Mindfulness, Buddhism, and Philosophy, for the love of language, and the limits of language

One of the highlights of the recent Mindfulness, MOOCs, and Money in Higher Education conference at Naropa University (March 18-21) was a small break-out session led by Carrie Bergman of The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. We were joined by two Naropa faculty, Susan Burggraf and Cynthia Kneen (who co-founded Naropa and happens to be a classically trained clown), an undergraduate independent scholar from Amherst College named Vivian Mac, and James Rhem, Executive Director of the National Teaching & Learning Forum.

Our ostensible topic was “the definition of ‘Mindfulness'” – obviously an apt subject for the conference and in particular for our motley discussion group.

However, the conversation meandered through the topic and around the topic with remarkable ease and care.

Just after each of us gave our own vague definition of “mindfulness” Susan -or James, I don’t remember which- mentioned that it’s like Wittgenstein’s ladder (I think it was Susan first, and then James noted that this was in the Tractatus, Wittgenstein’s first great work). I quickly felt regret over never formally studying Wittgenstein. I recognized what they were talking about, but the sheer joy on both of their faces at this mutual realization-connection led me to think I really should dig into Wittgenstein at some point.

In any case, part of the discussion pointed to the fact that all of the “talking around” a topic such as mindfulness never really gets us there. It is only ever so much semantic circling. To get to it, one must do it. And yet, as scholars, we must talk about it, often with people who have no inclination toward practicing mindfulness.

And so we must play the game of language, choosing our words and situating them to make meaning, our meaning, our shared meaning, but not getting lost or stuck in them. Our conversation that day was a bit of a game, a game of sharing and, most importantly, a game of listening.

Susan came to a sort of spontaneous insight as she was speaking that a problem today with teaching (the conference was on higher ed) is the failure of the older generation to listen to the younger. The older generation “projects” she said, “their own worries and concerns and reality” onto younger people, “but that is not their reality.”

Vivian brought up the physicist Arthur Zajonc (pronounced “Zion-s” roughly), who wrote “Thinking Like Einstein,” which discusses Einstein’s “ah-ha” moment for the theory of relativity.  The theory “de-centered” the idea of an objective standpoint in physics – an objective standpoint which had been the very goal of physicists to that time. Following the Dalai Lama’s recommendation, Zajonc suggests we sit in stillness or “calming meditation” to let that realization settle in. What does that mean exactly? Is there an objective meaning to that discovery in physics, or will it mean something a little different to each of us? Zajonc reassures us that relativity, or groundlessness, is not the end of our conversation, but the beginning of it:

In the language of Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch (The Embodied Mind), we learn to lay down the path beneath our feet by walking. Instead of looking for security is stasis, we realize the groundlessness of material reality and find our way to security through movement instead, through processes that generate meanings. In Robert Kegan’s classification of the stages of human epistemologies, he calls this final stage the “self-transforming mind.”

So I was delighted today to receive this piece of mind-transforming assistance: a beautifully written review of Dialectic of the Ladder: Wittgenstein, the ‘Tractatus’ and Modernism by Benjamin Ware (review by Andrew Winer). The review deftly draws us through Wittgenstein’s struggles  (or play) with language, it’s seeming limits, fragmentations, and mutations. As Winer writes, it is at our moment of greatest frustration that the magic happens:

And this is Ware’s point: aligning himself, in part, with anti-metaphysical or what he calls “resolute” readers of the Tractatus, Ware takes Wittgenstein’s closing exhortations to the reader — to throw away “the ladder” and view the book’s preceding propositions as nonsense — at face value, or rather Ware takes it in the face, so to speak, honoring the shocking blow (the second punch) that the philosopher intends, on Ware’s reading, to deliver to the reader. Having invited us to take on a variety of positions about language that seem to align neatly with modernist views of language’s limitations, Wittgenstein, according to Ware, then reveals them to be nonsense — not because he claims to be able to view language as a whole from some position outside of it (à la Eliot, say), but rather because he has invited us, one-by-one, to occupy the internal logic of these positions, before turning the tables on us in order to bring us to an awareness the problem isn’t with words per se, but with our confused relation to them. The Tractatus‘ effect, then, isn’t due to its content so much as its form, and this, Ware beautifully shows, is precisely what puts the Tractatus on literary ground: the book means to awaken us, as a result of our experience of reading it; it’s a literary performance that delivers an emotional wallop to the reader who has spent the bulk of the book looking into a mirror reflecting — in the form of its propositions — her or his own philosophical hungers.

Among those hungers is not only a desire for ineffable truths but for scientific ideals of precision and progress — ideals that, in the modernist era (as in ours), can lead one to want to find the perfect words, in the perfect order, on some finite trek toward truth. Such desires for perfection are in part what drove many of the aforementioned modernists towards unease with themselves, their worlds, and the words they used to try to capture that unease… To then encounter the book’s last statements that tell us to throw this structure — the ladder — away, and that tell us to consider all of those perfect statements nonsense, is to be put through the experience of awakening from a dream. That dream, as Ware points out, is the dream of traditional philosophy, in which one puts forth theories and builds systems. (emphasis mine)

That dream is the dream upon which scientism and all other dogmatisms are built, a dream of certainty, a closing of the mind and its uncomfortable bumps against reality.

The Tractatus, then, is a literary work that has this ethical effect on us, without recourse to specific ethical language; instead, it relies on an authorial strategy of seduction and then, through its sudden and massive discarding, shock.


And so we’re left – in the moment of perplexity – hopefully ready to play with that language which had seemed so rigid; to play in a way that makes meaning for us. For language becomes something sort of out there, outside of me, and outside of you, hanging, as it were, in the ether, waiting for our use of it together.

Mindfulness is there,  in that shared ether. Mindful once meant “of good memory.” In Victorian English it was associated with memory, with perception, even care. And it is this semantic range that led Caroline and Thomas Rhys Davids to use “mindfulness” to translate the Pali term sati. Mindfully, they chose other English words to translate similar Pali terms so as to maintain the early differentiation.

Today, though, we have a number of terms from Pali and Sanskrit being translated as “mindfulness”  – from vipassana (“insight”) to samatha (“calming”) and certainly others that don’t come to my mind at the moment. Likewise, we have a difficult time solidifying one clear meaning to the word “mindfulness.”

I hope to explore some of those meanings, their origins and contexts, in future posts.


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