When Truth Doesn't Work
It begins with a vague sense of unsatisfactoriness, perhaps felt in the unguarded moments when lying in the dark that precedes sleep. That hypnogogic state suspends the usual cognitive restraints of the day, and the mind considers itself at large. Sleep anesthetizes this restlessness before it grows too uncomfortable, but an inquiring life often carries that nebulous insecurity into the daytime. This provokes the first tremors of discomfort. They stir in the deep, and questions surface. Is my time well spent? Are my occupations superficial? What more is there to life than the spectrum of experiences already known to me?
The bible says 'the Truth will set you free', and looking to Truth remains, like water stuck in our cultural ear, a kind of programmed response to the deep stirrings of thought. The idea of a liberating truth emboldened the perceived falsity of my life, and so off I went in search of that Truth (in books, and India, naturally).
But after some looking, Truth, I now fear, is no help. Or, rather, it doesn’t work.
The canon of Western philosophy is a testament to the impotence of truth. At least from post-antiquity onwards, to study the artists, writers, and philosophers concerned with truth is to study a peculiar variety of melancholy, unhappiness, even misery. Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran found early on:
If truth is an answer, then philosophy either asks the wrong questions, or asks in the wrong way. It’s telling that Cioran found solace in discovering states of mind, which themselves are not answers but experiences, or temperaments. “Nietzsche is a temperament,” he told an interviewer. Whatever impels humans to go off in search of answers under the guise of ‘truth’, what we might actually be looking for is a new state of mind. Feeling incomplete, unrealized, or otherwise angsty appears a uniquely human state of mind. Or do cats ever come to feel they’ve been living in ignorance of some greater truth? Would they, if they had larger brains? Does the desire for ‘truth’ increase in tandem with neural complexity?
Desiring ‘truth’ is less a statement about what really exists than a condemnation of my current condition. It’s a recognition of the falsity, or unsatisfactoriness, of the state of mind I inhabit. When looking for truth, I’m really looking to change my mind.
Truth that remains objective, that doesn’t transfer into our subjectivity and rearrange things, is the type that Cioran found no help at all, like an already-wet towel received upon exiting the shower. The enduring statements commonly recognized as ‘objective truths’ are usually invitations into forms of subjective practice (the unexamined life is not worth living, know thyself, etc.).
So when Alan Watts asks:
I’m inclined to say no. There is, perhaps an experience that offers inside information, but an experience cannot be written. An experience is not objective. What good is an intellectual pursuit of truth if it does nothing to enrich our sentience, nourish our brief time here with wonder, or bestow our lives with felt-sensations of well-being? Truth as a disembodied intellectual pursuit is empty.
It seems irrelevant whether objective truth exists. Such things are relevant only insofar as they act upon our subjectivities. So I set truth aside, now looking for things that might change the very mind that feels compelled to look for answers.
Vipassana, or Witnessing What Works
So the question changed. I lost interest in ‘what is true?’ and now ask, ‘what works?’.
The first obstacle in this new venture is how to know when something ‘works’. What does it mean for something to work? Yes, something that acts upon my state of mind, an experience that sinks through my skin and mixes with my blood. But everything encountered acts upon my state of mind, whether explicitly or in some subliminal way. What constitutes a good change, and what a bad one?
We walk around as bare, upright nerve endings. Everything in our sensory universe registers, whether conscious or unconscious. To figure out what works we need a rubric of sensations, or an exacting awareness of what is going on that discerns how the tides of sensation impact us. Aggregating these insights over time, we can engage more consistently with practices, events, things that nourish our states of mind. We can grow more aware of what causes contractions in the mind and body, and what causes expansions, with their accompanying releases of tension (I sometimes wonder if happiness is, in its most bodily form, just an absolute dissolution of all unnecessary tensions, and the subjective states this physically serene condition gives rise to).
The discerning awareness being described is essentially vipassana, or insight meditation. The practice cultivates an incipient awareness of what’s going on inside our bodies and minds. It’s a trained untangling of sensations, allowing us to observe things as they register, and how they register.
It is now well known that our default perceptual abilities are rather dim. Emotional states and bodily sensations are so jumbled and jammed together that we can rarely differentiate between them. By default, I’m blind to the stomach contractions accompanying my frustration, or the free and easy breathing accompanying moments of calm. There can be no cultivated sense of what works, of what we react to positively as organisms, without a clear view of what’s going on inside the fog of sensations.
