Sunday, April 29, 2012

Being: A Word Doodle

Time for another word doodle.  Being.  I have mentioned Being with a capital "B" in numerous previous posts.  In fact, I used "Being" in my very first blog post in 2008 about my trip to Alaska.  What do I mean by the term?  Some hint can be gained, of course, by its usage.  In this post, I'll attempt to spell it out more clearly.

Being is examined in western theology and philosophy and in various eastern spiritual traditions but, surprisingly perhaps, it hasn't been commonly considered.  That is, you have to search more diligently than one would expect to find perspectives on Being.

The two most famous western teachers who address Being are both very controversial in their own right.  But that does not concern me.  Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, two of the 20th Century's most globally influential philosophers, both wrote a great deal about Being.  And they serve as my starting point because I have read them all my adult life.

Heidegger, to be honest, is dense and so difficult to understand that I can't grasp him directly.  I have to read what others say about Heidegger.  His primary philosophic work was Being and Time.  In a nutshell, Heidegger writes of Dasein (There-Being).  Human beings are thrown into a world not of their making and forced to deal with influences beyond their control.

Being is a question unto itself and possibly unanswerable. Being cannot escape itself and is limited to the boundaries of the world.  As such, it is forever Becoming, caught in the forward drive of the "I" that orients itself within a public life. Heidegger frames Being with a dread of death and with personal guilt that is nevertheless suspended in a complete freedom into a life that is forever pressing into a future tense.

For Heidegger, Being takes place within the "darkening of the world" in the sense that Being has lost connection with itself.  Being is completely a part of our humanity and yet we modern humans are isolated directly from Being.  This the existential situation of human beings.  Being is out there but modernity distances us from it.  Being remains out there, near, tangible, but untouchable in a knowing sense.

There is much I find agreeable with Heidegger's rather sobering, melancholy perspective.  Sartre built off of Heidegger with his own masterwork of modern existentialism, Being and Nothingness.  Like Heidegger, Sartre's approach to Being is completely selfish, human-centric, and reflective of World War Two European era angst and passion.  Sartre suggested that there are only two modes – Being-in-Itself and Being-for-Itself.  Sartre’s ideas are part of the foundation for contemporary existentialism.

Being-in-itself represents: "The things which are the objects of consciousness we regard as independent of consciousness, as independently real or as things-in-themselves.  Things are subject to casual laws and are causally determined to be what they are.  They have no consciousness and thus no awareness of anything other than themselves." (Lavine, page 353)

Sartre spends only a few pages on Being-in-itself compared with the hundreds of pages he writes about Being-for-itself.  This is the realm where human Being primarily exists for Sartre.  This is self-aware Being that, ironically, oozes nothingness into Being.  But this nothingness simultaneously reveals a vast freedom for Sartre.

Human Being is "condemned to be free" and for Sartre this meant a sense of Being inside a moral, ethical, and factual openness.  "Just as my past does not determine what I am now, so what I am now does not determine my future." (page 357) Human Being is so free that anything goes and you are completely responsible for your private behavior because you made all your choices in the present tense.

Sartre is as brilliant as he is depressing to read.  The guy is obviously this post-WW2 extremist thinker, reducing Being to a specific case of Being trapped in your own freedom.  There is some insight in this view even though I consider it absurd, neurotic, and myopic.  For example, Sartre limits Karma (a subject he never addresses in his writings) to the "casual laws" of Being-in-Itself.  

I fully agree that Karma works by causal laws (among other forces) but Sartre gives no such causality to Being-for-Itself. He isolates human Being by placing that Being in a non-casual vacuum.  This is an interesting first-step toward understanding the Buddhist project of Emptiness, the subject of a future word doodle. 

But, both Heidegger and Sartre succeed in pointing out a sphere of experience that can be classified as Being, even if their view is limited.  It is not limited in the sense that it is completely blind to Being.  No, it has relevance as it gets you to the point where you see how Being works.  I would merely argue that both philosophers limit Being too severely in their obsessively rational approach.

It took some time and consideration since my last word doodle on Karma before I began to articulate the rather obvious fact that Being is rational but there is so much more to Being.  Sartre and Heidegger point the way to something that is far bigger than either of them could understand from their limited perspectives.

It occurred to me that Being is best expressed in Art rather than by rational discourse.  This might seem an unenlightened and even dangerous perspective, putting Reason under the foot of Art.  But, that is precisely what I intend.  So I wish to introduce what my favorite living author, Milan Kundera, presents in Immortality regarding Being.

