Sunday, November 7, 2010

Nihilism and Novelty: Identifying the Negative and Positive Steps Towards Buddhist Mindfulness

Table of Contents:

1. Introduction

2. Zen and Novelty: The Positive Component of Mindfulness

3. Nihilism and Novelty: The Negative Component of Mindfulness

4. Seeing Like A Child As Seeing Without A Cultural History

5. The World As Encouraging Detached And Theoretical Social Engagement

6. Nihilism And The Destruction Of Theory-Theory: Reclaiming Empathy And Simulation

7. Nihilism’s Violent Ideas As A Battle Within Our Own Minds

8. Conclusion: Nihilism and Mindfulness: Violent Thoughts as Enabling Attentive Living

1. Introduction

Since at least February I have been working hard to articulate the relationship between Nihilism and Zen Buddhism. My reading in both fields is simply inadequate. But I will continue to explore both bodies of literature. Regardless, I have written several different pieces either explicitly about Nihilism and Zen, or it is a theme that I have incorporated the larger picture of my thought. So right now I want to continue to extend and elaborate the connection that I see between Nihilism and Zen.

The main claim I want to elaborate is this: That Nihilism’s attacks on modern values and morality do not simply leave us in the cold without any way to feel good about our relationship to the world and to other people. But on the contrary, Nihilism’s seeming negativity is in reality a way to reinvigorate modern experience by reacquainting us with its novelty and dynamism. It seems to me that modern life has the potential to be infuriatingly monotonous. If we were to accept things as they are, if we were to accept all the terms and categories that flood our lives, the world would appear terribly established and boring. But I think the reality is different. I think that the world and my experience is quite novel and exciting. But the world’s novelty and dynamism can be hard to access through the guise of concepts that life is built around. Nihilism’s attack on modern moral categories, therefore, is not about the destruction of pleasure or happiness. But is rather an attempt to access the novelty and dynamism of our experience. In other words, Nihilism’s attacks on morality are meant to enable a mindful perspective in which we are not limited by the inadequate set of concepts that the modern world has given us.

One of the crucial things about Zen, according to Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, is to abandon all of our preformed concepts and to simply pay attention to our mind and the world. Because the most important thing is to perceive reality accurately: “All we want to do is to know things just as they are. If we know things as they are, there is nothing to point at; there is no way to grasp anything; there is no thing to grasp” (Suzuki, 150). But to perceive reality accurately is very difficult. And I think it is made doubly difficult by the overwhelming number of ideas that circulate in our world. So in order to perceive reality accurately, in order to be mindful, we have to find a way to get past all of these ideas, these concepts. Or, as Suzuki says: “As long as we have some definite idea about or some hope in the future, we cannot really be serious with the moment that exists right now.... To be independent in this true sense, we have to forget everything which we have in our mind and discover something quite new and different moment after moment” (Suzuki, 137). If we can’t get past our sense of concepts and ideas we will never be able to mindfully observe the constant novelty of life.

Now if mindfulness is contingent upon the abandonment of preformed ideas, then doesn’t Nihilism’s attack on the dominance of modern ideas have serious implications for mindfulness in modern America? Doesn’t this mean that Nihilism’s historical attacks on modern morality are merely a way to attain a blank and mindful point of view? Doesn’t this mean that Nihilism is simply a way to rescue our minds from the monotony of our conceptual apparatus, and a way to be mindful about the novelty of our experiences? Doesn’t this mean that true Nihilism, the state “of enhanced spiritual strength” that Nietzsche calls “active Nihilism”, is really something akin to Buddhist mindfulness (The Will To Power, 12)? The answer to these questions is yes. True Nihilism is an active appreciation for the novelty of our experiences that has been achieved by using history to break down our inadequate conceptual apparatus. I believe this is what Nietzsche means when he says that pessimism exists “as a preparatory state to Nihilism” (7). The pessimism that people mistake for Nihilism itself is nothing but a step towards true Nihilism. Pessimism is simply a way to prepare for mindfulness. Pessimism is a phase that should lead to Zen Nihilism.

