Thursday, October 20, 2011

Modern Zen

Sometimes when I meet new people I think about ways in which I would explain my most substantial interests to them.

I've been starting new jobs so I've been meeting new people and imagining how I would explain my interest in philosophy to them. What are my interests within philosophy? What precisely have I written about and hope to write about?

This is an interesting exercise because it challenges me to clarify my own interests.

And it occurred to me today that one of the things I'm most interested in, perhaps the thing I'm most interested in, is finding a way to live a zen life in this contemporary moment.

This is why this post is titled 'Modern Zen'.

I'm using the word modern in the way that Foucault defines it in his essay 'What Is Enlightenment': As an historical attitude. Modernity as an attitude that asks, "What difference does today introduce with respect to yesterday?" (The Politics Of Truth, 99). Or, put another way, Modernity as "a mode of relating to contemporary reality; a voluntary choice made by certain people; in the end, a way of thinking and feeling; a way, too, of acting and behaving that at one and the same time time marks a relation of belonging and presents itself as a task. A bit, no doubt, like what the Greeks called an ethos" (Ibid., 105).

What, then, would 'modern zen' be by this definition?

It would be an attempt to enact the basic goals of a zen life (mindfulness, accurate perception of reality, unfaltering acceptance of things) in the context of contemporary reality.

What then is contemporary reality? Contemporary reality, for one thing, is symbolically dense.

So the question, which I have addressed in several recent posts, is how to be mindful in a world that is incredibly symbolically dense, and therefore historically constituted, historistic, if you will (what a stupid word, but one that fits).

Modern zen is thus a perspective that capitalizes on historical and intellectual modes of thought to achieve an accurate perception of reality.

The symbolic density of the present moment means that it cannot be perceived accurately without a historical perspective. Maybe I am wrong. I would like to meet someone who has achieved a sort of mindfulness without historical knowledge.

But I for one grew up saturated in the American symbolic world. I have often felt dominated by the symbolic order of the here and now. And I need a history of that symbolic order if I am to feel like I am aware of it.

Thus the phrase 'modern zen'.

Another thing I have been concerned with, and this is perhaps what I am really concerned with, is the political implications of this outlook.

My background in military history made it obvious that zen thinking had implications for political thinking and decision making. And thinkers like Collingwood, Foucault, Claxton, and definitely John Gray, have made me believe that modes of thought found in zen could have benefits for our current cultural and political situation.


What I seek is to live well, to live an expressive (aesthetic) life, to life a mindful (zen) life, and to translate that mode of living and thinking into a politically relevant project. And I hope that all of those can be the same thing. That the aesthetic life is the zen life, and that the zen/aesthetic life can also be the political life.

Why else would I work for more than a year on a writing project titled 'Art, Zen, and Insurrection'?

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