Friday, March 19, 2010

What's "Real" Anyway?

Certain words gain a kind of traction that overtakes all sensibility when it comes to their usage. Lately, I've been noticing that the words "mindful" and "mindfulness" have gone far beyond their homes, landing in such odd places as commercials for unnecessary products and book titles about how to become ultra wealthy. Or how about these word pairings: "mindful partisanship" and "mindful golf". The first one is just a rationalization for maintaining a certain political view, and the second one is an entire website devoted to improving one's golf game. So, what's "mindful" mean anyway?

The same, it seems, is true of the word "real." In fact, it's probably long been true of the word real, but in the age of the internet, and artificial intelligence, it's probably all the more apparent.

Two recent blog posts take this issue up in decidedly different ways. Trevor at the Big Old Oak Tree writes about the perceptions some people have of the vocation of Zen priest here in the U.S.

Folks occasionally mention "the real world," or "a real job" to me, but I think that's a rather shallow way to look at it. Sure, most of my compensation is non-monetary, but I don't think that makes my job any less "real." And landing this job didn't involve all sorts of competitiveness and self-promotion, but that kind of thing seems less "real" than most everything else, if you ask me. I think speaking in that way about my lifestyle is really more about the fact that I model, in some sense, a bit of a different way to live, and I think some folks aren't really sure how to react to that. That might be what's going on. I can't say for certain. Anyway, trust me. My life is very, very real. The more I throw myself into this practice, the more I learn about who I am, the more I drop who I think I am, the more real it gets.

And over at Mind Deep, Marguerite takes on the issue of social media, internet sanghas, and the like, partly by speaking about comments made to a post of hers about a conference. Among the comments she reported was the following:

I personally believe Internet social media and mindfulness don't go well together. There is an element of addiction involved here. One can give excuses like "limiting", "doing it mindfully", "doing it with purpose", "keeping a check" etc. The very fact that one has to look for such excuses makes me suspicious. It is like someone telling drinking alcohol in moderation is ok. Just like one does not need alcohol, one does not need these virtual reality medias. There are tons of libraries, books, real world sanghas and even google to get all the information anyone truly seeking would need.

Both of these examples point to the almost arbitrary assignment of the word real. If you work at a job that directly pays you money for your time and efforts, it is real. Books, libraries, brick and mortar sanghas are considered real, I'm guessing, because of their physicality in the world. And Google, well, I'm not sure why the author of the comment felt Google was worthy of the label "real," but social media online is somehow not. Brand recognition as legitimizing factor perhaps? Kind of like saying Coca Cola is a more real soda than the homemade root beer you're grandfather made, even though it could be argued that the opposite is probably more accurate.

Part of being mindful, as I see it, is to be deeply aware of both the narratives you have attached to the language you're using, and also the ways in which you are attached to those narratives. For myself, I've noticed lately how often the word "respect" is linked in my mind with others behaving in a way that doesn't interfere with my life in certain ways. Like the noise in my apartment building, which is minimal really, but which I sometimes get frustrated with, and start drudging up the "these people aren't respectful" comments in my mind. Certainly, there are times when this comment is true, but often it's just a drama I'm creating because I'm disappointed that it's not completely quiet.

What is it about Trevor's vocation that trips people up so? Are they jealous? Maybe. Are they trapped in a capitalist view of work? Probably. Are they confused? Most likely. And there are other reasons as well, I'm sure.

And the internet - why do so many of us persist in dividing the world in two like this? Concern that computers are going to take everything over? I know I have some of that concern, even as I enjoy being online. Is it also that desire to have something tangible to hold on it? The old empirical standard? Or maybe it's also tied to the commonplace disconnect us 21st Century affluent people have with the earth. There's probably hundreds of reasons for comments like the one made above about mindfulness and social media.

And yet, the same commenter also points to my own concerns about the use of the word "mindful," so it would be foolish to just dismiss him or her as completely off. The point of all this, to some extent, is that for all of us, there is a strong lack of real mindfulness (ha, ha!) when it comes to how we use language. Lots of generalizations, laziness, and reliance on social cues and accepted understandings to get by. Some of that stuff is built into communication, I suppose. But it seems a hell of a lot better to be clear the first time, than have to go back and try to clean up the messes made by not being clear.

And what is "being clear?" I think I'll stop now, before everything gets deconstructed to a pulp.


Algernon said...

Turtles all the way down -- reducing further and further. How much communication, for that matter, is clearing previous miscommunications and misunderstandings? Do the volumes of commentaries on dharma help put the teachings in a new and more relevant context, or just create new conceptions that will have to be dispelled in future commentaries? Perhaps both.

Fascinating couple of posts, Nathan, and an excellent reflection on them.

Nathan said...

"Do the volumes of commentaries on dharma help put the teachings in a new and more relevant context, or just create new conceptions that will have to be dispelled in future commentaries?"

A really interesting question - in fact, having just waded through the many, many commentaries Red Pine collected on the Diamond Sutra, I found myself closing the book and not wanting anymore. Doesn't mean I won't go back and take another look, but after awhile, just reading a section of the Sutra and sitting with it seemed like the way to go.

LuLu said...

Interesting post today. It reminded me of your post from a while back about faith vs. reason and how much time we spend trying to talk it out. Your post today taps into a similar feeling for me. Ultimately, words will always fail. They are limiting. And so interesting. I was reading an academic commentary on linguistics and how the language of drug culture was one of the most advanced and complex because of its inherent need to constantly change and have many words that refer to the same thing. Words will always mean a little something different to every person and words will take on different meanings over time as they serve different purposes and groups.

My post yesterday seems to ask a related question. Who decides what zen is? what yoga is? Who's definition of a word is the correct one? Can it mean different things? I am not sure we can decide that a word's meaning is more real or true in one context than another.

All the more support to practice speaking in silence?

Nathan said...

Our local root teacher, Katagiri Roshi said "You have to say something" - and of course, he meant sometimes. I totally agree that common meanings for words are often, maybe always, elusive. As a writer, I'm really interested in language, and also ambivilant about it.

The drug language thing is completely intriguing - I might look into it more (not the drugs, but the talk :)

Justin said...

I remeber hearing someone say "well, I guess it is time to go back to the real world now" as they left tassajara zen monastery. I thought...did you not absorb anything while you were here? What is not real bout this place, this moment? Seems prettyu damn real to me, mayeb even more "real" than the "real" world, expecially if you are paying less attention to things once out of the monastic setting.