"The woman might be sixty or sixty-five.  I was watching her from a deck chair by the pool of my health club, on the top floor of a high-rise that provided a panoramic view of all Paris....she was alone in the pool, waist-deep in the water, and she kept looking up at the young lifeguard in sweat pants who was teaching her to swim....I watched her in fascination.  She captivated me by her touchingly comic manner.  Then an acquaintance started talking to me and diverted my attention.  When I was ready to observe her once again, the lesson was over.  She walked around the pool toward the exit.  She passed the lifeguard, and after she had gone some three or four steps beyond him, she turned her head, smiled, and waved to him.  At that instant I felt a pang in my heart!  That smile and that gesture belonged to a twenty-year-old girl!" (Kundera, page 3)

This passage teaches us that Being is simultaneously physical (the older woman is there to be seen) and metaphysical (the woman waves with energy and gesture inspiring the Platonic Idea or Jungian Archetype of a younger girl).  In another section of the novel...

"When the moment of giddiness passed, Agnes said, 'Laura, you mustn't do anything foolish.  Nobody is worth suffering over.  Think of me, and my love for you.'

"And Laura said , 'But I have an urge to do something.  I must do something!'

"'Something?  What sort of something?'

"Laura looked deep in her sister's eyes and shrugged her shoulders, as if to admit that for the time being a clear meaning of the word 'something' still eluded her.  And then she tilted her head slightly, covered her face in a vague, rather melancholy smile, and placed her fingertips between her breasts, and pronouncing the word 'something,' once again, she threw her hands forward.

"Agnes was reassured: the expression 'something' didn't suggest anything concrete to her, but Laura's gesture left no doubt: that 'something' aimed to soar to beautiful heights and had nothing to do with the dead body lying down below, on the ground, on the floor of a tropical living room." (pp. 159-160)


What is important here is not the interpretation of the gesture. What is important this that the gesture makes something happen.  That something, the opening of your arms wide from having your fingers between your breasts, that is Being.  When a sixty year-old woman becomes a young lady again, that is Being not "just" imagination nor metaphor.

In typical Kundera style, however, it turns out that Agnes misinterpreted Laura's utterance of 'something' entirely. "When she said that, she had a vague idea of going to bed with another man.  She had often thought of this already, and it didn't contradict her longing for suicide.  They were two extreme and quite legitimate reactions of a humiliated woman.  Her vague dreaming about infidelity was rudely interrupted by Agnes's unfortunate attempt to make everything clear:

'Something?  What sort of something?'

"Laura realized that it would have been ridiculous to admit to longing for infidelity right after talking about suicide.  That's why she became flustered and only repeated the word 'something.' And because Agnes's gaze demanded a more concrete answer, she tried to give that vague word some meaning, if only by gesture: she put her hands to her breasts and then threw them forward.


"How did this gesture occur to her?  It's hard to say.  She had never used it before.  An unknown someone prompted her to do it, the way a prompter prods an actor who has forgotten his lines.  Even though the gesture did not express anything concrete, nevertheless it suggested that doing 'something' meant to sacrifice oneself, to give oneself to the world, to send one's soul soaring toward the blue horizon like a white dove." (pp. 162-163)

The differing interpretations of the gesture and its relative concrete-ness are important to these characters and to the narrative of there occurrence.  But in a larger sense Kundera is showing you Being, which transcends both interpretations. Regardless of whether these perspectives are accurate or not, they both reveal something as Being.  This is what I mean by Being and this is what Sartre and Heidegger could not grasp with their rich and vast understandings.

My approach to Being is multi-faceted.  I was a drama minor in college and learned of kinetic projection of force on stage, which originated with Constantin Stanislavski.  I have practiced yoga and meditation for years at various times in my life.  I have had many religious experiences, mostly Christian with some Hindu, that I feel were my touching of Being at different points in my life.  I have read what philosophers say of Being.  I appreciate great Art in many of its manifestations and I feel Being in Art. Music and Literature have Being.

I have enjoyed the multiplicity of Being in Nature all my life and perhaps first felt an awareness of Being in solitude and play, in hikes and camping parties, deep in the heart of wooded Nature sprinkled with open pastures and fields.  I have tasted Being through the diverse lenses of various controlled substances, particularly before I married.  I have experienced Being existentially, beyond but not excluding rationality, for virtually my entire adult life.  I have always had an awareness of what I call Being and the triangulation of my intimacy, as just outlined briefly, gives it focus for me.

As with Karma, Being is best understood on a mundane, physical level.  Though Being vastly transcends this level its diversity does not reveal much more of its inner nature.  In the diverse, Being shows itself to be central to all manifestation.  It is in the mundane, physical world that Being is most understandable and pristine.  The crispness of a fresh pressed shirt, the sound of childish laughter, the churning of fresh water from a massive river into the salty ocean vastness creating patterns of brine.

But, it took me a long time to reach that appreciation of Being.  For years I approached Being from a philosophical perspective or through Art or yoga or Nature.  It is true that Being can be approached by these paths and many others. But, if one loses connection with the routine of Being then your experience of Being becomes ungrounded and tends to take on rather grandiose and overly-inflated interpretations of Being – or, worse, become lost and disoriented within Being.