So that is the argument I will be elaborating. That Nihilism is a way to live a mindful life by attacking the inadequate conceptual apparatus that the world has given us. I will be doing this in seven sections. First I’m going to discuss Zen and Novelty. Then I’ll discuss Nihilism and novelty. After that I’ll talk about the famous Buddhist idea of ‘seeing like a child‘ and how this relates to Nihilism. Then I’ll talk about the way that the world inclines us towards overly theoretical and detached thinking, and I’ll connect this to the debate on theory-theory of mind. Then I’ll further this idea by claiming that Nihilism is really an attack on the modern over-reliance on theory-theory. I’ll then connect all of this to metaphors of war by talking about how Nihilism is a battle with our own minds that has to be waged in order to achieve mindfulness. I’ll then bring all of this together in the last section ‘Nihilism and Mindfulness’.

The last thing I’d like say before I get underway is that this is very personal for me. I find Nihilism to be such an appealing philosophy. Yet I’m so very afraid of being hurt by it. I think that the Nihilist conclusions are hard to avoid. They are probably correct about the nature of modern morality. But I think that Nihilism is far too confused with simple pessimism. I need to find a way to philosophically vindicate a positive Nihilism. For quite a while I have been battling myself, trying to find a way to make my Nihilist tendencies into something positive, something happy, or just something mindful. What I’m doing with my writing on Nihilism is fight myself, battling my own mind, battling my tendencies towards frustration and anger. I hope that my writing on this issue will provide me with conceptual ammunition that will help me wage this war against negative Nihilism, and will help me find a calm and mindful form of Zen Nihilism. Which is paradoxical: I am elaborating concepts to escape concepts. But that is what I concluded on April 7th in my post “Resisting Nihilism’s Arrogance and Abandoning Understanding.” I think it makes sense, even though it is paradoxical.

Onward to the subsections.

2. Zen and Novelty: The Positive Component of Mindfulness

This whole essay is about connecting Nihilism to Zen. At the end of the day, I would prefer it if Nihlism collapsed into Zen, as opposed to the other way around. So I want to begin by explaining how Zen is closely connected to the perception of life’s novelty. I fear that in my introduction I used some of the strong quotations from Suzuki’s book. Perhaps I’ve already made this point clear.

But the main point of Zen is that life is in constant change and transformation. Everything is in constant flux. Nothing stays the same. And the purpose of Zen is to be mindful and aware of this state of constant transformation. The point is to be in touch with the worlds dynamism. As Suzuki says: “That everything changes is the basic truth for each existence.... When we realize the everlasting truth of ‘everything changes’ and find our composure in it, we find ourselves in Nirvana” (122). By accepting the transiency of all experience we bring ourselves closer to a mindful point of view. This is the point of Buddhism: “To understand reality as a direct experience is the reason we practice zazen, and the reason we study Buddhism” (102). The goal of Buddhism is simply to perceive reality as it is without a whole slew of concepts or ideas.

Unfortunately, however, our world is already saturated with ideas. This means that we do not enter the world with the ability to be mindful. But rather we enter the world with the tendency to generalize and to regard things as static. So, in order to get in touch with the world’s dynamism we have to overcome thought and concepts. Although everything exists in a dynamic and novel way, we have nothing but static words to identify them with. This plethora of concepts means that “usually our mind is very busy and complicated, and it is difficult to be concentrated on what we are doing. This is because before we act we think, and this thinking leaves some trace. Our activity is shadowed by some preconceived idea. The thinking not only leaves some trace or shadow, but also gives us many other notions about activities and things” (64). Knowledge prevents us from observing reality accurately. Knowledge and ideas are impediments to mindfulness. But Suzuki believes that “We should be free from out knowledge” (98).

