Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tapas and anger

A disclaimer: the title may have lead you to think that tango philosophy has finally succumbed to one of the dominant strands in mainstream Australian culture and become a food blog. But no! Whilst I can see a connection between anger and tiny, overpriced plates of food, if you’re looking for a discourse on jamón and tortilla, you will need to go elsewhere. The kind of tapas you’ll find discussed here is fiery, but it has very little to do with pimientos de Padrón.

Zhander Remete

The inspiration for this post in fact came from a public talk by Zhander Remete, the founder of Shadow Yoga, a graceful and challenging form which I've recently discovered thanks to Peter Ujvári, who teaches it at City Yoga in Melbourne.

A lot of what Remete had to say went over my head, but one point made me sit up. He said that yoga began as a way of dealing with anger.

At the end of the talk I asked him to expand on this point. He explained that the core practices of yoga create a kind of fire, tapas. He used the breath as an example: focusing on and controlling the breath creates friction, which generates heat. He said this fire burns away anger.

I’d heard this word, tapas, before, in Buddhist contexts. One of my favourite monks (now a layman) used to be called Tapassi, which means ascetic, or one who has tapas, the purifying ‘heat’ of meditative practice. Heat is in scare quotes here, because as Richard Freeman, another yoga teacher puts it, tapas “is not necessarily a physical heat; it is a metaphorical burning, an awakening to what is really happening within the mind or the perceptions. When people first experience tapas, there is often a sense of discomfort, a desire to squirm away from the situation because it is so authentic; it is as if the border of life is being eaten away by fire” (The Mirror of Yoga). (Ok, so maybe there is some connection with chillies here…)

Remete’s remarks about anger make me wonder: if tapas burns anger away, does this also mean it needs it to get going? Is anger a fuel for spiritual ‘fire’?

American psychologist Simon Laham calls anger “the positive negative emotion.” If emotions are categorized as either “approach” or “avoidance,” anger is best described as an “approach” emotion: it leads us to engage with the environment, and focus on rewards and incentives. There’s evidence that the same areas of the brain (the left anterior regions of the cortex) are active when you’re angry and when you’re experiencing unambiguously positive approach states. This makes sense, in that anger usually arises because a positive goal has been frustrated. The anger doesn’t negate that goal – it ups the ante, motivating us to keep trying to get what we want, even if the cost is high. As Laham puts it, anger “is both a gauge of our progress toward a goal and a force that makes us persist in the face of obstacles” (The Science of Sin, 118).

Simon Laham

Laham’s analysis suggests that anger is basically frustrated desire, which only becomes stronger (and less reasonable) for having been thwarted. It occurs to me that spiritual discipline – or any kind of discipline – also centrally involves frustrating desire, or controlling it until it subsides. So anger – or something closely related to it - is likely to be a core part of spiritual practice. Maybe this is what Freeman is talking about when he describes the uncomfortable, but authentic feeling of having the border of life eaten away by fire. It’s the experience of feeling anger without expressing it outwardly. You are experiencing an “approach” emotion without trying to get anything. Maybe the result is that you get closer to yourself.

Let’s consider this process more carefully. You start off with an ordinary desire – to attain something. You might want to get into full lotus position, say (all right, some people may be thinking this is not a ‘ordinary’ desire, but just substitute your own example – Laham talks about people wanting to get coke cans out of an automatic dispensing machines that are not working). Now suppose you can’t get into full-lotus, no matter how you try. You get angry. But instead of having a tantrum of one kind or another (or shaking the dispensing machine until it tips over and injures you, possibly fatally – apparently this is a real problem), you discipline yourself to focus on your breathing, from whatever uncomfortable position you’ve managed. What happens?

If Remete is right, your anger gets burnt up. Does this mean that the original desire to get into full lotus just dies away? Or does it get transformed? We could say that initially, at least some of your energy gets redirected toward the goal of staying focused on your breath and whatever is happening within the mind. At this point, there is a battle between competing desires. If your zeal or diligence (what is called in the pali Buddhist texts ‘appamāda’) for practice is strong, and this desire wins the battle, then both anger and the specific desire that gave rise to it give way, or are converted, to a much more subtle form of desire – concentration. You are no longer thinking about any particular achievement or goal and how to get it, you are just focused on the activity of observation (of the breath, or simply the movements of the mind). You may become absorbed to the point where there is barely any discernible difference between intention and activity. Just the occasional distraction and conscious effort to keep concentrating appear like tendrils of smoke still rising from the fire in which anger has been consumed.

