Tyger Tyger burning bright,In the forests of the night:What immortal hand or eye,Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Phenomenology (that branch of philosophy which studies the nature of experience itself rather than abstractions & concepts about it) delineates two modes of mental processing: reflective & pre-reflective. In relation to the first installment on this topic, we might conceive of a correspondence between reflective processing & the neomammilian complex in the triune brain schema. Pre-reflective processing, then, reflects the reptilian complex, while paleomammilian complex bridges the gap between them.
I wish to recount a recent event in order to limn the difference between reflective & pre-reflective modes of experiencing: in the Sonoran Desert, hiking with my grandfather near the border of Mexico, aside from the occasional cactus, the Sun, the sand, & the sky were our only company.
Then suddenly a percussive warning pierced the desert soundscape—instinctively we stopped with a start. Like a maraca, but sinister, a hiss & rattle sounded from beneath a nearby Yucca. There, coiled like the First Serpent was a Sidewinder Rattlesnake.
“That’s the sound a rattlesnake makes when it’s about to eat you,” my grandpa observed.
If we consider this experience in phenomenological terms, we can clearly distinguish the immediacy of its pre-reflective component (i. e. the “hiss & rattle” & the instinctual start) from the contextualization of its reflective part (i. e. interpretation of the sensory experience, identification of the rattlesnake with its aural advertisement, and the literary allusion to Old Testament Scripture, etc…). Pre-reflection & its counterpart form a phenomenal warp & woof—our minds, the clever weavers, join these strands to craft the seamless weft of our experience. We live, then, both actually & abstractly at the same time. We perceive the world through our five sense, & then we also think about our perceptions of it. Here’s the difference again:
A Zen master holds kendo stick before his student—
“What is this?”
A clever pupil responds:
“It’s a kendo stick.”
“No, it’s this!” And instantly the master strikes him with it, “‘Stick‘ is a noise!”
“What is this?” the master asks again. A cleverer pupil responds:
“Let me see it.” The master hands it to him and at once he hits the master with it…& they all three have a good belly laugh and drink some saki.
The first student failed the koan, & suffered bruises therefore, precisely because he mistook the two modes of mental processing, mistaking the map for the territory, as it were. A “kendo stick” is not really a “kendo stick” since these are names, sounds, noises, or words. In this case, cause & effect of such an error were perfectly explicit—mistake a symbol for an object & your teacher buffets you about the sconce withal. In our lives, we confuse such matters to a far greater degree, mistaking thoughts about the world for the world itself. We fail to recognise the consequences of such confusion, however, because the latter are further removed—the causal correspondence is muddied in our cerebral echo-chambers. Bill Watterson, prophet of our time, expresses this fact:
25. August 1995
If you’re an iguana, this is nonsense—no matter how much you hate school, you don’t worry about it until they stuff you in cage & lug you in for show-and-tell. But Calvin’s response is so poignant precisely because we all recognise this tendency to menatal proliferation in our own experience. Stanford Professor of Psychology Robert Sapolsky suggested that even mammals—stripéd ungulates in this case—don’t worry in the same way that human beings might, & they enjoy, therefore, a condition akin to the crisp bliss of reptilian affairs:
Suppose you’re a zebra & a tiger stalks up & tries to eat you: you flee. Either you make it or the tiger does. If you escape, you go back to eating and regurgitating grass and you don’t worry about the tyger again until next time; if you don’t make it, the tiger gets lunch and you still don’t worry about it. But if you’re a human and you’re “lucky” enough to escape a tiger-attack, it might be that you’re traumatized for the rest of your life, anxiously peering around every street-corner with the dread of pearly-whites & tiger-stripes like a burning lead ingot in the pit of your belly. Even the mere thought of a great cat will send us into cold sweats & sporadic fits of nervous trembling. No less the thought of Tax Day already on the Ides of March, or the fear that some pernicious rascal will filch your bicycle even thought it’s attached to a street-sign with a monstrous padlock & a great iron chain.
