A minor epiphany hit me about three weeks ago.
An unobtrusive assumption came tumbling from the apex of a small inverted pyramid of beliefs and hit solidly enough in passing that I took notice. What came loose was the belief that doing things – even writing this rambling note — requires a purpose. Purposes which are ulterior to the enjoyment one takes in the activity itself. The idea that it isn’t enough to do something for its own sake.
This brought down overhanging beliefs that depended on purpose. Picture “purpose” as the red block.
One of the other blocks in this pyramid was the hidden purpose driving thought in a churning circle. This also momentarily disappeared. I knew it only by its sudden absence. A small weight lifting. And for a moment there was no middle man’s voice ricocheting in my head. And the world itself – the shape of the land, the rhythm of breathing and walking, the sound of crows and cars – rushed in to fill the void with peculiar clarity.
In a sense it wasn’t a unique experience. Everyone knows moments like this. But in another sense, it’s always unique. Because then we aren’t seeing the world through rote knowledge, or as a self-conscious observer separated from an observed world. These are moments of immersion and participation. When it feels like the roof of the skull is gone. When you feel you’re part of an ongoing Big Bang, that involves not only matter and energy, but meaning too.
But now I’m glorifying what happened. The tricky thing is that these moments are both banal and profound. The profundity hides in the banality.
The banality is that I momentarily gave up trying to be right about something.
Every fricking thought carries this small weight of an insistence that it knows something. Thoughts are the manifestations of self-centered purposes. The fight for self-expansion and the flight from self-diminishment.
This maelstrom in the head is so habitual and incessant that I usually don’t notice.
But even the strongest of us sometimes give up justifying or defending ourselves, if only for a moment. In a moment of comic bathos we simply relent to the bald fact that we know almost nothing but second-hand knowledge (i.e., bullshit). Then the whole slip-knot of self-induced, low-burn misery which passes for thinking softens into a forgiving and innocent laugh.
And here I’m reminded of something I read in Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen, which is almost relevant:
“The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection; the water has no mind to receive their image.”
But how do I reach through this brief and banal moment to unfold its profound implications without creating a verbal screen that misses the point completely?
Because what usually happens is memory quickly files the experience away as a freak moment without utilitarian value. Or it tries to derive some knowledge from the experience. Knowledge that only ends up as food for yet more thoughts scurrying towards self-expansion or fleeing the threat of self-diminishment.
And then the laughter of that moment seems inconceivable.
Dancing an Epiphany
Here is a theory that might offer a way through the dead end. Picture two kinds of meaning.
One is the epiphany itself, when breathing, seeing, tasting, touching is not taken for granted. When self-recognition is given precedence over wishful thinking. When Being holds intrinsic value, without giving heed to conventional wisdom’s insistence on an ulterior or “ultimate” purpose.
The secondary meaning involves perceiving incoherencies in conventional wisdom in light of those epiphanies.
They are not separate meanings, but conventional wisdom tends to give more heed to the secondary meaning. This stems from the belief that the moment has no meaning until it finds expression.
So here’s an alternative way of picturing how these two meanings relate: Don’t look at what I describe as knowledge of an epiphany itself, but as a kind of dance that bees might make to indicate where this epiphany can be found in the real world, off the page.
So words are neither enemies of the immersive moment, nor do they carry the meaning of that moment. Like the dance of bees, they infer only the instructions for where to meet this meaning in the real world — the seemingly banal, wordless world.
Any bee who watches the dance and expects honey to pour from the dance itself is lost in an abstraction. Such a bee has effectively dismissed the taste of honey in favor of a description of the honey.
But a real bee knows how to let the abstraction carry him back into the real world. He can distinguish between primary and secondary meaning.
Writing, reading and comprehending this language, in other words, is only half the work that’s needed in finding the real honey of self-knowing laughter.
We have to learn to fly into what it actually means.