The goal is to attain an empty state of mind that will allow us to appreciate the novelty of our experience. The goal is to be mindful about how our experience is in constant flux. By practicing mindfulness we can gain this emptiness: “When we have emptiness we are always prepared for watching the flashing” (97). When we have attained an empty state of mind we will be prepared to watch our experience in all of its dramatic flux, in all of its dynamism. Or, as Suzuki says: “A mind full of preconceived ideas, subjective intentions, or habits is not open to things as they are. That is why we practice zazen: to clear our mind of what is related to something else” (104). Zen is about appreciating the novelty of our experience. Suzuki recognizes that the main thing holding us back from observing our experience is language and concepts. Concepts generalize things, yet life is not general, it is dynamic and particular. Everything is new all the time. Life is endlessly novel. The point of Zen is to put us in touch with this truth. The point of Zen is to overcome the reign of concepts and to become mindful. To always become. To always transform.

Now, let me explain how Nihilism has a similar goal of putting us in touch with the novelty of our experience.

3. Nihilism and Novelty: The Negative Component of Mindfulness

Seeing as how Zen’s fundamental concern is awareness of the dynamism of experience, I think that the connection to Nihilism is easy to make. Because I believe that Nihilism’s main purpose is to help us perceive the dynamism of our experience.

The difference between Zen and Nihilism, it seems to me, is how this appreciation of our experience is achieved. The difference is how mindfulness is attained. It seems that Zen tries to reach this goal positively: Zen tries to put us in touch with the dynamism of our experience by stressing the things that we need to do. It stresses that we need to practice meditation in order to clear our minds of preformed concepts. It stresses the things that we can do in order to clear our minds and observe reality accurately. Implicit in this process, however, is the negative component of abandoning ideas. It would be impossible to have an empty mind unless we forgot or negated the ideas that fill our mind.

It is this negative component of mindfulness that Nihilism deals with. As I said, it would be impossible to attain mindfulness if our mind were filled with concepts. The major issue, however, is that at this point in history we have a plethora of concepts and ideas to label the world with. It is easiest to simply exist in the world of concepts. We are in what Foucault calls ‘The Age of History’. We exist in a time where everything has a name, everything has been labeled, and therefore appears mundane and ordinary to us. It is very easy to let these concepts blind us to the novelty of the world. It is Nihilism’s task, therefore, to use history to break down these categories and ideas. This breaks down their self-evident nature and reveals the world as novel. It reveals that the world is not as simple and mundane as we had believed. The world is not concepts. As Nietzsche says: “we have measured the worth of the world according to categories which can only be applied to a purely fictitious world” (Will to Power, 9). Nietzsche believes that our moral categories have developed slowly over history, and that people have mistaken these historical developments for some kind of universal morality. The point of Nihilism, therefore, is to break down the ‘naturalness’ of our moral categories and to show us that we can observe reality without them. The point is to no longer be determined by historically constituted categories. The point is to observe reality accurately through a negative process of historical criticism. Nihilism discounts moral categories not to destroy morality, but to destroy the conceptual apparatus that prevents us from perceiving the world accurately. Doesn’t this sound like a Zen like goal? Doesn’t it sound like we need to perceive the world accurately? The only difference is that the Nihilist’s are more concerned with the things to be overcome, the negative component of mindfulness, while Buddhist’s are more concerned with the end result, the positive component of mindfulness.

Zen and Nihilism, therefore, are like the yin and yang of mindfulness. Zen stresses the positive component of blankness and mindfulness. While Nihilism, on the other hand, pursues the negative element of overcoming ideas. It is crucial that philosophers like Nietzsche use history to break down our conceptual apparatus. For without this negative component we would never be able to attain mindfulness. Without embracing the Nihilist goal of breaking down concepts we would be blinded to the novelty of the world. In the next section I want to discuss history in relation to mindfulness a bit more directly.

4. Seeing Like A Child As Seeing Without A Cultural History

One very famous and interesting way of talking about mindfulness is the example of a child watching a ball roll across a floor. Seeing like a child is a very interesting way of talking about mindfulness. Think about what babies are like. They don’t have any words or concepts to gauge the world. They simply pay attention to everything. Their minds are naturally blank, and their awareness is therefore unencumbered. They have no words preventing them from simply observing reality.

