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  • Writer's pictureKurt Keefner

How a River Becomes a River Once Again

Updated: May 21, 2022

“Before I sought enlightenment, the mountains were mountains and the rivers were rivers. While I sought enlightenment, the mountains were not mountains and the rivers were not rivers. After I reached satori, the mountains were mountains and the rivers were rivers.”

~Buddhist master Dōgen

A major function of philosophy is to defend one from bad ideas, not just from those floating in one's general culture, but also from the ones one might arrive at on one's own. To sketch a pattern: a toddler, unless he is abused, is nearly perfect in his thinking. But he is often abused, and if he is not, he is exposed to some bad ideas, and he might even arrive at some on his own. He needs a

way out of this situation. That's where philosophy comes in. At its best, it reconnects one to the ideal childhood that may have never been and pulls it forward to the ideal adulthood worldview, using natural desires, common sense and, ultimately, formal thinking.

As a young person, usually an adolescent, begins to seriously think for herself, she must transition from a pre-reflective, proto-philosophical level of thinking to (hopefully) a mature, grounded, and centered level with abstractions. The earlier level will be made up of commonsense, conventional thinking, unsystematized impressions, and idiosyncratic principles and errors. For example, she may begin with basic ideas of fairness and things making or not making sense without evidence. During the transition to a fully conceptual way of thinking it is almost inevitable that she will fall into rationalistic, materialistic, spiritualistic, pragmatist and/or other such mistaken approaches. The cognitive load is simply too much to get it right in one try. The toddler's view of the world will be lost. Rivers will no longer seem like rivers, things of wonder and splendor, but rather mere water molecules or environmentalist problems, God's creation or whatever. At best, perhaps, objects of sentimentality.

But if one gets through the process successfully, one will recover the toddler's perspective, only now it will be fortified with a conceptual understanding. Rivers will be rivers again, splendorous and molecular. However, getting through the process requires staying grounded or recovering one's grounding if one has lost it. The adult must be rooted in the child. One must affirm or re-affirm one's perception of the world as real and present to the senses and accessible to reason. And not just to bare verbal logic, but to what I call robust reason, which reaches out to reality with all of our faculties: concept-formation, logic, emotions, empathy, intuition, bodily feelings, and so forth. To come out of development as the beautiful butterflies we are, we must be present in every way in a world that is present to us in every way. We don't become one with the world, as some Buddhists seem to say, but we are intimately in it.

Where I disagree with what I see at the intent of the epigram above is that I think that the Buddhist idea of enlightenment, if I understand it, underestimates the power of reason. It seems to see conceptual thinking only in its awkward transitional stage and doesn't conceive of it in its full maturity. It wants to recover the childhood purity by sheer intuition, by returning to childhood "purity," but seems to do so at the cost of active curiosity and perhaps even self-awareness. That's understandable. Westerners and their philosophical gropings often do not set much of an example.

But one can avoid the pitfalls of an awkward phase of conceptualization without abandoning conceptualization altogether. One does this by relaxing and being with oneself and one surroundings, letting go of one's preconceptions to the greatest degree possible, and gently forming concepts and principles, checking one's thinking with logic, but never forcing anything on oneself. The state in which one does this is part of what I mean when I say presence. More on this process here.

It goes further than this. If you are in a state of presence you can find real contact with others who are, at least to some degree, in that state too. Maybe you will inspire them; hopefully not to look up to you but to see you as an equal in a shared world. Then there will be a core of serenity no matter how wrapped in passion it might be, and you will feel blessed by the universe.

These ideas are part of the thinking that will go into a book I am writing. You can read more about it here.

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