Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Mindfulness and Everyday Aesthetics

I had my Introduction to Philosophy students read Thich Nhat Hanh's The Miracle of Mindfulness tr. Mobi Ho, Boston, Beacon Press, 1987.  I have long thought of Buddhism as having possible implications for an aesthetics of everyday life.  Nhat Hanh's book is largely a meditation on "The Foundation of Mindfulness" or the Satipatthana Sutta translated from the Pali by Nyanasatta.  (Please forgive not including the proper marks on these names.)  Arnold Berleant, an American aesthetician whom I will be commenting on at the upcoming American Society for Aesthetics national meeting in San Antonio, has provided us with a series of books outlining his "aesthetics of engagement."  His notion is that aesthetics should be understood as closely allied with the original meaning of "aesthesis":  that it involves all sense experience.  So one idea is that proper aesthetic experience involves paying close attention to experience, and in particular, sensuous experience.  This would ally Berleant with Buddhism. "Engagement" is like "mindfulness," although there are also some differences.  Berleant downplays the element of pleasure in aesthetic experience:  one can also have negative aesthetic experiences.  Buddhism (and I am only thinking here of how Buddhism is expressed in The Miracle of Mindfulness) is somewhat different.  That is, Buddhism seems to hold nothing to be ultimately negative.  One is even encouraged to meditate on the decay our bodies will undergo after death.  Another difference between the two is that "mindfulness," although it does get us to appreciate the things of everyday life in much the way everyday aesthetics does, does involve something similar to what Westerners have called "contemplation": and Berleant rejects the contemplative mode of experience as central to aesthetics.  For him, engagement entails bodily engagement but not detached engagement.  He associates contemplation with disinterestedness and "the aesthetic attitude," all three of which he rejects.  Still, Berleant, who is also an important aesthetician of nature, would surely approve of the following quote from Nhat Hanh:  "I like to walk alone on country paths, rice plants and wild grasses on both sides, putting each foot down on the earth in mindfulness, knowing that I walk on the wondrous earth.  In such moments, existence is a miraculous and mysterious reality.  People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle.  But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth.  Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize:  a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child- our own two eyes.  All is a miracle."  (12)  Perhaps, however, the language of "mysterious" and "miracle" would be too religious for his taste.  I do not find any problem with the language as such.

Of course mindfulness can be said to go beyond aesthetics.   I often wonder where aesthetics leaves off and the practical (on the one hand) or the religious (on the other) begins.  In response to a complaint that a work life does not allow these woodsy rambles, Nhat Hanh says, "keep your attention focused on the work, be alert and read to handle ably and intelligently any situation which may arise -  this is mindfulness.  There is no reason why mindfulness should be different from focusing all one's attention on one's work, to be alert and to be using one's best judgment." (14)  Here there is no emphasis on the senses in the way we found in his country walk.  Paying attention to the work at hand may even involve not paying attention to aesthetic qualities.  So, for this and other reasons, I would not want to prematurely identify mindfulness with aesthetic engagement in Berleant's sense.  There is an affinity, but mindfulness has other dimensions.  Is a life devoted to an taking an aesthetic point of view (except in those cases where an ethical or a purely practical point of view is necessary) truly valid? (One thinks here of the question of Walter Pater's aestheticism).

A lot of the idea of mindfulness is based on methods of breathing.  Paying attention to your breathing may give us aesthetic pleasure, but the main purpose seems to be as a method for achieving certain goals.  One could argue, of course, that mindful breathing is itself an art and that, to be done rightly, it requires attending to certain aesthetic qualities.  Nhat Hanh writes:  "Your breathing should flow gracefully, like a river..."  Moreover, the mastery of breathing is also art-like in that it involves control, much like the musician's control of an instrument and of the sounds it produces, and of course this is associated with the aesthetic quality of harmony, in this case "inner harmony."  Thus one can speak of a positive aesthetic dimension to the results of breathing mindfully:  "To master our breath is to be in control of our bodies and minds.  Each time we find ourselves dispersed and find it difficult to gain control of ourselves by different means, the method of watching the breath should always be used." (20)  There may also be an aesthetic dimension to the "one-ness of body and mind," which is made possible by this disciplined breathing. (23)  

It is not seated meditation, however, that draws the everyday aesthetician to think about Buddhistic mindfulness but the extension of meditation to everyday life.  Nhat Hanh most famously refers to mindfulness in washing dishes:  "While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes."  (4)  This could be misinterpreted by a Western philosopher to mean that one should just concentrate on the truth of the proposition, "I am washing dishes," which, I think, would be quite wrong.  Rather, one should be conscious of one's every action in washing dishes while washing dishes.  Maybe one should be conscious of the dishes too (as they are part of the total experience).  Nhat Hanh also observes that if you are focusing on the cup of tea that you might have after this unpleasant task of washing dishes you are not fully focusing on the moment.  