So what is the difference between a child watching a ball roll across the floor and a grown person watching a ball roll across the floor? Well, the answer is that a grown person is prevented from simply watching the ball roll because what they are really seeing is their idea of a ball rolling across a floor. It is very to easy to say ‘oh well I know what a ball is and what a floor is, so I know what a ball rolling on a floor looks like’. But those concepts prevent us from simply watching a ball roll. Because in reality it isn’t a ball and it isn’t a floor: things are not words. Things simply are. And if we want to observe them accurately we need to prevent ourselves from relying too much on words.

This is where I think a little bit of Slavoj Zizek’s idea about the violence of language. I wrote about this recently. Zizek believes that language pulls things from their natural state and disfigures them in our mind. Language changes the way that we identify things, the way that we perceive things. Norman Doidge confirms the idea that culture effects what we do and do not perceive. Language changes the way that we perceive and engage with reality.

Cultural history, therefore, often comes down to the history of language and the history of thought. So the relevant question for me right now is, If language and concepts prevent us from observing reality accurately, then how do we overcome this linguistically induced blindness? The answer should be obvious: cultural and intellectual history will allow us to gain a new perspective on our most familiar things and allow us to pay more attention to things. Understanding the history of our most familiar concepts allows us to put some space between them and ourselves. We realize that we don’t have to identify things with these ever so familiar words. We realize that it is possible to regard things not simply as concepts, but as dynamic and novel parts of our experience. By engaging with the history of thought we can break down the familiarity of our concepts and begin to see the world like a child. We can start to see the world as endlessly novel if we can only use the history of thought to destroy our affinity for categorization.

This is why seeing like a child would be like seeing without a cultural history. If we remain trapped in our cultural history then we can only see with the limited set of concepts of the culture that have been born into. But cultural history can show us the contingency of our concepts, and allow us to escape those concepts. We can begin to see the world with a blank mindfulness if we are willing to plumb the history of our thought.

In the next two sections I want to tie all of this to the debate between simulation theory of mind and theory-theory of mind. These are the two major schools in philosophy of mind. I have written extensively about both of them and therefore won’t spend a lot of time explicating their basic arguments. I am just going to jump right into them.

5. The World As Encouraging Detached And Theoretical Social Engagement

Now over the last few months I have become more and more worried about the dangers of theory-theory. Theory-theorists believe that interactions between minds are facilitated primarily by the existence of tacit psychological theories. They believe that we are all equipped with a set of naive theoretical understandings about humans and minds, and that we rely on these theories to make inferences about other people’s behavior. I think that tacit theories do exist. But I don’t believe they are universal. I think they exist because of historical processes that produce conceptual understandings. Furthermore, I think that we live in a time in which there are far too many theoretical concepts that unconsciously structure our interactions with other people.

What I mean is that I am troubled by how easy it is to engage with the world and with other people simply on a conceptual level. I am troubled by how easy it is to just identify things with words and leave it at that. It is far too easy to just think of people in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, religion, so on. We have so many terms to identify people with that we don’t need to have a very nuanced understanding of them. We can simply generalize about people and place them into nice little boxes. Moreover, I think we are encouraged to think in these general terms. I think we are encouraged to reduce people to these simple classifications.

Doesn’t this seem troubling? Recall what I said about the violence of language, how language disfigures things, simplifies them, pulls them from their natural complexity and nuance and shaves them to fit into over-simplified categories. When we regard people with over-simplified categories we are hurting them and we are hurting ourselves. We are preventing ourselves from mindfully engaging with their nuance, with their reality. When we unconsciously rely on theoretical understandings of people we are inhibiting our ability to be mindful.

I believe that what Nihilists are doing is attacking the theoretical ideas that unconsciously structure our social interactions. I think that Nietzsche so adamantly attacked Christian morality because people were blind to its historical construction. People simply believed that the notions of good and evil propagated by Christianity were universal and immutable. But Nietzsche saw their history and believed that there was another way to engage with reality. If we let them, the Nihilists can show us that the world is not made up of universal concepts, and that our engagement with reality does not need to be filtered through these theoretical lenses. If we are willing, Nihilism can take us to a mental space in which we don’t need concepts to engage with reality. If we are willing to see Nihilism as the negative component of mindfulness then we can begin to perceive the world without a conceptual apparatus.