This way of looking at anger confirms Laham’s point that this emotion typically causes us to focus even more tightly on goals and incentives: suddenly we feel we must get into this and no other yoga pose, or that nothing can satisfy us but a coke from the machine that has eaten our money. If the intensity of anger remains focused on a trivial, specific goal, it can lead us to take actions that are out of all proportion to the worth of the target. We may wreck our back for the sake of a pose we may never be able to do, or die for a can of coke. If, on the other hand, the persistence typical of anger can be channeled into an activity that is without any specific goal, but is rather attentive and responsive to experience in an open-ended way, then this “approach” emotion might be a key to enlightenment.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Why existentialist philosophers have affairs

A couple of blogposts ago, I wrote a piece about existentialist philosophy in the wake of a romantic disappointment. It provoked a range of responses that got me thinking.

Wild women of Melbourne
Quite a few friends felt my pain and responded with expressions of solidarity and support, extending in one case to an offer to organize a possie to ride at dawn… :). These people didn’t seem fully convinced by my philosophical attempts to levitate above the rocky terrain of sexual relations on which I had been wounded (well, seriously scratched), and were touchingly ready to fight back on my behalf, on the ground.

At this earthy level, my friend Ben pointed out that I wasn’t really doing justice to existentialism either: any real French or existentialist philosopher would be having an affair by now. At the time, I didn’t have an answer to that one (so I replied to him obscurely, in French).

Another friend, Galia, took on my philosophical argument directly and questioned the value of the existentialist approach to responsibility. In this situation, she thought it had led me to blame myself for something (another person’s omission) that was clearly not my responsibility, and pointed out that this kind of thing is much more common than you might think. It’s not a problem that’s limited to readers of Sartre.

In these individualistic, consumerist, self-improving and politically apathetic times, there are much greater forces than French philosophy encouraging us to take personal responsibility for things that lie beyond our powers, at least as individuals. Systematic injustice and economic instability are reinforced by the idea that the appropriate response to such experiences is to do some work on ourselves. We are encouraged to see ourselves as the cause of the problem instead of recognizing that what we’re going through is not a unique or isolated experience, but has structural causes that will never be addressed by self-help therapies. The result is that we fail to take collective responsibility for the problems of our society, focusing our attention ever more anxiously and narcissistically upon ourselves.

Usually Galia and I find ourselves in agreement on this topic (which is a theme of Rabbi Michael Lerner's work). I am also concerned about the dominance of the concept of personal responsibility in our culture, and its tendency to drive other, more social and shared forms of responsibility from the dance-floor.

How then could I be so easily seduced by the invitation to tango with existentialist ideas, given that existentialism represents an extreme attempt to take personal responsibility for things that are beyond individual control (ie the whole world)?

The short answer is that it made me feel better. While I was feeling angry with the man who misled me – while I was thinking of him, in the conventional way, as fully responsible and blameworthy for his actions – I felt terrible. If he was a villain, then I was a fool. 

As soon as I started imagining myself as totally responsible for the whole situation, my mood shifted. In one philosophical swoop, I had transformed the man I was having difficulties with into a character in a dream, and myself into the all-powerful dreamer. No anger or blame was required, because there was only one person left in this universe: me. Cogito, ergo sum. I think therefore I am alone. (Descartes left off that last word in the Latin, but it’s implied, when you think about it…) Nice and quiet.

But even then, I did have a niggling doubt about this strategy. Wasn’t it problematic to refuse responsibility to another person in this way – to take away his agency and see him as just a piece of brute facticity, with no meaning beyond the one I chose to bestow upon him, without even asking him for his perspective? This might have made me feel that I was comfortably in control again, but wasn’t this feeling based on an illusion – an illusion that as Galia had pointed out, was closely related to the debilitating one that makes people feel better about socially-caused suffering because they imagine that it’s all about them, and they can overcome it by working on their personalities?

