Sunday, January 25, 2009

Just This

Yesterday I visited a local Zen center for the first time since moving here a few months back, and I was thinking this morning about subtle correspondences between Zen meditation and classical psychoanalytic practice. As psychological technologies, they are like half-siblings, sharing distinct affinities and oppositions. (I am neither a Zen devotee, exactly, nor an analyst, although I have long had an ambivalent fascination for both).

Both attempt to go beyond both everyday and logical concepts, which are viewed as limiting and distorting. In psychoanalysis, ordinary conceptual language is defensive and repressive, whereas in Zen language is mostly beside the point, an endless distraction. In psychoanalysis the instruments of language are turned ruthlessly upon language itself, in a kind of psychological self-vivisection; in Zen the swords of verbal intelligence are turned into the ploughshares of somatic awareness.

Suppose that you're looking for the needle in the haystack, where the needle bears a close resemblance to a piece of straw. In psychoanalysis, one painstakingly sorts through the hay, examining and comparing each piece exhaustively; in Zen, one steps back and focuses upon the haystack, appreciating the gleam of the sun upon it. The Zen question is: do you really need to find the needle in there? What if it doesn't exist? Even if it does, why do you assume it would make you happy?

Both psychoanalysis and Zen share a disconcerting austerity, a withholding of what we think of as the verbal and interpersonal creature comforts of life. No reassurance is to be had, only the paradoxical reassurance that one doesn't, finally, need reassurance. I therefore find in both a faintly sepulchral ambience: the reclining, quasi-solitary position of analysis, the still silence of Zen. Both are profoundly out of step with both conventional religion and consumerist (post)modernity.

Given the choice between an analytic hour, a meditation session, and some time with Shakespeare, I would always choose the latter. But the former have their own roles to play; how could we appreciate Falstaff without those elements that are opposed to Falstaff: iron discipline, limitation, and the void?


Anonymous said...

LSD is another path to enlightenment - rather than search for the needle through conventional means, it sets fire to the whole damn haystack to reveal its prickly core.

Sometimes the needle turns out to be sharp, smooth and sterile; other times rusty and contaminated by the blood of other soul-searching warriors. On other occasions, you suddenly realise that the most valuable part was actually the haystack itself - consumerist society has sold you a replica needle. Then you beat yourself up for having bought their false dreams by jabbing yourself repeatedly - but alas, you don't bleed because the needle is only plastic!... and then you doubt whether you'll ever bleed again when cut....

LSD - what is good for?

Retriever said...

Good post. I imagine you are already familiar with this guy whose work I love. Despite being a conservative evangelical Christian myself.

I wondered about your three choices. How you made yours. If I were choosing, I suppose it would be on the basis of the effect it had afterwards. Rather than either which appealed prospectively or in the cliched moment. Thus, being hyper and restless, I loathe meditation in the moment, cannot sit still, etc. But the delayed effect afterwards is so surprising and fruitful that I endure those moments (when I can get me somewhere where peer pressure shames me silent) that go against my natural verbose, activist nature. Was still and relatively silent three days at Kripalu this last weekend, totally blown away by one Buddhist teacher there, to the point where my spouse was looking at me funny as if Martians had abducted me and left a hologram in my place. Blogged obsessively about the stuff even that brief retreat stirred up.

Perhaps that is what Shakespeare does for you?

But I was still surprised by your choice given other stuff of yours I have read. I would have put my money on analysis. Or the meditation. Because we can pick up Shakespeare and almost randomly mine riches (like the Bible) any time. Consume. But who and what we are struggling to become is already over, almost before we are aware, so I have tended to think honing one's awareness and ability to hold the whole contradictory collection in balance (however temporarily) can only translate to a better life. And greater appreciation of all the good stuff like Shakespeare and the Bible.

But what do I know? Just a stressed working parent on a temporary rush from a retreat...

Novalis said...

You are perceptive--I'll need to keep an eye on that.

In our philistine times no one has anything but extravagant praise for reading, but reading like anything else can be an indulgence or distraction (even the Bard).

Thanks as always for your thoughts.