synthetic zero

March 17th, 2010

I’ve been having some interesting online conversation regarding the issue of naturalness in a contemplative/Buddhist context. The question is, what is the structure, the basis, of any impulse we have to overeat or overthink or overworry or lash out or whatever it may be? On the one hand, we might think of these impulses as somehow natural, and to avoid them we have to in some sense work against our natural tendencies. But there’s a deeper sense of “natural” which I think is worth bringing into the picture.

I like to think of these situations as akin to feedback (such as when you have a microphone too close to a speaker). You get the microphone too close, or you turn up the gain too much, and you get that self-reinforcing feedback loop which really hurts the ears.

In order for this to happen, the microphone has to pick up sound and it gets amplified and output through loudspeakers. So you could say that the loud screech is “natural” because it is relying on the basic tendency for the microphone to pick up sound, for the amplifier to amplify it, and so on. You could certainly think of the ameliorating action as one of going against what is natural, to tone it down, and so on.

On the other hand, the microphone and amplifier and speaker do have a more “natural” function, a way of being used which feels more comfortable and right, which doesn’t hurt the ears. And this is also natural at a sort of meta-level. Is it really “natural” to use a microphone with the gain turned up too much or too close to the speaker? In fact, without struggling or feeling bad about yourself or whatever, you simply move the microphone a little bit away from the speaker because that, too, feels natural and right.

I prefer to think of this latter sense of natural as the more appropriate metaphor on a larger scale because then the feeling you have isn’t struggling with your nature, but rather going along with your nature in a deeper sense. Because ultimately the direction being recommended by the teachings (of various schools, not just Buddhism) is really more akin to relaxing, going with the flow, being in accord with Tao. The benefit of this metaphor I think is simply that once you “get” the sense of ease, the feeling that it is a matter of relaxing in a larger sense, then it feels far more possible to maintain it more stably, because in fact you’re not thinking of it as something you have to constantly maintain (an effort to fight against your nature) but rather a surrender to a larger reality which has a natural ease to it.  And when you start to get into trouble again, your impulse will be to relax, rather than to struggle: because struggling tends to accidentally ramp up the feedback loops far more often than relaxing does.

Of course, the “relaxing” is a specific kind of relaxing: it is relaxing in a vast context, including the whole situation beyond your direct control, not relaxing into a set of habits and so on. And some effort may still be required as needed, including some idea of discipline. But if there is a goal it should be to switch over to the “relax” approach, I think, as soon as you can, even if it isn’t available at first. There’s a kind of small-scale sense of naturalness involved in the microphone feeding back (it’s natural for the microphone-amplifier-speaker system to function in a way that creates screeching feedback in some instances), but if you include a larger sense of naturalness and ease (where we acknowledge that feedback hurts our ears and no one in the room can hear what you’re saying, etc.) then in a larger sense it’s more natural for you to use the microphone in a way where you can be heard. If you can tap into that larger feeling of ease, then it’s a lot more easy, I think, to stay in a stable sense of relaxed presence in the world.

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  1. Peter Cerrato says:

    The microphone>mind>action which brings negative feedback (just the right amount, the goldilocks principle) back into play and seeks a dynamic balance that listens for more and more ways to expand the spacial volume in which the feedback loops operate …

    March 23rd, 2010 at 3:17 am

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