Here’s a current cliché I want to drive a stake through: “I have so much on my plate.” I’ve heard it so often in recent years that I’ve taken to saying, ‘Why did you heap so much on?’ Some celebrity who had a brush with death extended the metaphor, saying, “Life is a smorgasbord.”
Life is not a smorgasbord, and we don’t have to fill our plates to overflowing, whether out of gluttony, or because we let the guys serving it up pile it on.
Dropping off a friend at his car after a walking in the park on the first day of true spring in northern California (spring by the buds bursting forth in the sunshine, not by the calendar), I stopped talking as a young father pushed a baby past the car on the sidewalk next on the passenger side.
The baby was perhaps 10 months old—not quite a toddler but old enough to be curious and aware of everything. He (it looked like a boy) was at eye level to the interior of the car, and its expression pierced right into my heart.
It was a beautiful child, with huge eyes and a plump, round face. As he passed slowly by the car, he peered in with such wide-eyed interest and intensity that I pointed for my friend to see. But by the time he turned the scene was over.
A line I read recently about the philosopher John Locke came to mind, “Commencing at birth, as a person receives sensations, they register upon the tabula rasa [blank slate] mind, as if it were a light sensitive film exposed through the lens of a camera.”
Locke maintained that as the mind perceives sensations, it relates, associates and reflects on them. He regarded this as the basis of reasoning, the most important faculty to philosophers ever since.
To Locke, ideas were the product of sensations. But is that true? Are ideas the product of sensations, or do ideas and experiences, as they accumulate in the mind and brain, impede and impair sensation as we age?
Looking at the baby with affection as the baby was looking at us with complete curiosity was like looking into a mirror and seeing the essence of not only one’s own mind, but the human mind.
The scene lasted only two seconds, but was registered on my mind “as if it were a light sensitive film exposed through the lens of a camera.” Was it also recorded in baby’s mind? Probably. But whereas I can consciously replay the scene in memory, and reflect on it, the baby would not yet have the ability to do so.
Even so, the question is, does reflection lead to insight, or to ideas and reasoning? Insight is immeasurably more important.
Conditioning is the subconscious accretion of experience, which occludes the senses. We cease to see things as they are, as children do, with uncorrupted curiosity and uncontaminated wonder.
At best, we see in terms of words, ideas and knowledge; at worst in terms of prejudice, fear and hate.
Locke was mistaken—the senses do not give rise to ideas and thought; rather, conditioning and experience impede and impair the senses.
British Empiricists, like Locke, “maintained that all knowledge or truth is derived from experience, rather than from the logical techniques of Continental Rationalists” like Descartes.
That’s a false choice however, since neither experience nor logical techniques can yield insight into the truth. Knowledge and truth are completely different streams, and experience, to the extent that it subconsciously accumulates, prevents direct perception.
We need to develop, within ourselves and with children, a relationship to what is. What is constantly changing, inside and outside, so what matters is the quality of observation and attention, not experience or logical analysis.
There is truth to the tabula rasa idea—the baby’s mind is largely a blank slate. The problem however, is that the place of ideas and reasoning, the automatic recording of experience, and the inculcation of conditioning have been conflated rather than delineated. And therefore we don’t know what we’re doing.
To inwardly survive in this globalizing culture and consciousness, it’s essential to take 20 minutes a day and set everything aside (including and especially social media), and simply observe oneself, preferably outdoors in the mirror of nature.
Taking at least 20 minutes a day to watch, without interference, whatever spontaneously arises in thought and emotion (whether the noisy mind or the emotions of mourning a dead parent), space opens and there is peace.
Remaining with what is in passive observation, attention gathers and brings insight, understanding and ending to the accretions of the past. That keeps the mind fresh and brain young.
Lefevremartin77 at gmail.com