This idea of Nihilism as attacking the proliferation of theory-theory is the topic of the next section. Further, this will allow me to connect Nihilism to simulation theory.

6. Nihilism And The Destruction Of Theory-Theory: Reclaiming Empathy And Simulation

Now, if our historical moment can characterized by an over-reliance on theoretical concepts, then it would therefore be fair to frame Nihilism as a revolt against these historically constituted tacit theories. As I said, Nietzsche seems to have believed that Christian morality had simply been accepted as reality, that people simply believed that the notions of good and evil were universal. But Nietzsche’s observation of history revealed that these ideas were far from universal. On the contrary, they had been constructed through historical events. They were mere ideas, and not the universal reality of humanity. I think that theory-theorists have mistaken the existence of tacit theories as a universal form of mindreading. I believe that tacit mental theories are, in reality, historically contingent functions of the mind. The theoretical concepts that people use to identify people and things (race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.), are not universal. They are historically contingent.

Seeing as how Nietzsche’s task is to break down the perceived universality of Christian morality, I think that the Nihilist project can be extended to other tacit mental theories. I’ll go ahead and say this: When Nietzsche was writing Christian morality was probably the most prominent tacit psychological theory. It was the set of ideas that people unconsciously relied on to structure their interactions with themselves and others. If this is the case, then I fairly claim that Nihilism is essentially about breaking down the theoretical ideas that unconsciously structure social relationships. By this definition, I think that Foucault’s work can fairly be identified with the Nihilist project. Foucault’s main concern was always to historically analyze the theoretical concepts that unconsciously structure our relationships. That is why he studied medical, mental, penal institutions, scientific, and social institutions. He was trying to historically break down our most familiar concepts so as to reveal their contingency, to reveal their novelty.

Nihilism is thus about the destruction of theory-theory. I feel a little bit baffled by the ahistorical nature of theory-theory. It gives no credence to the historicity of thought and social interactions. It assumes that humans have a universal, static, and unchanging set of tacit theoretical ideas that structure our interactions. But as John Searle says, there is no such thing as a state of nature for creatures with language. As Zizek says, language always disfigures things, changes them, makes them different. It would be impossible, therefore, for tacit theories to be universal, to be the same throughout time. The Nihilist project is about revealing this historistic nature of our tacit mental theories. It aims to destroy the unconscious structures of our relationships. And remember, this destruction of theory-theory is nothing but the negative step towards mindfulness. We are in the age of history, we have become trapped in our own history. We don’t realize that things don’t have to be this way. So this is what Nihilism is trying to do for us. It is trying to remind us that our tacit theories are not universal. It destroys them to show us the novelty of the world.

But next, I have to ask this question: if Nihilism is destroying tacit theories, then what is it destroying them to get to? Is it possible that it is destroying them to reinvigorate empathy? Is it possible that the destruction of theory-theory means a return to simulation theory? Simulation theorists believe that minds engage with one another primarily through empathy and extended forms of empathy. We engage with other people by internally simulating their thoughts and feelings for ourselves. I think simulation theory is pretty compelling. But I also think that tacit theories have the power to overwhelm processes of simulation. I think that if we rely too heavily on general concepts then we run the risk of bypassing empathy and simulation. If we can easily identify someone as a ‘criminal’ who hasn’t exerted enough ‘will power’ to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’, then we have no need to empathize with them. If we can use the violence of language to simplify their situation then we have no need to appreciate the novelty and nuance of their circumstances.

