Tuesday, 4 November 2008

temporality and happiness, mindfulness and metaphysics

Last night I went to a talk in Oxford by John Cottingham - which was on - amongst other things - nachträglichkeit, and in particular on the temporality of human happiness. One of his basic claims - surely plausible - was, if I understood him right, that our happiness (unlike, say, a sensation of pleasure) is not to be understood merely episodically. Rather, it is bound up with the meanings of our lives, and these meanings extend from any moment far into the past and the future. We are continually reinterpreting, or discovering more about, or becoming, ourselves. Thus, for example, how we die may itself have a profound impact on the quantity or quality of happiness which can be said to accrue to our life as a whole. 'Call no man happy until he is dead' is one Greek aphorism (attributed by Heroditus to Solon) cited by Cottingham, which seems to give - if albeit in an extreme form - us a clue about the essence of what we could call 'happiness holism'.

The Freudian topic of nachträglichkeit was particularly and personally apt because the discussion caused me to rework and unfold some of my own reflections, earlier that day, on the kinds of spurious (usually idealist) metaphysics that get implicated in the interpretation of simple Buddhist or CBT Mindfulness Techniques. Here's what I have in mind:

We are invited to cultivate an ability to move from a 'doing' to a 'being' mode. To just notice the sensations, for example, that come up in our body, as they arise. To notice when our mind wanders - off into the past, or the future, or some present concern, and gently bring it back to the meditative object (e.g. the body, or the breath, or a candle, or what have you). We may notice as we do this that a sense of happiness wells up from within - contentment, bliss - not about anything in particular, but just through settling into ourselves and gently relinquishing the urge to fantasise, fret or ruminate.But what sometimes frustrates me is the way in which the 'being' mode gets presented as a kind of engagement in a temporal pointilism. As if just 'being here now' meant a relinquishment of temporality. As if I could really be said to be existing as a human being, living a meaningful, rewarding, happy, life, if I were to pursue an existence self-contained at every moment. As if my being - my dasein - were not itself constitutively temporal.

Why is it that a straightforward psychological or spiritual technique so readily gets caught up with a particular metaphysics - in this case a metaphysics which seems to want to deny the kind of temporal happiness holism described by Cottingham as constitutive of the human condition? Well, I think the answer is clear when we think about it. It is because we have not adequately distinguished between the neurotic temporalisation of the mind which flees from being into the imagined future (or past), and the constitutive temporality of human existence - dasein - which knits us essentially into our personal-historical contexts. A perfectly decent psycho-spiritual claim gets dressed up in metaphysical garb, perhaps to make it appear more philosohpically respectable - but the result is just implausibility.

To conclude, let me just make the distinction as clear as I can. Sure - when I'm depressed I may just be thinking about the past, or when I'm obsessional I may just be ruminating over what I said or did earlier, or when I'm neurotically anxious I may just be desperately trying to figure out what might happen next. Perhaps in part I am trying to flee from a present which I fear will be overwhelming. In all such cases I am showing an unwillingness to simply experience what is 'in my mind' - to accept my experience for what it is. It is this neurotic temporalisation which therapies or practices relying on mindfulness attempts to dispel - and to return the subject to stimulus-governed (rather than rule-governed) contingencies, as the behaviourist might put it.

But it is not only - not even primarily - through such neurotic temporalisation that my life gains temporal structure. Rather, the meanings which are necessarily distributed throughout the historical texture of my being arise not just in anxious reflective thought, but in my reposed moral reflection, in my gradually unfolding self-understanding, and primarily in the mainly non-reflective practices which occupy me each day. Lived temporality looks after itself, we might say, putting the claim in a rather extreme way, with no need of such a helping hand from thought. My life has its temporal contours, and the meanings of it stretch right out through the unfolding activities and practices of my existence. Neurotic temporalisation would in fact be most likely to stifle, rather than promote, any such temporal unfolding, keeping being locked into static (situation/contingency non-governed) and predictable patterns of action and reaction.

Being, then, is not aptly opposed to Doing, when making a contrast between a mind which is anxiously projecting itself into possibilities, and a mind which is reposed in the present yet constructed by its temporal ties to past and future. Being is doing, Doing is being. Some forms of being, because of their infatuation with projection-ahead-of-itself modes of fantasy, are profoundly limited. The question is not: Can I reside in the present moment? (Now that often really would be banal!) The question is: Can I reside in my Being, as it unfolds, through time, with all of its rich temporalities and episodic uncapturability? Can I be on-the-way-to with no hurried pace faster than my existence can carry me?