These doubts were reinforced when I did a take-home exam on the psychology of personality and got to the question about pessimistic attribution. This is a fancy expression for one fixed way to respond to events that knock you around. If you are a pessimist, you will assume that the cause of any unhappy event is something internal, that is, intrinsically to do with you. It’s also stable over time, difficult to change, and explains lots of the things that go wrong for you, not just the present problem. In a nutshell, the problem is (always already) you.

An optimist, on the other hand, will assume (regardless of the problem) that the cause is external, fleeting and specific to the situation. Optimists are just as deluded as pessimists, but they tend to get through life much more easily.

Neither are likely to succeed in changing the world for the better, however, because neither of them are willing to investigate cause and effect, or learn to distinguish between the things I cause and should take responsibility for, and what is caused by others, or by a larger group of which I am a small part.

Here’s where we get to my theory on why existentialist philosophers, or at least Sartre, had so many affairs.

Sartre in trouble, after one of his affairs

I think Sartre was a pessimist. That’s why when he turned his attention to responsibility, he came up with a theory that made it global, unrelenting, and entirely internal (completely "mine"). While he was writing about existentialist responsibility, he was also living through the Second World War. He refers to the war as an example of something an existentialist can and must take responsibility for. I think this is his way of protecting himself from the horror and sense of helplessness of this time in Europe, by turning it all into a dream he is willfully dreaming.

Who could blame him? As a therapy for pessimists, it’s not such a bad strategy – it does make you feel better. It seems to transcend ordinary pessimism by pushing it to a hyperbolic extreme. But if the therapy stops here, relief comes at a high price – that of isolation. Other people become mere chimeras in your dream. You can have affairs with images like these, but you can't share meaning or responsibility with them, so it’s unlikely that an existentialist affair will last long.

Does this negative view of the effect of existentialism on interpersonal relations mean that my love affair with existentialism is over already? I'm not so sure. You can't reject someone just for being a pessimist. And I'm optimistic enough to think there might be more to this philosophy than I've given it credit for so far...

Monday, February 11, 2013

The power of vulnerability

“Shame on you.” That’s an expression you don’t hear very often these days. When it came out of the mouth of the lecturer who was teaching us “Human Development,” I was taken aback. She was referring to a discussion that had taken place on the online discussion board for the previous unit of the psychology course I’m doing at the moment.

There had been a very lively exchange about an assessment task, our first lab report. Quite a few people had expressed feeling anxious or overwhelmed (we’re doing a highly intensive course) and asked for help or advice in different ways, which the previous lecturer had provided in generous abundance. Some interesting points had come up, and overall, I’d thought it created a supportive sense of connection and camaraderie in the group, as well as providing a space for at least one person to let the lecturer know that she was really struggling – possibly not just with the assessment task, but with bigger problems as well.

I have to admit, I didn’t read the whole discussion – I got too involved in writing the lab report after a while – but I didn’t see anything wrong with it. So when the new lecturer said, “If you were involved in that discussion, then shame on you,” I was taken by surprise. Given that I had taken part in it, I also felt like I’d been slapped. Where did that come from?

Was she saying that we should feel ashamed of expressing anxiety or asking for help? This was coming from a woman who as well as lecturing, runs a clinical practice, working with teenagers. Surely she wouldn’t endorse the idea that shaming people into silence is a good way of dealing with problems. But it certainly seemed to be an effective way of shutting down activity on the discussion board. Hardly anyone posted about her assessment task.

She had already told us that in her earlier career as a maths teacher she had been very strict: the children in her class worked in complete silence, something that her colleagues had found astonishing. Why did she want her students to be so quiet? In our case, there seemed to be a fairly obvious answer: as well as lecturing and running her practice, she had a huge administrative load. She was sometimes sending more than 500 emails a day. No wonder she didn’t want to have to respond to more messages on the discussion board.

