Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Mindfulness and Symbolic Order

Lately I've been doing a good bit of writing about Master-Signifiers and symbolic orders, how they effect my emotions, and how they structure my relationships. It was all very fun to write about. It was all very personal for me. But clearly an incomplete statement. Just a moment ago I was doing my dishes. My mind was wandering. I was thinking about mindfulness. Thinking about paying attention to my life, my emotions, my relationships, so on. And I want to explicitly bridge these two lines of thinking: I want to explain how the historical-philosophical study of symbolic orders directly enhances one's capacity for mindfulness.

So why is this the case? Why does mindfulness require the historical-philosophical study of symbolic orders?

Well, let's reflect for a moment on the stereotypical image of mindfulness: the image of the monastic life. We have this image of a person wearing a robe of sorts, standing among nature, arms gently folded, a serene smile, complete peace and acceptance. This type of mindfulness, this monastic image, is one that is typically pursued from the first person perspective, that is, through the phenomenal mind: the mind as we experience it.

It makes sense to approach mindfulness from this phenomenological perspective. We all deal with our minds in this way. I don't know about you, but I live with my mind everyday. I have all kinds of thoughts, feelings, experiences, sights, sounds, et cetera. Clearly, the phenomenal perspective must be a part of practicing mindfulness. Any pursuit of mindfulness must ultimately return to the phenomenal mind.

But is that enough? Is it enough to think about your thoughts, to deal with your mind alone? Or are there larger, external factors that need to be taken into account? Does the phenomenological approach need to be augmented by some sort of historical or philosophical perspective?

I am clearly in favor of the latter. I don't think that work that takes place in the mind alone will suffice to provide a mindful perspective.

So why not? The answer has something to do with symbolic orders.

The goal of mindfulness is to observe reality as it actually is. But when I begin asking what 'reality really is' I run into some difficulties. What is reality? What is this world I live in?

And the only answer can be that I live in a symbolic world, one constituted by language. So, to know what the world really is I would need to have some kind of knowledge of the symbolic order that sustains my world.

Because my experience, in its particularity, is always tied to some kind of symbolic order. My experience is inseparable from thoughts of money, thoughts of rigorous conceptions of gender and sexuality, thoughts about particular organizations of space (bus stops, shops, etc.). If we think about the real details of our experience we have to admit that its particularity can only be explained by reference to a symbolic order.

If we don't recognize this then we run the risk of mistaking the particularity of our experience for something very general or universal. We might end up thinking that the particular anger I feel must be identical to the anger that someone felt a thousand years ago. But that simply can't be the case. Because my anger is unique in that it is historically located in a unique symbolic order.

This is the real danger of restricting the pursuit of mindfulness to the phenomenal mind: if I only operate through introspection then I may mistake the origin of my thoughts and feelings. I might end up thinking that my experience is universal, rather than historically or symbolically sustained.

As I said above, the quest for mindfulness will always end with the phenomenal mind. The experienced mind will always be the place where mindfulness is actualized. But that does not mean that it can be achieved from there alone.

I am claiming that the image of a monk achieving mindfulness through phenomenological inquiry does not fit the (post)modern world. We too (historically) deep in a symbolic order, and if we don't take that symbolic order seriously we may easily mistake the origin of our experience. The task is therefore to augment phenomenological inquiry with historical-philosophical study of the symbolic orders that sustains our experience in its particularity.

This is essentially what I am trying to talk about in my essays on 'The Genealogy Of The Modern Mind', or what it means to create a 'historically augmented theory of mind' through 'the study of the mediums through which the mind works'. In this sense, symbolic order can be thought of as the medium through which our minds work. And if we don't understand the history of that medium, the history of the symbolic order in which our mind is working, we can't expect to really be mindful of what is going on around us, and why our experience exists with all its nuance.

Who knows where this leaves me. It certainly leaves me at the issue of human self-creation, and how to go about it.

But mindfulness is what is at stake.

Perhaps this has political implications. Mindfulness of politicians. Etc.


I am convinced that the phenomenological component is inadequate in itself. But I am also convinced that any historical-philosophical analysis must ultimately refer to the phenomenal mind.

1 comment:

  1. I think your argument it for the postmodern. phenomenology lives in the symbolic perspective.