Wondering Aloud About Efforting

What, let’s gently think about this, do Daoists mean when they speak about wu wei, or “effortless action”?

I’d like to come to effort and set aside action.

We could begin by wondering about when effort arises. It seems to arise often (always?) in the context of action. I make an effort in order to complete an action that is, perhaps, in line with a goal I’ve set. Let’s make it even simpler: I (always?) make an effort whenever I want to get somewhere (or be someone or something) that I am not.

Effort, then, is about the force necessary for me to travel out there to meet or be it.

Sometimes we say that “thinking is hard” or that “one must make an effort to understand,” but today anyway I find this a bit confusing. Taking thinking to be hard seems to borrow its meaning from cases of action: thinking is said to be hard whenever one must travel somewhere else in or by means of thought to get to that place. I needn’t “make an effort to understand” except when I believe that I don’t currently understand what will require some force from me to reach the point at which I’m able to understand.

Effort is born of desire and, as such, is hitched to desire.

But now I wonder: is it really necessary to center my life on effort? Sure, sometimes effort will be required. Yet must I place effort at the center of thoughts, feelings, and actions?

After all, we don’t speak of “making an effort” when a sensation happens to arise. What if, in a similar vein, thoughts and actions also were to arise (as, frankly, they actually do)? Or what if we needn’t make an effort just in those cases where we’re not “going out” but rather “recognizing, right now, that we’re already home”?

It feels to me, just now, that efforting implies a kind of confusion. Without strain, things can, and often do, just happen: actions do unfold, thoughts do arise. I type without knowing what will happen, just now, perhaps my fingers pause without there being anything that needs to happen, and then the clacking of the keys resumes.

Wondering, I assure you, is not effortful. Can we drop the model of life which suggests that we must get somewhere or be something else? Could life be bathed in the waters of grace? If so, life would be all honey water: sweet like honey, flowing like water.

Secular Spirituality Is, In The End, Spiritual Materialism

We’re entering a particularly interesting moment in history when regular religious observance is, among large segments of the American population, waning while in some milieu spirituality is on the rise.

One version of spirituality I’ll be discussing today I call secular spirituality.

Secular Spirituality 

Someone becomes involved in secular spirituality when he or she comes to see that the therapeutic or psychological dispensation is not sufficient (why just heal myself or just sort out my traumas if the aim is merely to be functional in the secular world?), yet such a person remains skeptical of the possibility of there being a transcendent dimension.

Hence, this seeker defaults to one or more of these three options.

Option 1: Growth

The seeker may reject the idea that he or she is here to accumulate wealth, enjoy status, and be successful (all, in one sense of the term, materialist concerns), yet it soon becomes clear that this person operates according to a similar logic. Rather than growing the economy, I shall improve myself.

For this person, self-growth, self-improvement, and self-betterment–that is, essentially being better–become the foci of attention.

At some point, however, it may become clear to this seeker that what has gone unexamined is both (a) the fact that it’s the same formal structure he or she has already rejected on a lower level and (b) the very source of this growth–whether such a self actually exists. If the latter doesn’t exist, then this form of this-worldly spirituality is trying to hang its hat on air.

Option 2: States

The second option is to pursue altered states of consciousness. If ordinary life is unsatisfactory, as the seeker has come to see, then why not alter one’s states?

Because (a) all states, as states, are purely temporary (and cannot be otherwise) and because (b) the whole pursuit begins with desire and desire implies lack. Hence, one is chasing states that come and go–much like the person who is chasing wealth or growth (Option 1).

Option 3: Experiences

The most prominent, and deluded, option entails having, or trying to have or wanting to have, certain experiences that are said to be “mystical” or “spiritual.”

But any experience is just that: an experience. And every experience requires an experiencer. And no experience is such as to actually be the Truth at the heart of being.

Differently put, experiences, however varied and colorful, are not enlightenment, for the latter is neither about growth nor is it identical with a state nor, surely, is it an experience of any kind.

Spiritual Materialism

What then becomes clear is that growth, states, and experiences are just different versions of what Trungpa Rinpoche once called spiritual materialism. As I define it, the latter is basically a spiritual CV: a set of ambitions, desires, accomplishments, and experiences that are colorful, interesting, and ultimately irrelevant.

The good thing about secular spirituality is that it suggests that ordinary life, as it is, is unsatisfactory. Clearly, then, one is willing to go on a pilgrimage. However, the bad thing about secular spirituality is that, insofar as it’s hitched its wagon to spiritual materialism, it cannot go anywhere. For earnestly openhearted wayfarers, therefore, it is high time that we revisit transcendence, which I leave undefined here.

Care, Let’s Not Forget, Is Rhythmic

Care, let’s not forget, is rhythmic.

Tell me that you care about me in a way that’s not in tune or in step somehow with (call it) the way of things, and it falls, oh does it fall, on deaf ears. I don’t quite believe cuz it doesn’t quite signify.

Whereas show me care so gracefully, all very kairotically and, oh, man, does it touch my heart down deep. Moved I am for sure!

You know what I mean, don’t you? Can’t you just feeeeel the difference?

If I miss telling you that I loved your last painting until you’re halfway through the next one, don’t I imply that I don’t really care, dear, after all? What does forgetting really imply, huh?

And if you read something I’ve written months after I cared at all about that old ratty thing, aren’t we woefully out of step with each other? Aren’t we missing more than just a beat?

