Saturday, April 23, 2011


Shanna and I were talking about myths and archetypes, tarot, horoscopes and other woo-woo recently, especially about the use and abuse thereof. How far can we go in framing reality to suit our personal perspective while still maintaining intellectual integrity?

Anyway, when you started talking about the world being all mystical it made me think of Jungian archetypes, which you don't approve of. So I'm wondering why you draw the line of artistry at constructing a narrative. It's alright to admire, to compose paeans and songs, but not stories? Why? I've always felt you don't approve of the stories people tell themselves, as if constructing a narrative in order to self-soothe was somehow an act of weakness. But what I see here is simply a variation of degree, not of type.

Given that most people cannot resist (nor want to) their own pattern-making capabilities, I think my approach is most useful for those people who don't desire the rigour of Zennish ascetism.

That's always been my beef with Buddhism. I don't need the capital-R real, capital-T truth. I don't actually think it exists, and even if it did, I honestly don't think it's useful, in a pragmatic, day-to-day reality. It's kind of like pure science. I acknowledge that it's useful, perhaps even necessary, but applied science is really where that action (and my interest) is.

In brief, I responded that art, poetry and music was to me a way of celebrating that sort of mystical joy we're occasionally lucky enough to find, that sense of having a cosmic place for everything, and everything in its cosmic place, ourselves included, without clinging to it. Relating to archetypes, though, talking about your life in terms of mythic generalities, makes it too easy to overlook the particulars of your life that don't conform to the hero's journey or the hermit's quest. I said that some Buddhist writer I can't recall (Brad Warner? Stephen Batchelor?) used the analogy of a pretty outdoors scene painted on a window pane. Why not just wipe the pane clean and see the one that's already out there?

I thought of all that again while reading this fascinating post from Julia Galef. Seriously, I love this stuff:

We instinctively graft abstract concepts like “time,” “theories,” and “humor” onto more concrete concepts that are easier to visualize. For example, we talk about time as if it were a physical space we’re traveling through (“We’re approaching the end of the year”), a moving entity (“Time flies”) or as a quantity of some physical good (“We’re running out of time”). Theories get visualized as structures — we talk about building a case, about supporting evidence, and about the foundations of a theory. And one of my favorite metaphors is the one that conceives of humor in terms of physical violence. A funny person “kills” us or “slays” us, witty humor is “sharp,” and what’s the name for the last line of a joke? The “punch” line.

Interestingly, a lot of recent research suggests that these metaphors operate below the level of conscious thought.

Associating the future with the forward direction and the past with the backwards direction seems pretty harmless. But cases like “morality equals cleanliness” start to suggest how dangerous metaphorical thinking can be. If people conflate dirtiness with immorality, then the feeling of “Ugh, that’s disgusting” becomes synonymous with the judgment, “That’s immoral.” Which is likely a reason why so many people insist that homosexuality is wrong, even though they can’t come up with any explanation of why it’s harmful — any non-contrived explanation, at least. As the research of cognitive psychologist Jonathan Haidt has shown, people asked to defend their purity-based moral judgments reach for logical explanations, but if they’re forced to admit that their explanation has holes, they’ll grope for an alternative one, rather than retracting their initial moral judgment. Logic is merely a fig leaf; disgust is doing all the work.

So far I’ve been discussing implicit metaphors, but explicit metaphors can also lead us astray without us realizing it. We use one thing to metaphorically stand in for another because they share some important property, but then we assume that additional properties of the first thing must also be shared by the second thing.

Since our ancestors’ genetic fitness depended on their sensitivity to each other’s mental states, it feels very natural for us to speak about plants or inanimate objects as if they were agents with desires, wills, and intentions. That’s the kind of thinking we’re built for. In fact, even the phrase “built for” relies on the implication of a conscious agent doing the building, rather than the unconscious process of evolution. Metaphors are so deeply embedded in our language that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to think without them. And there's nothing wrong with that, as long as we keep a firm grasp — metaphorically speaking — on what they really mean.

There's nothing wrong with framing your life's experience as a story with a progression, either. There's a sense of reassuring continuity to think that whatever the individual details, you're on some sort of path that countless others before and after you have been on. But that same feeling of treading a well-worn path to a preordained goal can help you switch off your conscious attention to everything that's happening right now that doesn't fit a neat storyline. And I say this as someone who loves words. Absolutely loves 'em. I spend more time than almost anyone I know wallowing in words and other abstract representations of reality. Pattern-seeking creatures that we are, I doubt it's possible or even desirable to exist in a permanent state of non-abstract thinking.

But for me, on the occasions when I manage to set aside all the intermediaries between me and direct perception, it's intense and overwhelming in a (good) way that metaphors can never capture. I only humbly suggest: don't spend too much time talking about what your life is like. Just experience it for what it is. Your life isn't valuable or meaningful because of how similar it is to countless ones that have come before, it's because of the fact that you occupy a unique, unrepeatable moment in space/time. Stop reaching for words every so often and just twirl a flower.


  1. That's always been my beef with Buddhism. I don't need the capital-R real, capital-T truth. I don't actually think it exists, and even if it did, I honestly don't think it's useful, in a pragmatic, day-to-day reality

    Don't you know people who believe things that are not true and suffer because of it? I can't think of anything more practical than to avoid that. That's what Buddhism is about.

  2. Actually, noel, it was the striving to be free of attachments, in the search for truth, that I actually found to be pointless. As my understanding of what constitutes an attachment has evolved, buddhism makes a lot more sense.

    But still, seeking the Real Truth under all the illusion seems like a pointless way to spend your time. I've always felt like, I'm on this earth for a finite period of time. I don't know what came before, and I don't know what'll come after, but I'm going to squeeze every drop of juice out of the life I've got. Not spend it tracking down objective truth

  3. Well I agree. I'm talking about finding the right things to squeeze! Seeking to avoid delusion is more practical than seeking absolute truth.

  4. Yeah, but I cull subjectively. For instance, I'm rather attached to the idea that I control my world. Sure, I'll grudgingly admit that another car accident could wipe me out, but the majority of the time, I've got things under control. Of course, this is only possible because there are so few things I seek to control; namely, myself and my actions. So I suppose you could say I'm an accidental Buddhist. :)