Translating ideas

The first dilemma in the process of developing the mental, spiritual, psychological, or philosophical self is that society presents a plethora of sects, schools, philosophies, and traditions before us. A few hundred years ago, or far less in certain places, we would not have knowledge of the existence of so many traditions and schools. Their discovery has paralleled Western expansion, usually inimical contact with indigenous or traditional cultures, and usually relations based on power and exploitation. When the contact was positive, a handful of ambitious and often ignorant or naive scholars spun away the political and economic context of discovery to bring to light translations and theories about the discovered peoples, cultures, and ideas.

The validity of the religions and beliefs was tested by Western standards, and placed into categories of dismissiveness, condescension, curiosity, or exoticism. Furthermore, the translation of ideas and beliefs was hampered by language and culture, where no exact equivalents could be overlaid onto Western categories. The inevitable Westernized versions, due to the organic character of tradition and culture, so interdependent on environment, nature, and time, nevertheless offers piquant alternatives to the shortcomings of Western thought. Except that there are so many possibilities.

The many schools and sects are now like the varied fare of a bazaar, with the notion that more than a few are actively promoted and popularized, that is, hocked. Western mutations and versions promise an integration of our modern insights with the traditions borrowed or discovered from exotic settings. The anomalous collector, the strange urban figure of fin de siecle capitals of Europe and America — Paris, London, Vienna, New York, broad-minded wanderers of thought among peddlers of antiquities — has become the seeker, the pundit, the seminar and retreat attendee.

The market should be, after all, be a market of ideas, not antiques, not reliquaries. The ideas are similar to one another in their antiquity, exoticism, or piquancy. The favored guru of this or that niche is the strange beast on loan to the zoo, that prison where all exotics go to die.

But even detached from gurus, ideas form no complete pattern, and remain a hodgepodge. Today, ideas are like plants in a hot house growing in sterile soil and separate little pots, thriving only because of amendments and artificial additives. Such a presentation of ideas is bound to frustrate the honest seeker, and one may say that the whole philosophy of existentialism arose because a world full of ideas without culture, context, rootedness, or being, of ideas failing to thrive in the environments of modernity, left the Western observer disturbed and melancholic. This sentiment in itself, this looking at the world as a clot of artificial forms, represents an apogee, a decline, an end. The apogee of ancient empires was always this marketplace of ideas to accompany exotic new foods, spices, trinkets, books, clothes, music, ideas. Anything from afar, while the soil beneath our feet was paved over, and the trees and flowers plundered. Zarathustra quit the marketplace because no one would listen. They were too taken up with the shopping, alternately enthralled and jaded, enthralled by new scenarios, plausibility, practices, but wearied by and despairing of ever making sense of them.

We cannot make sense of what is yanked from its soil, its environment, its natural habitat. Or, rather, we cannot understand and appreciate fully what the thing is. Basho showed wonder at a flower, but Tennyson would “pluck” the same flower from the “crannied wall” and study the dead thing under a microscope. Every idea we import remains dead because we do not see it in the type of society and natural setting in which it thrived.

And modern people are reluctant to change their own natural setting in order to “grow” these exotic plants, because then they would lose their last connection to the modern industrial, technological world that is collapsing around them. Compromises are inevitably made, if only for an appreciation, a hothouse view, a gallery setting in which we go through re-creations of thought and movement and practice, hoping to capture the essence of what came to us from a far-off land and culture. That done, we turn on our appliances, boot up our connectivity to the world, get ready to work another day in the caverns of modern society’s workplaces.

We juggle many masks in order to cope with what we don’t really like to do, and daydream of a world that grew the flowers of that far away ancient land (geographically or psychologically) we know so little of.

Finding values (II)

The last entry described socialization in the Western world with a simple formula:

doctrine --> practice --> values

meaning that socialization into a specific doctrine, whether religious or not, is the first expectation of a successful society or culture, followed by the practice of the doctrine as evidence of successful membership in the given society and culture, followed by a routinized adherence or belief in the aforesaid process.

The goal of such a sequence is to assure social stability and order, a prerequisite to authority and control. This stability appeals to the individual’s instincts for survival and preservation, and provides the ecological habitat for reproduction, both physical and of the values of the existing order. The individual literally gives up all pretense to wisdom in order to make a gift of self to the contrivance that dominates daily life for all. At any rate, such wisdom is bound by the deeper values of instinctual preservation and order.

This is not to say that the individual should be contrarian or rebellious, or a dissident or nihilist in order to strike out upon a path that is the obverse atomism and fragmentary individualism. After all, these, too, are manifestations of the West, usually at the end of a given cycle of growth and maturation, when smart people decide to save themselves from the coming tightening of social order and authority by assuming that they are autonomous.

Without a serious revision of the paradigm of order, the obverse of disorder, chaos, nihilism, destruction, becomes the only available alternative. Of course, the powers that control society understand this psychology and are always prepared ahead of time for such contingencies. Those who seek power know one another. The activist opponent if a seeker of power.

The opposite of the socialization process above will not transpire in a short period of time, nor can any individual or group force this change upon society at large. Any individual is inevitably a product of that very process, and thus will succumb to the methods that combat it. But the true opposite is not combat, not disorder, not resentment, not counter-engagement. The true opposite is wisdom.

If the existing socialization model appeals to our instincts, disengagement appeals to wisdom. If the preservation of order, comfort, and control typifies both the agents of power and the comfortable citizens and believers, then the true opposite is disengagement, such that order, comfort, and control fall away, irrelevant to the path upon which we embark. That path is solitary, but not one of alienation, for one cannot be alienated from something unless one is engaged with it, if one desires and strives to belong, to attain success within that something. Wisdom lets all of these “worldly” aspirations fall away, including the very success of our venture.

In short, the solitary inverts the paradigm of society and socialization to:

values --> practice --> doctrine

The word “value” carries an antiquarian scent, a nostalgia not appropriate to the sophisticated modern world. But the concept of values is very much applied in the modern world, except that the modern world does not recognize its attachments, its style, its cravings, its narcissism, its contrivances, as expressions of its values. Values ought to mean, or connote, simply that which is considered valuable and not to be discarded lightly. There is a considerable body of doctrine and practices that the modern world is loathe to discard, having spent centuries building it up, though it no longer knows why. So one can take the dictionary meaning of values, the etymological sense of values as what is worthy, what is strong, and find the term still useful in describing what people do. Even those who dislike the word do so with their new set of values.

Modern theories of socialization defer true decision-making to adolescence, seeing childhood in terms of imprint and modeling. In adolescence, supposedly, we confirm our values. This theory downgrades the role of imprint and modeling in forming unconscious values. Adolescence is a time for the very rebellion alluded to above with regards to values, or the time for an emotional attachment to earlier experiences that is not entirely reasonable. But the age of peers, fashion, conformity, and psychological turmoil hardly represent the strength and solidity that the concept of values represents. Rather, it is to take an emotional sense of doctrine and elevate it to something that youth considers permanent, a fragile reliability.

To truly account for values, one must go to the most independent and mature sources, and these are to be found in the historical hermits and solitaries. These simply made their lives expressions of values such as humility, simplicity, and disengagement from worldly pursuits. They made a practice of these values and saw emerging from this pattern of their lives (and the patterns of nature) a doctrine by which to live.