Birds, bees, plants and humans all love the onrush of spring as the life forces of growth gain momentum. Everything seems exuberant and energetic and, if you’re like me, you’re probably enjoying more outdoor activities as a pause from your coursework. I mean, we might enjoy AU but typically it still means we’re stuck inside at a desk. So, of all forms of study breaks (and we disciplined AU students probably have as big a toolbox as any scholars in history) surely the least likely thing to do on a Spring day would be to sit and do yet more reading. But remember, our brains have become finely honed learning machines. They need to stretch their legs, too, and some extra-curricular reading, especially in areas beyond our normal interest, can be just the ticket.
Consider these words of John Lubbock, a 19th Century banker, statesman, and naturalist: “Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time” (Lubbock, online). Sometimes just being there is enough, floating on a spring cloud and noticing the pussy-willows unfold, but when we rest we are still thinking. When we add new leisure material to our minds we may set ourselves in balance so that reading and studying aren’t only associated with the rigours of coursework. Every new source of information we absorb holds maieutic potential; it provides the capacity to bring forth, as a form of intellectual midwifery, “a clear and consistent expression of something supposed to be implicitly known by all rational beings” (‘Maieutic’, MerriamWebster Online). While neighbours are rototilling gardens or emptying gutters, a little course-free reading may allow us to maximize not only our studies but also the renewed pace of life that this time of year brings. Sometimes to rest our brain is to let it unwind with a little more of what it may have come to do best during our time at AU: read critically.
Lubbock was both economically successful and a naturalist; as he rested his mind must have been both free and at play. And if you’re like this Fly on the Wall there is a tonne to do outdoors this time of year that may veer closer to work than play. However, there’s little joy in toil, and few would know this better than a banker such as Lubbock. Like office workers to this day, not to mention diligent distance education students, bankers like him were pretty much guaranteed to be locked indoors for much of the summer. So. between the productivity of our AU studies and the productivity of outdoor chores. there ought to be a space that provides new terrain for our growing minds to traverse.
Intellectually Productive Pleasure: Pastures of Potential
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang prescribes what one might call a Lubbockian sort of rest therapy in terms of creative relaxation: “sometimes your mind will arrive at answers that have been eluding you”, he says (Pang, online). This is all well and true. And yet, besides just letting the mind wander in thought and re-spool itself like a sleeping spider, I lately arrived at an additional approach to simply resting and recuperating. What I propose is actually less peaceful outdoor daydreaming and even just a few additional minutes of leisurely extra-curricular reading. This is what we’re good at, and if we learn to relax our minds by reading some off-menu items we just might return to credited coursework feeling more refreshed than if we just set all types of books aside. What if we read some material that was counter-intuitive to our degree major or our usual interests?
New Epiphanies From the Edges of Language and Thought
It was on the aged and sunny deck of my hundred-year-old orchard cottage here in the Okanagan that I encountered a Buddhist essay by a Zoketsu Norman Fischer with the name “Beyond Language”. Its title was intriguing, but I instinctively doubted I’d be interested. In sociology, and especially post-modern theory, the likes of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze have already traversed the nebulous barrier between our minds and our culture and concluded that language, while potentially a plaything, also contains us even as we imagine ourselves able to burst free, sproutlike, with creative gestures. My scanty inclinations towards Buddhist philosophy werebased, therefore, on its association with a belief in the need to somehow transcend one’s ego and find universal truth outside of our essential sense of self. If language is inescapably part of each of us then to transcend ourselves in such a way would be impossible. Yet, I mustered enough curiosity to enter the text of “Beyond Language” like a spring hummingbird hovering furtively, but dubiously, near a hitherto-empty feeder.
If there’s one thing true in the social science -ologies (anthropology, psychology, sociology, etc.) it’s that the self is an essential and irascible part of who we are; we can’t unself ourselves, as it were. Take away our minds and our beliefs and we’d be automatons; possibly this century’s zombie craze represents a belief in the superiority of one’s own self over and against that of others. Being human is often to harbour delusions of grandeur, at least in terms of our imagined potential. And this is evolutionarily functional: if we don’t believe in ourselves enough to enter the fray of life we’d waste away both economically and metaphysically.
So, what would a Buddhist essay say about language, I thought? And one from Vancouver, no less. They don’t call the city Lotus-land for nothing; the Lotus flower has come to symbolize trendiness and kitsch far more than serious psycho-social inquiry. Language seems written into our being such that we can neither communicate nor think coherently without words. I suspected that the author would claim that language itself was a barrier to enlightenment. In the Western philosophical tradition Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously endorsed the idea of the noble savage free of societal constraints and even symbolic communication (ie language) itself. But we all know what the 1960s counter-culture looked like: singing, dancing, and playing but not a lot of bookish charm or room for studious academia. It’s no wonder that in his time Rousseau received a swift and stern philosophical rebuke by Thomas Hobbes who famously claimed that such a life unencumbered by societal rules and language itself would be ‘nasty, brutish and short’. How can we solve problems or love others if we can’t communicate with any complexity?