This is what happened, once again, in the philosophic projects on Being by Heidegger and Sartre.  A better philosophic approach is to go back before Reason trumped everything and Intuition was more of a driving force in thinking, back to the Platonic Ideas or Forms as later expressed by St. Augustine. Through this Saint I discovered Beauty in its Platonic sense.  This, too, revealed Being to me.

Plato writes about "true being" in Phaedo.  Things as they "really are" are "...the essences of things, and Socrates gives examples of justice itself, beauty itself, and goodness itself, abstract equality, etc.  These essences remain always the same, while particular objects of sense do not." (Copelston, page 171). Plato points in less sophisticated logic toward the same thing that Sartre and Heidegger struggled with from this differing perspectives.


For me, Carl Jung's psychological work is a deeply rooted part of my thinking.  His Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, is one of the oldest, marked up books in my library.  Cherry-picking Jung, I find his archetypes to be marvelous examples of Being, albeit from a specific perspective.

But, regardless of the perspective I find about Being, these all remain human perspectives.  Being is not exclusively human, otherwise the Platonic Forms would be purely rational and they are not.  Plato appreciated the spirit and soul of things beyond his fancy thinking and reason, not unlike Jung I might point out.  In some respects Ideas and Archetypes express emotional and intuitive knowledge that is beyond humanity.

Being does not require humanity to Be.  Being does not even require organic life to Be.  So, to inquire about Being from a strictly human perspective is impoverished.  It might be contended that you and I have no choice but to approach Being as human; we cannot escape our humanity to consider Being any other way.  This is certainly what Sartre and Heidegger would argue. This is true of chimpanzees, probably, but it is not true for humanity.  Distinctively, our awareness allows for awareness outside and beyond a self to a large degree.  Culture and language cluster selves in extra-personal Being. Nature is pregnant with Being outside of human experience.

That moment in Alaska in June 2008, that “splendid moment of Being," will Be there sometime this summer, maybe many times.  I will not be there physically to witness any of the many times.  But, all the multiple aspects that make that experience of Being possible at Denali do not need me there to Be.  Being happens there whether any human is there to appreciate it or not.

Being is not the awareness of Being nor the appreciation of Being nor the dread of Being nor anything other representation of Being.  Being happens.  It is subtle-arrogance to believe the human element is required or even important.

Sartre defined Being various ways.  "Being is simply the condition of all revelation."  (page 8)  That seems acceptable, if we can agree on what all those words mean when used together in that utterance.  But, fundamentally he wrote: "Being is.  Being is in-itself.  Being is what it is." (page 29)
That is not very exacting even though it is an accurate assessment of Being.  Being is is an insufficent statement, however.  Certainly, from a rational perspective Being is.  But, there is far more to Being than rationality just as there is far more to the Electromagnetic Spectrum than what human beings can see with their human eyes.

A more complete expression of Being, in my opinion, is this: Being happens.  Being is an objective, physical, material, theoretical, emotional, instinctual expression.  Being does not require consciousness or self-awareness.  Being does not even require biological life.  Being can be molecular, jewelry, shrubbery, whales, a simple song or animal call, a marketing campaign, pheromones, political alliances, a meditation, an argument, arthritis, fine wine, the pain of hunger, pollution, birth, death, laughter, rocks, gamma blasts from star bursts, love, weather patterns, everything that happens is Being.

I might also add that human beings (and other lifeforms) usually experience and express multiple Beings.  Being is in no way, shape, or form singular.  Throat cancer certainly is experienced as Being.  As is desire, hate, fear, frustration, compassion.  Playing a game of cards has Being.  Dreaming is Being.  To clarify dialectically, happenings are not Being in totality.  Happenings innately  have Being. Being is what happening possesses.

The word "Becoming" can substitute for "happening" but it is a dangerous substitution.  Becoming implies agendas and purposes and movement, as Heidegger put it, into the future tense. Happening seems to fit the Now better.  Yet, Becoming is a primary exhibition of happening and is deserving of a separate blog post.

But let's not get hung up on Being as life.  Materiality happens as well.  Take the Delicate Arch in Utah, for example.  It clearly happens to Be the result of centuries of erosion.  But, creation and imagination are also happenings of Being.  So, when an imaginative person sees the rock in Utah they see a natural sculpture. Art happens in that moment. Art is Being.

The important thing is that the Delicate Arch would have Being even without being observed.  Creation (erosion in the case of this rock) is not a sole possession of humanity.  Being is an expression, whether comprehensible or not, whether comprehended or not.  Being requires no life form to understand or appreciate that the Delicate Arch is Being.  Sartre would call this purely Being-in-Itself.  I would say it is Being, a gesture of rock existence no greater or lesser than the gestures so wonderfully expressed in Kundera's novel.

No comments: