“Intellectualisation creates a gap or lack of rapport between you and your life. You think about things so much that you get into the state where you are eating the menu instead of the dinner, where you value money more than wealth, and are generally confusing the map with the territory.” – Alan Watts, “Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life: Collected Talks 1960-1969”
I’ll be honest and admit that “eating the menu” has, historically, been one of my favorite pastimes, and one of my favorite ways to avoid the tough work of actually putting theory into practice in my life. Maybe it’s because, growing up, I actually enjoyed and saw some inherent value in academic work, research, and the like, but it’s pretty much always been true that, when looking to explore some new topic, idea, or practice, the first place I go is usually to books and the written word. I want to see what others have to say about the topic, and to read the accounts of others’ experience with the ideas or subjects that have captured my attention. Nowadays, when recordings of the spoken word are even more readily available online, I’ve found myself at times becoming a bit of a “podcast junkie,” diving deep into interviews and lectures featuring people whose thoughts, work, and experiences intrigue me.
Now, to be fair, this is often a great way to learn new things and develop our own thinking and connection with others and the world around us. But I suspect it also has the power to become a kind of trap – especially for those like myself who love gnawing on the menu so much that we forget we came in the first place because we were hungry for something a bit more substantial and filling, something ultimately a bit more satisfying. As Watts warns in the snippet quoted above, there’s a danger – in any over-reliance on abstraction and intellectualisation – of establishing “a gap or lack of rapport between you and your life.”
I suspect that intellectualisation is an especially alluring alternative precisely because it actually is a kind of work, and because it feels so much like actually doing something. Thinking about sitting in a small pub in County Kerry, in the far west of Ireland – perhaps imagining also drinking a pint and listening to a fiddler play a few jigs and reels – isn’t actually the same thing as being there, but to our minds the conceptualization has certain things in common with the actual experience. Studying a topic academically is still further removed, but it also still feels like a kind of practice or engagement.
Reading books about music, or listening to interviews with musicians talking about their craft, is probably a decent example. As valuable as such enterprises may be, you’ll never ultimately become a great musician yourself unless you also practice your instrument. It sounds so simple, but I can assure you (from personal experience) that it’s possible to get so bogged down in studying music-making that you never get around to making any music. For writers, meanwhile, it’s tempting to keep reading books about writing rather than actually get down to writing something. For professional theologians, I’ve been told it can be hard to remember to pray. When we maintain this intellectual distance, we feel safer and more secure, and maybe we are, in a sense, but we’re also often avoiding the realms of struggle and toil where real growth and progress can actually occur.
Of course, it’s true that some concepts have an innate abstract quality to them that’s hard to overcome. Concepts like Truth, Beauty, Love, and other such ideals (Platonic and otherwise) may ultimately exist outside our ability to grasp and pin them down in any truly concrete way. But when we try to apply the same kind of intellectual distance to concepts that are interwoven with the threads of our daily lives, we run the risk of becoming disengaged in a way that makes us ineffective as human beings, no good to others or ourselves.
There’s a place in “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” where Shunryu Suzuki tells his students that they should make no effort whatsoever to remember his lectures after he finishes speaking – that they should listen with care, sure, but then let it all go (and, one imagines, get back to their meditation practice). Elsewhere in the volume, he says, “The best way to communicate may be just to sit without saying anything. Then you will have the full meaning of Zen.”
For some reason, when mulling this over today, I’m reminded also of the story from Christian history about Prince Vladimir of Kiev, who around the year 987 is supposed to have sent out envoys to study and report back to him on the religious faiths and practices of neighboring lands. As the tale goes, upon their arrival at the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople – as the envoys later recounted – “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you. Only we know that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. We cannot forget that beauty.”
To this day, the message of Orthodox Christians to inquirers about their faith is often the same as Philip’s response to a skeptical Nathanael in John 1:46 – “Come and see.” The idea being that, while formal study and academic-style inquiry is all well and good, it’s not the same as attending to the holy mysteries, where “splendor and beauty” beyond description might even have the power to blur the lines between heaven and earth.
Again, the map is not the territory, nor the menu the meal.
That’s probably enough rambling and meandering from me for today, but I’ll be thinking about this some more. Or is that maybe the wrong approach? Maybe, instead, I should try to find a few places in my life where I can move past “thinking about this some more” to actual concrete action in the present moment, even if that action is just stopping for a few minutes to sit quietly and catch my breath.
I’m intrigued by the idea that the practice of presence – whether walking down the road, eating your dinner and then washing the dishes, standing in worship at Hagia Sophia, or sitting doing zazen on your meditation cushion – that such practice has the power to reestablish some “rapport” – or even, perhaps, a kind of friendship – between us and our lives.
That sounds nice and nourishing. Now, I wonder if I can get it take-away…?
Posted in roundabout response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Abstract