Category Archives: consciousness

Epistemic Closure in Poetry

The political impasse in my country with the hijacking of the Republican Party by hyper-conservative voices has brought to my focus the topic of epistemic closure.  This is the idea of an idea, or group of ideas, that so captivates a group that any disagreement is forbidden as it would threaten their unconscious need for certainty.  Carried to an extreme this phenomenon always produces a figure head, someone extremely immune from feedback from external reality like Donald Trump.

This morning I ran across a beautiful poem in the Times Literary Supplement which illustrates this phenomenon.  It then brought to my mind two other poems, all three of which I will now share:

Sleeping Dogs by Stephen Dobyns

The satisfied are always chewing something;
like eternal daybreak their smiles remain constant.
They think they travelled far to get here. In fact,
it was two or three steps. Their definitions
surround them like a kennel contains a hound.
Let’s say you rattle their gate. Let’s say you became
a flea nibbling the delicate skin of their belief.
One eye rolls up, a raised lip reveals a tooth.

Like a thrown stone imagining it will not fall
their explanations work to keep the world fixed.
And here you’ve come with your trumpet. Did you
think they would like your music? Your accusers
are blameless. They press their paws to their soft ears.
Why share their kennel if you won’t let them sleep?

And here is one of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson who uses vivid, concrete language to describe the emphatic closing of a mind against any feedback from one’s private frame of reference:

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

And finally here is an excerpt from “New Year Letter” by W. H. Auden who poignantly captures the duplicity of the social contract and the courage it takes to explore beneath its facade:

…only “despair

Can shape the hero who will dare

The desperate databases

Into the snarl of the abyss

That always lies just underneath

Our jolly picnic on the heath

Of the agreeable, where we bask,

Agreed on what we will not ask,

Bland, sunny, and adjusted by

The light of the accepted lie?

 

Where Your Treasure Is, There Your Heart Will Be Also

Jesus once noted, “Where your treasures are, there shall your heart be.”  In the fundamentalism that I grew up in, I certainly understood that this teaching meant that the true “stuff” of life was not to be found in “this world.”  But now, I’ve aged a bit and I value this and His other teachings even more as I approach them from less an intellectual manner and more with a combination of intelligence and intuition (i.e. affect).  Aging, and the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” have done their work on me and I approach the whole of life, including spiritually, with more personal involvement.

One main difference in my understanding of this wisdom now lies in what back then was my culture’s distinction  between “this world” and “the other world” which I guess was heaven.  I think that the treasure that Jesus had in mind was something which we can find during our tenure on earth, a treasure which certainly is “eternal” but I don’t think “eternity” is a quantity of life anymore.  I think that Jesus was offering us an early version of the Shakespearean wisdom, “Within be rich, without be fed no more.”  Jesus was teaching us the lesson of other great spiritual teachers that there is a quality of life that is missed if we make that  what Alfred Lord Whitehead called, “The fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”  Misplaced concreteness is taking that which is ephemeral and perceiving and thinking it to be “real.”  This is very much a version of the Platonic cave allegory about what is “real” and what is “unreal.”  Jesus was telling us that if our “treasure” was in the material realm, we were missing the primary purpose of life which was, and still is, to “shuffle off this mortal coil” while still living and discover that we have something inside which satisfies where that which is “outside” only leaves us empty.  Furthermore, this is what he had reference to when he posed the question, “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul.”

The emptiness of our modern day is so apparent in that we have allowed the mandate of capitalism to drive us into trying to fill that internal emptiness with “stuff.” And very much related to this, the “thing-ification” that we have acquired from our culture’s emphasis on “stuff” has turned even “god” into an item of “stuff,” meaning he is only a sterile concept. Technically our “highest value,” ( i.e. “god”) is “stuff” which is illustrated in the rampant consumerism.

Shakespearean Wisdom for Trump

Shakespeare’s sonnets were probably the key to the birth of “literary lew” in the mid-eighties.  A friend gave me a copy of the Bard’s sonnets and my confinement in a linear world began to crack immediately, a “cracking” which continues! I remember Leonard Cohen telling us in song,  “There’s a crack in everything, that’s where the light gets in.”

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 16 begins with, “As an unperfect actor on the stage of life, who with his fear is put beside his part…”  Shakespeare saw through us all.  He did this because he saw through himself and realized that in so doing he had insight to the human predicament, that we are merely actors on a stage playing some role that we were given early in life.  His grasp of the human heart is a gift that some poets have, a gift eloquently put into words by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) who wrote, “The poet, in whose mighty heart, heaven hath a quicker pulse imparted, subdues that energy to scan, not his own heart but that of man.”

