Awareness and the active mind

October 9, 2012

It is not uncommon or dull to argue against the idea that only the sublime is beautiful to the eye.

“While, oh, how all the more will love become intense
Hereafter, when ‘to love’ means yearning to dispense,
Each soul, its own amount of gain through its own mode
Of practicing with life, upon some soul which owed
Its treasure, all diverse and yet in worth the same,
To new work and changed way! Things furnish you rose-flame,
Which burn up red, green, blue, nay, yellow more than needs,
For me, I nowise doubt; why doubt a time succeeds
When each one may impart, and each receive, both share
The chemic secret, learn, – where I lit force, why there
You drew forth lambent pity, – where I found only food
For self-indulgence, you still blew a spark at brood
I’ the greyest ember, stopped not till self-sacrifice imbued
Heaven’s face with flame?” (Browning, Fifine at the Fair).

I could also argue by analogy to music without using the aesthetic principles of musicology directly, that there are ways of bringing harmony that are not reductionist.


There is the art of harmonizing counterpoint, making argument flirtatious and contrast delightful (well known from Bach’s Goldberg Variations and The Well-Tempered Clavier). In writing it resembles the tireless experimentation with prosody that appeals to obscurantists, their satirists, and pedantic attic-dwellers like Alexander Pope.

“Hard, hard, hard is it, only not to tumble,
So fantastical is the dainty meter [..]
As some rare little rose, a piece of inmost
Horticultural art, or half coquette-like
Maiden, not to be greeted unbenignly” (Tennyson 1863).

Later composers modifying the classical tradition like Béla Bartók have shown that even polytonal music can accommodate the most parochial of folk melodies from Europe’s southern margins. Harmonizing balance appeals to me more than meditation on one’s inevitable end-of-life escape from the potentially raucous but vivid and often inspired contrasts of the material world.

This makes it difficult for me to enjoy meditation as a practice or take much interest in the ideas in Eckhart Tolle’s books A New Earth or The Power of Now, except in the sense that they challenge by thinking habits and preconceptions without saying anything that sounds terribly unconventional or counterintuitive in its own right.

The argument for mental stillness that really won me over is the way patient silence allows latent insights to surface. Not purely transcendent insights that leave the material world behind, but realizations that transcend one’s habitual patterns of thought to make unexpected connections within the realm of one’s prior knowledge and experience.

“.. What joy, when each may supplement
The other, changing each as changed, till, wholly blent,
Our old things shall be new, and, what we both ignite,
Fuse, lose the varicolor in achromatic white!”
(Browning, continued)

There are more pressing, mundane ways of seeing this need that are only less easy to contemplate by way of hitting too close to home. If a wizard like Zedd would say, “sometimes to gain ground you need to slow down,” the darker way of saying the same thing is “you can’t fight time over luck.”


My least favorite example of hurrying for the sake of feeling urgently needed at one’s destination is the health professions’ enthusiasm for the “stretcher trot” at the expense of good listening skills or competent hand-offs among team members juggling a shared patient’s charts and supplementary oral instructions.

But I’m not easily rushed, so I find the opposite side of the logic trap made of matched, conflicting tautologies more flattering – the one that endorses procrastination instead.

Creativity experts have recognized the need for undisturbed time to think reflectively, which is hardly possible if one’s sense of felt productivity is predicated on feeling rushed. In defiance of the way the Protestant work ethic has been reconceived as the cut-everyone-off-in-traffic-if-your-appointment-means-anything-to-you work ethic, one creativity guru has even come out with a cheeky defense of procrastination.

He details all its grandiose enthusiasms about one’s hypothetical potential and also its depressive self-sabotaging delays that make testing one’s full potential impossible by only getting down to work at the last minute.

But he sees a silver lining in the way procrastination buys time for thinking outside the box – if you never risk thinking unrealistically about what can be done, you may overlook a real opportunity for feasible innovation out of overzealous avoidance of risk.

So… anticipation of your swan dive can be the very best part?

Procrastinating out of resentment about frustrating, obstinant limitations on the best possible outcome of putting in your best effort is, in reality, a no-win. But sometimes taking the time to do something else before you begin what seems most important to accomplish can be the right thing to do.

The path that suits you best may not be the path of least resistance, but resistance feels different on the path you identify with as an experience of becoming, rather than a trial of the validity of your hopes and plans.

That’s why they say resistance cannot rob you of your purpose if “the journey is the destination”, whereas you could be robbed of access to an all-consuming future goal if your actions were only a means to an end.

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