Saturday, February 23, 2019

Examples of each of the Ten Variations on Void

After writing my initial post and feeling very proud of it, a couple of people asked for examples, which is fair, since the original is pretty abstract.

I’ve also decided to put them into larger categories:


A Void that Echoes
This is a very interactive space. The space in a conversation for example, which one person fills, prompting the other person to respond. You put sound/meaning into the space, and expect relevant sound/meaning to come back at you in return. Social media is another major void that echoes.

A Void that can Contain
Say I feel an emptiness inside of me, but then I fill it with love or purpose or some other third thing, and feel less empty. The void which I felt was actually (or seemingly) an X-shaped hole, a hole which is now serving its purpose. The void was a particular lack, whether of love or purpose or X.

A Void that is Transparent
The gap between what I said/did and what I meant. The gap between what I said and what you heard. The gap between my current state and my goal. To become aware of these voids is to become aware of distances not yet crossed.

A Void that makes Room for Possibility
A break in the schedule. Creative destruction. Find new work, a new partner, a new hobby.

VOIDS THAT MUST BE ADDRESSED AS VOIDS (and not for some other use)

A Void that does not Contain
Say I feel an emptiness inside of me, and try to fill it with things, but no matter what I still feel empty in that particular spot. It could be that I haven’t found the right thing to put there, or it’s possible that the hole has no bottom, and therefore cannot serve as a container. This could be something like deep, existential insecurity, the kind that exists because I’m mortal. Fear of Death, Fear of Absurdity, etc… they’re much bigger than anything you might put in them to fill them.

A Void that does not Echo
For an atheist (or rather, for someone whose divinity does not take a personal form, or whose god is currently face-hiding), the cosmos is a void that does not echo. Say whatever you want into it, it will not respond. Shout at the stars, shout into the darkness, you’ll only hear your own voice and then silence. This can be peaceful and humbling, or depressing, depending on set and setting.

A Void that is Opaque
Any meaningless event that you wish had meaning. Death. Tragic accidents.
Alternatively, actual darkness or fog.
Or, meaningless events that are fine that way-- a random breeze.

A Void that Crushes the Infinite/Possibility
Pretty much any of the voids in this section fit this description.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Why Bother with Philosophy?: Motivation for Careful Thinking about Life


Why Bother with Philosophy?: Motivation for Careful Thinking about Life

            There’s no such thing as over-thinking-- there’s only helpful and unhelpful thinking. Nitpicking, obsessing, ruminating are examples of intense thinking that waste your time and energy. They’re wasteful not because you’re “thinking too much” but because you’re thinking in ways that don’t help you find clarity for living life. 

            Philosophy at its best is both intense and helpful. Philosophy should help you think about life in ways that you make you a more mindful, conscientious, and intentional person. I’ll rephrase that negatively-- philosophy should help you think about life in ways that save you from being a mindless, careless, mixed-up person. Sounds good, right?

I’ll raise two objections to philosophy, and answer them with two metaphors:

1.   Philosophers get too caught up in the details, lose the bigger
picture, think so much about life that they don’t know how to live it.

2.   Philosophers are too abstract and impractical; a philosophical
argument is not a useful tool when I’m trying to actually think about how to
live my life.

Re: #1 - Philosophy is like computer or vehicle maintenance.

            Yes, philosophy involves looking at life “way too closely / deeply,” and it’s easy to get lost in it, easy to get caught up in little details. Dissecting life is a lot like taking apart a computer: it makes a big mess and makes it difficult or impossible to use. But look-- philosophy is a way to “troubleshoot” life! Knowing how it works will make you better at using it, better at noticing and addressing issues. If you’re going to own a computer or a vehicle, you can expect trouble at some point, and only in-depth familiarity will help you out of it. It’s the same with life. Knowing how to take it all apart will help you in getting your life together.

Re: #2 - Philosophy is like weight-training.

            Yes, philosophy involves some “heavy” mental lifting, and often you’re dealing with burdens that are much more abstract than real life issues. But that’s the same as weight training! Real life weights are never as simple as barbells and bench presses. And yet, working out in the gym builds the same muscles you’ll need in the real world, even helps you isolate and strengthen each muscle. The deep abstract thinking of philosophy is a method of intentionally “overdoing” it so that you feel over-prepared for addressing real life situations.

