tears have come at once
and now you're lost

Whats the sense in losing ground
a hard sun is never hard to find
Just close your eyes
turn your face to the wall
and you'll be fine

Wheres the magic that you wear
that keeps you safe
and keeps you feeling free
Whose arms have held you
that you don't know who you are

Something changed my friend
yeah something changed
all your tears have come at once
and now you're lost
yeah now you're lost

As can be seen, this song deals with the theme of change, which is of course a central tenet of Buddhism. But what this song also reminds me of is how I came to Buddhism. As with most people who turn to Buddhism (either from another religion or from a desire to seek meaning in life in general), I began to look into it because I was going through a very difficult period of my life--a time when I was facing a lot of dukkha. It was a time where all the supposed certainties of life I had taken for granted and sense of self were deeply unsettled. As the song says, I didn't know who I was anymore. I was lost. 

But in another sense, I'd say that being 'lost' need not be a bad thing, that it can be a productive, if not liberating, experience of change, of recognising that we always already have the freedom to become otherwise. I'm reminded of the practice of meditation--of deep, honest self-reflection at any rate if you do not practice meditation. The line 'close your eyes and turn your face to the wall', for instance, reminds me of how some Zen practitioners face the wall to meditate. In particular, I'm reminded of what the renowned Thai Buddhist monk, the late Ajahn Chah, said about meditation:
Do Not Try
Do not try to become anything. Do not make yourself into anything. Do not be a meditator. Do not become enlightened. When you sit, let it be. When you walk, let it be. Grasp at nothing. Resist nothing. If you haven't wept deeply, you haven't begun to meditate.
I'd say that this advice is not specific to Buddhism or meditation. I'd say it is pertinent to any exercise of deep, honest self-reflection, religious or non-religious. To honestly contemplate on oneself--on why we hold onto a past that no longer exists; on why we pine for a a future that, until it arrives, remains a phantasm/projection; and on why we resist accepting what arises in the present--to observe these habitual tendencies without judgement, blame, or shame can be a highly discomforting process which may sometimes be accompanied by tears, prompted not so much by sorrow/regret/guilt but by a kind of 'disillusionment'---by this I mean the dissipating of illusive thinking rather than disillusionment as it is conventionally understood as a kind of disappointment. When those illusions that we've habitually and unconsciously indulged in are recognised clearly for what they are--illusions--we are in a sense 'lost' because we are bereft of those defense or avoidance mechanisms that prevent us from recognising change, from recognising that change is always already occurring whether we like it or not, that we always already have the freedom to become otherwise. 

In this sense, being 'lost' may not be such a bad thing, don't you think?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Musical Musings: Who Do You Love?

Lately, I've been very taken by the music of the UK band Mojave 3. Part of the reason I'm fascinated with them is because four of its members were from prominent bands of the so-called 'shoegaze' genre, which, as the wiki entry describes it, is typified by 'by significant use of guitar effects, and indistinguishable vocal melodies that blended into the creative noise of the guitars.' An example of the shoegaze sound would be Slowdive. Here's a a song if you're curious about how they sound like:

While three of the members in Slowdive went on to form Mojave 3, the latter sounds very different, playing a kind of alt-country-pop music instead of the guitar effects driven music of 'shoegaze'. I'm quite fascinated by the difference in musical style. But the main reason I'm taken by them is because several of their songs resonate with my experience of Dhamma practice and critical inquiry, reminding me of some the lessons and challenges I've encountered in this ongoing path of self-examination (and hopefully self-transformation). So I'd like to share my thoughts on three songs, whose lyrics resonate with my experience. 

The first one I'd like to talk about in this post is 'Who Do You Love?' 

Would you like who you were
if you met them someplace?
Would you recognise the lines
on a strangers face?
Oh would you know yourself
as good as I know you?

Yeah, who do you love?

Would you write me a song
if i had your faith?
Would you give me the money
if i had your smile?
Can you trust yourself
when you don't trust nobody else?

Yeah, who do you love?

Would you laugh if i told you
I don't need nobody else?
Would you laugh if i told you
I don't want nobody else?
Would you like yourself
if you knew what you had?

