Thursday, June 17, 2010

Come on, give me the keys

Today, philosopher o’ the day is Aristotle. His first book was called “Physics,” or the study of all that is. His second was titled “After Physics,” or “Physics II: The Sequel,” which has come down to us as “Metaphysics.” Funny that all of our talk of metaphysical nonsense comes from a sequel that should have ended up with a better name.

Why, you may ask, is your favorite and much-esteemed blogger so obsessed with philosophers these days? It’s not so much obsessed with philosophers as their philosophy, she may answer, cheekily. In these last two particular cases I’m particularly concerned with the idea of the real versus what is beyond the real. Because these ideas end up being very important in day-to-day life.

For instance: there are the dirty dishes to do. And there is the idea behind doing the dishes. But what is more important? Doing the dishes, or the idea of doing the dishes? Physics, or metaphysics?

Thich Nat Hanh, the Buddhist thinker I’ve referenced before, has as his central concept mindfulness. One of his favorite metaphors is the necessity of mindfulness as one does the dishes. Mindful of one’s hands moving in and out of the water, mindful of each act, of each movement. Mindful while cleaning the toilet. Mindful while folding the laundry. And why? Because that’s what we spend most of our time doing. Most of our time is spent on these boring, mundane aspects of existence, and what we are called to do is move through them mindfully.

As now: Breathe. I am typing in a Word document. I am listening to Bob Dylan. I am sitting in bed with a blanket around my knees.

As much as I spend the life of the mind consumed by the thought of love, by what it means to be a good Christian, by metaphysical concepts, often these ideas boil down to doing the dishes. Plunging my hands into soapy water. Washing them because I love the people who ate off of them. Chopping vegetables to feed mouths I care about. Listening to the stories and feelings and hopes of the people carried into my life.


Magrat said...

I love that idea of mindfulness... or the reality of it :-) Being present, where you are and with the people you are with, thinking and reflecting about what you are doing. It feels more like a response to life and interaction with all the elements of living, rather than just a knee-jerk reaction and response. Thanks for your thoughts, Melissa!

Walter said...

Joseph Wulf, Auschwitz survivor and author of twenty books pioneering the history of the Holocaust, wrote of what saved him from the daily misery of life in the concentration camp: Each day for an hour, he and his companion would walk about imagining themselves in places they had been other than Auschwitz: today it was strolling down the Champs Elysees describing the sights in detail;on other days, month in month out, it was the same flight of imagination, this time to Lisbon, that time to Biarritz, here to London, there to Berlin, whereever one or the other had been.
I kind of like this, or contemplating Kant or Aristotle better than dilating on the act of washing dish by dish. This seems a very bad waste of a pretty good mind.
But that's just me.

Still here,

The Capt'n

P.S. To answer your earlier Q, feel free to use whatever ideas we discussed however you like. I would be honored.

P.P.S. I think most of your readers would agree with me that you can write for publication-- easily. You are good; the only obstacle being your flight into Perfectionism. But you know how to write a beginning, a middle and an end, and you have a host of models you have alluded to. . . .

Melissa said...

Dietrich Bonhoffer was another Holocaust survivor who spoke about mindfulness. And he was a Christian--I find cognitive dissonance in appropriating Buddhist concepts for my Christian faith. Being present in each moment seems more and more to me to be life's highest calling.

Walter Renn said...

I brought up Joseph Wulf's attentiveness to other things under adverse circumstances to suggest that some things are more worth being mindful of than others, especially if you don't like them (i.e. doing dishes and cleaning toilets).
So, I was not sure why you focused on contemplating the minutiae of moments doing a mindless and disagreeable chore. (When I mow the grass, scrub the sink,or change my oil, I think of things more appealing to me, and far from the task at hand, as did Joseph Wulf.
I just looked up Thich Nat Hanh, which led me to "Mindfulness" and "Positive Psychology." Under "Mindfulness," I read:
"One can be mindful of the sensations in one's feet while walking, of the sound of the wind in the trees, or the feeling of soapy water while doing dishes. One can also be mindful of the mind's commentary: "I wish I didn't have to walk any further, I like the sound of the leaves rustling, I wish washing dishes weren't so boring and the soap weren't drying out my skin", etc. Once one identifies experience as mental content, one has the freedom to cease identification with any judgments/ perceptions: "washing dishes: boring" may become "The warm water is in unison with the detergent and is currently washing away the plate's grime, the sun is shining through the window and casting an ever greater shadow on the dish's white ceramics." In this example, one may see that washing does not have to be judged "boring"; washing dishes is only a process of coordinating dishes with soap and water. Any activity done mindfully is a form of meditation, and mindfulness is possible practically all the time."
I like this at first blush.
I do this and call it "cognitive restructuring," no doubt from Positive Psychology above.
It is a conciliating philosophy, not a defiant one. It says, maybe I am just thinking about doing dishes wrong; there will always be dishes to do (symbolic for all things from the disagreeable to downright destructive things in the world), and I need to come to terms with living with them. It seeks to conquer judgment, criticism, reform, revolt, idealism, and a better situaion, and teach one to learn the comforts of acceptance, fatalism, limits, passivity, conformity.
It is the way of most flesh.
It is the philosopy of settling.
In the end, we all must settle, but must we embrace the forces encouraging us to "give ourselves away" from the very outset? I admire your struggle to not settle, to go your own way, and learn to balance your personal interest with loved ones.("How do I balance the need to love others with my need for self-preservation, my need to do what I’ve been called to do? While I do dirty dishes, my writing is on the back burner. I am so much better at giving other people what they need than I am at asking for what I myself need, another part of honesty."
There is no greater wisdom than to find the balance between what is mine and what is thine. Most people settle. You at least are struggling.
Thich Nat Hanh may have some answers, but among my consciousnesses would be to know his teachings on mindfulness of response in actively resisting forces teaching cognitive restructuring toward acceptance, passivity, submissiveness, settling, and conformity.
These teachings, without a careful mindfulness of what is clear thinking and what is rationalization and conciliation will not get you the balance you need.
Getting that balance with maturity will be one of the greatest achievements you gain.

Keep the faith!,

The Capt'n