If we manage to trace this Ariadne’s Thread of an inquiry back far enough through this cerebral labyrinth we discover that all of this anxiety stems from our conflation of thoughts & reality, reflections with their referents, reflective with pre-reflective experience. There’s no utility in fretting over April 15th thirty days in advance, nor worrying oneself over an hypothetical bike-thief; these stresses serve no purpose & they divest us of resources. I might be so busy worrying about a conceptual crook that I don’t notice the actual one stealing my bicycle. Like good old young Hamlet remarked:
If it be, then tis not to come,
If it is not to come, then twill be now, if it be not now, then twill come;
The readiness is all…
Or as Saint Matthew puts it:
Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the trouble thereof. 6:34
Both Shakespeare & the Holy Book suggest a remedy for this all-too human affliction we call “anxiety” or “chronic stress”: we must learn to discriminate thought from reality & keep ourselves dedicated to the task at hand. It might be that task at hand is to fret about great cats (though it is difficult to conceive of a set of circumstances in which this this activity would serve any purpose & worrying ought therefore to be the exception rather than the standard). We must establish a beneficial relationship between the reflective & the reflexive, allowing each to operate according to its natural sphere of influence. Anyone who has ever tried to speak a foreign language will recognise this…the minute you start to think about it, you’re lost.*
But, as you may have noticed, the observation that we must balance reflective & pre-reflective modes of thought hardly helps: it describes a result but conveniently leaves out the method thither. So I will briefly attempt to delineate a procedure for integration of our human & reptilian aspects; a rapprochement between the neo-cortex & the lizard brain. Before I begin, I must issue this admonition: don’t think about it, just do it. To begin to think about this exercise is fall into the infinite regress of self-refelction & divorce oneself from direct, pre-reflective experience thereby. Now follow the instructions, as promised:
⚕Select a topic that causes anxiety (e.g. a leaky faucet, a misogynist supervisor, putting on snow-tires, poverty in Third World countries, etc…)
⚕Observe your reaction & attempt to discriminate between the experience itself & the mushroom cloud of thoughts, judgments, & inferences abstracted from it.
⚕Then further notice that even “the experience itself” is just an abstraction of it that you have recalled in your memory.
⚕Contrast the abstraction to you actual condition in the moment
⚕Enjoy the spaciousness that such discernment between direct & abstract experience provides; it clarifies clouded cognition.
⚕Now simply squelch all future thoughts as they arise that do not serve your interests.
If you managed it the last bit for any length of time, you’re Patanjali. For the rest of us, Rolfing® SI represents a consummate method for establishing this connection to direct experience. Through Rolfing® SI, we learn re-inhabit our bodies. Embodiment anchors us to direct experience; it serves as a ballast amidst the chaotic seas of everyday life. Established in our bodies, we can accept our psychological failure to quell unhelpful thoughts because it is no longer necessary to do so. In precisely our recognition of our inability to mitigate anxiety, we discover that we no longer need to try. With the body as basis, we can cease to resist our resistance, we can cease to worry about our worries.
With Rolfing® SI we have cut the atavistic feedback loop concomitant with our phylogenic inheritance of a neocortex. No longer obscured by multiplying villainies of thought, in the insight of that instant, the world unfolds like a tulip in Spring. Thought-vortices may persist but we no longer allow them to swallow us. Likewise with instinctual or emotional impulses: when we see them for what they are, we have also risen above them. We come to master cortical, sub-conscious, & unconscious thought; we can employ each for its utility. We free ourselves from figments that erstwhile fettered us. Lizard brain, Limbic system, & Neocortex—with familiarity, we find we can allow each cerebral aspect to operate without interference from its counterparts & cognitive harmony ensues therefore. Thus liberated from the echo-chamber of anxiety, we cease to be creatures & step into our natural role as creators of our own experience.
*It’s no secret that foreign language-proficiency increases in direct proportion to drunkenness. Aside from some rather obvious confounding factors, the palliative potency of wine in this regard stems precisely from its effect on reflective consciousness—it strangles it. In this way, we tend toward a balance between the two general modes of thought.