III Apophatic Prayer as a Theological Model...
The Paradox of Intention and the Subversion of Self-Consciousness
In the late 20th century there have emerged a number of new terms that do not exist in ancient languages, such as ‘self-consciousness’, by which I mean in this paper what is expressed by the phrase, ‘He is so self-conscious it is embarrassing’, or ‘she made me self-conscious’. Although a consistent and specific terminology for self-consciousness and its suspension was absent until the late 19th century, the perception of these phenomena were present. In this discussion, by the suspension of self-consciousness I mean that phenomenon that is part of the spatial continuum of ordinary consciousness, and which is most easily observed in children but which also occurs in adults, when concentration becomes so complete that a distraction causes them to realise that they have ‘returned to themselves’.
A phrase that describes the dynamic of self-consciousness and its suspension, ‘the paradox of intention’, has existed only since 1988, when Marvin Shaw published his eponymous book. This is one of the most fundamental laws by which self-consciousness operates, and it is implicit in many ancient texts.[i] Because the writers of these texts do not have a universal language for self-consciousness and the paradox of intention, which appear to be universal constants in the human psyche not subject to time and culture in the way language is, the language they used for these phenomena is neither common nor consistent. As they struggle to describe phenomena for which there are yet few words, their texts are culturally vulnerable and easily misinterpreted.[ii] Before giving examples, it is necessary briefly to describe the paradox of intention.
The paradox of intention is a simple descriptor for a complex and familiar process that to a large extent governs the way humans think. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to think about anything but the simplest objects directly.[iii] Instead, the mind works by description, attribution of functions, and so forth. The most common manifestation of the paradox of intention is that experience of having a name, a reference, on the tip of the tongue, and being unable to express it. The greater the effort to remember, the more self-consciousness intrudes and the sought-after information retreats.
To recover the lost information, it is necessary to forget the object of remembering, that is to say, it is necessary to subvert self-consciousness, which is casting an ironic eye and making unhelpful interior remarks such as, ‘What a dork you are for not being able to remember this’. The forgetting cannot be a half-forgetting, with one eye on the imaginary place where the misplaced information may re-emerge; the shift of concentration must be complete. This phenomenon extends to many areas of life:
There is a universal and recurrent human experience in which the blocking of some sought for attainment leads us to modify our intention, and this is found to yield an unexpected fulfillment of its own; experiences of impossibility force us to abandon our pretensions and our intensity, and in this we surprisingly achieve either what we sought or a kind of contentment that we thought could only follow the conquest of that which blocked us. In either case we discover that the goal is reached by giving up the attempt to reach it.[iv]
[i] (Atlanta, Scholar’s Press, 1988). Shaw’s survey covers sayings in a variety of religions, but he seems to stop short of making the correlation attempted here. The paradox of intention is pervasive, as he notes. Beyond the example given, its effects are subtle and wide-ranging, although it is essential to retain a distinction between intention, attention and performance, and the communication between conscious and what is unseen in the mind, which includes far more than the ‘unconscious’. Weight-loss provides a good example of the distinction between intention and performance: weight will not be lost by eating more -- this is a confusion of performance with intention. But to have the intention of losing weight as a deep desire, and to consciously intend a different and more encompassing aspiration, such as mountain-climbing, whose performance necessitates weight-loss and which intention entails it, may effect the desired result (it should be noted that the paradox of intention by definition does not guarantee any result). In other words, weight-loss is no longer a self-reflective stricture, but part of the natural flow of self-forgetful aspiration towards a higher goal.
The application to issues of morality and ethics is self evident: taught as a set of rigid rules to be imposed as a template will inspire only rebellion as Paul notes above; while as part of an all-encompassing and passionately desired higher goal, a moral and ethical life, while not without effort, slips naturally into place. The key word is an old-fashioned one: integrity. That is, the truth of the self, the operation of the divine in the uniqueness of each person needs to have the freedom and reverence to unfold. This highest aspiration entails all else and focuses the intention away from the subject. By contrast, the psychobabble that surrounds ‘self-esteem’ is a poor substutite , more significantly, self-defeating as well because it is reflexive. As shall be seen, morality entailed by the highest aspiration according the model presented is the opposite of individualism, which can lead only to facism.
[ii] Isaac of Nineveh (7th c) offers what is perhaps the most consistent language and modeling of the mind and its relationship to the body, which may be why his Ascetical Homilies for centuries were the only text given to novice monks in the Orthodox churches. See The Ascetical Homlies of Isaac the Syrian, tr. Dana Miller, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984, p. 297. Hereafter cited as A.H. The translation by Wensinck may be more readily available: Mystic Treatises by Isaac of Nineveh, tr. A.J. Wensinck, Nieuwe Reeks, Deel XXIII, No. 1, Wiesbaden, 1969. Hereafter cited as Bedjan, as references are to Bedjan’s numbering in the margin of Wensinck’s translation. The phrase ‘their mind was snatched’ occurs in Bedjan 171.
[iii] One of the goals of Zen meditation is to see objects directly.
[iv] Shaw, p. 195.