            Philosophy is a tool for strengthening your mind for taking on the questions and complexities of life. Look-- you’re going to be thinking about life either way. Why not learn how to think about it well?

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

My Approach to Clinical Psychology, as Expressed through the Four Statement Types

What’s happening?
What’s the problem?
What’s the tension between?
What do you want?

Everything is meeting and it’s a big mess!
We keep hitting walls and falling into holes!
We’re feeling torn apart and run around!
We have needs and desires and insecurities so we want power and that can make us fearful urgent jerks!

It’s helpful to frame your experiences in life in terms of encounters.
In encounters, we get tripped up when we face a negativity (problem, limitation, possibility).
It’s helpful to frame the negativity as a tension that requires resolution or accommodation.
Our actions in encounters are motivated and complicated by power dynamics, including our own desire for power.

Take stock.
Manage the emptiness.
Manage the tensions.
Manage your power.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

A Contrarian’s Guide to being a Therapist

I had this quick run of thoughts at some point on Yom Kippur, and when I jotted it down that day, it looked like this:

When you see only one, learn to look for the second.
          When you're stuck between two, learn to be the third.
When you're cycling around three, learn to see them as one.

Last night, I re-wrote it as a dialogue:

A Contrarian’s Guide to being a Therapist

Client: See, I’m dealing with this one thing--
Therapist: That’s important, but what is it connected to? What’s the second thing?

C: Fine, they’re these two things I’m stuck between--
T: You gotta get out of binary thinking! There must be more than two.

C: OK, I got all sorts of things I’m dealing with--!
T: Can’t you see that all of those are one big thing?

Sunday, July 1, 2018

I Daydream about Convincing My Enemies That I'm Right

Ideas are the continuation of war by other means.

In this paraphrased reversal of Clausewitz’s dictum, I stand firmly in the tradition of Nietzschean genealogy. Ideology and its messengers are the sophisticated brutality of civilization. Ideology is less dangerous in its word-form, but show me an ideology that doesn’t saturate material culture, that doesn’t guide behavior and become another tool of imperialism. Words are the way for those without weapons; words shape the will without the need for weapons. Ideology is sophisticated brutality.

And there is no way around this, although I do think (of course I do) that some ideology is superior. Pluralism and humanism are ideologies, even as they offer themselves as “transcendent” options. I cannot just promote dialogue over ideology, as if dialogue itself were not an ideology. So, there, I’m staking a claim-- that the ideology of dialogue is superior. I’ll be honest, ok, and own my imperialism-- that the world will be better off if everyone came to my side, that I think that the values behind the dialogical ideology should win, should vanquish (silence?) the values and voices promoting whatever would oppose dialogue. (Of course, this comes with the implication that ideologies which deny dialogue should be vanquished also-- any ideologies which assumes the inhumanity of some part of the human population).

So, do I get any moral superiority for this? If I say “Don’t punch Nazis; convert Nazis,” am I better? I exchange physical violence for ideological imperialism. I won’t deny that it sounds much better. But I want to focus, for now at least, on the condescension involved here, the same condescension in Socrates’ claim that all evil is simply ignorance.

If all evil is ignorance, then no person is my mortal enemy-- only a wrong idea can drive a person to kill me. It follows, then, that any enemy is one enlightenment away, one conversion away, from being safe, from becoming my kind. The first issue I see in this is that it puts me and my kind at the top of the enlightenment pyramid-- a claim to position that’s pretentious, presumptuous, and surely tainted with its own ignorance. The second issue, related to the first, is that it places responsibility for “the problem” entirely on my enemy, rather than seeing the problem as arising from the fallen state of all humanity, or at least from the dynamic between me and my enemy. I’m a therapist, dammit! It’s not that people are problems; it’s much more likely that people are hurt, and relationships are broken.

