Showing posts with label meditation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label meditation. Show all posts


A Moment of Clarity Waiting for the Q66 Bus in Flushing

I don’t like to wait. For buses. For people. Waiting feels like an abuse on my person. But worse than that waiting exposes the truth of it all - that I’m not important.
     Which is why people who are entitled or privileged scoff at flying coach. One has to wait. So those who can pay the extra cash do so to stave off the notion that they’re insignificant. However, there is something to be said for waiting. I was waiting for the Q66 bus. This New York City bus takes me from Flushing to home via Queen’s Northern Boulevard. Today I took the bus. I was shepherding a few students of mine back to Jackson Heights. We had spent the day in Flushing to celebrate the Lunar New Year (even though it doesn’t officially begin until Saturday). I teach teenagers who are studying in the United States on F-1 visas. 
      What that means is - among many aspects of the job - that we take trips quite often during the year. This year we decided to go to a hot pot restaurant that recently opened up in Flushing. Apparently it’s a chain popular in China. It’s situated on the ground floor of a modern boxy office building. The Mandarin teacher at my school recommended the place; she organized the trip. The dean of the upper school also came with us. He had never eaten at a hot pot restaurant so we introduced him to duck blood and ponzu sauce.
      After the meal, waiting for the Q66 bus I noticed the sign of a Modell’s Sporting Goods sign flapping in the wind. I don’t like to wait so I made of the moment something aesthetic. It’s often true that time slows down when waiting. Maybe it was the festive meal we were having. But I had this feeling that I was seeing, reaching for, experiencing beauty all around me. Time goes into slow motion. Flapping of a sign. Red lanterns hanging from the a storefront window. Ginseng for sale. The laughter of children. The feel of my wallet as I take it out, searching for a metro card. It’s an ephemeral feeling; one that lasted long enough to make me feel on par with existence. So I took a few photos. Pictures never capture how I see something with my eyes. The human eye’s depth of vision still exceeds the iPhone camera.
      I like the conversation I hear around me. I even say “Happy New Year” in Mandarin to a gentleman also waiting for the bus. He smiles. I think he must be proud of me that I know an appropriate Lunar New Year greeting. We board the bus - the students and I - and I’m pleased by how calm they are; as the bus rocks and sways, gaining speed as it crosses Flushing Bay, the world seems open with possibility and I remember the morning time. Sitting. Waiting. For the day to begin. And a teenager had said out loud “I’m bored” - it was that time before classes had begun. That moment of free time that terrifies some people because I don’t think everyone learns what exactly to do with themselves.
       It’s a skill. To stave off boredom and do. Something. And I don’t like to wait. That feeling of inactivity. Of time ticking. “Are we back at school? Yet” asks Neil - who is sitting across from me. Yes. I say. Press the button to alert the driver to stop. “But I’m scared,” he says. I press the button. I get it. He’s afraid to stop the bus. To fling himself into the next thing and the next. I get it. I tell him. And we’re off.


Blaise Pascal On The Contradictory Nature of Human Beings

What follows is a short analysis of fragments 164, 19, 142, and 80 from Blaise Pascal's philosophical work Pensées.
 “What a chimera is man! What a novelty, what chaos, what a subject  of contradiction.”- Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1657-58)  

Beginnings: Fragment 164 of Pascal's Pensées

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
Let us begin with fragment 164 of the Pensées where Pascals likens human beings to a freakish chimera, an amalgam of different natures: a monster with the combination of lion's head, goat's body, and a serpent's tail (p. 41). Pascal's thesis is the human condition is contradictory in nature. Subjectivity emerges out of conflict. Knowledge emerges out of paradox. A "cesspool of uncertainty" and "storehouse of truth," the modern subject is a novelty and a monster, the "glory and reject of the universe" (p. 41). "Man is beyond man," Pascal writes (p. 42). In his ability to see himself as mere man, as finite, contingent, yet uniquely novel and independent, man is able to transcend himself through self-awareness. But, as we will see, despite the human capacity to reflect on our own condition we become distracted by the banal and mundane and are bored easily. We often prefer distraction to thinking but we realize that through thinking we are little more than the animals but less than the gods. What makes us who we are as humans is an oscillation back and forth between our greatness and our wretchedness, our distractibility and our insightfulness; in effect, we are a mixture of sense, natural reason, and the ways of the heart.

