The Literature of Awakening
Meditators often talk about ‘awakening’, so it typically arises in meditative contexts, dressed in religious and spiritual garb. Even today’s secular meditators inevitably use a distinctively … ‘niche’ language.
I like exploring how we speak about awakening in wholly other contexts. If awakening is a real thing, if it denotes a real insight, a potential human orientation towards experience (Michael Taft wrote a useful piece on what awakening is here), then it surely occurs widely, across niches.
The neurologist Oliver Sacks’ once reflected on his life with an expression of what I can only imagine is a relative of awakening in terms refreshingly accessible to all who share in the human experience:
"I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure."
To really feel this way in our bones, day in and day out, while we’re stuck in traffic, while our jobs don’t feel meaningful enough, while bills loom, while we feel lonely and lost, or elated and joyful, what more could awakening be than an ever-present gratitude for the startling fact that we’re here at all, awake to life, awake to the storm of complex sensations rather than asleep in nothingness, and equipped with a high-powered consciousness like a microscope enabling us to contemplate our being here, rather than nowhere.
Annie Dillard, too, marks these moments of wakefulness, like church bells ringing in the dark:
“What a marvel it was that so many times a day the world, like a church bell, reminded me to recall and contemplate the durable fact that I was here, and had awakened once more to find myself set down in a going world.”
When I first read that passage I wrote this little essay/poem in a fury. This, for me, is a more relatable literature of awakening, a more accessible and real canon of adepts and their wakeful writing - Dillard, Sacks, Alan Watts, Thoreau, Emerson, Borges, Whitman. It is writing that performs what Denise Levertov calls the function of poetry:
“Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.”
This is a literature of awakening, the written word’s pursuit of helping us awaken, however briefly, from our anesthetizing loops, the games we play, the roles we slip into that lull us into forgetting not only the incomprehensible fact that we’re here, but that we know we’re here.
Awakening, if it exists, is a black box opaque to everything but first-hand experience on the inside. But again, if it exists, it exists in all spheres of human experience. It is approachable from any angle, any context, any perspective. It isn’t exclusive to meditators, but a potential latent in all permutations of human experience (and perhaps not only human, as the below article on animal cognition suggests).
In This Newsletter
Beyond that preamble, a few more things to explore:
New Essay: On Shrimp & Mystery. A short bit about shrimps living in the deep ocean along hydrothermal vents, and moving from their peculiar situation to our own.
Collected Reading from Across the Internet: an article about animal cognition in The Atlantic, John Kaag’s essay on how the only way to become a better writer is to become a better person, and Elisa Gabbert on the onslaught of time’s unforgivingly rich, saturated moments we always fail to fully grasp.
A Thought: The Mass Production of Subjectivity
Brief Book Review: Dianne Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses
Unwind & enjoy
My latest essay is short, but gets right to the point:
“I walk around oblivious to the mystery of why shrimp must live this way. Why cruelty is not a relic of history, on display in a museum somewhere. What lies beyond the edge of what we arbitrarily call ‘the observable Universe’? What other possible organizations are there for conscious experience? Where is this all going? The Universe, I mean, and are we really just an insignificant blip?
The particular Shrimp I’m interested in live clustered near hydrothermal vents, perched in a peculiar, precarious balance between life & death. To feed, they must swim through scalding (770 degrees Fahrenheit) water with their mouths ajar, passing through quick enough not to be boiled alive, but slow enough that the bacteria colonies living in their gills receive the proper nutrients found only in that burning water (the shrimp then feed off these bacteria).
This is a strange arrangement. But it can be vitalizing to immerse ourselves in these oddities, to revel in nature’s wild imagination. It helps safeguard against our tendency to believe we’ve figured things out.
Collected Reading from Across the Internet
The amount of great reading on the internet is absurd, rivaled on by the quantity of not-so-great reading. Here are some of the best things I read recently:
A Journey Into the Animal Mind | What science can tell us about how other creatures experience the world (By Ross Andersen in The Atlantic)
The article is a big, tantalizing suggestion:
“…nature may have more than one method of making a conscious brain…nature can knit molecules into waking minds more easily than previously guessed.”
Using a fascinating tour through Jainism as the anchoring narrative, Andersen considers the different ways in which conscious experience might be organized in animals, from birds to bees. Full article here.
The Perfect Essay | John Kaag in The New York Times
John Kaag (a philosopher among the rare few bringing it into wider reach with books like Hiking with Nietzsche and American Philosophy: A Love Story) makes one single, large point:
“To become a better writer, I first had to become a better person.”
Kaag found that to improve his writing: “I’d need to find another way to structure my daily existence.” People write for various reasons. But picking up the earlier trail, writing that aims towards 'the literature of awakening’ begins with the quality of the author’s experience. You can’t fake it (though popular bookshelves do suggest there’s a market for shallow illumination).
Gary Snyder wrote somewhere that poetry seeks a direct transfer of experience between reader & writer. In this case, a particular variety of experience, one that opens, illuminates, stretches, and enriches - awakens. Kaag’s essay is a testament to writing as a process of honing that experience, of cultivating not only the means by which writers transfer experience, but the experience itself being transferred.
