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Fr. 652

July 20, 2015

A recent interview from Big Think’s 21st century spirituality series finds Evan Thompson linking old and new in the form of classic Buddhist understanding of mindfulness and ongoing developments in brain science and philosophy of mind. Two lines of inquiry prove of particular interest to our ongoing inquiry into self and its images, notably in relation to Thompson’s illustration of consciousness and processual being.

As regards the first of these, the interviewer’s remark thereon elicits further commentary from Thompson:

One of my favorite lines from the book is, “Consciousness is something we live, not something we have.”

Consciousness is not just another thing or property that the body and brain has in life that it doesn’t have in death. It’s the background to everything that we experience, including everything we do in science. In that sense, consciousness isn’t something that we have, as we have hands and feet, or as we have books and tables. If we try to turn it into an object, we inevitably destroy it. It has to do with our whole motive for being.

As with Stout’s notion moral language, it could be fruitful to see how far parallelism between self and consciousness might be carried. Frequently have we underscored the shortcomings of substantialist notions of self and the inadequacy of conceptual resources on which they draw. This amounts to a negative proof of sorts: self is not, cannot be a thing. Objectifying self in this way comes to much the same as obscuring it. If self is not the background to what we do in science, it remains a constant, of which we are variably aware, elsewhere in experience.

Yet this only answers half of the question posed above. Might self instead be a property of body and brain? Insofar as biological analysis of organic composition can, as presently equipped, only partially carry analysis of character, this question likewise meets with a no. While not unique or perhaps even predominant, environmental and cultural factors have some role to play. All of which brings us back to the notion of self as lived rather than had.

Elsewhere, Thompson and his interlocutor target more closely the notion of processual being:

Another favorite line of mine is when you describe the self as a process.

The metaphor I use is a dance: A dance is a process, the process of dancing. In dancing you dance; the dance is no different than the dancing. I use this as a metaphor for the self: The self is a process; it’s something enacted, and it is no different from that enacting of self in the process of awareness. In the waking state that has to do with bodily action and perception. Of course in daydreaming the sense of self shifts: We enact a mental autobiographical sense of self when we project ourselves in the past or the future, so we identify with a particular content of our awareness, which is a mental image of the self. That’s a different enacting of the sense of self. Then when we fall asleep that sense of self starts to dissolve; the boundaries between self and other start to come apart. But then they reappear in the dream state, which is very strongly connected to memory, so we enact within the field of awareness the difference between what is the dream self and what is not the dream self. So all of that is a kind of ongoing process of enacting a sense of self in awareness.

The parallels with our inquiry are clear: self as rhythm or linguistic polyrhythm is nothing other than a process by another name. Admittedly, this name may have the advantage of better bringing out both the linguistic aspect of self, as well as the multiplicity of its composition, but the principle remains the same in either case. In turn, Thompson’s presentation carries its own advantage in that it highlights the “enacted” character of self: self is only present to us inasmuch as we present it, be it intentionally or no. Wherefore the interest of Thompson’s threefold illustration: self enacted as action in waking; as projection in daydreaming; as distinction in dreaming.

Certainly, it should be noted of both characterizations of self that the notion of processual character is older than we might think, just as Thompson’s discussion brings out via the connection to mindfulness. Indeed, beginning with late 18th century German philosophy and Hegel, static being gives way more and more, albeit slowly and unevenly, to processual being which underlies much of contemporary philosophy, particularly that of a so-called “continental” bent. Regardless, the notion may have still further fruit to bear.

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