Shakespeare’s literary gift to the ages is a scanning of the heart.  With modern technological wizardry, we can “scan” the physical heart in ways that Shakespeare could have never imagined but our modern mental wizardry cannot “scan” the heart like Shakespeare did.  For Shakespeare knew that the heart was something intricately subtle and complex, so much so that most people live their lives without any awareness of having one, or at least without any awareness of its infinite depths.  And, it is the experience of “infinite depths” that introduces one to the spiritual realm which people usually prefer to avoid, opting for words instead of the essential realm that words point to.  Infinity is scary which is why T. S. Eliot declared, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality” for in the depths of our heart we are intrinsically aware of this infinity…and, therefore, our mortality.

The social contract is the stage that Shakespeare put on the table for us. This contract is best illustrated for us in today’s world by Donald Trump who flagrantly disregards this contract, refusing simple rules of civility and decorum on the “playground” that we all play on.  Most of us very early opted to “make nice” with each other in return for the knowledge that others would reciprocate.  This “making nice” is upon closer scrutiny, insincere in some fashion as beneath the surface we chafe under the daily grind and would prefer the disinhibition of a tragic figure like our President.  On some level I think that is why so many of the “low-information voters” pledged their troth to him for they sorely resent on some level the lack of freedom that the “social contract” they have signed imposes upon them.

Some hypothesized that perhaps the office that Trump was assuming would modify his whimsical and capricious nature, that he would begin to “act” Presidential as ordinarily one must.  But this ability to “act” to fulfill any role on the playground requires a deep-seated, heart-level restraint that some people lack. Shakespeare described Macbeth penchant for acting out as being wont to “crown his thoughts with acts,” noting later that, “He cannot buckle his distempered (or swollen) cause within the belt of rule.”  Shakespeare knew that some men could not “subdue” or harness the energy referred to in the Arnold poem quoted above.  Shakespeare knew that dark energy of that sort, unleashed, was dangerous to all.

If we could only get Trump see the wisdom of Shakespeare’s advice, through the mouth of Hamlet:

Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain to-night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence: the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either [ ] the devil, or throw him out
With wondrous potency. 

 

 

John Masefield and Our Hidden Riches

Poet John Masefield, the British Poet Laureate from 1930-1967 wrote a sonnet which I always think of when I read Shakespeare’s 46th sonnet which I blogged about two days ago.  Masefield also grasped the presence a hidden dimension of reality which is usually overlooked in a world where only the superficial is valued.  In his words, “like lame donkey lured by moving hay, we chase the shade and let the real be.”  Enculturation deprives us of our connection with the real, a necessary step of “joining the human race.”  But often enculturation is so rigid, or our lack of courage is so pronounced, that we spend our lives clinging to the “fig leaves” our culture has provided us and neglect the hidden realm of true Value.

But Masefield’s sonnet noted that this hidden resource, with its immense power, is always there and often is not accessed until the accumulated duress of living on the surface accumulate in our heart and bring us to “our straitened spirit’s possibility.”  But having our spirit, or soul, subjected to “straits” is painful and it is easier to find another escapist amusement to take our attention away from the pain that is necessary in going beneath the surface and drinking from the “well of living waters” that Jesus spoke of.

Before I share this sonnet, I’d like to quote W. H. Auden on a relevant topic, “And Truth met him, and held out her hand.  But he clung in panic to his tall beliefs and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”

Man has his unseen friend, his unseen twin,
His straitened spirit’s possibility,
The palace unexplored he thinks an inn,
The glorious garden which he wanders by.
It is beside us while we clutch at clay
To daub ourselves that we may never see.
Like the lame donkey lured by moving hay
We chase the shade but let the real be.
Yet, when confusion in our heaven brings stress,
We thrust on that unseen, get stature from it,
Cast to the devil’s challenge the man’s yes,
And stream our fiery hour like a comet,
And know for that fierce hour a friend behind,
With sword and shield, the second to the mind.

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ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/literarylew

“Literary License” and Personal Narrative

I became “literary” lew when I started this blog about six years ago.  I increasingly realize that the choice of that moniker was more astute than I realized.  These six years have helped me explore further the inner recesses of my heart and I’ve learned that my early grasp of the world was very “literary.”  Then I was taught that the world I lived in was a very literal, linear-thinking world.  I dutifully complied and I’m glad I did, but wish I’d have done so with less passion! But now, pretty late in the old “ball game”, I’m using this literary license very freely and enjoying the freedom to interpret life from a less rigid perspective.  The world is multi-dimensional and I’m finding life much easier and pleasant, having slowly allowed this wisdom to sink in.

