absent-mindedness, addiction, Charles Darwin, consciousness, environmental crisis, evolution, Evolution and Consciousness, Gregor Mendel, Leslie Dewart, mindfulness, pragmatic dharma, recovery, reflexion
Being an exposition of the tag line of this blog: “Reflexions on Evolution and Consciousness, Pragmatic Dharma, and Recovery from Absent-Mindedness.”
First of all, Evolution and Consciousness. This is the name of a book by the late Leslie Dewart which, in my judgement, is scandalously under-appreciated. I believe that in time, it will take its place on any short list of the most important books ever written that also includes Darwin’s Origin of the Species. I believe that Dewart’s case is similar to that of Gregor Mendel, whose work was also overlooked for decades. It happens. This blog is my attempt to do something about it.
Next, why Reflexions and not Reflections? In E&C, Dewart distinguishes the specific and relatively rare case of reflexive experience, where experience is “bent back” onto itself, from the general and pervasive case of self-presence in conscious experience, where the object of experience and the act of experiencing the object are simultaneously present to the experiencer in the same act. Dewart adopts “this somewhat unusual variant spelling to emphasize that consciousness involves reflecting only in those instances where it takes itself for its own object.” (E&C, pp. 46-47, footnote 15) Well, though somewhat unusual in everyday life, this is exactly the point of this entire blog: making consciousness itself the object of scrutiny! Moreover, and perhaps somewhat subtly, not using the expected spelling, “Reflections” is meant to hint at transcending the semantic complex, the idea that meaning somehow inheres in reality and is reflected or repeated in the mind and in language. No, in writing this blog and in every other act of speech I am not reflecting anything, thank you; I am stating originally and creatively my experience, and every time you speak, so are you. My hope is that the semantic complex transcend itself clear out of existence, and good riddance. Not likely any time soon, but I like the thought. More than that, I am working towards it.
Although I am quite sure that even as Mendel’s work turned out to be of much more general interest than just to gardeners cultivating peas, Dewart’s work will someday be as widely appreciated as that of any other major figure in the history of science or religion — perhaps as the one who demonstrated the unity of these two spheres. In the meantime, the question is, who will be the early adopters of his work? I estimate that practitioners of Pragmatic Dharma should be particularly receptive to Dewart’s thesis for a range of reasons. Dewart’s account of consciousness has direct relevance to practice, for one, since intensive meditation practice develops the acquired skill of consciousness. The flip side of this is that those who have already done a fair bit of meditation, even if their working model of what they thought they were trying to do was a bit off, are much more likely to appreciate how consciousness actually works through their own direct experience than those who have not practiced meditation. Moreover, they are likely to be interested in these kinds of things, perhaps curious to explain some of their experiences which the prevailing dogma of the mindfulness movement doesn’t exactly account for, or does so in a convoluted way.
Absent-Mindedness is a central concept in E&C, a deficiency of consciousness caused by defective assertiveness in speech. I say that absent-mindedness is the problem to which mindfulness is the solution. Human psychology is such that it is easier to be against something than for it. Although the contemporary dharma scene has its share of vapid bunk, it also has quite a few highly competent and effective proponents of mindfulness. But nobody is really leading the charge against the classical hindrances or suffering or the kind of ignorance described by the Buddha. It’s not the way. A little bit of this, just a few drops, might be helpful — chalk it up to the “middle path” for balance, if you like. Of course we are all for love and happiness and enlightenment and wisdom but what are we against? Let’s rally against absent-mindedness. Hey! If we don’t come to terms with it, and soon, the environmental consequences of our absent-minded way of life are going to cook us off the face of the planet.
And finally, Recovery. When it comes to self-understanding, Western civilization is essentially addicted to vagueness. We are collectively in denial about the escalating negative consequences of our objectivity habit. The so-called recovery model, based originally on a 12-Step approach, maps a path out of this kind of dead end for individuals (paradoxically in spite of appealing to some of the most egregious ontic presuppositions — although in practice, it also subverts them). If we are to survive as a species, we must find a way to recover collectively from the cultural neuroses precipitated by absent-mindedness. The scary thing about this addiction metaphor is how accurately it predicts the negative backlash whenever the semantic complex is challenged — the tone is about the same as that of a typical addict confronted in a botched intervention. Nevertheless, some addicts do eventually become conscious of the escalating negative consequences of their escalating self-defeating behaviour, and find a way to recover. This is what we must find a way to do, individually and collectively.
I fully expect that at first and for some time, most people most of the time will quite misunderstand what I am trying to say here. If you are among those, I would deeply appreciate your feedback and criticism so that I can better learn how to creatively and originally assert my experience, my experience of the hope that we can yet master the skill of consciousness, for I cannot do this alone.