Yeah, who do you love?

This song expresses a simple advice that can be found across many traditions, religious or non-religious: that to love another one must first love oneself. In Buddhism, this can be found in the Raja Sutta for instance, where the Buddha said:
Searching all directionswith one's awareness,one finds no one dearerthan oneself.In the same way, othersare fiercely dear to themselves.So one should not hurt othersif one loves oneself.
This simple advice really speaks to me, more powerfully than some of the more elaborate advice that can be found in Buddhist teachings. The idea of 'loving oneself' can of course be easily misunderstood. In our contemporary consumerist culture, there's certainly a lot of talk about 'me' and 'I', about how it is important to 'love oneself', about how it is important to devote some 'me-time' to oneself. Much of this sort of thinking can be found in various self-help and New Age discourses, for instance. We can also see how the advertising/entertainment industry adopts this sort of rhetoric to encourage an unhealthy perception of the self, and to exploit fears and desires, especially with female consumers. (A scholarly analysis of this cultural trend can be found in Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism.)

Needless to say, the notion of 'loving oneself' the Buddha is talking about is very different. I won't attempt to 'explicate' what this self-love involves, suffice to say that it requires a lot of honesty and willingness on one's part to reflect on what 'love' truly means, on what the 'I' is, and on the relationship between self and other. The first verse of the song, for me, expresses this very nicely. The song also reminds me of this poetic, koan-like musing by Derrida which I've commented on previously and which has had a very profound effect on me (though I can't quite explain why):
"How can another see into me, into my most secret self, without my being able to see in there myself and without my being able to see him in me? And if my secret self, that which can be revealed only to the other, to the wholly other, to God if you wish, is a secret that I will never reflect on, that I will never know or experience or possess as my own, then what sense is there in saying that it is "my" secret, or in saying more generally that a secret *belongs*, that it is proper to or belongs to some "one," or to some *other* who remains some*one*? It is perhaps there that we find the secret of secrecy, namely, that it is not a matter of knowing and that it is there for no-one. A secret doesn't belong, it can never be said to be at home or in its place.... The question of the self: "who am I?" not in the sense of "who am I" but "who is this 'I' that can say "who"? What is the "I," and what becomes of responsibility once the identity of the "I" trembles in secret?" ('Gift of Death,' p. 92)

I recently watched a short documentary from the 1980s about Buddhism where the presenter asked an abbot of a hermitage in Sri Lanka about self-love, to which he replied: 'A person who doesn't love oneself will never love others.' 

Such an advice is of course not unique to Buddhism. In fact, I'd say that there's nothing particularly religious about such an advice. Regardless of whether one considers oneself to be 'Buddhist' or 'religious' or not, there's something very true about what the abbot said, don't you think? 

Who do you love?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Faith in and of the perhaps, perhaps?

To pick up on the previous post, let me quote again that enigmatic phrase by Derrida from his essay 'Faith and Knowledge':
an abyss... a desert in the desert, there where one neither can nor should see coming what ought or could--perhaps--be yet to come. 
I'm very taken by this arresting image. The word 'perhaps' is italicised in the original text, and plays a central role in Derrida's thinking. I'd like to share some of his ideas about the 'perhaps' to discuss the relationship between faith and knowledge, and also to pose this question of faith to you--the reader whom I can only ever address in good faith (because how can I ever say I truly know you, even if you identify yourself?)--so that we may ponder together on some possible ways to rethink 'faith' and to explore the role it plays in our everyday lives.

Derrida says that some of his key works engage in 'a thinking of the "perhaps", of that dangerous modality of the "perhaps" that Nietzsche speaks of and that philosophy has always tried to subjugate.' I've not studied Nietzsche so I cannot make an informed evaluation of Derrida's reading of Nietzsche as such. But taking his argument as it is, it would appear that Derrida's engagement with the 'perhaps' forms part of his critique of Western philosophy's logocentrism or the metaphysics of presence, which, simply put, refers to the tendency in Western thought to fixate on the question of 'What is?' and to answer it by valorising presence over absence. An overarching aim of Derrida's strategy of deconstruction is to constantly destabilise any such attempt to ground thought in 'presence'. Rather, the main thrust of Derrida's argument, to greatly simplify it, is that thought/language/conceptuality is always marked by absence, always on the slide, always differing and deferring--what he expresses with the (in)famous neologisim différance, which connotes both 'differing' and 'deferring'. The general thrust of deconstructive strategy is perhaps refracted in this one word 'perhaps'.

