Wake up

This post continues my reflections on methodology within the context of tracing the arc from the pain of aphasia to the aphasia of pain.

Another reason I quoted Virginia Woolf and Kenneth Burke is to signal that awareness of the activity of presenting is not something new.  In fact, one might look back thousands of years to what the Buddha and many of his students have said and written about sati.  Unfortunately, the most popular current translation for this Pali word is “mindfulness,” which just layers one static fixity on top of another—mind-full-ness.

Perhaps this point can become more clear by looking at the word “meaningfulness.”  I just said that to mean is an activity; meaning is the gerund of that verb.  If we make “meaning” into some-thing of which some-thing else can be full, we’ve gotten two layers away from doing, from meaning.  Then we add –ness to construct another noun, yet one more layer abstracted from doing, and try to bring that abstraction down to earth by talking about more things that have meaningfulness. All we’re doing is talking as if the activity of meaning is being imported from the outside.

Sati is not a state of being.  It is an activity.  If one must use a noun to translate sati, Simone Weil’s “attention” works better because it sounds so much more like a verb the way she uses it. Some students of the Buddha Sakyamuni would call attention or sati “present-moment awareness,” which should not be confused with the diluted forms of mindfulness being sold currently on the self-improvement market.  Actually, I prefer the way Simone Weil uses “attention” in her book Gravity and Grace because as an analogue for sati “attention” reminds us that to end suffering means to wake up.  (Weil (2002) 116-118)

Some might argue that I’m stretching the terms “presence,” sati, and “attention” beyond recognition to come up with an eclectic mish-mash.  Since the contemporary use of “presence” already tends to be mushy and Weil was a mystic who liked to dash off aphorisms, I don’t think that my (free) associations confuse any of the meanings (!?) of “presence” or “attention.” Perhaps they will eventually clarify the activity of presenting/attending.  As for sati, I admit that the word is most frequently thought to refer to a state of the mind, but when I called sati an activity, I was referring to the activity which Daoists call wú wéi, not-doing.

Nouns are never without an agenda, but some pretend to be.  To the extent that verbs help keep us focused on changing and its moments (why, when, how, where, etc.) they can keep us focused on their own agendas as words. (To repeat, this emphasis on moving and changing should not be interpreted as an attempt to find some foundation, ground, thing-in-itself (noumenon), or even activity-in-itself (kinmenon?) for the movement we encounter.)

Others may object that while some forms of meditation start with concentration on a physical object and its components, an aesthetic attention to the beauty or other pleasing aspects of the object is often seen as a distraction from the path towards sati.  As far as any inconsistency between sati and aesthetically pleasing presentation, I will be challenging the high-minded and holier-than-thou who seem to despise the “things of the flesh” and want us to free ourselves of our bodies first in order to arrive at sati.  They forget that now happens only in this body, in this flesh.  Waiting for the right conditions, waiting to escape the “impediments” of the flesh, to start paying attention means never paying attention.  We attend now, or we don’t ever attend.

Frederick Nietzsche and Simone Weil both endured severe pain in their lives, and both talk about pain as overpowering everything else, inside and out, in the moment. For antithetical reasons, they both also describe joy as a related all-consuming moment.  When we experience pain or joy …  Stop with the nouns!  When we hurt or when we enjoy, we attend.  We attend now.  We don’t attend elsewhere at the same moment.  If we are attending elsewhere, we are doing something other than “hurting” or “enjoying.”

One Comment

  1. Yes, it is a thoughtful post, Kenneth, with bare honesty. Personally, i like ‘presence’ (a noun), but ‘to attend’ is also fine.
    i wonder, can pain be perceived as joy? And can you have joy till it hurts? (like childbirth)

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