Sometimes I do not know how far the affinities go between everyday aesthetics and Buddhistic mindfulness.  Nhat Hanh quotes a religious community as saying:  "one should not lose oneself in mind dispersion or in one's surrounding.  Learn to practice breathing in order to regain control of body and mind...."  (22)  Is there something wrong with aesthetic appreciation of one's surroundings?  Or is this just that the task at hand, i.e. meditation,  involves detachment from aesthetic experience of one's surroundings?  If the sole issue is self-control to achieve "concentration and wisdom" then is the aesthetic somehow lost in the process?  Or is it gained back at the end of the game?  

Sometimes, mindfulness methods seem directly relevant to aesthetic experience.  Nhat Hanh describes a day of mindfulness and says, "Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the whole earth revolves - slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.  Live the actual moment. Only the actual moment is life."  This sounds like the pathway to aestheticism as well.  Slow drinking of the tea would allow one to concentrate on its aesthetic qualities, and also the aesthetic qualities of one's own actions.  The aesthetic demand is to notice the now...to live, as is also the demand of mindfulness.

One of the results of meditation is to "achieve inner peace and joy."  (35)  These can be seen as aesthetic qualities, although not of external objects but of one's own mind.  Finding "peace and joy in this very moment" seems to be a requirement for a certain kind of aesthetic life as well.  So, perhaps, the methods of mindfulness are not aesthetic in themselves but have an important aesthetic result.

One thing I have trouble with, not so much because of my commitment to aesthetics as because of my commitment to the sort of philosophy that goes back to Socrates, is the relatively negative attitude expressed towards thought, language and even conversation.  If the goal of mindfulness is to not think through a thought but to simply acknowledge one's thoughts and then let them go then thoughtful exploration of ideas, philosophical dialogue, and thoughtful philosophical writing, become impossible.  If the goal of conversation is not to concentrate on what is being said and on its implications but rather (as Nhat Hanh portrays it) on not being distracted from one's breathing by attending to the conversation, then it would be hard for a Socratic philosopher to see mindfulness as something that takes over much of one's life.  Time that could be spent in dialogue or in talking, thinking or writing would have to be sacrificed to time spent in not doing those things.  And this is always the dilemma for the Socrates-minded philosopher in thinking about mindfulness:  which sort of wisdom do we want the most, the sort that comes through what we would call mindful dialogue or the sort that comes through mindful breathing and sitting?  

However, the aesthetic payoff may be worth the price.  Nhat Hanh writes that, with mindfulness, "Drinking a cup of tea becomes a direct and wondrous experience in which the distinction between subject and object no longer exists."  (42)  One thinks of Nietzsche's concept of the Dionysian which also results in ecstatic oneness. Yet,, Nhat Hanh contrasts the oneness with the cup of tea with "the illusory divisions of separate selves, created by concepts and language" and it is "concepts and language" that provides the path to the Socratic-style wisdom even in Nietzsche...there is no getting around it.  (42)  

Perhaps the ideal of philosophy would be to find a way to combine these two forms of wisdom.  

Nhat Hanh stresses the interdependence of all things, and one thinks of Hegel.  Certainly if one takes the path of contextualism in aesthetics (where the aesthetic object is only fully experienced when one understands its full context) one does think a lot of interdependence.  But he also says:  "This meditation is not a discursive reflection on a philosophy of interdependence.  It is a penetration of mind into mind itself, using one's concentrative power to reveal the real nature of the object itself."  (45)  Is there room for philosophy then?  Well, there might be, for Nhat Hanh sounds a lot like Edmund Husserl in his description of phenomenological method.  

In any case, the way Nhat Hanh plays this out can be of some value to the aesthetician.  Especially useful is his discussion of experiencing a table.  "The table's existence is possible due to the existence of things which we might call 'the non-table world':  the forest where the wood grew and was cut, the carpenter, the iron ore which became the nails and screws....If you grasp the table's reality then you see that in the table itself are present all those things which we normally think of as the nontable world."

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