Annoyances and Endearments

It can happen that another person’s annoying tics or habits can become, in the eye of the viewer, terms of endearment. Puzzlingly, the person may have done nothing to modify her behavior, may not even be consciously aware of such tics or such a disposition, and nothing observable may have happened in the life of the percipient, yet somehow the percipient’s feelings have changed. Is this not a mystery?

I doubt that there are any general explanations that fit all such cases, yet I wouldn’t be surprised if something structurally similar were at play in all such cases. If nothing has changed about the quality that annoys you, might you have begun to pick up on other qualities in that person, qualities that begin to appear to you admirable? Here we have a clue.

My hunch is that three related moves have occurred, occurring possibly at once or in close succession. First, you begin to observe other features of that person’s character, features with which you were hitherto unfamiliar, ones that, as I say, appear to you admirable. Second, you begin to value those other qualities more than you disvalue the annoying quality (or qualities). And, third, you can begin to tell a story in which the annoying qualities “fit into” a completer account of that person’s life.

And what has happened to you? In the process of paying such close attention to this other human being, you have come to believe in redemption and in accepting love. Once annoying qualities are redeemed in virtue of their being aspects of a beautiful and imperfect human life while love becomes an expression of letting be, of letting be as is, of seeing the other as dear to you. Because of this, you have grown larger, more able to “contain multitudes” (Whitman), and sweeter.

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Callousness Toward the Stranger and the Good Samaritan Today

When the stranger lies bleeding along the side of the road, is it our first instinct to go toward him and ask what he needs? Or do we pass by him, murmuring, “What is that man to me?”

I grow weary and heavy due to the callousness of modernity. Severed from true friendships, we have become strangers to more and more people. Our close-knit social ties grow thin, the bonds weaker. Yet losing our strong social ties has not led to a countermovement, a commitment to caring for the stranger. Quite the contrary, the stranger is neglected in part because we falsely believe that some institution will codify and take care of him. The church, the hospital, some social service, some unknown family member, a hospice care worker–some institution, some entity surely will anyway.

Meanwhile, we keep passing by strangers, desperate for our care, and, what is worse, we teach ourselves to neglect them. We wish them away; we wish they wouldn’t approach us; we train ourselves to believe that we can do nothing for them. That might be fine were it not actually false.

It is rather that we do not dare to perceive that not all strangers but this, this particular stranger lies cold before me and has open wounds.  We lack the courage to perceive that this is so and that we can truly act. I must say that my heart is saddened by this at the same time that my resolve is strengthened. I shall not let pass by the stranger but, like the good Samaritan, shall dare to perceive and be courageous enough to act. No more can I neglect him than I can neglect my own; no more can I deny him than I can deny my own; no more can I leave him as he is than I can leave my own, injured and screaming. Only in such acts of loving courage can we move past tribalism as well as callousness.

Are We Actually Meditating During Meditation?

How much of our attention during any one meditation is actually meditative? Are our meditations truly meditations? Sadly, I had this thought on two mornings set aside for meditating.

Once one has devoted oneself to having a regular meditation practice, it is easy to become complacent with oneself. The first hurdle was even being able to sit quietly for 10 minutes. The second was being able to do so a bit more regularly. Then after some years there comes a time when one meditates perhaps twice a day virtually without fail, and it seems as if one has accomplished something. Something, sure, but accomplishment? Doubtful. Man, we’re just getting started.

Some will say that a meditation is good so long as you continue to do it. Some have said that a meditation is good no matter how much “noise” or “chatter” there is. I don’t buy either, both seeming just examples of the ways I too can be complacent. If meditation is anything, it’s not about ticking off boxes.

For during your meditation, you could be gathering wool, planning your day, worrying about a deadline or family member, puzzling through a math problem, recalling memories from adolescence, fantasizing, devising fictional philosophical conversations, strategizing, and so on. Are we really going to say that a 30-40 minute period in which one has thought solely of these matters and others counts as a meditation? If it does count as one, are we going to say that it was a good one?

The great danger in meditating so often is that one isn’t doing much meditating. You can begin to grasp how greedy your thinking truly is: the ego likes its own thoughts and, being exceptionally greedy, always wants more of them. You might say, “How could someone who is sad want more of her own thoughts, which continue to be sad? Doesn’t she not want to be sad?” Yes, she doesn’t want to be sad and she may not like her sad thoughts, but she prefers sad thoughts to non-attachment to her thoughts. Scarier than having sad thoughts is cultivating an apatheia toward one’s thoughts.

Because I’m a philosopher, I’m especially aware of the danger that meditation can be used to perpetuate our greedy thinking while we delude ourselves afterward into believing that we’ve been meditating. A philosopher is, if nothing else, someone who loves thinking, indeed, loves to think about thinking. Letting go of such a love during meditation is like letting go of a good friend, perhaps my best friend.

Now, though, and for quite some time, there has been born in me (as I hope also in you) a spark, a conflict. On the one hand, the ego greedily and possessively thinks, always wanting more of its own thoughts. On the other hand, something within us, something deeper, naturally moves toward not being attached to our thoughts. What ensues is a good struggle between wanting to think, this default wanting like a steady motor or a humming, and resting into what is “beneath” or “below” the stream of thoughts. In this subtle awareness (which is not yet and by no means non-duality), the gaze is subtly perched or held, the attention finding this space of otherwise. That attention is, at least for me, not held for long, it is overcome by the ego’s slow-moving yet hungry thoughts, yet if there is vigilance it returns again and again during the period when I’m meditating.

Despite what is commonly said, there is a certain force applied during meditation to ensure that one’s attention moves in the direction of this “place” of non-attachment. If we’re not vigilant, then we’ll easily slip back into feeding and feeding off of our own thoughts. And if we continue to feed off of our own thoughts, then either we’ll not be meditating at all or not well anyway. Sadly, we’ll not only be cultivating self-delusion, believing that we were meditating when we clearly were not, but also self-importance, insisting that we just accomplished something. And meditating, whatever it is, is no accomplishment; it is anything but.