(I love this photograph, so here it is again…)
I think the idea and image of dark flow streaming out of our universe has also been resonating with me because of the work I’ve been doing using Vipassana teacher Shinzen Young’s system of mindfulness training. Young is one of the most erudite and intellectually rigorous teachers of Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation, having synthesized decades of training in Zen, Theravadan, and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions along with what seems a voracious appetite for languages, into an “algorithmic system” that takes what, in other places, seems a morass of mutually incommensurable terms and makes it thoroughly coherent and applicable.
Many meditation teachers teach ways of developing clarity, concentration, and equanimity, but none of them — at least none of those I’ve come across currently living (and, of all places, just down the road from me, when he isn’t traveling) — draws in so many different traditions, East and West, into a system that is very approachable, practicable, and yet somehow thorough and complete. (See links at bottom to his talks and writings.) More than that, his system resonates with many of the ideas I’ve been exploring on this blog, including the process-relational and Naturphilosophical streams of Continental philosophy, and in some respects the Lacanian-psychoanalytical (as I’ll point out below), not to mention, of course, other Asian field-theories such as Daoism, western traditions of Hermetic philosophy and Christian negative theology, and the like.
Shinzen describes human subjective experience as phenomenologically distinguishable into three primary “fields,” “spaces” or “elements”: Feel, which are bodily sensations experienced as emotional; Image, which are internal forms of visual thinking; and Talk, which are internal forms of monologue/dialogue/talk or “auditory thinking.” The three subjective “spaces” in which these arise develop in sequence from infancy: first we learn to feel with our bodies, then we start to see things (once our eyes learn to focus on them) and “image” the world and its relationships through imaginal fantasy, and finally we learn the words and the linguistic-discursive constructs that come to shape both our subjectivity and our world for us. And over time the three kinds of elements (distilled, for simplicity’s and usability’s sake, from Buddhism’s “five aggregates”) become densely entangled and knotted into emotionally-laden force-fields.
In a very interesting sense, these three spaces correspond with Jacques Lacan’s tripartite analysis of the psyche into the Real, a kind of nondual state of nature from which we become separated as we take on the qualities of socially defined subjective experience; the Imaginary, the image-based world of self-other relations and fantasies that emerge through the “mirror phase,” when we learn to recognize the body that appears in a mirror as the same one that others see when they see “me”; and the Symbolic, which is the language- and narrative-based world that “interpellates” or “hails us” into being the kind of subject that would fit into the social world.
With the movement from the first to the third, the emerging human subject undergoes a rupture between the nondual felt-bodily experience of infancy and the subjective constitution of the “self.” This rupture arises differently in different socio-historical conditions, with the characteristic madnesses of a society laying themselves onto the subject more or less violently (for Lacan), but some sort of rupture or gap is a basic condition of human social existence.
Psychoanalysis works at mitigating the effects of this rupture through the “talking cure” — which takes a long time (and costs a lot), depends a great deal on the analyst, risks the perils of transference and counter-transference, and, at its best (but getting there isn’t guaranteed), results in an insightful acceptance of one’s situation. Vipassana meditation works at it through the patient accumulation of observations and insights gained via trained introspection. This takes a diligent commitment of personal time and effort, and it’s not always easy to find a good teacher, but at its best (though there’s no guarantee it’ll get there) it leads not only to acceptance but to some measure of enlightenment.* Zen does it through a kind of methodically applied psychological sleight-of-hand that is highly dependent on a good teacher and setting (and subject to more particular pitfalls because of this). Vajrayana, as in its Tibetan form, but also in some of the western Hermetic and esoteric-magical approaches that have been re-emerging in increasingly viable forms, works at it through a kind of complex repatterning using various tools of sensory, bodily, emotional, and linguistic-imagistic experience; but this takes time and carries its risks as well. (Jungian analysis can be seen as a mix of the psychoanalytic talking cure and the Vajrayana-style multi-modal approach.) Each, of course, takes place within a social context that, over time, can become encrusted with its own institutional sicknesses and fossilizations, so frequent modification and renewal are required to keep things operating more or less as they were intended.
(*Incidentally, “enlightenment,” as Shinzen describes it in this interview, should be taken as a technical term denoting a certain liberation from the illusions that bind human subjectivity in its “normal” state: “The only difference between an enlightened person and a non-enlightened person is that when the feel-image-talk self doesn’t arise during the day, the enlightened person notices that and knows that to be a clear experience of no-self. The non-enlightened person actually has that experience hundreds of times a day . . . but they don’t notice it!”)
Shinzen’s system effectively covers most, if not all, of the different possibilities by offering one the tools by which to gain effective leverage points into the dynamic structure of subjective experience, and, with guidance, to work towards untangling that structure and peering beneath it to the underlying nature of things. The first methods he generally teaches are those of “focusing in,” whereby one learns to distinguish between Feel, Image, and Talk phenomena, and “focusing out,” which do the same with the “external” or “objective” phenomena of Touch, Sight, and Sound; these three sets (F-I-T and T-S-S) respectively make up the internal and external coordinate “spaces” of subjective experience.