Consider what he says about the experience of the 'perhaps' and its relationship with what he describes as the 'possible-impossible' (I've discussed these in several posts; see tags list on the left):
This experience of the “perhaps” would be that of both the possible and impossible, of the possible as impossible. If all that arises is what is already possible, and so capable of being anticipated and expected, that is not an event. The event is possible only coming from the impossible. It arises like the coming of the impossible, at the point where a perhaps deprives us of all certainty and leaves the future to the future. This perhaps is necessarily allied to a yes: yes, yes to whoever or whatever comes about.
The notion of faith that I'm exploring is therefore closely related to this notion of the 'perhaps'. Perhaps, what I'm getting at might be described as a kind of faith in and of the perhaps, or as I've described in the previous post, a kind of trust-confidence-reliance-duty-fidelity to the 'perhaps'. Such a notion of faith involves a willingness to accept uncertainty, the possibility that one's object of faith could in fact turn out to be impossible. I'd even suggest that such a notion of faith (in and of the perhaps) always accompanies every decision we take--i.e. every decision we take to do this or that is always a decision committed in faith, regardless of whether we consider ourselves believers or non-believers. To explicate this, let me enlist the help of John D. Caputo, who has built on Derrida's work to argue for the idea of 'faith without faith' or 'religion without religion'.

Caputo makes a distinction between the future present and the absolute future. The future present refers to the momentum of the present towards a future that we can more or less anticipate. This is the future for which we maintain a savings account for instance. The absolute future--or what Derrida calls l'avenir--on the other hand is the unforeseeable, unknowable future that shatters ‘the comfortable horizons of expectation that surround the present’ (Caputo, On Religion, p. 8). Unlike the future present, the absolute future is not a horizon against which we can orientate our calculations, inferences, projections, and expectations. The absolute future makes all knowledge of what might be possible impossible, impossible because it is wholly outside the order of what can be reasonably anticipated--outside the order of what can be rationally known. Yet, this unforeseeable, unknowable future to come is the condition of possibility for calculations, inferences, projections, and expectations—for any decision. Every decision is thus always taken in the face of undecidability--the 'perhaps'-- and is always given up and over as a pledge (of faith?) to the unforeseeable, unknowable future to come, l’avenir, the impossible. 

I should point out here that Caputo is a theologian who is attempting to rethink the notions of 'God' and 'religion'. In this respect, Martin Hägglund argues that Caputo’s deconstructive approach to ‘God’ removes the condition of radical evil—what Derrida refuses to do—and that his interpretation of ‘religion without religion’ misreads Derrida’s ideas which point rather to a ‘radical atheism’. This is an important critique of Caputo's work (and the wider 'religious turn' in critical thinking); I am looking into this at the moment and will comment on this in the future. For now, I highlight Hägglund's argument in order to point out that even for ‘radical atheism’ a deconstructive faith which the absolute future demands remains pertinent; as Hägglund writes: 
We can never know for sure what will happen because experience is predicated on the unpredictable coming of time. Whatever we do, we place faith in a future that may shatter our hopes and lay waste what we desire (Radical Atheism, p. 126).
So, this is more or less the notion of faith I'm exploring. Faith, for me, is tied to the 'perhaps', which frames our experience every moment, right here, right now. As I see it, the 'perhaps' is not incompatible with Buddhist understanding which pivots around the notion of impermanence or change--that every moment of experience is always becoming otherwise. Without the 'perhaps', how are we to make any decision in the first place? Even if we make a decision only after we've given it careful thought, does the decision itself eradicate the 'perhaps'? 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

'Fiduciary': faith-as-trust-confidence-reliance-duty-fidelity

It's been a while since the previous post. I've been busy with teaching and haven't really been able to find the headspace to work on my research/writing. In any event, in late February or early March I completed the paper I said I'd write on Vipassana and Foucault. The paper was written for a special issue of a journal which will be examining the relationship between cultural studies (the field I'm working in) and religion. My original aim was to investigate how Foucauldian ideas, which have been very influential in the field of studies, could enable an analysis of Buddhist meditation (and by extension, other religious and/or spiritual knowledge practices) as ethically and politically enabling rather than politically conservative or ideologically complicit.