It’s funny though, that even with the above critiques, I still hold on to my belief of having ideological superiority. In my head, I can hear myself taking in the critiques above and making them into a lesson about tact. If I am to convert my enemy, I should approach them with vulnerability as armor, to show myself as willing to change so that they are similarly inspired, to approach them as if the dynamic is the problem, and through this relational tact change them. I suppose, however, that this is still more virtuous-- if I act vulnerable and open, I could easily trick myself as well into vulnerability and openness.

What am I getting at here? What do I want myself and the reader to take away from this? I think the main sentiment is that it’s important to acknowledge, affirm, and yet also feel a little embarrassed by our desire for power. Even if you are righteous, do not believe that your righteousness is your only god; know that even now you are driven (at least in part) by power. Every ideology is also a weapon. It’s good to aim for righteousness, but know that even that can become toxic.

And maybe this, then, as a bigger conclusion-- that the veil of ignorance hangs over all of us, and that even if one enlightenment is all it would take, no side among us is in the position to do all of the enlightening.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Blessing and Curse of Incongruence

Bless Incongruence!

I turn off the screen, take off my headphones, put down the book. It’s very quiet. The world and its chaos is suddenly all outside; none of it is in here. These walls are not in crisis. This next breath was going to occur to me either way, but now it feels more inspirational. It feels nourishing to have this breath enter, and not have anything else enter. The blessing of incongruence, as I find peace and light in hellish and dark times.

Curse Incongruence!

            I sit quietly and safely while the world burns. What kind of asshole am I? Walls, you are liars! How dare you not tremble. If I sit and meditate and “Be Here Now,” I am in a Here and a Now of illusion and disconnection. The curse of incongruence, as I find peace and light in hellish and dark times.

And Curse Incongruence Again!

            The fight is on, and it’s out there, and I’m in here. I’m in here, raging, while the fight goes on out there. Raging inside and outside, and yet incongruence persists as I go on without the fight and the fight goes on without me. I get up for work; I do my best to serve people in my job; I go home. I eat; I read the news and shake my head; I go out for a walk. I convince myself that I can only leverage my power by holding on to it. If I lose employment then I can’t help others; if I go and help others (in the extreme way we’re all fantasizing about) I lose employment. The curse of incongruence, as I yearn to keep myself and the world together.

And Bless Incongruence One Last Time!

            I’m thankful for my access to refuge. I’m thankful for the world’s intrusions. I’m thankful for the intrusion of my conscience. I’m thankful for the intrusion of sleep. Hellish and dark times call for good encounters and good withdrawals. I feel the incongruence of the world and my values, and it pushes me to act. I feel the incongruence of the struggle and my own small well-being, and it reminds me to stop before I drop. The blessing of incongruence, as I yearn to keep myself and the world together.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Folly of Individuality - April Fools 2018

Defining Individuality
            Here’s a phrase that, I think, captures the essence of individuality: “I’m me.” “I’m me” expresses the separateness of individuality-- as in, I’m me and not you. It expresses particular composition-- I’m all these things that make me “me.” And it expresses agency-- in “I’m me,” Matt Lowe is both of the words/concepts in the sentence, both the subject and the object. I’m all the things that are “me” but I’m also the “I’m,” the owner and agent of this thing that is me.
            So if someone were to ask “What is an individual?” then these characteristics-- separateness, particular composition, and agency-- while not comprehensive, go a long way towards describing the individual. But an equally salient question goes like this: “What does it mean to identify as an individual?” In answering this question, a certain experience, marked by passion and anxiety, is highlighted-- to identify as an individual is to live with and act upon an intense need for separateness, for particular composition, for agency. So, let’s say that “identifying as an individual” is what we mean by “individuality.” Here individuality is a commitment, a desire, for dignity, for integrity, for self-importance. For self-determination, both in terms of having power over one’s self-definition and having power over one’s fate. So that’s individuality.

The Folly of Individuality
            The folly of individuality is that, from the perspective of many fields of study, the separateness, particular composition, and agency of the individual are illusions. The reality, the experience, of myself as a unique agent is repeatedly eclipsed by larger Wholes (with a W) which, paradoxically, also includes things smaller than me. When I reflect on the many parts and Wholes among which I find myself, then my self-importance, my ability and desire to define myself and determine my fate-- it all feels foolish, and this individuality represents a failure to recognize and live in alignment with greater truths of my reality.

