16 April 2011

Ignorance is Bliss

We have all heard this saying before, but we mostly think of ignorance as a choice-less state. A place which precedes knowledge and is somehow defined by easiness, light-heartedness, even a hint of (mental) simplicity. To be ignorant, one needs no effort at all. The ignorant, another preconception convinces us, feel no pain.

Let me show you a different side to ignorance.

I thoroughly believe that Socrates was right when he said that to acknowledge one’s ignorance means to become wise. To perceive ignorance is to open up questions that lead to new understandings. Quite paradoxically then, the more ignorance we perceive, the more chance we have of becoming wise. My question then is not if ignorance is worthwhile, but how easy it is to be ignorant. My guess is: it is NOT.

It takes courage NOT to know. It takes more courage to admit to NOT knowing. Everything we do (our daily social rituals) and every thought we think (our mental interpretation and construction of the world) is to a large extent modelled and labelled in advance: if it wasn’t, we would quickly become neurotic. Habitual, ritualistic and even mechanical behaviour has its rightful place in our lives. Good habits can save us time, contribute to our health, support and nurture social relations. The skill of brushing our teeth, the recognition of a magpie in the park, the capacity to formulate a written argument – these are all useful knowledges. And although we exerted effort in acquiring them, they soon become an effortlessly running software of our mind.

Recently, I have acquired useful knowledge that has to do with personal transformation. It is a model of the journey that a person goes through from point A to point B in order to achieve a goal or change. It resembles Joseph Campbell’s ‘the hero’s saga’ where a person confronts all sorts of adversities, travels through dark and unknown worlds only to reach to the other side, transformed. This journey starts with a rupture, a sudden blow that shakes the hero’s world so that every certainty and security is lost – the hero is all alone, afraid and knows NOT what to do. Models can be useful guides through what is going on inside and outside of us. They serve as points of comparison with other people’s experience so we can feel appreciated and supported. The problem with models, though, is that they label experience. For example, for a sudden chill in our gut they say fear. People then learn the word fear and use it even when they are completely disconnected from the experience. Or they might expect that every fear for every person is the same. The biggest trap with models is that they freeze the process of experience into a product of language.

When I learned the ‘hero’s saga’ model, believe me I was one little happy puppy. Why? Well, because I believed that from now on, just by knowing the model, there would and could NOT exist an experience for which I wouldn’t be ready. Whatever the blow life had for me, I was there, waiting, armed with the knowledge of my model of transformation. The first step – insecurity and uncertainty – was what I was certain of. The point of that first blow, however, is to create uncertainty and insecurity all over again.

At the moment, I am experiencing a kind of a rupture again. It came out of nowhere. One moment everything was calm, I was on the top of my world, and then WHAM, it hit me again. So what the hell is with me that I can’t learn and use the model once and for all? Why am I never ready for the breakdown?

Ignorance is bliss, but it’s oh so not effortless. It takes courage and effort to suspend all knowledge and reliance on old schemes and models. The point of rupture is to break down the old. It is called rupture because we MUST NOT be ready for it. It is its purpose to surprise us, to break us down, to grind us to the ground, to take everything from us, to make us think it’s the end of the world. And the only thing that the model can teach us is precisely this: when the rupture comes, even the model is destroyed. Does it get easier with time? Yes and no. If we suspend the knowledge and consciously choose ignorance, we stand a chance to ease ourselves into the pangs of rupture. The rupture will rage on but we might find a quiet spot in its axis. If we let the limits of our old world disappear, our new dwelling might become bigger. If we forget to label the feeling in our gut as fear, we might just reconnect with experience itself. If we scrap the model for a moment, we might just enjoy the ride.

05 April 2011

You First

It really hurts when someone blackmails us emotionally, doesn’t it? When they pop that ultimatum – if you do/don’t do this, I am gone. And because it hurts to be in this conditioned position, we normally dig our heels deeper and disobey the demand, even if it sounds reasonably clever.

Emotional conditioning is not something that only happens between two people. We treat life in such disrespectful way most of the time. A good friend of mine calls this attitude I’ll be happy when… or waiting for a million different things, people, events or feelings to occur before we think we can be happy. This struggle with life is like rope pulling. Life to one side, you to the other – each pulling equally hard into an impasse!

We have a saying in Croatia: (literally translated) the clever one lets go; the stupid one presses on.

So imagine what would happen if you were to give in to life. If you were to let go of the force which is pulling the rope to your side but actually keeping it stuck in one place. Just imagine. With your hands off, the rope finally moves, doesn’t it? For me as an anthropologist and a writer it has taken a few physics metaphors to understand basic facts about force. Using force against force usually ends with getting stuck and completely exhausted. Sure I know of all that tao/dao of ki/chi/poo/f**k wisdom. Sentences like don’t swim against the current or what you resist, persists sound interesting to me, even believable. But I never truly knew what that wisdom feels like when experienced with your whole being. Many critically inclined friends might think that I am becoming a conformist when I discard resistance as futile. Especially now when there is so much to be critical about. But this is far from the truth. What I experience when I let go of the rope is that by giving up force I make space for power.

Force and power couldn’t be more different. The former is hard and when it hits, it breaks both the object and itself. The latter is soft, it yields into whatever comes and so sustains life. The one who lets go is not only cleverer, but also more powerful. Because it takes courage to do something that appears illogical and counter-intuitive. Courage is not a fearless state, but a state of being determined to face whatever comes, knowing that there are resources for that. Yielding into whatever or whoever comes: lover or enemy.

So, what does that have to do with real life, you ask me. You are pragmatic and want to know how (meta)physics can be useful in everyday life – and that’s good. Well, a friend of mine who married a great guy after a series of horror relationships told me: when you enter a room and you feel yourself drawn to that tall dark stranger, stop and turn to the other side – the quiet one sitting in the corner is your man. Do the illogical. Break your own habitual behaviour that brings you results you don’t like. Or when you put on weight and refuse to buy jeans a size larger because you are afraid it would be a trigger to go downhill. Pulling to the opposite side of your fat metabolism, starving yourself and punishing your beautiful body with denying her nice clothes – no clothes before you shrink type of ultimatum. Stop and think again. To shift things in the desirable direction, who should let go? You first.