Humility and Belief Revision

774bdfc898db2100b01ea0fdeae9ba8bI am starting a project on Descartes’ Meditations. More than just in the title, Descartes’ work has a deep affinity with the tradition of meditations or spiritual exercises of his time. And beyond the traditions he was familiar with, there is the larger tradition of meditation via doubt especially among the Zen schools that resonates with Descartes’ writing and practice. Although I stumbled upon these connections after I brought my Buddhist practice together with my reading of the Meditations, I am in no way the first to think this; indeed, part of the joy so far has been to read about these connections from authors across various disciplines!

My first encounter with Descartes was at UCLA. It was my first college philosophy class. Professor Joseph Almog strolled in, rolled back his sleeves, and started right in on the Meditations. All we covered that quarter was the Meditations. In fact, I think we only covered various sections from the text primarily around the mind-body problem. And the professor taught it all without notes – just the chalkboard, his mind, our minds, the text somewhere in the background, and abstract philosophical analysis. It was breathtaking (for a naive freshman like myself)!

I took other classes where we covered the standard topics in the Meditations. I taught them in various classes and made sure students understood the role of skepticism, the reasons and arguments for foundationalism, the arguments for God’s existence and their obvious problems, and more. Students questioned me and I gave them my most definitive answers in return. Of course there were subtleties of interpretation, but this was how the Meditations were to be understood.

And from where I stand now, all of that was horribly superficial, and just wrong as a reading of Descartes.

So what happened? History and context and ideology happened. We all learn from someone, and they are informed by their context and history. And learning is constrained by the context of learning – its aims, its political and pedagogical agenda. And we are human and take stands, both intentionally and unintentionally, and that ideological formation impacts our teaching. All this is obvious once you immerse yourself in this way of thinking. And yet just today after reading an article it dawned on me how full of myself I was teaching Descartes as if I knew the work, the arguments, the problems, the answers!

The beauty of this process is belief revision: we can change what we believe. And this impacts action: we can change how we act. And this impacts speech: we can change what we say. And putting all this together requires humility: recognizing our limited or bounded understanding, and bending ourselves to change unboundedly, to unknowing mind, to not being full of ourselves, over and over again.

The inquiry continues. It must continue. Not just about Descartes. But about everything we believe and encounter in our daily lives. And I am left thinking about how to teach in the face of bounded understanding and unbounded change. What does it mean to be a teacher when all these constraints are salient? How can I empower students by guiding them, when I know their guide is positioned in this way? How can I be honest in my limited understanding, while still positioning myself as someone who has something to teach?

There are similar questions for students, whether students of philosophy, Buddhism, or any discipline at all. And there are not so simple answers to all of this. But for now – its on my mind and in my heart. Making amends for my previously limited understanding, moving forward while keeping in mind and heart the way I am formed and bound by history, context, ideology, and teachers, and reminding myself that unbounded change is the path of humility and awakening.

Eating for Self and Other

Student: Teacher, I hear you when you say treating thoughts and feelings as if they were not mine is practicing not-self. And as not-self, I can let them go as they arise as I let go the thoughts and feelings in others that have no pull on me. But I’m hungry! I have been watching this hunger for a day now, not eating, not holding on to the thought of food in the face of this persistent gnawing in my belly, and still the thoughts of food come up and my belly is loud and obnoxious now! Is this the practice of not-self? Do I just starve myself to death?

Teacher: Not death, no. If you die without waking up, what good is any of this? Then even I have failed you, complicit as I am in your delusion and liberation.

Student: OK, OK. Not death. I think I’d eat by then. But how is this not-self if all I see is the continual arising of self? All I feel is my belly chewing away at itself – is that awakening?

Teacher: Not this and not that. Both this and that together. Obstruction and Path – not two, not one either. Hunger and release from hunger are not separate and not the same.

Student: I’m not following you – partly because I’m hungry but also because you are not making any sense.

Teacher: What if your child is hungry, what do you do?

Student: I make her food.

Teacher: Simple. No thinking. Obstruction and path work together in harmony. And so when you are hungry, what do you do?

Student: I used to eat. Today I am starving. I am not sure what I am supposed to do anymore.

Teacher: Obstruction and path in disharmony. What is your vow? Your aspiration?

Student: To practice, to wake up, and serve all beings as if they were Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Teacher: OK, but sometimes to help others, you have to help yourself. And when you help yourself to help others, when you practice eating as eating for the body that is not just your body, you are practicing not-self. The hunger becomes freedom from hunger and you more freely embrace the hunger.

Student: But if I eat I take food away from others and that is selfish.

Teacher: Look around you! Is there anyone here asking for your food? You only deprive your idea of someone wanting food, which is no deprivation at all. What if you starve and get caught up in your hunger? How can you be present to the world in front of you?

Student: What is that world?

Teacher: Eat and find out. Just enough to see clearly….

Not-Self in the Park

bench-forest-trees-pathWalking slowly and evenly in the park, a bench along the sidewalk invites rest. Time to sit, but not to stop looking and seeking. And so the meditation continues.

A lady walks by with her dog, a boxer, a lovely animal. It pees in front of me and, while peeing, turns its head with a look of relief.

Another person, a man, older, walking slowly for a morning breath of fresh air, passes by me while I sit on the bench. As he walks by he raises his hand, extends a finger towards his cheek, and begins to scratch what might be a mosquito bite. As I sit and watch, I almost raise my hand and finger as if to scratch, perhaps my cheek, perhaps his cheek, perhaps the invisible cheek between us. But then I wake up: what is this urge to scratch a possible mosquito bite that isn’t affecting me?

And here is a small taste of not-self and self as they mutually inform experience. The man’s desire to scratch his cheek is his, not mine. And so I don’t enter into any relations with his desire to scratch. His desire is not-self to me. My morning desire to eat that affects me and urges me to food is mine, not his. I enter various relations with my hunger: sometimes I act on it, while at other times I wait it out. This desire is self to me and not-self to the man passing by.

And so how can I practice not-self to me? Easy – the answer is right there before our eyes with each passing person and with each of their passing desires, thoughts, and feelings. Just as the man’s desire to scratch is not-self to me, so too can my desire to eat be not-self to me if I practice it as such. Why practice it as something to engage and so as mine or self to me? Why not practice it as something that is not-mine, as something to watch, but not engage, just as I watch the man scratching his cheek?

And just as I practice self to my desires and not to others, why not practice self to others’ desires that are outside this body and mind? If a friend is hungry, then why not act on her hunger as if it were my own? Cook some food, take her out to eat, or wait it out; letting the situation guide, why not practice self to her desire to eat as I usually practice self to my desire to eat?

And why stop at the people we know? There is hunger, fear, and anger out there that is not in this body/mind – why not practice self towards those physical/mental states and work to relieve them as we would our own hunger, fear, and anger? If we do so, we are practicing not-self by practicing self beyond this very body/mind.

The practice of not-self is easy and not easy. It is negative (letting go) and positive (taking on beyond this body/mind). It is in this moment and enough to fill lifetimes of practice. So what better place to start than wherever and whenever you are?