Micro-Emotions • 4 May 2008

The first time I got three or four days in to a Vipassana retreat and the dominant fluctuations of the mind had died away, I realized that on a micro-cognitive level I tend to live a few seconds in the future. If I’m doing any kind of activity at all, I prefigure it mentally before I do it. Pour the tea before I pour the tea, chew before I chew, pee before I pee.

That first retreat, this made me so frustrated. Why can’t I just drop the planning and be an open slate of perception? 

Now I’m less bothered by it, or at least ok that this is how it works to do things like drink tea or take a pee while in a deep state of concentration. Measured from the outside, this is how action works—it’s horribly modernist and non-Bourdieuian to say, but there is a flicker in the mind before you move, most of the time. It’s practical. If I may be so bold, the way cognition itself works is not necessarily “suffering” or “not living in the present.”

I had a beloved friend who ran off and became a nun, and in the second year of her practice her teachers decided to undo her mind. They attacked her categories of understanding—causation, time, space—in an effort to get her to a constant state of non-duality.

Works if you live in a cave.

Except for my wonderful friend: she was not only deconstruction her own cognition process but also doing a lot of administrative work to earn her keep in the monestary. Having her practical notions of causation, time, space and (key) relationships with others broken down without exactly knowing why she was being told to do this to herself resulted—no shit—in deep anxiety and suffering. It also resulted in her pulling out of relationships because the way that intersubjectivity undermined the deconstruction project felt like a spiritual threat. No! Fuck your categories! All that is real is my own mind and we can never get through to each other! You’re not even real!

It’s a wonder that after this intense heartbreak—of watching someone self-induce solipsism and drain the power off her uncommonly wonderful and deep intersubjective abilities—I still chose to pursue meditation practice at all.

Anyway, all this by way of a little defense. It’s true that I am extremely curious by nature, and pursue experience regardless of emotional valence—regardless of whether it will be “unpleasant” or “traumatic” or “luxurious” or “happy” or what. My optimism—and lack of patience for neurosis (neurosis being “a bias toward experiencing negative emotions”)—are marked and somewhat annoying traits. I want to be alive. Working the edge is more important than being comfortable. Non-curiosity and sloth are what bore me the most: and their deepest source, often, is fear of future suffering.

When I tell you that I dread the future in part because the present is so perfectly and beautifully realized, I’m describing a micro-emotional state. When it comes to reflecting on and choosing my emotions, of course this is not my situation! Of course, insofar as I choose, my disposition toward the future is gratitude for the opportunities and years that await, and great curiosity about what experiences they contain.

But on a micro level, one that’s really only possible to observe right after practice when I’m still in a deep state of concentration, there is this new emotion of micro-dread.

It’s more a particular than a universal emotion, and I think I’m sane for feeling it. The economy is fucked; the sociology job market is extremely bad; and most places are less wonderful to live in that the place I live in now. I’m not talking about neurotic fear of the future or existential angst: I am saying that even though I’m in my usual state of equanimity-tempered optimism, I’m able to observe that there is this negative micro-emotion creating some feedback.

Get real, ok? Some possible futures are better than others. Some situations do afford deeper, more interesting experiences. On some level: every possible future is not the same. I can create a life that encompasses more or less self-realization, creative work, loving interactions with others, and usefulness in the world. And hell yes it is scary to be at a precipice

If you don’t see that these questions are active for me on a micro-level, you don’t know me. And insofar as I know myself, it’s ok to experience what this is doing to me—for the time being—in the subtlest way.

If change is either desired or possible, isn’t it better to work from the tiniest little root rather than casting about like some crazy lost person—making massive changes in search of you know not what? Contemplation shows me parts of myself that feel out of character. It’s ok. Just because it undermines my own idea of my personality, at least it is interesting.

And impermanent. Heh.