So what I’m suggesting is that the Nihilist project of destroying tacit theories might imply the reinvigoration of empathy and simulation. The problem with theory-theory is that it places the emphasis on generalization, on simplification. It identifies things with words that distort their complexity and nuance. It prevents us from being mindful because it paints things in broad strokes of black and white. I believe that empathy and simulation, on the other hand, place the emphasis on particulars, on nuance, on novelty. Each person has a complex situation that has to be carefully and creatively empathized with.

Nihilism, therefore, fulfills the negative step towards mindfulness by destroying theory-theory so as to reinvigorate empathy and simulation theory. If we want to have mindful interactions then we cannot rely on overly-generalized concepts that simplify people’s situations. We have to be sensitive, creative, and empathic. We have to try and be simulative in our interactions so that we can recognize people’s thoughts and experiences in their full complexity. I think that this in turn will allow us to appreciate the complexity and nuance of our own experiences.

Nihilism thus destroys theory-theory and favors empathy and simulation theory. Now I want to connect this with metaphors of war, and explain how this process will be an individual process.

7. Nihilism’s Violent Ideas As A Battle Within Our Own Minds

To me all of this seems easily connectible to war and violence. Nihilism does battle with theory-theory, it destroys it. In my ‘Society’s Implicit War’ essays, and especially in chapter six, I advocated the idea of intellectual insurrection. I claimed that we needed to wage a war within our own minds. I claimed that we needed to think of our minds as a struggle. And I think that Nihilism confirms this idea. Because we were born in this age of history that is overrun with theoretical ideas, we have to do a good bit of struggling with the ideas that we have unconsciously absorbed.

This reminds me of an interpretation of Albert Camus’ The Stranger that I thought of. The basic idea is that it is very easy to go through our lives in an unreflective state. In the first half of The Stranger the main character simply drifts through his life with little reflection or concern. But in part II, after he undergoes a tragic incident, he is suddenly compelled to be more reflective. I believe that it would be fair to say that each of us has ‘a stranger’ within us: a part of us already believes a wide variety of things that we have unreflectively internalized during the early years of our lives. By the time I reach the age of reflection I have already experienced so much, I already have so many ideas about how things work. So when I really begin to reflect on myself it is like I am learning about someone else. It is like I am discovering things that I already believe. It is like my awareness of myself is different from my convictions. It is as if though I have a stranger within me that I have to learn about. I am not my thoughts, it just turns out that I already think so many things before I had a chance to reflect on them.

It is this part of myself, it is this stranger within me that I have to do battle with if I want to be mindful of myself and of my world. I have to battle my stranger if I want to appreciate the novelty of the world and my experience in it. My stranger is essentially the tacit theories and mental models of the world that I internalized during my pre-reflective years. So, the Nihilist project, therefore, is about waging war within your own mind to break down your tacit theoretical understandings of the world. The only way that we can attain a mindful perspective on the world is to attack the unconscious structures of our thought.

So does Nihilism seem violent? Does it seem warlike? Does it seem angry or upsetting? Perhaps it does. But I think that struggle is inherent to this process. We are not singular or unified individuals. We do not have some coherent identity to maintain. We are filled with contradictory notions. Society gives us such conflicting ideas. It is up to us to take charge of this struggle within our own minds. We have to be willing to go to war with our own thoughts and feelings. And I think that the main enemy to battle is the prolific amounts of tacit psychological theory that we are given. As David Harvey says in The Condition of Postmodernity: “through the experience of everything from food, to culinary habits, music, television, entertainment, and cinema, it is now possible to experience the world’s geography vicariously, as a simulacrum. The interweaving of simulacra in daily life brings together different worlds (of commodities) in the same space and time. But it does so in such a way as to conceal almost perfectly any trace of origin, of the labour processes that produced them, or of the social relations implicated in their production” (300, italics added). Harvey is describing the way that our minds are crowded with over-simplified conceptions of people and places. We have all these ideas of nationalism, race, gender. Categories categories categories! They flood our minds and make us generalize! They disfigure and disguise the nuance of this world and our experience! We have to fight this. We cannot be passive recipients of these mind numbing tacit theories. We have to be active nihilists because we want reality. And the bottom line is that words are never reality and tacit theories, therefore, can never give us access to reality. They can only generalize. Empathy and simulation, on the other hand, can get us close to the reality of experience, the reality of emotions, the reality of nuance and complexity. There is no doubt in my mind, this is a struggle that is worthwhile. This is a contest against ourselves, a battle against our own thoughts, a war against our own culturally instilled tacit psychological theories. I want reality. And these words are not reality.