Normally the “internal” ones (Feel-Image-Talk) come packaged in tightly-woven, momentum-driven flows, and often — such as when they matter most — in rapid onslaughts, but the practice of noticing, acknowledging, and focusing in on them, allows us to build spaces between them and ultimately disentangle their knottedness. As Shinzen has put it (I’m mostly paraphrasing), it’s the “undetected micro-emotional experiences” that drive the parade of horrors known as human history; and it is these that mindfulness practice allows us to observe, gain insight into, and over time begin to neutralize. Beyond that, his methods of “focusing on rest” (finding the restful states between active states) and “focusing on the positive” offer two more variations on traditional methods such as mantra meditation, lovingkindness meditation, centering prayer, and the like.
But it is the fifth of Shinzen’s five methods that corresponds to the “dark flow” I’ve been riffing on in recent blog posts. This is the method of focusing on change, where we watch things coming, going, transforming, scintillating, undulating, vibrating, expanding/contracting, winking in and out of existence, and ultimately disappearing down the cosmic rabbithole (and taking us with it, for a little while at least). This wave (as opposed to particle) reality of eventful winkings in and out, sourced in a “fountain of energy” or flow out of which everything comes and to which it all returns, is the one that resonates most strongly with Deleuze and Whitehead, the philosophers of becoming. Shinzen’s language here for describing the “micro” level of the thinnest particles (waves) of experience sounds to me rather like Alfred North Whitehead’s description of “actual occasions,” or the basic units of experience. (Whitehead is a panpsychist or panexperientialist, so he sees this structure and its internal polarity of the “subjective” and “objective” modes within each arising, as part of the structure of every event-particle of the universe.)
It is also essentially the same metaphor I use in my introductory environmental studies class to get at the “meso” level of real substances making up the things of our world, which are produced out of something or other, consumed, and excreted/decomposed into something else. Any process-relational analysis, from Hegelian and Marxian dialectics to Whiteheadian ontology, follows more or less the same contours; the differences lie in how encompassing a given system is and whether or not it reduces things, for analytical-praxical purposes, to the most workable “moments.” What’s significant about the psycho-somato-spiritual versions of this kind of thinking is that they offer a means for understanding and untangling subjective experience, and thereby making it possible to liberate ourselves from our own psychoses, neuroses, anxieties and complexes, and to more effectively contribute to the liberation of others.
At the “macro” level, too, this description seems to support the general idea that everything that arises out of a “big bang” not only expands into full extension followed by contraction, but, somewhere in the background in its relationship with reality (beyond), can be seen to shimmer in a ripple of flow speeding back down the rabbithole, to the source from which it arises and to which all things in the end return. Spiritual traditions often color this flow as bright, full rather than empty (of light, among other things), but given its connection to the emptiness at the heart of the spaces between things — and this is the specifically Buddhist and negative-theological contribution — the idea/image of “dark flow” seems somehow more resonant to me. Dark Flow is the (cosmic) Real, the shimmering atomic structure of things behind the structured object-world we (think we) see, the wave-like spirit-energy that Buddhists calls “emptiness” only because giving it a more substantialist term would already be a way of trying to contain it. Call it
emptiness, or dark flow. If astrophysicists hadn’t “seen” it, we would have had to invent it. (I mean we, invent, it.)
And though I know that “behindness” and “beneathness” seem inconsistent with the “flat” onto-epistemological preferences of a Foucault or a Latour — they suggest the Marxian idea of “false consciousness” that poststructuralism has tried to get away from — I see no way around assuming that reality can be described and experienced in different ways, and that some of these ways are more caught up in (let’s call it) ideology, or the structured and instituted fixity of previous moments of expression, while others rub up more closely against the flux-like movement of it all. “Behindness/beneathness” and the “false/real consciousness” duality are metaphors pointing to a useful distinction; flat ontologistics provides a set of metaphors pointing to something else (the networked nature of things, the constructedness of levels, etc.). Both have their usefulness. In a Foucauldian sense, the methods described above are “practices of the self” or, as Connolly calls them, “relational arts,” and, in a Latourian sense, they provide ways of understanding how the relational networks that make up the world get built, and by extension how they might be loosened and unbuilt where their knottedness is counterproductive, ugly, or institutionally and systemically psychopathic and unjust.
Besides Shinzen’s own websites, BasicMindfulness.org and Shinzen.org — he is one of the most web-savvy of meditation/mindfulness teachers around — and the numerous videos of his talks that can be found at YouTube (such as the 5-part Total Happiness and The Five Ways, this one on Vipassana, and this particularly nice example of his intellectual omnivorousness, which is one part of what I and ~c4chaos both seem to like most about him), there is a growing blogosphere of Shinzenophiles that includes InsideOwl, Har-Prakash Khalsa, and ~c4chaos, as well as occasional posts at Integral Options and elsewhere. Har-Prakash’s interview with Shinzen provides some useful definitions of the technical terminology, including “enlightenment,” while psychoanalyst Polly Young-Eisendrath’s Tricycle interview provides some information about his approach and background. A useful brief overview of his “five ways” approach by a student can be found here.
Of his own online writings, “Applications of mindfulness meditation in the study of human consciousness” and “Getting the Lingo” are good places to go for terminology; the methods themselves are found on his web sites. And how many LA-born Jewish-American meditation teachers read Goethe as well as this?