“The Deadliness Of Doing”

Nov 28 2011 @ 1:06pm


That's the phrase Oakeshott used to describe our usual, rational, self-interested selves – engaged constantly in wanting, getting, wanting, not getting, and wanting some more. Hobbes put it thus:

I put for the general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.

The futility and unhappiness of all this is what exercized Oakeshott, and that led him to a Taoist form of conservatism, about as alienated from the American "Drill, Baby, Drill!" conservatism of today as one could imagine. But I couldn't help thinking of it when reading Jim Holt's superb review of a clearly ground-breaking book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.

What Oakeshott was trying to recover was a way of doing things which was as unself-conscious as possible. And so a wheelwright is not rewarded by the number or even quality of the wheels he makes, let alone the money he might acquire. He is rewarded solely by the experience of making a wheel, of feeling the doing-of-it in his hands, arms and feet, of achieving craft that transcends usefulness. It is in these moments that we are fully human in the world we live in, for we have left the experiencing self for the experience itself, or some transcendence of one into the arms of the other. Here's how the point is made in Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance:

It can be at a level as simple as sharpening a knife or sewing a dress or mending a broken chair. The underlying problems are the same. In each case there's a beautiful way of doing it and an ugly way of doing it, and in arriving at the high-quality, beautiful way of doing it, both an ability to see what "looks good" and an ability to understand the underlying methods to arrive at that "good" are needed. Both classic and romantic understandings of Quality must be combined.

And they must be combined effortlessly, which requires great effort and repetition until it takes off, and we are free. As Eckhart Tolle, in a particularly Taoist mood, has put it,

All true artists, whether they know it or not, create from a place of no-mind, from inner stillness.

And all human beings who are at peace in this vale of tears come from the same place, the "still small voice of calm," as the hymn has it. Is this notion of a more authentic, natural, less self-conscious and therefore less troubled self hovering alongside our rational self connected to Kahneman's schematic – the notion of two minds within us, the subrational one and the rational one? There are some parallels:

Kahneman cites research showing, for example, that a college student’s decision whether or not to repeat a spring-break vacation is determined by the peak-end rule applied to the previous vacation, not by how fun (or miserable) it actually was moment by moment. The remembering self exercises a sort of “tyranny” over the voiceless experiencing self. “Odd as it may seem,” Kahneman writes, “I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.”

Kahneman’s conclusion, radical as it sounds, may not go far enough. There may be no experiencing self at all. Brain-scanning experiments by Rafael Malach and his colleagues at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, for instance, have shown that when subjects are absorbed in an experience, like watching the “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” the parts of the brain associated with self-consciousness are not merely quiet, they’re actually shut down (“inhibited”) by the rest of the brain. The self seems simply to disappear.

One sentence keeps ringing: "The experiencing self is like a stranger to me." And when you try to think your way through life, rather than allowing oneself to experience it, you will become unhappy, confused, even angry. And that particular unhappiness is a good, working definition of alienation or sin: "I do what I hate", as the oldest son says, like Augustine, in "Tree of Life."

At some point in our civilization, we will have to stop doing what we hate.

We will have to relearn how to live.