So why didn’t she just explain this, and ask for our understanding and restraint in using the discussion board during her section of the course? Would she have felt ashamed to admit that she was feeling overloaded, and could do with some help from us, or from her colleagues? Was it her own sense of shame that she was trying to shift when she told us, “shame on you”?

Brené Brown
The same week, I had a great conversation with one of my fellow students in the course, Emily. She told me about a TED talk on the power of vulnerability, given by researcher-storyteller Brené Brown. Brown began her career as a researcher by setting out to investigate human connection. But she found that when she asked people about love, they told her about heartbreak; when she asked them about belonging, they talked about experiences of exclusion. What was it that constantly seemed to be unraveling connection? The answer she found was: shame.

Brown defines shame as the fear of disconnection. “Is there something about me that if other people know it or see it, I won’t be worthy of connection?” It’s a universal human experience. What underpins it is excruciating feelings of vulnerability. Brown’s initial reaction to this discovery was to see it as a chance to deconstruct shame and conquer vulnerability with reason. As she commented wryly in her talk, you know this wasn’t going to end well. In the boxing match of researcher Brené Brown versus vulnerability, vulnerability won.

But of course, that was a good thing for the researcher who became a researcher-storyteller. In the course of her work, Brown discovered that the people who have a strong sense of connection, love and belonging are the ones who fully embrace vulnerability. They don’t talk about vulnerability as being excruciating, or comfortable; they just see it as necessary. From them, Brown learnt that in order to connect with others, we have to be willing to let go of who we think we should be and be who we are. People who do this are able to connect with others on the basis of authenticity, and live in a wholehearted way.

The final message of Brown’s scholarly story is very simple. You are enough: believe this, and experiences of vulnerability become the basis for connection instead of disconnection, love rather than shame.

How does this apply to the situation with my lecturer? I can see that her words bothered me because of my own susceptibility to shame. They touched on lurking fears that in some sense, possibly many senses, I might not be “enough.” So how do you overcome those fears if you have them, if at some deep, dark level, you don't believe that you’re enough?

Brown says this calls for courage and compassion. You need courage to let yourself feel vulnerable instead of fleeing this experience by “numbing out” (one cost of that strategy is that in avoiding psychological pain, you simultaneously reduce your capacity for more positive feelings). And you need compassion to make the experience of vulnerability bearable and productive, rather than simply excruciating – to let it be something that softens and strengthens you, rather than making you harder and weaker. Brown suggests that to cultivate compassion, you have to begin with yourself. Be kind and accepting towards yourself first, and then you’ll be able to show compassion to others.

But does it necessarily have to go in that order? It seems to me that you might come to feel that you are enough by first making an effort to see that others are.

If I broaden my view out from the three words I quoted at the beginning of this blogpost to consider some of the thousands of others my lecturer spoke over the four days I was learning from her, do I see a person who was constantly trying to shame her students into silence? No, definitely not. Was she “enough”? This might seem like a rather vague question, but the answer is clear to me: yes, she was. From this wider perspective, her words about shame don’t seem nearly so loaded or powerful. In fact, they look more like an ephemeral gift, one that I was attentive and sensitive enough to catch as it flew past me, the small seed that would grow into this reflection.

Now, that’s enough.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Existentialist tango

A few weeks ago, I met a man I found very attractive. He was flirtatious, and I was interested. I backed off a bit when I realized that he was quite generally flirtatious, not just with me. But he showed that he missed my attentions, and I decided the attraction between us was more than superficial. Over the next couple of weeks, we gradually spent more and more time together. He seemed very happy that we were getting closer, and so was I. I became increasingly sure that something would happen between us.

About 2 ½ weeks into this little dance, we were standing talking with a couple of other people when one of them asked him about the arrangement he had with his boys’ mother: how much time did they spend with him and how much with her? My ears pricked up – I’d asked him about this earlier, and he’d given me a somewhat vague impression he was their primary carer, but hadn’t said anything about their mother. Now he responded: “Oh, no, they’re with us all the time.”

Us? For a few moments, I struggled to make sense of this. Then I wondered if I should ask for clarification: are you saying that you and your wife are together? I felt confused. But I realized that the meaning of his response was clear. I had fallen for an almost comically classic routine (though I certainly couldn’t see anything funny about it at the time): the married man who gives the impression that he’s single to keep the women interested.

