Modes of Askēsis

I’m posting a literature review I just finished called “Modes of Askēsis.” As you can guess from the title, the essay is a survey of what I took to be some of the most illuminating examples of askēsis (exercise) I’ve been able to track down over the past year or so. I’ve shared many of these examples on Twitter and elsewhere in bits and pieces, but I’ve finally had a chance to string them all together in one place.

The essay really is mostly a survey—it’s table setting for my dissertation—but I thought it might be helpful to post here as a resource for other folks who are interested in these ideas. At 11,000 words, the essay is too long to drop in as a blogpost, but if you’re interested in reading about askēsis in philosophy, contemplative practice, religion (Christian monastic practice, mainly), art, and poetry, then I think you’ll get something out of the piece. I’m also happy to receive comments and feedback. You can write me at adam(at) with any thoughts or ideas you have.

The download link is below. Feel free to share far and wide.

After the Clouds Pass By

“Something about the mindfulness practice I’d cultivated, and the way it encouraged me to engage with my emotions, made me feel increasingly estranged from myself and my life.”

A few thoughts on this Aeon article:

I don’t agree with everything the article says, or, at least I don’t buy that the examples listed are *necessary* consequences of meditation (e.g., “After a certain point, mindfulness doesn’t allow you to take responsibility for and analyse your feelings”—this is circumstantial).

At the same time, there’s something to think about here. The author mentions, as I quoted above, that mindfulness led her to feel “estranged from myself and my life.” I can relate to this sense, but not because of meditation per se, but because I grew up dealing with depression.

Depression, funnily enough, offers for free some insights that are fairly close to the “observe the play of thoughts and emotions in my mind” capacities described as the goal of mindfulness practice—though you get this ability through the lowered affect that comes with depression.

My point is, depression can give you a kind of metacognitive distance from your own thoughts and feelings, but of course not in the way one would *like* to gain such distance. This to me means that there are, shall we say, metacognitive affects, feelings, and aesthetics.

And this has me thinking about the article—we don’t want from mindfulness simply the ability to be distant from our thoughts, feelings, and actions. This is just mild depersonalization and dissociation. We want also to *cultivate* a certain mode of being, not mere distance.

And I think this starts to happen by itself following the initial instructions to, for example, follow the breath, visualize your thoughts as clouds passing in an open sky, etc. I’ve noted many times that after following these instructions things start to happen, things emerge.

Sometimes what emerges is something like joy or peace or sublimity, but just as often what emerges is a range of moods I can’t quite put my finger on—subtle hues of temperament that are probably always there, I’m just to busy being myself to notice them.

In any case, it’s these moods—and certainly they’re not always positive ones, but leave that aside for a moment—which seem to engender a different attitude, one that I’d call something like moral virtue, or at least the awareness that moral virtue is an important thing to pursue.

So, it’s not just about “observing thoughts and feelings” it’s about what happens after following these instructions for a while, there’s a kind of fullness that emerges in that space which is quite different from the observational capacities I found (accidentally) in depression.

The feeling of fullness is I think linked to the idea that meditation is in an important sense about aiming at something like virtue. Now, the article also takes a swipe at meditation apps like @Headspace, and I get it: commodification, appropriation, marketization, etc. Not cool.

At the same time, these perspectives don’t do all that much for me. The @Headspace app, for example, is constantly encouraging me to think about meditation as something I do *for other people* not just myself, and I think this again links to something like morality and virtue.

My point is that there are risks and uncritical, inflated claims associated with meditation, but treating it as just this distanced, observational practice doesn’t go far enough. Meditation is linked for me indissolubly with a moral vector and with community. And this changes everything.

Perception in 4 Dimensions

This will be a bit of a throw-away post as I really should be working on other things right now, but I had to jot down some notes while these ideas are still fresh. I’ve been thinking of ways to integrate the different accounts of perception I’ve been studying as of late, and the phrase “perception in 4 dimensions” dropped into my head.

I think a good term for a perspective is as important as the content of the perspective itself, and perceiving in 4D has been wringing in my head since last night. On the face of it, there’s nothing exciting about perceiving in 4D. It’s what you’d expect from a creature such as ourselves, orienteering around the world along three spatial axes and an additional temporal one.

But I’ve been thinking about the phrase in a different way.

I think proper 4D orienteering must include something like Bergson’s intuition about duration. The idea in this context would be that living beings don’t just move through time and space but in some sense accumulate or become organized through their successive actions and endeavors. Time is a cumulative repetition captured in the ongoing transformations of the organism through its lifespan and across the contexts it finds itself in. It’s not an abstract ideal or an empty space.

I haven’t thought this through too deeply, but duration in this sense is an integrative fact that unites cognition, perception, and embodiment. Duration also connects the organism’s engagement with its environment, both in the sense of the ongoing work required to get a world to show up (through the energetic resources required to keep it going), and in the sense that the lifeform outsources its cognitive and perceptual needs to artifacts (built and natural) in that ecology.