Decades ago friends introduced me to the notion that life itself is but a story and approaching it as such makes it easier to pose the question occasionally, “Now what’s the point of this story going on here, the one I’m being presented with, or the one that I find myself immersed in personally.”  This is simple use of Shakespeare’s “pauser reason” which, if employed here and there, can allow us to make better responses to parts of the story that we are presented with.  Otherwise, we will be unwitting participants in a narrative that is, unbeknownst to ourselves, setting the course for our life.  One simple example, drawn from my clinical practice of the past, is the “martyr complex” of someone who finds himself/herself constantly playing the role of the victim throughout life, not realizing that some unconscious need is being fulfilled.  When one self-created crisis has resolved itself, this person will seem to ask upon awakening the next morning, “Hmm.  Now what’s underway in my life today that will allow me to perceive myself being the victim, allowing me to start the drama mill of my life to going again?”  This person seems to pray daily, “Give us this day, our daily crisis…”

Though most of us aren’t martyrs or victims, we inevitably play some role that we are only barely aware of if at all.   I’ve found this “literary license” helpful in gaining some degree of awareness.

ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/stats/day/literarylew.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

Shakespearean Wisdom for This Moment

Hamlet is perhaps my favorite Shakespearean character.  He was such a sad, tragic figure allowing what Eckhart Tolle would call his “pain body” to tyrannize him, often moping about the castle with his nose in a book trying to escape through literature.  At one point his mother, Gertrude, noted of him, “Look yonder, the poor wretch comes reading.”

Each of Shakespeare’s characters revealed a glimpse into his own heart and how he saw the world of his day.  Hamlet’s famous lamentation, “The world is out of joint. O cursed spite that I was born to set it right” revealed that in Shakespeare’s astute judgment his world was pretty well “out of joint” and probably always had been.  With Hamlet’s arrogant claim of responsibility to “set it right”, I think Shakespeare was pointing out the silliness and arrogance of anyone thinking he could “set it right.”

Shakespeare was clearly an idealist and had keen understanding of the heart of man leading him to describe our collective machinations as “a tale told by an idiot” on one occasion.  This wisdom helps me at present moment in my “idiotic” world to remember to “chill out” when I’m getting too over-wrought with the Trumpian lunacy, not even being close to taking the ego’s bait that I “was born to set it right.”

I think that Shakespeare realized that in describing life as a “tale told by an idiot” he himself was part of the fabric he was describing and therefore not spared idiocy himself.  The world at any moment has a “world-view” which is taken to be the valid way of seeing things but Shakespeare was reminding us, “Hey, keep in mind that beneath the surface there is idiocy lurking.”  And that is always true on a personal level as well as a collective level.  With most of us, if we could subscribe to this wisdom, would merely have to recognize occasional internal conflicts which will never become “idiotic” if we simply have the presence of mind, and humility, to recognize their presence.  “Awareness is all” says a bumper stick on the car of a friend of mine.

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ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

 

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

 

Psychotherapy & Negative Capability

Poet John Keats offered the term negative capability to describe his ability to embrace a host of subjective experiences that most people avoid.  In a letter to his brother in 1817 he defined negative capability in these terms, “…when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reach after fact and reason… in order to allow, as yet unimagined, creative possibilities to emerge.”

In an article in Contemporary Psychotherapy, Diane Voller applies this notion to her work as a therapist, declaring, “‘Negative capability’ is the advanced ability of a person to tolerate uncertainty. This does not mean the passive uncertainty associated with ignorance or general insecurity but the active uncertainty that is to do with being without a template and yet being able to tolerate, or even relish, a sense of feeling lost. ‘Negative capability’ involves purposely submitting to being unsettled by a person, or situation, and embracing the feelings and possibilities that emerge.  (http://www.contemporarypsychotherapy.org/vol-2-no-2/negative-capability/)

Voller introduces the concept of “space” to describe the intimacy of a close relationship that can be found in therapy or with any care-giving relationship, professional or personal. This is the ability to get out of oneself and realize that the distinction between “me and thee” is not as definite as we are taught that it is and yet avoiding the pitfall of co-dependency.  It is the ability to enter the domain of “no-boundaries” even as one maintains his/her own “boundaries.”  The 13th century Persian Sufi poet Rumi best described this essential spiritual skill, “Out beyond the distinctions of right doing and wrong doing, there is a field.  I will meet you there.”  Rumi keenly grasped the need of getting beyond the distinctions of “me” and “thee” if we are to enter sacred space with another person and clinical work is intrinsically spiritual.  Or it should be.

Voller is simply putting on the table for therapists and care-givers the notion of vulnerability.  It is so much easier to practice clinically when one is ensconced in jargon and “shop-talk”, hiding behind a diagnostic knife which always keeps the client “out there” separate and distinct from oneself.  And relevant to vulnerability, my mind always comes to a pithy observation from Norman O. Brown, “To be is to be vulnerable.”  If one is invulnerable, he/she lacks ‘be’-ing in the world.  He/she is just another object in a world full of objects, devoid of any spiritual (i.e. “spacial”) presence.