I was furious – with myself as much as him. Why had I let myself be taken in? The answer seemed obvious: my need had made me vulnerable. It was all very well for him to flirt, and indulge a few little fantasies during the day (presuming that was as far as it went), and then go home to his wife and kids each night. It was different for me – I didn’t have a partner to go home to. I took the fantasy seriously – way too seriously. 

Earlier that day, the topic of languages had come up. He and I both speak a second language, but not the same one. He asked which language I spoke and how fluent I was. When I told him, he made what had seemed an odd response, “You’ll probably show me up.” How could my fluency in a language he didn’t speak at all possibly show him up? Now his comment made more sense to me. Yes, we spoke different languages all right…

Jean-Paul Sartre
It took me a couple of days to calm down. One of the things that helped me get some perspective on the situation was something another man I met recently said to me. He is an existentialist therapist, who incidentally mentioned his girlfriend during our first five minutes of conversation (a man of integrity!). Following Sartre, he believes that everything that happens to him is something he has chosen. His girlfriend finds this hard to accept (possibly she believes that some of the things that happen to him are things that she has chosen).

Had I chosen to be deceived? The question reminded me of the ideas of a 19th century philosopher, William Clifford, who argues for the “duty of inquiry” – that is, the principle that we shouldn’t simply accept what we are told, at least if there is any sign that the information may be unreliable, or if the potential consequences that flow from relying on it are significant. He goes as far as to say that the credulous are morally responsible for the corruption of society – it is they who tempt others into deception.

William Clifford
Hmm, was it possible that I was responsible not only for choosing to be deceived, but for creating, through my wishful thinking, a situation of temptation that a weak man had been unable to resist, until, like a benevolent sorceress, a third party had helped him to utter the magic words that would release him from the sticky web of naïve, but also self-interested, attention and expectation that I had been artlessly spinning around him? Who was the vulnerable party here, and who the seducer?

Or is it unhelpful to attempt to fix these labels on either one of us? Responsibility that is framed in terms of black and white, villains and victims, is always unstable. It’s constitutionally liable to unexpected reversals, as the philosophical arguments show. The truth is that we cooperated in creating the situation we found ourselves in. Neither of us was completely powerful in it, nor completely powerless. Even if we didn’t say the same things, we did speak a common language. It would be reductive to see it purely as a language of seduction and deception, though you could say that the syntax was dominated by these elements…

This doesn’t make me responsible for his failure to mention his wife, or cancel out his own responsibility in the situation, but actually I don’t think that this is Sartre’s point, either. The existentialist approach as I interpret it is rather to say that the other person’s responsibility is entirely his (or hers) – it’s not my concern, and I shouldn’t attempt to judge it, or get worked up about it. The only thing I can judge or work with is my own will – and I can and must always assume this responsibility. This means I should regard the other person’s actions as I might regard a rock falling from a cliff that has been weathered to the point of erosion (to take a metaphor from Nietzsche), or a lettuce that isn’t doing so well (Thich Nhat Hanh’s version). It makes no sense to get angry at a rock for falling, or blame a lettuce for wilting – it’s obvious that what you need to do is just get out of the way, or give the lettuce some water.

My own actions and reactions are another matter – I can see them from the inside, infused with consciousness. This is why my responsibility is total – because I can't see anyone else’s consciousness from the inside, my own consciousness marks the absolute limits of responsibility, in an existential sense. Admittedly, the problem of how to assume this total responsibility is somewhat mysterious. There’s no formula to tell you how to carry out existential responsibility. It seems more like an art form than a morality. And sometimes more like a bungee jump than an art form.

This is the existential challenge as I see it – it’s also the challenge of tango philosophy: to be willing to abandon self-deception in all its forms (including self-seduction), and take a leap, or at least a series of steps into the vast, clear air of consciousness. You might expect that tango philosophy would be bound up with seduction, but as in the dance of tango, the further you go into it, the less it’s about seduction, at least in any ordinary sense, and the more it’s about cultivating a highly responsive, clear and attentive state of mind.