Action After Vipassana
Vipassana alone isn’t the experiential answer that replaces objective truth. It fosters lucidity, or a clear view, but life demands more than observation. Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita:
“No one exists for even an instant
without performing action;
however unwilling, every being is forced
to act by the qualities of nature.”
A baseline of cultivated observation can persist through and underlie the actions we take, but there’s more to do around here than just observe.
To further orient a life around what works, the actions nature requires of us can be approached as what Michel Foucault called Technologies of the Self:
Foucault further suggests that “Each implies certain modes of training and modification of individuals”, so that we can come to think of all actions as training regimes, or practices, that we undertake with the intention of transforming ourselves, or our states of mind, to attain some greater degree of sentience, vitality, generosity, or well-being.
This view portrays the life of pursuing what works as a double layered affair, simultaneously taking action in the world and observing how those actions invert back upon ourselves and ‘work’, or not (the Gita calls for ‘detached action’, which creates a similar observer/actor interplay).
No Work, No Truth
The specifics of ‘what works’ are culturally relative. They change along with the seasons, the eras of human civilization. What worked in Ancient Greece, or hunter gatherer societies, might not apply in the throes of present day capitalism.
But while methods change, the impetus remains the same. An unsatisfactory state of mind, one incapable of satisfying us in the present. In this way, ‘The Truth’ and ‘What Works’ mirror Buddha’s Four Noble Truths:
Life is suffering, or ‘incapable of satisfying’
The cause of suffering is attachment to craving and desire
The cessation of attachments and craving puts an end to suffering
To do so, follow the eightfold path (an all-inclusive regime of practices and values)
The first 3 can be lumped together as The Truth. Truth is an observation, an insight into the nature of things and our situation. It does nothing to change our lives unless culminating in the Fourth Truth, a path of living, a life-regime of practices that work upon our unsatisfactory states of mind. Put In Twitter language by Buddhist Geeks podcast host, Vincent Horn:
Truth is an insight we must each come to on our own. Though it might be stated objectively, it cannot be communicated in this way. What philosopher Hannah Arendt writes of thought in its purest form applies equally well to this conception of truth, that it:
This is the eightfold path, the work, to discover and ploddingly pave anew the path of insight. Now returning to where I began the essay, when I first became conscious of “being inserted between an infinite past and an infinite future”. I thought it was truth I developed a craving for during those late nights of thought, but now I feel truth is just whatever it takes to begin the work. I wanted to change my life.
The Twofold Path: Truth & Practice
The lust for truth strikes seemingly at random, it arrests and suspends us, however briefly, from the torrent of worldly happenings, all this mundane hullabaloo. In these frozen moments beyond time, we peer into the vast abyss enshrouding our bickering, our earth, our galaxy, into the absolutely unknowable circumstances of our being.
This is when the work might begin. Or perhaps it won’t, and we’ll rejoin our affairs unchanged, until that next moment of dazed suspension, the next invitation to change our lives.
But should it take, truth is a seed that grows with time. Finding an acorn is less than impressive, and we might, along with Cioran, toss it aside, unimpressed. But an oak tree is magnificent, and not easily shrugged off. The oak tree, of course, exists in the acorn, just as an enlarged, enriched state of mind exists in small insights of truth, should they be lived, nurtured, and cultivated over the course of a lifetime. Truth does not grow without work, but nor does the proper work occur without that initial catalyst of truth.
Even the course of writing this essay proved a form of work that acted upon me. I began, brazenly, saying truth is broken. I’ve come back around to truth, humbled. I now see its brokenness actually lies within me. As my existential curiosity stirred in college, I expected instant gratification (a tendency our culture lays on thick) as if reading the right passage in an obscure book might snap my life into place. The truth is I was lazy, and often still am. I wanted to change my state of mind without doing the requisite work. I wanted to find an erudite paragraph, or an esoteric teacher in the mountains of India, that might substitute for decades of contemplative practice.
But, unlike then, I now know I’m not after any concealed truth. I’m looking for things that work. I’m looking for a commitment to vitalizing practices I couldn’t muster in previous environments. Truth and what works might constitute a twofold path. When enough is learned, insight shifts from the object of pursuit into an undercurrent upon which practices must develop. As Henry Thoreau told Harrison Blake in an 1853 letter: “I have nothing to learn, but something to practice.”
Truth isn’t broken, but the practices and patterns of daily life that alone can bear its fruit require renewed attention.