Dancing a Direction, But Not a Destination
Here is a dance without frills, tempting no one to take the words for the thing itself. It describes the collapse of conventional wisdom in the face of this epiphany.
What fell were assumptions tying
- self-worth to accomplishment;
- meaning to knowledge;
- change to organization and planning;
- maturity to self-control;
- effort to learning.
And it reversed the relationship between
- action and perception — reversing cart and horse. So that it was not “activism” that prompted a change in perception, but a change in perception that manifested new actions. Or as Bohm said, “a change in meaning is a change in being.”
And when these assumptions fell, it was possible to make new distinctions. Distinctions between
- forced and inspired discipline;
- childish whim and childlike spontaneity;
- spontaneous purpose and entrenched purpose;
- tacit knowledge and tacit self-knowledge;
- proscriptive and descriptive writing.
And it also made possible new ways of relating matter and meaning.
(All of these I’ll touch on over the next few months in mini-essays).
And it buckled, but didn’t bring down, the whole reductive process of self-consciousness itself, which is founded upon the deepest apex of conventional wisdom: the assumption of separation between the observer and the observed.
The Epiphany of the Apex
Because what this pyramid describes is a reductive way of seeing the world. Experience is funneled through the narrowing lens of certain tacit assumptions. But the assumption of separation is fundamental to all of it.
I think this inner voice, this turbulence of self-centric words and images, is not an inevitable feature of human nature. I think they’re agitations erupting from that unhealed cut severing observer from observed.
From this point of view, selfishness is as innocent as blood flowing from a wound. I may intentionally commit selfish acts. But I’m ignorant of the assumption of separation driving me to want to do such things.
This tacit belief engenders an unlocatable loneliness. All experience is funneled into that insatiable void between observer and observed.
Except in banal, maybe even slapstick, moments of blameless epiphany. Then these assumptions of separation are exposed and fall in bathos.
The honey lies there behind that fall of assumptions. Not here among these dancing symbols.
The Epiphany of Getting Whacked on the Head
I’ve been trying to keep the meaning of “epiphany” grounded in banality. But the impact these epiphanies have on conventional thinking keeps sending this rant off into realms that are too lofty. Maybe “epiphany” should have been chained down by quotes so that no one confuses it with the epiphanies of a Newton.
Then again, maybe this is exactly what happened to Newton. It’s only less intellectually rigorous. Because prior to sitting under the apple tree Newton was (by all accounts) blinkered by old assumptions. The apple hitting Newton on the head dislodged the assumption of a difference between the heavenly and the earthly sphere, brought down centuries of Platonic thinking about the cosmos, and made visible a whole new way of imagining the world, for better and worse.
The same principle applies to any epiphany. Every frustration, every thwarted wish, every failure to live up to an expectation, are apples hitting the head. They let me know that some assumption about myself has fallen into incoherence.
However, trying to look at these “wrong assumptions” in a positive light makes me irritable. Because as soon as I try to face my errors in this purposeful way, frustration itself seems to rise like an obstacle. Then my own frustrated reactions become a secondary source of frustration.
It’s like trying to keep a poker face, or at least not turn red. I not only lament the bad hand I’ve drawn, but also curse my own body language for giving it away. That’s when I turn to face my impulsive reactions as a self-pitying victim or a harsh critic. This gives thought its churning circularity, like a dog chasing (or fleeing) its tail.
The Epiphany of a Pyramid Scheme
Restless thoughts are almost entirely propelled by bifurcations of this sort – by the discomfort of these miniature alienations from myself. This rather mad way of looking at myself as if from the outside – as observer and observed. It’s hardly noticed. It’s the tacit structure of conventional wisdom.
And so I also usually don’t notice that it’s a kind of pyramid scheme, spreading out into society. Almost every action is an attempt to bridge that divide, to fill the vacuum between observer and observed, personally, tribally, nationally. But every attempt is predicated upon the existence of such a divide.