So I looked askance at this essay, at first. A belief system predicated on there even being an outside of language and culture seems to fly in the face of ground zero for sociology: that we are always-already embedded in social systems, contained within the very boundaries that provide means of apparent liberation while holding back on really letting us go from its clutches. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict described this phenomenon whereby we’re embedded in our local ways of seeing as one that transcends cultures and therefore is essential to the human condition:
“No man ever looks at the world with pristine eyes. He sees it edited by a definite set of customs and institutions and ways of thinking. Even in his philosophical probings he cannot go behind these stereotypes; his very concepts of the true and the false will still have reference to his particular traditional customs. John Dewey has said, in all seriousness. that the part played by custom in shaping the behavior of the individual as over against any way in which he can affect traditional custom, is as the proportion of the total vocabulary of his mother tongue over against those words of his own baby talk that are taken up into the vernacular of his family (The Science of Custom, online).
Surely no self-respecting writer would claim that liberation comes from just releasing ourselves from our selves. Lashed onto expectations of liberation there is a certain self-referential irony, at least in our culture. It’s like, who can take a trip to the shopping mall for a little retail therapy without adopting a certain ironic outlook that life will not be drastically altered or improved regardless of the purchase? The notion of discovering an outside to our social plight strikes the sociological mind as a fanciful and myopic utopia. Not only that, such illusions seem fraught with the dangers implicit whenever a person believes themselves enlightened and sets out to proselytize their supposedly-newfound discovery upon the world.
So I Embarked Upon Counter-Intuitive Reading With Low Expectations…
…and was immediately intrigued. According to Fischer, the Buddha “knew that getting caught up in language was a trap” (Fischer, 170). And yet, there we are as humans who not only communicate bodily as other animals do but also have the faculty of speech and writing. We grow into words and writing by osmosis; “we are ‘in’ language the way a fish is in water: for the fish, water is just the way things are” (Fischer, 169). Language gives us gills to breathe as beings and a lateral line by which to sense other fish in our (literal) school. Without jargon, technical details are impossible; crows and apes learn by imitation but humans learn also by written and vocal symbology. Fischer claims that Buddhist thought, like the sociological imagination, involves awareness that whenever we take things to be self-evident we are actually not seeing the ocean of meaning which we inhabit. Immanuel Kant for his part noted the fact that whatever the external world of things contains, we can never be sure of their existence and only comprehend their meaning on human terms. So to see reality is to just see how socially our reality is constructed.
Fischer continues by stating that language itself may be seen as a “prison: we are literally locked inside language, created by, defined by language, and can only see as far as we can say” (Fischer, 169). This agrees with the sociology of meaning. Seeing it explained outside of course material reminded me of the truth of meaning creation: besides setting the parameters of meaning, notable when we consider words in one language that have no corollary in another, language “can open our imagination and allow us to reach out to the world-and fly beyond it” (Fischer, 169). Just think of Lewis Carroll’s fantasy realm in Alice Through the Looking Glass; words can be nonsense and still somehow make sense. If I’d simply gone outside to do some distracting work I’d not have given Fischer’s essay a chance and felt anew the permeation of the social construction of meaning.
The playfulness of leisure is often contrasted with the bondage of work; a break from our studies can just feel like a shift to other pressing needs in our lives. Here Fischer says that Zen Buddhism, as he sees it, allows us to “let language play with us” (Fischer, 169). Playfully considering the mass of words in textbooks that to others often seems like so much abstract ado about nothing can thus seem a useful insight rather than an avoidance of the value of our learning. There’s a reason that the social media trend to take the nearest book and turn to a certain page before quoting what you find has such resonance: words have a power all their own by the very virtue of their existence. Their very pronounceability contains a certain magical cadence that resonates within our minds. We’ve learned their song and it’s stuck in our heads.
Herein lies Fischer’s theme, and it’s a helpful one when we want to bring levity to the depth of our schoolwork. He says that “when we are speaking about something we are also-and mainly-speaking about nothing” (Fischer, 169). Post-Modernism, often derided in academic circles as a lot of tail-chasing, thus pops up even in the humblest of places. “The Buddhist view is a non-view, but not a non-view that is the opposite of a view, a wishy-washy noncommitalism. Non-view is an attitude, a spirit of openness, kindness, and flexibility with regard to language. Non-view is a way to stand within language, to make use of language, to connect without being caught by-and separated from the world-by language.” (Fischer, 170). To the extent that philosophy uses words to grasp the ineffable quality of life, this makes perfect sense (no pun intended!). And, lest we feel pretentious using unusual words and terms in everyday speech, we don’t have to set aside esoteric philosophy or technical jargon after we learn it: we’re in language as it is and as it becomes with our education that itself has made us who we now are.
Whatever You Read, It Can Bolster Your Learning
Bearing in mind that every sort of study break assumes a rupture between our studies and our life, as though we can partition off our learning from our existence, it becomes unclear whether we are ever really away from AU. It’s like being awake or asleep; we’re always there in one sense and absent in another. Reading Fischer’s essay reminded me that sometimes the best way to put studies in perspective is actually to do a little more reading. Whatever we read, relation to what we’ve learned can pop up and remind us that we’re evolving and growing individuals.
So, before we separate our studies from our outside activities this spring, let’s remember that we are always within language as humans and thus always potentially gathering new academic insights. Wherever we go there we are. As distance students our course material is never far from home and a little extracurricular reading can provide us with a needed perspective on what we’ve learned.