What is this course? We’ll find our stability by learning the art and science of contemplative practice. We’ll start class be it in silence, visit Bodhi Path, walk, hike up House Mountain, and be together as a class of fellow teachers and students. We shall settle ourselves with technology, know its place in our lives, establish our domain, become skillful and disciplined users of social media, learn what technology is, as a way of being, not some tool, but of its transformative power, its benefits and dangers. We shall not be afraid. We’ll situate the great contemplative books of the Western political-philosophical tradition in the context of contemporary neuroscience, not as scientists, but as intelligent readers of the way neuroscience moves throughout political culture informing our perceptions and social prescriptions. We shall not be afraid. We will build a space for conversation, of the best the liberal arts and sciences have to offer, and of our own excellence as well, mired as we are in human frailty and error, prepared to accept each other’s censure, but not ashamed and certainly not afraid. We shall speak with fellow students and teachers, openly and generously to hear what they want and do not want from social media. Just because we can does not me we should. And right there in that innocent little word “should” we see all of the salient and pressing philosophical and political questions emerge. If not, why not? If so, why so? Or how? Or to what extent? For whom? If not for everybody, why not? Who decides? For whom? Who says social media and all the questions corresponding to it are not political and philosophical? And contemplative. For in the midst of a technological mania Contemplative Studies has emerged, right at this time, and why? Because we have to learn how to paddle through the torrent of streams, and tweets, and blogs, and yet another book to read, and another paper to write, and another practice to go to, and another exam, a life of never-ending “to do” lists. We must be still and recover, nay, re-member that bit here and there of what is “us” howsoever ephemeral and fleeting. And this course will be full access, fully accessible inviting others to see us in real time, watching a syllabus unfold in real time, as the circumstances of our learning requires, not a preordained set of habits or prejudices, creatively learning and exploring, seeing ourselves anew, trusting each other enough to err — for life is only life when we risk ourselves. Dear reader this is an invitation to risk yourself so that you can be yourself. Namaste.
Even now one is ashamed of resting, and prolonged reflection almost gives people a bad conscience … one lives as if one always ‘might miss out one something.’ ‘Rather do anything than nothing’: this principle, too, is merely a string to throttle all culture and good taste. Just as forms are visibly perishing by the haste of workers, the feeling for form itself, the ear and eye for the melody of movements are also perishing. The proof of this may be found in the universal demand for gross obviousness in all those situations in which human beings wish to be honest with one another for once — in their associations with friends, women, relatives, children, teachers, pupils, leaders, and princes: One no longer has time or energy for ceremonies, for being obliging in an indirect way, for espirit in conversation, and for any otium [leisure] at all. Living in a constant chase after gain compels people to expend their spirit to the point of exhaustion in continual pretense and overreaching and anticipating others. Virtue has come to consist in doing something in less time than someone else.
The Gay Science
Members share their views and reflections
|Eduardo Velasquez, Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University, on last semester’s Political Philosophy seminar.|
Tips of fingers meet my MacBook keyboard just as five students complete a political philosophy seminar, “Getting Jobs.” Steve Jobs ditched his program at Reed College and hung around taking calligraphy courses. The Apple aesthetic was borne in those hours of leisure, and the gadgets he conceived reflect Jobs’ encounter with the East: a trip to India as a young man and then his life-long meditation practice. Knowing the more sordid details of Jobs’ life gives pause to whatever virtues we may attribute to his contemplative mind. Likewise, the clouds that he puts in place and myriad devices that enrapture us may seem more unsettling than contemplative. Yet, this curious marriage of Western scientific rationalism, entrepreneurial spirit, and Eastern spaciousness is mirrored in our own contemplative practices and neurosciences of mindfulness. In the seminar we compared Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The six of us in “Getting Jobs” knew implicitly that any insight we might have about these unconventional paths would demand that we pause and practice the contemplative arts. So we did, throughout, by weekly visits to the Bodhi Path Buddhist Center. Greeted by the generosity of Lama Tsony, former abbot of the Dhagpo Kundreul Ling Monastery in France and currently resident teacher at the Bodhi Path Buddhist Center in Natural Bridge, Virginia, we practiced how to be conversant (as we would wish all seminars to be). In the art of conversation, listening is essential, and this we did by the discipline of silence. The Heart Sutra and Guanaratana Bhante’s Mindfulness in Plain English served as textual guides for our discernment; we had the Bodhi Path context and a meditation master to ease the way. By mutual consent, the principal writing assignment became a series of blog posts (two five-hundred word entries each week). Most students wrote well over 10,000 words: one has over forty single-spaces pages. Mimicking consciousness, the posts reveal student’s self-conscious movements, appearing and disappearing, and the blog medium emulates Nietzsche’s aphoristic writing and thinking. I see quanta of creativity as a new form, an investigation about our own minds and thinking. While not a replacement of the mechanical research paper, so often seen as the only legitimate way to write in an academic setting, the medium allowed us to learn from our own personalities. On the art of story-telling, we reflected on Jonathan Gottshall’s discussion of how neuroscience explains our propensity to metaphor and allegory in The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make us Human. Our writing confounded and conflated first and third person perspectives self-consciously; not pretending unadulterated objectivity or subjectivity. For our inspiration, we took the work of neurophenomenologists who have been creators and defenders of contemplative space in higher education and proposed a new multi-perspectival rhetoric that we believe will become a staple in the academy. For now we baptize it contemplative political philosophy. Students deftly took the reins of this unwieldy chariot (as Plato’s horseman in Phaedrus) and steered themselves to the edges of academic convention:
The intuition — is it something deeper than even that? — the conjecture, so strangely resistant to falsification, that there is “otherness” out of reach gives to our elemental existence its pulse of unfulfilment. We are creatures of a great thirst. Bent on coming home to a place we have never known. The “irrationality” of the transcendental intuition dignifies reason. The will to ascension is founded not on any “because it is there” but on a “because it is not there.” This pragmatic negation can be, has been read in many ways. ”Because it is not yet there” has…been the postulate of the messianic and utopian. ”Because it is no longer there” serves as axiom for religions, historicist, and socio-psychological models of the human condition. The negation is brimful with different, sometimes antithetical allegories of times and of the sense of history. But it does not inhibit, let alone end-stop the unrest. More than homo sapiens, we are homo quaerens, the animal that asks and asks. This crowds the borders of language and of image (does music alone appear to cross these borders?) in the conviction, eloquent or inchoate, metaphysically arcane or as immediate as the cry of a child, that there is “the other,” the “out there.”
The Latin adverbs aliter and aliunde help. As does the persona of “the Stranger” as we shall meet him in Scripture, in Plato, in the poets and painters. Prophets, epic singers, are blind, argues tradition, because they are so certain of the nearness of light.
Thus in philosophy, no less than in theology or poetics, the beginning of the story is also the story of the beginning.
George Steiner, Grammars of Creation
If it were possible for us to go back to the elements of societies and examine the first memorials of their history, I am certain that we would be able to discover there the first cause of the prejudices, habits, dominant passions, of all that ultimately composes what is called the national character. [There, no doubt, we would find the key to more than one historical enigma]. There we would happen to find the explanation for customs that today seem contrary to the reigning mores; for laws that seem opposed to recognized principles; for incoherent opinions found here and there in society like fragments of broken chains that are sometimes seen still hanging from the vaults of an old edifice and that no longer hold up anything. Thus would be explained the destiny of certain peoples who seem to be dragged by an unknown force toward an end unknown even to themselves. But until now facts have been lacking for such a study. The spirit of analysis came to nations only as they grew older, and when, at last, they thought to contemplate their birth, time had already enveloped it in a mist; ignorance and pride had surrounded it with fables that hid the truth.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Not only do men who live in democratic societies devote themselves with difficulty to meditation, but also they naturally have little regard for it. The democratic social state and democratic institutions lead most men to act constantly; now, the habits of mind that are appropriate to action are not always appropriate to thought. The man who acts is often reduced to being content with approximation, because he would never reach the end of his plan if he wanted to perfect each detail. He must rely constantly on ideas that he has not had the leisure to study in depth, for he is helped much more by the expediency of the idea that he is using than by its rigorous correctness; and everything considered, there is less risk for him in making use of a few false principles, than in taking up his time establishing the truth of all his principles. The world is not controlled by long, learned proofs. The rapid view of a particular fact, the daily study of the changing passions of the crowd, the chance of the moment and the skill to grab hold of it, decide all matters there.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Nothing is more necessary to the cultivation of the advanced sciences, or of the higher portion of the sciences, than meditation; and nothing is less appropriate to meditation than the interior of a democratic society. There you do not find, as among aristocratic peoples, a numerous class that remains at rest because it finds itself well-off, and another that does not stir because it despairs of being better-off. Each man is in motion; some want to attain power, others to take hold of wealth.
Amid this universal tumult, this repeated clash of contrary interests, this continual march of men toward fortune, where to find the calm necessary for profound intellectual syntheses? How to fix your thoughts on some point, when around you everything moves, and you yourself are dragged along and tossed about each day by the impetuous current that drives everything?
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Leisure, it must be clearly understood, is a mental and spiritual attitude — it is not the result of external factors, it is not the inevitable result of spare time, a holiday, a weekend or a vacation. It is, in the first place, an attitude of mind, a condition of the soul, and as such utterly contrary to the ideal of the ‘worker’ in each and every one of the three aspects which it was analyzed: work as activity, as toil, as social function … Leisure is not the attitude of mind of those who actively intervene, but of those who are open to everything; not those who grab and grab hold, but of those who leave the reins loose and who are free and easy with themselves — almost like a man falling asleep, for one can only fall asleep by ‘letting oneself go.’
- Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture
I believe the matter of music to be central to that of the meanings of man, of man’s access to or abstention from metaphysical experience. Our capacities to compose and respond to musical form and sense directly implicate the mystery of the human condition. To ask ‘what is music?’ may well be one way of asking ‘what is man?’