Consider also the case of perceptual learning, a view that suggests an intimate link between practices, behaviors, and the organization of the sensory modalities of the perceptual system. If something like genuine perceptual learning is true—i.e., that learning constitutes changes that are actually perceptual, rather than changes merely indicative of shifting after-the-fact inferences about the sensory system’s deliverences—then a concept like duration can again provide a helpful integrating function.

So, the quick and dirty rub is that perception in 4 dimensions isn’t simply the observation that lifeforms operate along four axes of possible action (a Newtonian view of organisms if ever there was one), but that any real account of perception acknowledges that duration is an integrative function wherein enaction, extended cognition, feeling, and perceptual learning all come together in and as the transformation of the lifeform.

Folding the Manifold

Screen Shot 2019-04-09 at 2.43.25 PMI think often about these passages in Kant and how they describe the details of something like phenomenological intentionality. Along these lines, I think of skilled intentionality as a practice of conformation, of training the manifold of perception and intuition to bend in certain ways on purpose.

The Side View’s thesis is based on something like this idea: Practices of conformation, in Kant’s sense of “objects conforming to cognition,” are ways of bending and folding the manifold in certain ways.

I also noted recently that we might define a concept as a fold in perception. Taking up a concept as a part of experience is to shape the manifold of intuition in such a way so as to realize new details, emphasizes, and meanings for action.

But the concept is just one way of reorganizing the manifold. Practices of all kinds are nondiscursive (nonlinguistic) means of shaping perception. They also “fold” experience in different ways and allow new subtleties to show up.

If you can see the links between Kant’s manifold of intuition, and its potential of being shaped through practice, you can start to look at spiritual, religious, and contemplative exercises in a new light, one that might interest even the ardent atheists among you.

This shaping of the manifold is what unites the different disciplines The Side View draws from. The emphasis on practice also lets us view a variety of disciplines from a different angle. This includes the sciences, the humanities, the arts, as well as the contemplative, spiritual, and religious traditions, and their various philosophical commitments.

When we link these disciplines through the idea of practice—rather than in an effort to forcibly compare, contrast, conjoin, or reduce one tradition to another—a number of unhelpful divisions can be resolved, such as those between the religious and the secular the scientific and the philosophical, and the theoretical and the practical, especially in terms of their existential value for transforming perception and action.

In this sense, the practices, habits, and rituals explored through TSV are treated as ways of conjuring up novel syntheses of perception in experience that yield new meanings, details, and possibilities for action in the practitioner. I explore these ideas in more detail in my introduction to the first issue of The Side View Journal, which you can find here.

Consider downloading a copy for $5. All proceeds are put towards supporting TSV!


Float Tanks and Epoché

Dzjro-zVsAAJ0jUI’ve been writing recently about epoché as an exercise (or askēsis) of perception. I take epoché in this context to mean something like bracketing or suspending one’s immersion in perception so that one can evaluate the construction of experience from a different angle.

Pierre Hadot describes something like an epoché when he writes about interrupting or intervening in the automatic functioning of what he calls our “inner logos.” Our perception of things, Hadot says, is conditioned by our regular habits and acquaintances with the world around us.

This conditioning has a way of sedimenting itself into our experience. The inner logos is an interface between our habituated knowledge of the world, on the one hand, and the way this knowledge grows implicit within our perception, on the other.

The ever-present reality is that the inner logos is always becoming automatic. And this in many cases is as it should be—the inner logos is a system of embodied knowledge-habits that guide our navigation through the world.

It lets us abstract expectations and qualities across events so that we don’t have to discover everything anew every time we walk out the door. However, at the same time, and for the same reason, the inner logos periodically requires intervention, interruption, and surprise.

Epoché is something like this kind of interruption. It’s a skill of perception that takes many forms. In other words, there isn’t one kind of epoché but a variety of modes of practice that suspend, interrupt, and defamiliarize sensation. The act creates a space for novelty.

Novelty in turn allows for a reconfiguration of the inner logos, of the internal system of associations and expectations that render available our understanding of the world, and even of the very way in which a world shows up for us in experience at all.

In the works of people like Edmund Husserl, epoché is a phenomenological move that takes place within the purview of some person. But as Peter Sloterdijk observes, there are also material forms of epoché, architectural affordances that provide something like an extended epoché.

This is the thought I had while in a float tank yesterday: It’s something like a material epoché, a way of bracketing out, to the extent possible, the inflowing rush of external sensory stimulation. It makes space for a reorientation of the inner logos.

The float tank is based around the idea of limiting sensory stimuli, including by reducing the sense of an inside / outside boundary (the floater rests in a tank of salt water maintained at body temperature, reducing the difference between the outside atmosphere and the body).

This is, strictly speaking, a kind of environmental scaffolding for practicing epoché. In such an environment, it grows easier to achieve, at least temporarily, the kind of reordering of the inner logos that Hadot describes as essential to the spiritual exercises of philosophy.

I don’t think a float tank is a replacement for regular contemplative practice, which must realize itself in the real world of everyday interactions, but it is for me a healthy antidote to the overstimulated world I find myself in most days. I recommend giving it a try sometime.