Wednesday June 23, 2010
I’m now in the final stages of preparation for my forthcoming trip to China – not something I’ve blogged about here much, although those who have been following my Twitter feed (in the sidebar of this site) may have been keeping up with my varying successes and humiliations as I try to get to grips with the Chinese language. I’ll be in China for seven weeks or so, doing research for a novel which is still in the very early stages.
The last few weeks have been a whirl of sorting out funding applications, buying tickets, arranging visas, making contacts in China, practising my Chinese, and tying up loose ends here so I can have a fairly clear head over the summer; so there’s not been much time left over to blog. But yesterday I stumbled across the following passage written by Alison Gopnik in her book The Philosophical Baby, which I thought worth sharing.
Travel and meditation lead to the same kind of experience by opposite means. When you travel you expose yourself to so much new and unexpected external information that you overwhelm the usual mechanisms of attentional selection and inhibition. Everything around you is more interesting than the things that you would normally attend to (like getting to a particular meeting). When you meditate, you starve the usual mechanisms of attention. You give them almost nothing to work with and you consciously try to avoid focus, inhibition, and planning. The result is similar: just as a lot of new information can overwhelm the inhibitory mechanisms, so shutting down the inhibitory mechanisms can make even everyday information seem new.
Meditation and travel seem to end up causing what philosophers call the same phenomenology – the same type of subjective experience. In fact, a lovely thing about meditation is that you can visit Beijing without leaving your room.
Of course, there are many kinds of meditation, leading to very different kinds of phenomenology; but there is something in what Gopnik is saying. Habits of thought – the kinds of habits that in meditation you try to circumvent – are contextual, because we are creatures who are not separated out from the world. We spin worlds around ourselves the way that spiders spin webs. And because these worlds are made up of things that, more or less, stay put – all those shelves of books, the pictures on the wall, the everyday furniture of our lives – we can easily find that this world-spinning can hamper our ability to move through the world with lightness (of course, on the other hand, too much lightness may not be ideal either – but that is for another post), or can lead to a diminishment of suppleness in our thinking and our living. You could perhaps put it like this – reversing Gopnik’s own line: the lovely thing about visiting Beijing is that you can meditate without even sitting on your cushions.
It is perhaps for this reason that I tend to write well when I am travelling. I see writing as a matter of discovery, and of then shaping these discoveries into something that captures something of what it is to be human. When I travel, ideas come easily. But it is only when I stay put that I find that I am able to start on the business of shaping, reshaping, cutting, developing and editing the material that I have gathered.
Anyway, I’ll still be blogging from China, as thinkBuddha.org seems to be unaffected by the Great Firewall, and I hope to take in a fair number of Buddhist sites whilst I am there. If any readers have any suggestions as to where I really shouldn’t miss whilst in China, do let me know either in the comments or through the contact form (accessible from the menu at the top of the screen). I’d be delighted to hear from you.
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