Nihilist conclusions about the meaninglessness of life are not painful, because they are not the end in themselves. They are a means to mindfulness. They are a means to perceiving novelty. Not a means to sadness. Not an end in themselves. But a way to realize that the world is not simply words, but is a dynamic and novel flux of emotions and sensa. Nihilism is nothing short of a mental war. It is nothing but the attack on theory-theory: nothing but the negative component of mindfulness. The destruction of theoretical ideas is the way to understand our own experiences as endlessly novel. Nihilism offers a way to attack this supposed monotony of our experience and becomes a way to pay attention.

8.Conclusion: Nihilism and Mindfulness: Violent Thoughts as Enabling Attentive Living

This is the conclusion section. I just want to wrap up. I have been trying to talk about how Nihilism should lead us to mindfulness, and an appreciation of the novelty that is life. Life is not a monotonous or boring experience. Every day is different. Every moment is different. I will never be the same. I want to always be different. I want to always transform. I want to perceive reality for all of its novelty and dynamism. I think these are the conclusions that both Zen and Nihilism lead me to. I believe that both Nihilism and Zen should be ways to live attentive and mindful life. But I am now seeing that Zen and Nihilism are the ‘yin and yang’ of mindfulness. One offers a positive route to mindfulness, while the other offers a negative route.

Zen offers a positive route to mindfulness in that it tells us what mindfulness is. It is a blank state of mind in which we can perceive reality without any kind of conceptual apparatus. Zen tells us to forget our preformed concepts because they interfere with our ability to perceive reality accurately. To perceive reality accurately we have to empty our minds of preformed concepts and just look. Just learn to be. This is what I mean when I say that Zen offers the positive component of mindfulness. But the comparison to yin and yang also goes further. Nihilism is contained within Zen. Because Zen tells us that we should have a blank mind, it implicitly recognizes that the mind is often full. So Zen implicitly carries the negative component of mindfulness, which is Nihilism.

I am calling Nihilism the negative route to mindfulness because it places more emphasis on what we have to overcome in order to achieve mindfulness. Nihilism focuses on the inadequacy of modern categories. It tells us that morality, science, religion, etc., are all limited and flawed ways of understanding reality. It tells us that these modern concepts interfere with our ability to really perceive and understand reality accurately. It is thus the negative component of mindfulness because it tells us what is preventing us from being mindful. But the comparison holds true for yin and yang. For Nihilism also implicitly tells us what it means to be mindful. Implicit in the claim that all categories are inadequate is the idea that to see without categories is good. It is good to be able to have a blank mind in which we aren’t impeded by a conceptual apparatus. Furthermore, I think that the Nihilist project of attacking our conceptual apparatus can be connected to what I call the dangers of theory-theory. When our mind is overrun with concepts we are subject to our tacit psychological theories. We are in effect dominated by our mental models of reality. The Nihilist project, therefore, fulfills the negative component of mindfulness by destroying our tacit psychological theories and allowing us to get closer to reality.

I am pleased with the conclusions that I have reached. This was a very productive and powerful session of exploration for me. I know understand that mindfulness cannot simply be a simple positive project of ‘paying more attention’. It isn’t something you can ‘just do’. It also has to involve a negative component. We have to learn how to pay attention by undertaking the negative project of attacking our tacit psychological theories. We live in an age in which we are saturated with tacit theories of reality, and these inhibit our ability to perceive reality accurately. In order to mindful, therefore, we have to attack our tacit theories. We have to fight ourselves to overcome our culturally embedded understandings of reality.

Zen and Nihilism are therefore two sides of the same coin of mindfulness: they are the yin and yang of an attentive life.

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