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Contemplation, Philosophy and Action

Cars were streaming out of Upper Park as I drove in late in the afternoon during the long holiday weekend. The bumpy gravel road is less and less of an impediment to all sorts of activities, from enjoying swimming holes to flying drones. Yes, flying drones.

Photo Martin LeFevre

Overlooking the stupendous gorge about a half-mile beyond the last parking area, I wondered if I was the only person who meditated there that day. Such thoughts were soon forgotten, as attentive solitude surrounded by immense beauty naturally put self and mind in their place.

A feeling of spontaneous reverence arose within one, without deity worship or deification of nature. The completely quiet and receptive brain in communion with the earth is never a waste of time; continuous activity in a pathologically ill society is wasting countless lives however.

The shadows lengthened and the stream far below became more audible as it grew less visible. I hadn’t seen anyone for any hour when a young couple began shouting from directly below. They were having I thought, until inexplicably, they made their way up the nearly vertical side of the gorge and stood five meters below where I sat.

The fellow saw me and rather ludicrously took on an air of protective paternalism toward the young woman, wrapping his arms around her from behind and using one of her arms to help her locate some feature in the distance.

After 10 minutes of this, they clambered the rest of the way over the rocks next to me, whereupon the young woman asked insouciantly, “Taking in the view?”

Immediately after they left a drone appeared and hovered overhead, having been flown up the gorge from some distance away. It sounded like a thousand concentrated mosquitoes, and remained overhead, a dark metaphysical intrusion in the extreme. Growing angry, I gave it the finger, and it flew away.

What is going on? That’s a question that analysis and knowledge cannot reveal, and for which they are inadequate to respond. The crisis of human consciousness is intensifying, and the old paragons and paradigms are found increasingly lacking.

Noam Chomsky, fine with being called by the oxymoron a “professional philosopher,” defines philosophy as “reasoned and thoughtful analysis.” In the next breath he upholds the central duality of human life: “Beyond that, what is needed is action: urgent and dedicated, in the many ways that are open to us.”

With all due respect to Mr. Chomsky, that isn’t what doing philosophy means, and action as he defines it certainly won’t yield an adequate response to the human crisis.

Philosophy cannot change the disastrous course of man, but it can point the way toward humans growing into human beings through awakening insight, which, when enough do, will.

Addressing the duality between thinking and acting, being and doing is one of the essential tasks of philosophy.

It may help to look at things in terms of three overlapping levels in human being. The first and most important is effortlessly gathering attention in passive, undivided observation, which completely quiets the mind-as-thought.

The essence of being is stillness and emptiness. The state of unknowing is the antithesis of the self and ego, which inevitably asserts, accretes and aggresses.

The next level is using reason and logic (though not analysis, which is inherently separative) in asking questions alone and with others, with the intent to ignite insight.

Obviously, knowledge has an important place, just not the primary place. Insight is the true basis of understanding, not knowledge and analysis.

Finally, right action seamlessly grows out of both of the previous levels, rather than being viewed as separate from them. Only intellectuals and activists say nonsensical things like, “what is needed is urgent and dedicated action.”

Such action is dualistic, separate from being, and contributes to the fragmentation destroying the earth and humanity.

For some people, there may be no action except living and being; for others, right action at the social, economic or political level flows out of daily immersion in stillness, emptiness and insight.

I respect Noam Chomsky, but it’s dismaying to hear him say things like, “Nothing is more inspiring to see how poor and suffering people, living under conditions incomparably worse than we endure, continue quietly and unpretentiously with courageous and committed struggle for justice and dignity.”

This isn’t far from the treacle of a New York Times celebrity, globetrotting, “win-a-trip” columnist, who gushes, “The truth is that the world today is not depressing but inspiring.” That level of denial puts Nicolas Kristof in the Trumpian League of alternate universes.

At the core of such thinking is comparison, which is false on the face of it.

Suffering is not physical, but psychological and emotional. That’s why people in extremely difficult physical circumstances often suffer less than those in physically comfortable conditions.

Martin LeFevre

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