A Hook Upon Which to Hang Emotions

It seems that emotional investment in an experience requires an ontological assertion about it.

For example, if an image of a painful incident pops into my head, how I react to it will likely differ based on whether the image is a …

  1. Fantasy
  2. Memory of an event

What is the difference between (1) and (2)? If the incident left no lasting traces, then what do I have? With the past gone, what criteria do I have in claiming (2) is more real than (1)? Yet it’s this ontological assertion that forms the bedrock of my emotional investment in (2) over (1).

Or take a play.  People compete, back-stab and then walk away unfazed.  Phenomenally, the incident could be identical to a painful event, yet it’s considered nothing, because it too is not “real”.  Again, an ontological assertion determines the emotional response.

In short, I reify, and as a result, I think I have something “concrete” to cling to.

Many inner paths try to deconstruct this reification, yet often the paths can get involved, and may do their own reification and become crystallized doctrine.  However, one philosophy took non-reification to great lengths: Pyrrhonism. Pyrrhonism advocated the suspension of beliefs about all phenomena.  Further, it encouraged constant investigation of phenomena, with an openness to experience, even if said experience contradicted Pyrrhonism itself! The result of practicing Pyrrhonism was said to be a deep serenity — Ataraxia.

Unfortunately, very little survives of Pyrrhonism today.  However, more recently a Philosophical movement arose with very strong echoes of Pyrrhonism, even if it had a different goal.

This school is Phenomenology.

Phenomenology was an attempt to study phenomena in and of themselves, and a key practice involved Phenomenological Reduction and Epoche — suspending judgment about phenomena. Sound familiar? The result was a type of meditation, and at times language that seemed to hint at happiness.  You can read more about Phenomenalogical Reduction here, but here are some passages from the site to hopefully whet your appetite:

There is an experience in which it is possible for us to come to the world with no knowledge or preconceptions in hand; it is the experience of astonishment. 

Socrates (or Plato or Aristotle, depending on who you read) claimed that Philosophy began in wonder.  However, this wonder often vanishes, to be replaced by canned knowledge, concepts that often superimpose — if not replace — our experience.  So how do we sustain this wonder? Phenomenological Reduction!

The phenomenological reduction is at once a description and prescription of a technique that allows one to voluntarily sustain the awakening force of astonishment so that conceptual cognition can be carried throughout intentional analysis, thus bringing the “knowing” of astonishment into our everyday experience.

[…] The path to the attainment of this perspective is a species of meditation, requiring rigorous, persistent effort and is no mere mental exercise. […] and initially brings about a radical transformation of the individual performing it similar to a religious conversion.

The “religious conversion” is intriguing and makes me wonder if this was purely an “academic” philosophy, or if some hints as to the ultimate impact on our well-being were felt.

Interestingly enough, once we start, we end up seeking the “self”…

[…] all consciousness is consciousness of something; […]  Furthermore, since we are always already in a world, the first task of epistemology is to properly and accurately describe what is already the case; and we can do this only if we begin with a thorough examination of consciousness itself and carry that examination all the way back to the “I” in the “I Am.” Husserl speaks of going “back” [ruckfrage] because we must begin where we are; and where we are includes a sense of self whose identity is temporarily seated in the sedimented layers of consciousness built up through our temporal experiences. Hence, if we are to encounter the “I” we must dig back down through those layers or we must continually present ourselves with the question: who is “I”? as we consider the great variety of things with which we have identified. This questioning back is the method of the phenomenological reduction and aims to lay bare the “I”—the condition for the possibility of knowledge.

This is reminiscent many inner paths such as Buddhism and Vedanta (Hinduism), and specifically, Ramana Maharishi’s Self-Inquiry Meditation.

Again, despite the language, Phenomenology seems more academically inclined.  Yet the process and the language are so reminiscent of Pyrrhonism that it’s hard not to take this and run.  In particular, it’s very tempting to try to build a modern Pyrrhonist practice by combining what survives of Pyrrhonism with at least one of the movements of Phenomenological Reduction.

Here is another article on phenomenology and meditation.


11 thoughts on “A Hook Upon Which to Hang Emotions

  1. I definitely see the use of the phenomenological epoche as a kind of gateway to dealing with emotions. I don’t know much about meditation, but it seems like that suspension of external causal links could really be of use in this way. It might be that learning about academic phenomenology is more than what’s required to do meditation for most people, but for certain types, it could be very powerful.

  2. Can we lie and still manage to be a non-lier. Its hard.

    One has to become. Sure, meditation, non-reification, or put it another way, fooling-oneself, can be a good tool. It has been said, you fool long enough, you become one your self. These are not unlike physical exercises.

    A better approach is simply to live a better life, wholistically. Karma, Dharma, meditation, doing good, being good.

    Become one.

      1. “lie” is one example. Replace it with any “act”.

        Can one do something/anything, perfectly or satisfactorily, without becoming/being it fully.

        Lets say we learn to non-reify, How do you determine what to non-reify, and what to reify. Can somebody really control this. What is going to be the barometer (judgement). Can you reliably non-reify in all circumstances. One’s subjectivity plays havoc. Heavily determined by one’s nature, tendencies, etc.

        A calculating mind is not reliable. One has to “become”, bones and brains. And the perfect/efficient way is to align with nature. (dharma).

      2. Well, one is trying to reduce suffering, and as such one is trying to non-reify as reification gives us a point to which to cling. In this case, the real issue is whether suffering has reduced; the non-reification process can be regarded as a “conventional truth” — a practical way of thinking of what one is doing, rather than an absolute description of what one is. The reification issue only arises when we actually treat the non-reification as a goal in and of itself.

      3. yep, agree. My point was, one doesn’t decide what causes suffering , and what does not cause suffering. Its the way things are (dharma). Happy is happy, dead is dead. Life is life.
        And telling lies is “lying” (or use any other “act” as example). There is no subjectivity here. If you live a life always spending your time “loving” (self, others), you WILL experience the deepest love there is. It is guaranteed.

        When things are the way they naturally are, is there a difference between subjectively non-reifying suffering, or just plain “living good, being good” (karma, according to dharma explained above). I am suggesting the latter is MUCH more reliable. The former is mired in subjectivity jungle.

  3. A fine and most interesting article, for which many thanks. At the risk of doing something rather naff, I thought I’d mention that coincidentally, my latest post was about this very thing: http://wp.me/p4wkZJ-ce That piece is anecdotal, and won’t be of interest to those academically inclined. I should say, I don’t at all recognise this ‘astonishment’ that is written of here in your piece. I think the response will always be a reflection of the character type, though for myself, it was always, and remains, more of an absorbed, ungrasping curiosity rather than an emotive shock such as astonishment, and which itself implies a running judgement in mind.

    1. Nothing naff about it; I read and liked your article a while back — good stuff. Also, the first paragraph has a very phenomenal flavor, so I think it’s most pertinent!

      I’m also not sure if I’d call my “pre-conceptualization” apprehension astonishment or not. There’s a moment when something just is, perhaps even seems alien, but astonishing? Not sure if that’s the word I’d use…

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