Even a momentarily successful method of filling the vacuum between observer and observed ties me to the assumption of separation implied in that effort, thus eventually re-enforcing the alienation.
In other words, the more earnestly I seek personal harmony, the stronger the alienation grows between who I am and who I want to be (multiplying the split between observer and observed). That’s a kind of pyramid scheme.
The Epiphany of Navel Gazing
All this talk of observer and observed is usually dismissed as navel gazing while the world burns. I don’t see why outward action and inward action need to be separated into these categories.
Writing, for me at least, requires long moments of getting up from the desk and banging into the world, quite literally. In order to re-discover something. And then rushing back to the keyboard in order to describe the thing. It’s a rather full-contact sport. I am like a crash test dummy, who climbs out of the wreckage to record the data of his own demise.
It’s all about learning to recognize the sparks of thought that are setting the world on fire. It doesn’t prevent me from trying to stamp out individual fires, joining protests and all that.
But all these fires start in the friction of division. So here’s the participatory contact point for me. Divisions can’t be bridged by divisive intentions. Class division, for instance, can only be reinforced by even the best intentions of top-down reformers; and likewise, any revolution predicated upon opposition to elites merely encourages the monster of despotism to change colors, but not change his ways. That’s a kind of pyramid scheme.
But generally we’d rather forget our own divisions by busying ourselves in a well-intentioned cause. The very method we use to stamp out flames causes sparks. The more furiously we fight to put out the flames, the more sparks we send flying. It’s a destructive pyramid scheme.
These unrequited good intentions land like apples on the head. And rather than stopping to consider the fascinating implications of these corrective bops, we usually scamper off irritably in search of yet another way around this self-entrapment, inevitably predicated upon yet another tacit assumption of separation. That’s how purpose intrudes on any possibility of meeting the problem head on.
I don’t understand how it happens that the small irritations which keep thought churning can sometimes become moments of transformation – as Newton’s was. But it’s almost miraculous. Somehow the trick of bifurcation gets exposed despite ourselves.
In Newton’s case it was the bifurcation between heavenly and earthly objects. Small potatoes compared to the root-level bifurcation we are beginning to sense.
The Epiphany of Failure
Newton’s primary act of genius was not getting mad at the apple. He admired what the apple’s corrective slap implied. He didn’t keep trying to repeat the same dumb mistake from a thousand different directions like I tend to do.
And these mixed metaphors – honey and apples – bring to light an important distinction. The location of something as positive as “honey” can’t be danced. Only something as negative as the wallop of an “apple.”
Let’s not forget that it’s not Truth, with a big T, I’m dancing. It’s much more banal than that. It’s the little t truth of how conventional wisdom is mostly bullshit.
It’s the truth of how the world is distorted by self-centered imagination. It’s the truth of accidental self-deceptions hiding under conscious, surface deceptions; of tacit beliefs that drive me repeatedly into dead ends. It’s that moment when I meet myself head on, when there’s no time to externalize blame, or divide into the disappointed me and the idealized me, when this fraudulent child’s play of escape through bifurcation is exposed, dissolving centuries of turmoil in one simple starlit moment, standing in the backyard, with my dog, feeling like a fool, and then laughing with no vested interest, no shame, no ambition, nothing.
That’s when the apple of error somehow turns into the honey of a merciful epiphany.
And just for kicks, these apples fall from the tree of conventional wisdom.
They knock me un-self-conscious.
And the tree looks like this.
The Epiphany of the Ending of Epiphanies
But what’s best and most meaningful in an epiphany is how it ends! That’s where learning happens. At the cutting edge of failure. It exposes what we don’t know. That’s where error and confusion re-establish the conventional wisdom that had been temporarily exposed as fraudulent.
This assumption of separation is much deeper than the words can reach. We haven’t really discovered it yet. Only glimpses, with great implications.
And nothing makes life more beautiful than discovering that the mystery is deeper and more significant than we suspected.