This Is It: Staying on the Inside of Life

How much time do we spend preparing for a moment other than the one we are in? How many hours are passed in critique of what we are doing rather than doing it?

These are interesting questions especially when we are considering the phrase ‘staying on the inside’ in relationship to our human experience. In my last post I wrote about how one of the great advances of the Western Enlightenment was the growth of the ability to objectify our experience – to stand back from the world and examine it.

To objectify something means to create an object out of it. We start with an experience. For instance, I am having an experience of the table in front of me. But the experience of a table is not a table. It is an experience of the color of the wood, the cold smoothness of the surface, etc. To create an object out of it I have to create a ‘representation’ of it in my mind in the form of an idea. The idea of a table makes the table an object independent of my experience of it.

Once I have the idea ‘table’, I can assign a label to that idea in the form of the word ‘table’. Then I can talk about the table without being near it, and I can deepen my understanding of what the table is and carry that idea around with me.

The Belgian surrealist artist Magritte painted a picture of a pipe that had written under it, “This is not a pipe.” What he was pointing to was that the image of something, or to stick to our language here, the idea of it, is not the thing itself.

One of the challenges of objectification is that we start to confuse the representations of things for the things themselves. This is what William James called vicious intellectualism and he attacked it vehemently.

To create an object out of  ourselves is one of the experiences that we have all learned. We have all become ideas of ourselves to ourselves. We spend an enormous amount of time thinking about ourselves, ie. thinking about our ideas about ourselves. And this is all time that we spend outside of ourselves, looking back at ourselves. It contributes to a sense of isolation that we feel even from ourselves.  This was a major theme of many of the European existentialist philosophers and writers.

What I am saying is that we often experience our lives as represented objects to ourselves. We live a great deal of our time preparing for our life or critiquing it rather than living it. We are in different ways getting ready for a life that we think we are going to live later. We have an idea of what our life should be and then we spend our actual lives comparing our experience to that idea and preparing for the life we think we should be living.

One of the ways that I understand spiritual enlightenment is as the recognition that “this is it.” This experience that you are having right now is your life. It is already happening. You are already in the middle of it.

Does this mean that you shouldn’t ever plan for the future – no, of course. You might want to consider planning less and living more, but planning for the future will always be a part of life. What we want to remember is that the time we spend planning for the future is the life we are living now. Then we can make better choices about how much planning we really want to do. We don’t want to end our lives realizing that we spent our life compulsively planning and preparing for a future that never arrives. For some of us that might mean learning to pay more attention to your actual experience of living and less to your ideas about it.