Sunday, March 8, 2009

reference and loneliness

The person without a range of reference is not more authentically human for being so. He is just more alone.
— Clive James, Cultural Amnesia, pg. 391

I picked this book up out of curiosity. In this instance, the curiosity has paid of manifold, for this rich, textured book contains fascinating accounts, observations, and insights into the lives and works of many who formed and shaped our cultural heritage, from Keats to Einstein, from Trotsky to Tacitus, both the famous and, at least for me, the obscure. An added bonus is James' writing style, a marvel of depth, beauty and simplicity on complex and often controversial topics.

This quotation struck me in light of the weight placed on no reference in Buddhist practice, e.g., non-referential awareness, or non-referential compassion. One may perhaps object that the word reference is being used in two different ways, but what happens if what if one considers that there may be something in common in the two phrases awareness that has no reference and the person without a range of reference?

In either case, one has a sense of open space, infinite, without center or circumference, a feeling that reminds me of the location in north-eastern New Mexico where I've taught retreats for the last few years, right at the edge of the Great Plains, where heaven and earth are somehow joined in the dusty blue of a distant horizon. When I walk out into the plains, there is no reference. One is completely alone, and, ironically, the very experience of aloneness is a reminder that this thing we call life consists of precisely of physical, emotional, and mental sensations arising from our interaction with the world around us.

To have no range of reference is to cut oneself off from life.

In an odd way, this quotation embodies the two most salient aspects of human experience: we have no idea what this experience is, yet we meet and respond (or react) to what arises in every moment of our lives.


Dennis Sibley said...

Hi Ken

As a fan of Clive James' wonderfully lucid writings I'm so pleased to see your post on his insightful views on the nature of being alone.

But I have a question - do you think our sense of being alone (which can feel frightening) is the same as what we feel when we are simply on our own, through either choice or circumstance ?

A long while ago I remember reading a book called "Solitude" by Anthony Storr (who is a psychiatrist and fellow Brit)in which he explores the creativity and insight that can arise from a life lived in this way.

Can we really have a life without references I wonder. Maybe taking up the position of having no reference is itself, a reference of sorts. I've no idea to be honest and my brain hurts now, so time to let go!

Thanks for such a stimulating post Ken.



Ken said...

Dear Dorien,

My reason for this post was precisely that a life without reference doesn't really make sense.

It's good to distinguish between experience and description. For instance, there is an old debate between free will and determinism. The debate is groundless because free will is an experience and determinism is a description. We do not experience ourselves as being determined by conditions.

"No reference" is, I think, an experience in the same way.


Dennis Sibley said...

Hi Ken

I like the distinction you make between free-will as an experience and determinisim as a description, so thank you for that.

However, sometimes I do feel as if I am indeed determined by the circumstances of my life (and it doesn't worry me that much to be honest)so I obviously have a long way to go before enlightenment!


leslie said...

Perhaps loneliness is a gift. It lets you know that the illusion of your aloneness can be healed in connection with others.

Ellen Fishman said...

"To have no range of reference is to cut oneself off from life."

Interesting thought.

As one closes off to life, one lives through habitual patterns, reactions. One does not really live in the experience. Yes ?

Then you really are alone, not connected to what is true because you can not open to others, to yourself, to what is happening.

Yes I can experience that now the opening, sometimes. As one who can at other times believe her emotions, I would not allow what was truly happening to penetrate. For example, I could not experience the willingness of others to help.

Or I would color my view of thw world in such a way that I thought I was the only one who screwed up
instead of experiencing that others did it also and they survived. No reference to turn to for insight.

Takes a great deal of willingness, know how and capacity to do so, as you have said.

Ellen Fishman said...

"To have no range of reference is to cut oneself off from life."

Sat at the communal table fork in my mouth, when stranger said,"Go ahead eat, I've already blessed the table."
Slight anger and then just quiet, as the experience arose and fell away.
Creating space for others doesn't happen until you open to your own preferences and prejudices. In isolation it is too easy for me to delude myself.

Ah !