Don’t get all frazzled and take me to be jazzy here since I’m talking plainly about care. Caring well, ya know, is where the rubber hits the road, and genuine care, almost a sleight of hand, is as graceful as the late Fred Astaire. Or, if not, you might as well pack it in: no need to scratch your head when it comes to why the other ain’t getting back to you.

Right here, let’s lay down the tracks. You’ve got to be thoughtful and perceptive and, on top of that, have really good timing if you want to get right into, or right with, the rhythm of caring. Capeesh me?

In case you’ve missed me, I’m getting at what’s at the doorstep of love.

A Brief Critique Of Tech Values

Often enough it’s said that technology is nothing but a tool. As such, it has no value built into it. Hence, it’s up to us whether and how we use the tool.

This is a version of the fact/value split, and it’s plainly wrong.

According to this view, technology supplies us with facts and humans merely drape values overtop the technological tool or device. But such a view is not actually squareable with our experience.

Take a simple example. When you go to start a new YouTube channel, the first question you get asked is what you’re going to do to grow your audience. Likes, comments, shares, SEO-friendly titles, and more are du jour: all these illustrate how a tech platform actually embeds (there’s another tech concept!) within itself a set of values for optimal (another one!) use (a third!).

You don’t just wish to think hard about something. You’re supposed to want a lot of subscribers or users! Why? No one knows except that scale has become a sacred value even though it couldn’t possibly be an end in itself. More: you don’t just want to say something in the hopes of becoming clear about it. You want likes–meaning you want your ego to be confirmed: “I’m not alone”; “I’m not invisible”; “I’m not unworthy.”

“But these are our values that we superimpose on platforms like Twitter or Instagram.” No, each platform, tool, or device actually helps to teach you not just how to use it but also how to adopt the values it holds dear. Never has technology been a purely technical matter. Medium, for instance, uses an algorithm to come up with how much the story you wrote there is worth. I kid you not. While the algorithm is not available to users (here we go again!), it’s clear that the number of views, (presumed) number of readers, overall engagement on the platform, and so on are what count in the resultant calculation. See how absurd this is? A viral article about cats doing flips would be, on this view, more valuable than an exquisitely beautiful poem read by only a few people. Technology can do away with hard questions of taste–just like that! Obviously, in the Age of Technology, quantity trumps quality and, in turn, quality returns in pale form: namely, as a product of quantity.

I’ll take a stand here. I’m a firm believer in “appropriate technology,” which, in practice, requires being very clear about how–against the grain–I’ll use Skype, Zoom, and so on. Even so, I can see how easy it is to default to the lowest common denominator. Of course, I’m not the first person to critique mainstream tech values, but I don’t hear enough philosophical talk about fundamentals. At the heart of a critique of technology in our time, then, needs to be a reconsideration of the fact/value split.

When people, as they do today, point to the sophisticated ways in which the Amish deliberate upon which technological inventions they’ll accept into their communities, we do well to follow their fingers to see that at which they’re pointing. Unfortunately, given that we’re not living at present in small scale communities governed by shared values and bound by a common way of life, it’s just not clear how helpful the Amish will be to those of us who are thrown into an atomistic world where globalization reigns supreme.

Philosophy Will Never Be Popular

1. Recent stories about philosophy in Silicon Valley imply that philosophy is becoming more popular. The mainstream media too implies that philosophy ought to be popular. Yet, I want to show, it can never be.

2. Let it be said at the outset that philosophy, insofar as it is the loving pursuit of living a vibrantly wise life, is in principle available to everyone, yet let it also be said here that philosophy has rarely been practiced save by a select few. We must ask ourselves why.

3. The reason, by my lights, can’t be that philosophy is “just plain hard” because it involves “thinking hard about thinking.” The explanation leaning on supreme effort is a red herring: many things are hard and that fact alone is what draws people to these activities.

4. A far better reason would be that philosophy as a way of life–that is, philosophy with teeth–begins only with an existential opening. Something has sundered me and has shattered my life. I’m splayed out. This sounds graphic, I know, but see whether it’s actually true.

5. After all, let’s accept, here and now, the fact that consensus reality is what most people believe in. What would be forceful enough, shocking enough to cause some intrepid soul to potentially lift the veil? I suggest that an existential opening is that jolt or shock.

6. For you have, don’t you?, to be rather mad, at least from the vantage point of consensus reality, to ask with such earnestness: “Is any of this really real? Does time exist? Who, ultimately, am I? Why bother living in the first place? Was I born? Is death something for me?” And so on.

7. To call such questions “a bit weird” is a grand understatement. Consider what it would actually take for someone to devote himself or herself to asking, to seeking to live such questions, and to thereby be transformed by them. It would have to take someone eccentric indeed!

8. If this line of reasoning is on the right track, then we have every reason to drop the “philosophy is or should be popular” slogan. Only then might we ask, “Is there something shocking enough to peel people off of consensus reality? Does that something ‘hurt so good'”?

9. For those who have stepped onto the path, paradoxes soon ensue. Such as: the way of suffering is the way of liberation. The greatest darkness is the greatest light. What I think and feel I am I am not. What is said to be real is unreal; only what is not spoken of is truly real. And so on.

10. For philosophers and seekers, the strange truth is that these paradoxes actually make perfectly good sense. And life, finally, is bathed in lightheartedness. Like the enlightened figure in the tenth Zen ox herding picture: a fat, bald man laughing among schoolchildren.

11. In short, we don’t need popular philosophy (for philosophy is not a “set of tools” for “critical thinking”). And we don’t need insight. What we need is incite.