            I have so many examples of this to share, but I don’t want to be too confusing or overwhelming; I want to present them already organized. So I’m going to present my main point first-- that the individual is made of parts that mock individuality, and that the individual fits into Wholes that mock individuality. These look like two separate critiques here: (1) a bottom-up critique from the perspective of parts, and (2) a top-down critique from the perspective of Wholes. In actuality, these two perspectives are the same-- maybe a metaphor will help. The individual is a wave in the ocean. The bottom-up critique tells us that a wave is nothing but water molecules and motion. The top-down critique tells us that a wave is nothing but the ocean doing its thing. Do you see, then, how these critiques are the same? The ocean doing its thing is water molecules and motion. There’s a larger Whole, playing out in millions of tiny parts, and the individual is just something caught up in it, and individuality is that something taking itself too seriously.
            The wave metaphor might be too reductive-- I don’t want to say that the individual is nothing but component parts of a larger whole but rather that the individual is nothing without component parts of a larger whole. How about a tree metaphor, with the individual as a leaf? The self-importance and self-determination of a leaf would be foolish, given its place in the life of a tree.
Ok, then, so how about this as the main point: Individuality is foolish when we consider the individual as something that emerges among the component parts of a larger whole. (repeat it). Now for a brief survey of a bunch of examples-- let’s look at this phenomenon biologically, ecologically, psychologically, socio-historico-culturally, existentially, religiously, and mystically. This won’t take as long as you think-- I’m going to do the whole thing pretty glibly.

Biologically, the individual emerges out of and biodegrades back into a stream of atoms, hormones, genes, etc. “I” am a brief or permanent stopping point for a flow of genes that have been mixing and remixing for eons. I am a collection of collaborating cells... that is, until they stop collaborating, at which point I become more of a battleground or a junk heap, a compost pile, my personhood incidental and past.
The ecological example is just the biological one on a larger scale. The individual emerges out of and biodegrades back into the life of the Earth. I’m a function of climate. Like other animals, I’m a temporarily effective vehicle for water and seeds.
            Psychologically, I subscribe (loosely) to two theories that chip away at the integrity of the individual-- internal family systems and attachment theory. In my framing of internal family systems theory, the individual is just the place where various intrapersonal forces compete and negotiate for the power to speak for me as a whole. The “I” is literally a persona, a mask, an attempt of some part of me to represent all of me.
In my understanding of attachment theory, the stability and positivity of my personality-- the fact that I feel capable of knowing and loving myself-- is mostly a result of having the good fortune of feeling known and loved by certain people in my life. This reckoning of how the individual emerges out of a family leads me into the next realm, the socio-historico-cultural.
            Socio-historico-culturally-- on a societal, historical, cultural level, Matt Lowe is an overdetermined entity. Ask Marx; ask Maslow; ask Kimberle Williams Crenshaw. My sense of self floats atop the historically-contingent life-support systems of industrialism, capitalism, agriculture, academia, and several others. *My ability to think about myself personally, to have productive and fulfilling work and relationships, is a product of my more basic needs being met. The fact that so many of my basic needs are met is a product of how society treats me as a first-world-inhabiting economically-secure educated employed neurotypical non-disabled cis het white Jewish male in 2018. Self-determination? Ha! I’m mostly a particular collection of social component parts of a larger social whole.
This is getting repetitive, so I’ll speed up the last three. Existentially-- I am a variation on existential themes, something that emerges out of and degrades back into a stream of self, other, desire, freedom, time, etc. Existential motifs play out in individual lives like the five ingredients used in every Taco Bell menu item-- it’s all there, just in different shapes and combinations (example taken from The Onion). Religiously-- the meaning of the individual is subsumed into the religious myth. My definition and my fate are shaped by the context of a cosmic narrative. Mystically-- the individual is nothing but the One, nothing but an expression of the divine flow.

