Dejá vu

On reflection, I realized that the last two posts about an attack of back pain (thankfully, mostly gone) were related to the preceding post, which promised to explain how Piaget avoids idealism, using that term for the view that the world around us is just an illusion created by our minds.  I remembered how some Buddhists criticized some of my old posts for talking about pain as real.

When I started this blog in 2014, I was coming to terms with pain and suffering: Laura’s physical hurts caused by various treatments and medical procedures, her even greater agony over her aphasia, my grief, and the back problems brought on by the exertions of caregiving.  If you go to the archive of posts by category, you can find these posts under the heading of The Three Kiss-offs.

Towards the end of Laura’s illness, I had joined an online group on the Tricyle Magazine website for those with chronic illnesses and their caregivers.  I put some of my posts to that group on an open blog page that Tricycle maintained at the time.  When I started this blog, I placed some of its posts on the Tricycle blog page.

Unfortunately these posts attracted the attention of some trolls who, unbeknownst to me, had driven most of the other users off of that platform.  They may have called themselves Buddhists, but they did not practice lovingkindness.  A typical comment was “This is such infantile bullshit!” concerning my post on “Misery’s Shadow.”  This commentator was not always consistent.  His comment starts off talking about the reality of physical pain, but he wanders off into insisting that pain is an illusion based on the “dualistic” belief in a self.  He mixes Buddhist sources with Hindu Advaita gurus.  Other commentators were even more explicit about their non-dualistic mysticism.

All I had been doing was reflecting on Larry Rosenberg’s explanation of a famous Zen saying.

[T]he Zen master says, ‘Kill hot, kill cold,’ [meaning] to kill the concept ‘hot,’ kill the concept ‘cold.’ The temperature is just what it is. … ‘When it’s hot, the Buddha just sweats. When it’s cold, the Buddha just shivers.’ ‘Well, how is that wisdom? I sweat and I shiver.’ He answers, ‘You missed the word “just.”‘ What this teaching is saying is, no one denies that you’re hot and that you’re sweating. You just don’t have to turn it into torment by adding anything to it. When it’s cold, you can see the mind making more of it by resisting it. Resisting is suffering, and a waste of energy, big-time.

The other comment on that post was from my online friend Mark Drew, who often came to my defense in these exchanges.  He was the one who started the chronic illness group because he had MS.  He was not only a long-time Buddhist practitioner, he knew real pain.  Unfortunately he died a few years later, not long after his wife and caretaker died.  Before that Tricycle had stopped supporting this blogging platform since it had become counter-productive.  (I still belong to a Facebook group formed by friends of Mark.)

Given this experience, I sometimes have a hard time maintaining equanimity and practicing lovingkindness when I hear fellow practitioners tell me that we live in a world of illusions.

Before I moved to Philadelphia, I used to sit every Monday evening with Princeton Insight Meditation at the Fellowship in Prayer building on Witherspoon Street.  There was an old brick fireplace in the room where we sat, closed off and painted over.  In our personal reflections after the sit, a number of times one of the sangha members would tell us that she saw this fireplace as illusory, even as she leaned against its side.  I  breathed deeply and wished her ease.

Part of the problem there was a translation of a famous passage from the Dhammapada that was hanging at the front of the room:

Mind precedes all things;
mind is their chief, mind is their maker.

While “things,” or even “phenomena,” is technically correct, other translations avoid implying that all things are just figments of our imagination.  Translations such as “experiences, “thoughts,” or “mental states,”

In his analysis of how the infant constructs reality, Piaget avoids the trap of saying that the world around us and the things in it are just creations of our minds .  It would be easy to draw that conclusion from statements like “… the true nature of space does not reside in the more or less extended character of sensations as such, but in the intelligence which interconnects these sensations.”  Or, even just from the title of his book The Construction of Reality in the Child.

Piaget identifies two fundamental processes going on in the child, and really throughout our lives.  Through assimilation and accomodation a child forms intelligence (the subject of the first book in the series) and builds “the universe into an aggregate of permanent objects connected by causal relations that are independent of the subject and are placed in objective space and time” (the second book). Both processes interact with an independent environment, assimilation taking the environment inside and accommodation bending “the organism to the successive constraints of the environment.”  The role of intelligence is to “intercoordinate” the two.

Like the Buddha, Piaget studies how we make our way in a world that is not of our making.  Neither waste time on ontological speculation about this world, this universe, this environment.  For the Buddha, it’s all about soteriology, freeing ourselves from suffering.  For Piaget, it’s all about epistemology, how do we come to know the world and ourselves in it.

Intelligence thus begins neither with knowledge of the self nor of things as such but with knowledge of their interaction, and it is by orienting itself simultaneously toward the two poles of that interaction that intelligence organizes the world by organizing itself.

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