Pascal and Montaigne

The truth of man's condition is not revealed solely by natural reason nor is it based on dogmatic assertions. Similar to Montaigne, Pascal argues truth is "neither within our grasp nor is it our target" (p. 42). Truth lies in the lap of God. For Pascal to be a skeptic is to deny incarnate nature. To be a dogmatist is to "repudiate reason." For Pascal, the answer lies somewhere in between these two, between nature and reason.
     The incarnation is a key theological point for Pascal (barely mentioned by Montaigne). Jesus is an ideal concept for Pascal, both fully human and fully divine, "begotten not made," "one in being with the Father." Christ is the new man - a manifestation of man as he would have been in his preternatural state. Because of original sin, ordinary man has lost his divinity except for a fragmentary shard which still remains. Unlike Christ, who revealed himself as God through his divine humanity, Man is a shard of a lost divinity; his greatness lies in his lack, his wretchedness. Pascal’s uncanny psychological insight gleaned from a traditional Catholic Christology becomes a radical statement on the human condition. Man's greatness lies in his capacity to recognize his wretchedness. Unlike a tree man is endowed with a capacity to both recognize his futility and simultaneously derive greatness from it. When Pascal writes, "Within this gnarled chasm lie the twists and turns of our condition," he is acknowledging man's in-betweenness (p. 43). Our animality is mechanistic and made redeemable through the operation of grace, a concept Pascal employs to explain how man is able to understand God at all. Grace makes man "as if on the level of God, participating in his divinity." Without grace we would be "deemed equivalent of brute beasts" (p. 43).
This is the copy of the text
I used to write this post.

Man Doesn't Know What Level to Put Himself

In fragment 19 Pascal says man's quandary is that he does not know what level to put himself (p. 8). Resonating with later existential themes concomitant with Kierkegaard or early existential writing, Pascal paints a modern picture of man lost and unable to find himself. Pascal modifies Augustine's thought that man is restless until he rests in God by stating man is restless and looks for God in “impenetrable darkness” (p. 8). We are neither Protagoras's ideal of "man is the measure of all things" nor are we the scum of the earth, either. We are thinking scum. What makes human beings great is the capacity to acknowledge our fallible, fallen nature. Pascal writes, evoking the Psalmist: we are a "thinking reed". Our wretchedness is a "felix culpa" (happy fault).
Pascal writes, "...without this most incomprehensible of all mysteries we are incomprehensible to ourselves" (p. 43). The oracle of Delphi with its inscription "know thyself" is too naive for Pascal nor is the promise of idle distraction the answer either. Reason cannot untangle the mystery of our wretched human condition, Pascal contends, but through "simple submission" can "we truly know ourselves" (p. 43). Humility is crucial for knowledge. Humility is counter to the claim of an all-encompassing logos that can know everything. Pascal equates total submission to logos as hubris. Access to knowledge does not depend on mental acuity or even keen understanding, but possession of a "humble heart and [those] who embrace lowliness" (p. 7).

Our Entire Knowledge is Not Made Uncertain

Pascal argues in fragment 142 that reason is not enough. Just because reason reveals the fallible nature of the mind, Pascal insists that "our entire knowledge is not made uncertain." Pascal is not a skeptic in the negative sense. He does not distrust reason outright. It is rather that he sees reason as part of the larger story of what constitutes thinking. The ancient skeptics taught we cannot know reality. Montaigne's skepticism is suspicion of scholasticism while Pascal is a skeptic of univocal reason. Reason, Pascal claims does not have to reveal knowledge of first principles: time, space, numbers, etc. We know first principles through the heart (p. 35). The "reasons of the heart" ground knowledge. Pascal's concern is faith in empirical reason. A plank wide enough to hold a philosopher yet suspended over a precipice will be unable to quell panic and -- "his imagination will prevail" -- and he will go pale and start sweating (p. 17). Even with the certainty of clear and distinct reason, we become powerless when our imagination takes over. 

Everyone Should Study their Thoughts

In fragment 80 Pascal writes that "Everyone should study their thoughts," but he leaves the impression, apparent in the immediacy and the urgency of his prose style, that humanity has not taken thinking seriously. Our reading for today ends with disappointment in humanity: "How hollow and full of filth man's heart is" (p. 49). Pascal is keen to see how diversion and distraction intertwine and disrupt a path to knowledge (see fragments 170, 171, and in other places).
Diversion is a promise of happiness man makes for himself. Man knows he is not a God. He knows he is mortal. In spite of this, man still wants to be happy; so he entertains himself. Man cannot stop himself from wanting to be happy even though he knows he is wretched so he chooses to not think about it: "Not having been able to conquer death, wretchedness, or ignorance, men have decided to stop himself from thinking about it" (p. 44). We are equally incapable of either absolute happiness or total access to truth. Pascal's diagnosis is man lives in despair. Pining for happiness, man searches for it through distraction and diversion. Yet he remains hollow and empty. The task of giving up diversion is likened to a king who has many courtiers filling up his empty moments. A king left alone would think. If we removed duty, preoccupation, diversion, distraction, and work from man he would "then see and think" about himself, removed from superfluous duty man would think about what he is, where he comes from, and where he is going" (p. 49).


Pascal, Blaise, Honor Levi, and Blaise Pascal. Pensées and Other Writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
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