The first paragraph of this short essay is blindingly good. So I’m just going to post it here, and let that be that:
“In her short nonfiction book Ongoingness—a single long, fragmentary essay—Sarah Manguso writes a meditative exegesis on her own diary, a document nearing a million words that she has added to daily, obsessively, for twenty-five years. This practice felt like a necessity, a hedge against potential failures of memory, and a way to process the onslaught of time: “I couldn’t face the end of a day without a record of everything that had ever happened.” It started when she was a teenager. She went to an art opening with a dear friend, drank wine from a plastic cup, looked at paintings—“It was all too much,” the moment was “too full.” She wouldn’t have time to “recover” from the beauty of the day, she realized, since tomorrow would offer only more experience: “There should be extra days, buffer days, between the real days.” (I’ve often thought there should be a little buffer between months: a monthend.)”
The Mass Production of Subjectivity
Let’s define subjectivity as what it feels like to be us. So my subjectivity is what it feels like to be me, yours what it feels like to be you, and so on. Subjectivity is the culmination of everything that has ever happened into a particular, local moment of awareness. It’s all the architecture, seen and unseen, that molds how we experience…experience.
In 1989, philosopher Félix Guattari launched an offensive claiming that technological revolutions like mass-media worsened subjectivity, actually causing a deterioration of how we experience life. He called it “this paroxysmal era of the erosion of subjectivities”, meaning (because I had to look up paroxysmal) the era of a ‘sudden attack or worsening’ upon subjectivity itself.
He suggests ‘ecosophy’ as the variant of philosophy that might help save the sinking ship:
“Social ecosophy will consist in developing specific practices that will modify and reinvent the ways in which we live…though existential mutations driven by the motor of subjectivity…we would be implementing effective practices of experimentation, as much on a micro-social level as on a larger institutional scale.”
Here, subjectivity is the “motor” of change. The quality & nature of the societal changes will depend on the quality of the subjectivities driving them. This is partly why he so detests mass-media, because it’s tendency is to normalize the populations subjectivity.
Our media interfaces, from Google to Twitter, point our attention where everyone else’s is already looking. It corrals mass attention towards the same focal points, effectively producing subjectivities defined and created by the same informational inputs, conditioned by the same subliminal architecture and incentive structures of the same mediums.
Media theorist Jonathan Beller writes, in what remains one of the most haunting ideas I’ve considered:
“…mass media, taken as a whole, is the deterritorialized factory, in which spectators do the work of making themselves over in order to meet…ideological protocols of an ever intensifying capitalism.”
Mass media is a ‘deterritorialized factory’ mass producing eerily similar subjectivities. The result is a deadening of our collective imagination, an atrophying of our existential creativity (something David Graeber elsewhere links to why we’re stuck in an absurd economic ideology).
But Guattari finds hope in the younger generation:
“As for young people, although they are crushed by the dominant economic relations which make their position increasingly precarious, and although they are mentally manipulated through the production of a collective, mass-media subjectivity, they are nevertheless developing their own methods of distancing themselves from normalized subjectivity...”
I wonder what he’d think now. Are subjectivities more, or less mass-produced than in ‘89? And what are the methods for developing one’s own, autonomous subjectivity? Meditation? Psychedelics? Fasting? Philosophy? These are similar to what Michel Foucault called ‘Technologies of the Self’, practices by which we act upon and re-create our own consciousness.
It’s in this vein that I like to think of meditation as an idyllically capitalist enterprise, through which we seek to own the means of our own production. To become more intimately acquainted with the forces shaping and driving our subjectivity, and play a more participatory role in redesigning these forces.
Being 97 | Aeon Magazine Videos
A well produced, touching video in which a 97 year old philosopher returns to the question: what’s the point of it all?
It’s rendered all the more poignant by our being invited into his daily routines, witnessing the decay of old age despite sharp mental faculties. It left me with a prickly feeling, a kind of renewed zeal for the possibilities of good health and youth. Live now, or die never having lived (it was, of course, this idea that sent Thoreau into the woods).
Brief Book Review
A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman
Diane Ackerman, poet and naturalist, weaves a delicious tour of the senses, those interfaces by which we come to know ourselves and the world around us. She begins:
“Our senses define the edge of consciousness, and because we are born explorers and questors after the unknown, we spend a lot of our lives pacing that windswept perimeter: We take drugs, we go to circuses; we tramp through jungles; we listen to loud music; we purchase exotic fragrances; we pay hugely for culinary novelties…”
The senses are to Ackerman what the literature of awakening is to readers like me, what meditation is to adepts, what art is for so many: church bells ringing in the unconscious dark, reminding us that we are here, instruments of remembering this fact in all its richness:
“Both science and art have a habit of waking us up, turning on all the lights, grabbing us by the collar and saying Would you please pay attention! You wouldn’t think something as complexly busy as life would be so easy to overlook. But, like supreme racehorses, full of vitality, determination, and heart, we tend to miss sights not directly in our path…”
Her work is a blend both dense and light, rich with both fact and insight. It’s that blend of science and poetry where you both learn something about the world and your self, the exterior and the interior.
Towards the end of her book, she contemplates death as the life-affirming certainty it can be:
“When you consider something like death, after which (there being no news flash to the contrary) we may well go out like a candle flame, then it probably doesn’t matter if we try too hard, are awkward sometimes, care for one another too deeply, are excessively curious about nature, are too open to experience, enjoy a nonstop expense of the senses in an effort to know life intimately and lovingly.
Find the book on Amazon, and my (always growing) inventory of book notes here.