But upon completing the paper, it came to me that I had to write a different essay. It dawned upon me that at the heart of my current research is the question of faith; my current research is an attempt to find ways of investigating the ethically fraught question of faith, i.e. to find ways of (re)conceptualising 'faith' which do not merely recapitulate simplistic arguments that would dismiss, pathologise, or essentialise faith as something inherently bad or negative (e.g. 'faith is a delusion; faith is a virus; etc). Given the theme of the special issue, I thought I'd take the opportunity to put the question of faith out there, to 'come out', as it were, to friends and colleagues working in a deeply secular academy--that is, to profess that I'm seeking to understand my Buddhist faith with and through the secular knowledge of the university, to confess that faith accompanies and supports my pursuit of knowledge, and to extend an invitation to others to ponder together on the question of faith, which I do not claim to have resolved. So I rewrote the paper as a 'profession of faith'. I have discussed in several posts some of the ideas I'm pursuing to explore the question of faith. These ideas have influenced the paper and I want to here further clarify how I understand 'faith'--and I stress that this is no more than a working definition.

The question of faith I'm exploring is informed by Derrida's late work. In his essay, 'Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of "Religion" at the Limits of Reason Alone', he speaks of a 'fiduciary act' that holds faith and knowledge, religion and reason, together such that it is not possible to unequivocally position one before the other. When I read 'fiduciary' I wasn't quite sure what to make of it, so I looked it up in the dictionary and on Wikipedia. Here is the wiki entry for fiduciary. As I had initially suspected, in its contemporary usage it is largely used as a legal term, referring to the relationship of trust, confidence, reliance, duty, fidelity--or simply put, a relationship of good faith--between a trustee and a beneficiary. What struck me most is this explanation:
A fiduciary is someone who has undertaken to act for and on behalf of another in a particular matter in circumstances which give rise to a relationship of trust and confidence.
The word carries connotations of 'being faithful' and would have had, I imagine, theological implications; according to Wikipedia it derives from Latin, from fiduciarius, meaning '(holding) in trust', fides, meaning 'faith', and fiducia, meaning 'trust'. But in its contemporary usage those other meanings like 'trust', 'confidence', 'reliance', 'duty', and 'fidelity' are involved too. Derrida is of course someone who chooses his words carefully, and would arguably be evoking the multiple meanings of the word when he speaks of a fiduciary relationship between religion and reason. For me, this opens up ways of thinking about faith. By 'faith', then, I'm referring not so much to faith as it is conventionally understood by dogmatic religious followers and by those who denounce all things 'religious'--i.e. an unquestioning belief in some proposition--but rather to a constellation of associated meanings such as the ones mentioned above: faith-as-trust-confidence-reliance-duty-fidelity. This is more or less the working definition of faith I'm adopting. (BTW, such an understanding of 'faith', I think, is consonant with the Buddhist notion of saddha/sraddha which is usually translated as 'faith', but it has also been explicated in terms of 'trust', 'confidence', and 'reliance'.)

In his discussion of what 'comes before' (not in any temporal sense of course) religion and reason, Derrida offers this arresting image: abyss.... a desert in the desert, there where one neither can nor should see coming what ought or could--perhaps--be yet to come.
I've quoted this enigmatic line several times before (see tags of 'Derrida' and 'faith' on the left menu). 'Perhaps' is an important concept in Derrida's work and it is crucial too for the question of faith I'm exploring. But perhaps I best leave the 'perhaps' suspended for now, and return to explore it in the next post.