            And there it is! The individual’s self-importance is quickly humbled when the individual sees themselves as emerging among the component parts of the larger whole. Biologically, ecologically, psychologically, socio-historico-culturally, existentially, religiously, mystically. The folly of individuality is-- as if I could really see myself as separate, as unique, as a free-standing agent in the larger reality from which I emerge.

One step deeper
So far I’ve characterized the folly of individuality as based in its illusoriness. But I want to go one step deeper, and talk about the arrogance and the privilege behind individuality. The individual may be an illusion, but individuality is a sin.
            First a quick return to my basic definitions: the individual is characterized by separateness, particular composition, and agency. Individuality is characterized by a need to identify as an individual, a commitment to being recognized as separate, particularly composed, and agentic. Individuality is motivated by a need for self-importance, self-definition, and self-determination.
            So, if it isn’t clear by now, individuality exists within a very specific relationship to power. Individuality is a luxury. “I’m me” only if and when I’m in a position of enough power to not get lumped in with the masses. “I’m me” only if and when I’m sheltered from the forces that do not give a shit about me as an individual. I get to feel like an individual when I’m not one among many fighting for survival. I get to feel like an individual when my day-to-day experience is not defined by being a targeted population. My particular position in society provides me with power that allows self-definition and self-determination, and thus the luxury of self-importance.
            The illusion of the individual and the privilege of individuality pose major obstacles to making positive change in the world. Individuality becomes an idolatrous individualism in the philosophy of Ayn Rand, or an idolatrous Messiah complex in some religious or secular groups. In ecology, individuality produces the tragedy of the commons. Jessa Crispin in her book “Why I am Not a Feminist (A Feminist Manifesto)” points out how individualism in feminism produces the phenomenon of individuals “cashing out” once they’ve achieved personal liberation from (or in) the system. Individuality leads to the abusive phenomenon of blaming individuals for systemic issues-- we see this in psychology in the phenomenon of the “identified patient” in family therapy, or in the fact that the DSM is filled with pathologies that only implicate the individual.
            Individuality, individualism, is not helping us. We need movements. We need more identification with the greater Whole. We need to understand ourselves as participants rather than as individuals; as participants, so that we understand ourselves and act intentionally within the larger realities in which we are already participating. We have to rise to the challenge of organismic thinking. Individuality must be overcome.

The Inevitability and Redemption of Individuality
            Which brings me to the part of the speech where I backtrack, the part where, having critiqued and discouraged individuality, I’m going to go back and insist upon it, and hopefully redeem it.

            The fact is, I don’t have to argue much to reinstate the reality of the individual; despite all of my talk about component parts and larger wholes, the illusion of the individual dominates my experience. Despite everything I’ve said, privacy, a major dimension in the separateness of the individual, persists. Internality persists. “I’m me” includes the fact that my pain cannot be traded out, cannot be experienced by anyone other than myself, and none of the above arguments change that privacy, that solitude and isolation.
            The biggest factor, though, that forces me to take individuality seriously, is the feeling of responsibility. The individual could be an illusion. Heck, free will could be an illusion. And yet, the onus of action persists. Agency, weirdly enough, seems to be both an illusion and a sacred trust.
            Even my call to overcome individuality still places the burden on the individual, doesn’t it? Right? If I call upon myself, call upon you, to join something bigger than yourself, only you can actually make the choice and take the action to do that.

            It’s very weird-- with enough critical analysis, the individual appears as illusion and sin; and yet and yet and yet, over and over, the individual is a persisting illusion that continues to color our experience. This inevitable illusion, we have to do something paradoxical with it-- to challenge it while leveraging it into responsible action. Only the individual can make the choice to step out of individuality. I cannot participate conscientiously in the Whole without first dealing with myself as an individual participant, as a particular person with a particular location and a particular agency.
            My recommendation, then, is that individuality needs to be sifted; I need to understand when and how my individuality is useful versus when it’s toxic. As a general principle, it appears to be toxic whenever it revels in its disconnection, when it smugly inhabits luxury and privilege. And it’s useful when it’s understood and leveraged into participation, when it’s engaged to subvert itself, through teamwork, through solidarity, through allyship, through participation. That’s it-- that the individual alone is folly; and that the individual-in-participation is everything.
            Thanks for reading!