We live in a universe of hazard, a place where asteroids strike, where car smash-ups pluck out a life like a boot squashing a centipede, where planes fall out of the sky, a heart attack takes a brother from behind in the middle of a night, a train runs over a friend’s passed out daughter, a truck runs over a fallen bicyclist girlfriend, where heartbeats blinking on a screen one day vanish by the next. (I won’t go into the personals of any of these; the asteroids, in my life at least, remain fictitious.)
When these events happen, meaning-craving beings like us seek an explanation, a story to give us some way of accounting for them. Sometimes the explanations are there — because the world is thickly networked and the connections leading from one thing to another are fairly evident (this thing led to that which then led to that), or they can be reconstructed through some pattern-observation and model-building, which is essentially what science does. But even when the hows are evident, the whys remain elusive. Most of us carry around maps of why — god-stories that make sense of anything with a little tweaking: it’s divine punishment or reward, a trial to make one stronger, some kind of karmic compensation for past misdeeds (back to the latter in a moment), a conspiracy of “them” or my own eternally recurrent failure, “that’s how it was meant to be.” These why-stories are like nests built out of twigs and branches and leaves. Some are built stronger than others. Some turn into multilayered, convoluted architectures capable of accounting for anything, as long as we focus well beyond the twigs and branches and leaves that disintegrate when we stare at them too closely.
An immanence-based perspective tries to avoid the god-story detours; it steers closer to the details, the interconnections, the hows, while recognizing that meaning-making is what we’re all about, and that the place where our meaning-making train meets the tracks is ultimately where reality happens. Once we opt for a process-relational view, a view of immanent emergence, over the various perspectives built on the inherited western dualisms of nature and culture, subject and object, reason and emotion, mind and matter, real and imaginary, representation and thing-itself, the only sensible understanding becomes that the world is not meaningless at the outset, a blank canvas for our projections, with our brains playing some kind of Darwinian-evolved trick on us to make us think there’s meaning where there isn’t. Meanings emerge as meaning-bearing beings — cognitively, affectively, and imaginatively poised relational beings like us — co-articulate with their surroundings. Meanings are made in the practice of riding the rails, and the train is the kind that lays down its own tracks as it inches forward. We ourselves are concatenations of such tracks, laid out in different directions at once, upwelling pools of connectivity spilling across multiply-charted terrains and picked up into nets of meaning, temporary territorializations, which, given our entanglement within relational webs that outflank us in every direction, can change the entire landscape at a moment’s notice (such as the revolutionary moments that I have been posting about recently), but mostly remain somewhat stable, and always a little unsatisfying.
And mostly the big whys remain elusive. We have the choice to face them or face away from them, or to face each other in recognition of our shared implication in them. And it’s those relational, solidaritous moments that are so important when the whylessness smacks us like a brick from space.
David Loy’s piece Rethinking Karma is a nice summary of his and others’ historicist interpretations of Buddhist nondualist thinking about selfhood and causality, or, more specifically, about non-self (anatta), dependent origination (paticca-samuppada), and karma. As I’ve posted here before, these ideas constitute a richly networked understanding of causality — like science, with its focus on the details of why things happen, but weaving intentionality into the mix, since it’s what we are about: we are nodes of embodied intentionality interacting with differently embodied and situated others in a generative flux that creates relational meanings at the same time as it creates substances, patterns, and order out of that flux. But the flux is ultimately part of the mix, and that’s where the hazard comes from when it hits. It’s the gap, the nemo, the hard, crushing face of the Real. And without it the universe would be missing the most important condition for the production of meaning.
Buddhism, Loy suggests, is consistent in its view of self with the constructivist psychologies of George Herbert Mead and Kurt Lewin; I would add with the embodied cognitive emergentism of Varela, Thompson, Michael Wheeler, and others. In its view of language, it’s consistent with Wittgenstein’s and Derrida’s deconstructions of language’s latticed relational fluxness and of our dependence on it for the meanings we make of the world. “In such ways, Buddhism dovetails nicely with some of the best currents of contemporary thought. But such is not the case with traditional views of karma,” which is better understood not as some impersonal kind of divine retribution but “as the key to spiritual development: how our life situation can be transformed by transforming the motivations of our actions right now.”
“When we add the Buddhist teaching about not-self—in contemporary terms, that one’s sense of self is a mental construct—we can see that karma is not something the self has; rather, karma is what the sense of self is, and what the sense of self is changes according to one’s conscious choices. I (re)construct myself by what I intentionally do, because my sense of self is a precipitate of habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting.”
This sounds a little like the New Age platitude that we create our own reality, but the difference is that “we” are never there in the first place: when you learn to gaze at the “I” that is at the center of experience, through the sustained practice of dispassionate but sympathetic mindfulness, you see the world reflected in it, connecting us outward to all those pieces of world we’ve ever been connected with. It’s connectivity, moment by moment — Deleuze’s becomings and Whitehead’s “actual occasions” — all the way down. And if relationality is at the heart of it, then the practice of sustaining and cultivating our relations is central to the practice of living an ethical life. This is why, in a world connected by monetary relations, gross inequality is as close to being a root cause of large-scale problems (both ecological and social ones) as anything. But that’s an argument for another day.
“As Spinoza expressed it, happiness is not the reward for virtue; happiness is virtue itself. We are punished not for our “sins” but by them. To become a different kind of person is to experience the world in a different way. When your mind changes, the world changes. And when we respond differently to the world, the world responds differently to us. Insofar as we are actually not separate from the world, our ways of acting in it tend to involve feedback systems that incorporate other people.”
And it’s these feedback systems — processes of ongoing relational becoming that feed back into other such processes in an eternal return that is different every moment — it’s these relational systems that hold the world together. Karma, Loy concludes, understood “as ‘how to transform my life situation by transforming my motivations right now’ is not a fatalistic doctrine. Quite the contrary: it is difficult to imagine a more empowering spiritual teaching.” Empowerment, of the connective, relational type, chips away at powerlessness. But hazard remains in the very structure of things, staring at us blankly, or meaningfully, depending on how we extend ourselves to allow its impact to ripple outward into compassionate solidarity, and receive compassion in turn when it comes. Sadness, softness, tenderness, and love are in the structure of things as well. They help us pull through.
(Bibliographic note: It’s often said that systems theories and relational ontologies (like Buddhism) are too totalizing; that they don’t allow for agency, freedom of will, or the gap that exposes us to uncertainty and indeterminacy. But when that gap is seen to be at the very center of experience, in the midst of every event or “actual occasion” (Whitehead’s term) that constitutes the basic building block of the living universe, then the connective event (Deleuze’s “becomings”) that makes up every moment can only be seen against the background of that indeterminacy, which is what philosopher and polymath J. G. Bennett was getting at with his notion of “hazard.” Bennett’s works are out of fashion these days partly because of their density and partly because of his complete independence of any philosophical schools (except for the Gurdjieffian), but a few interesting links to them can be followed from Roll the Bones‘ post, of special interest to Robert Frippophiles, on Robert Fripp, J.G. Bennett, and Leibniz: The Universe as one Whole Block, or a Block with Holes.)