On Medieval Cathedrals and the Limits of Proprioception

by Antonio Dias

The inevitable question arrived via Twitter. “If civilization is all bad, what about the cathedrals?”

I must say I invited this kind of question, literally asking for examples to unpack…. Still, I’m leery of the exercise. I don’t write to convince anyone. I write as a record and a way to extend and fill out my understanding, to harvest insights. This, I hope, will be of use to people. But entering into debates and contests of rhetoric is a rabbit hole….

There is a strain of reasoned debate that shares with neo-classical rhetoric and jurisprudence an attitude that we stake our views on the whim of the gods and through combat find their chosen winner. This is conflated with “finding the truth.” What could be a dialogue is hijacked into becoming a battle, and a convivial search for truth becomes an “ends-justify-the-means” knife-fight.

Seeking the favor of the gods leads to grasping “divine right,” while manipulating another’s views to “win them over” has little relationship with finding any truth. If Dissensus tells us anything, it’s that we don’t own the truth to be able to retail it, or spread it through conquest. Those who hold the most abhorrent views in our eyes, may have something within their make-up that we lack and that may be ultimately a better source of adaptation at some later point to conditions we cannot possibly predict. This can complicate our pursuit of self-preservation, but it does keep us clear of delusions of divine right.

I believe that our current situation has been the direct culmination of a pattern of behavior that seeks to destroy anything it cannot control. Since control is itself a delusion, it will do all it can to destroy everything so long as it has the power to do so. It gains that power through monopolizing our attention. Ultimately attention is the tender of the realm. All else proceeds from that. This pattern of behavior results from and feeds off of a powerful dynamic of bait and switch with which it takes credit for all that in our more lucid moments we find valuable and hides its responsibility for its destructiveness by pushing it off onto the other. To be disillusioned of this is to understand that none of its excesses are mistakes. If we expand on the search of qui bene? as we look at any case of “error” or “mistake,” “unfortunate unintended consequences,” we will find the culpability lies directly with the main thrust of this syndrome.*

I cannot and don’t want to try to convince anyone of this. It can’t be done. I can show the trail that has led me to these conclusions, and with that trail illustrate the process I’ve been involved in. That may or may not have any traction with a particular reader.

Disillusionment begins as a wrenching experience. Everything our conditioning has led us to accept and to bond with comes into question. Our props fall away. We find that we have little practice at standing on our own, and our apparent increase in instability is frightening. We are also enslaved to fear as the principle means of this behavior’s control over us. Everything we have been conditioned to accept cries out that our worst imaginings will come true if we leave the apparent security of our conditioning behind. It’s only after we make the first break and begin to open our attention to the innate strengths this conditioning has sapped from us that we begin to find the connection between disillusionment and Joy. There is a power in finding these strengths that outstrips anything that might be cajoled out of us by persuasion, or forced from us by coercion. As we make the connection between the traps of futility and the forces that sap our strength, our organism decides for us. This is not a matter of competing opinions at that point, our instincts begin to align with our budding framework in ways that feed its development and create a kind of knowing that is not subject to argument, just as no one can “convince” you to place a limb into fire because “It will be good for you!”

*

To ask “What about the cathedrals?” is in a way to ask, “When did you begin to subscribe to Pol Pot’s concept of the Year Zero?” “How can you be against goodness and beauty?” These are the defensive questions that come form the heart of our conditioning. They imply that to question the system that led to artifacts that embody aspects of what may be taken as expressions of basic human impulses like awe and beauty, an appreciation of craft, and signs of community; is automatically to be against those impulses. This posits only two possible positions, “With me, or a’gin me!” This brings up a fear response in both parties as the conversation veers into a challenge to see who is loyal to something basic that we tend to call our humanity, and who is a pathological renegade. At that point dialogue within a spirit of conviviality fades away to be replaced by a power struggle. A fight to see who can control opinion, and put the adrenaline behind a fear response to rally our side.

Any attempt to assure the questioner that, “No, I don’t advocate genocide and extreme iconoclasm!” Is as hollow sounding as attempting to respond to “When did you stop beating your wife?”

While I’m busy causing offense, let me assure you I don’t take these as descriptions of the literal motivation of those who asked me this question! Although I cannot be free of the guilt of assuming a certain condescension in presupposing that I can parse the way they have been manipulated by their conditioning! If anything this just goes to show how ridiculous one becomes when attempting to force understanding by making direct “arguments.”

*

This is as good a time as any to jump into the second part of this post’s title, the concept of proprioception. I wrote about David Bohm’s tremendously powerful illustration of the way a failure to recognize proprioception leads us to causing unnecessary harm to ourselves. He uses the example of a woman who has been paralyzed on her left side by a recent stroke. She awakes in terror. She’s being pummeled about the face by an unseen attacker in the dark. Her cries bring a caregiver into the room. He turns on the light and they both see that her paralyzed left hand is poised in a fist over her head.

Her stroke has cut off her conscious control of that side as well as her feeling of its movements, but not some unconscious motor-neural pathways that have led to her fist acting out against her in a dream. Bohm likens this to the way we perceive our conditioning, as Krishnamurti characterizes our thoughts and feelings and habits and behaviors that are dominated by memory and create our striving within psychological time, as if it were things that happen to us.

“He makes me so angry!” “How could she hurt me that way!” Even, “He’s the best thing that ever happened to me!” These are all illusions that cover up the fact that we do these things to ourselves. – If we go deeper into it, our whole conception that “we” are “ourselves”is part of this, but for now let’s leave that in abeyance.

While Freudian psychology was steeped in the repression of emotions and the “need” to let them out. Bohm and Krishnamurti, in part anticipating cognitive therapy’s breakthroughs, talked about suspending our reactions stemming from conditioning. That by acknowledging these storms as they hit our psyche and then letting them pass, suspending our acceptance of their premise that they are unavoidable reactions to external events that must be accepted on face value and then reacted to by a continuation of the drama they are part of; that we can learn to become accustomed to, open up new neural pathways that move us out of the limitations these bonds of conditioning hold over us. This is a tremendously liberating insight! It falls into that category of communication with our deeper workings and the switch-like change in accompanying behaviors I talked about yesterday with regard to breaking the bonds of depression. It takes no “convincing.” It is self-evident at a seemingly molecular level!

I do think the sharing of the results of this insight are an essential aspect of what is required to truly enter into dialogue. There is an inevitability of “offense” when people begin to talk about anything that challenges beliefs and that appears to be an attack on the others self. When we witness examples of true dialogue it is evident that they exist on the basis of a deep sense of trust. This trust need be robust, since otherwise those involved would be so concerned with maintaining that trust by not creating offense that the dialogue would choke off at the first sight of human frailty and the inevitability of error, miscommunication, and the layers of defensiveness we all have cocooning our vulnerability.

Dialogue works – It is one of what I see as two essential activities, along with the practice of creativity, encountered within it and beside it. – because it builds mutual trust and our ability to accept and navigate within our vulnerability instead of hiding it away and remaining trapped in fear. An acknowledgement of proprioception; our recognition that our emotional reactions, our urge to enter into a drama instead of a dialogue, is always a possibility to be suspended within an action of empathy. This is an essential precondition to the maintenance of an atmosphere of building trust amidst shared vulnerability.

David Bohm at one point asked Krishnamurti, “What is the responsibility of one who is awakening to those who are still asleep?” This is an awesome question! It is also surrounded by a great static charge of what could be taken as immense hubris! It points out the dangers of “following” a path of declared humility. But in a way it is a question anyone can ask at any time. We all find ourselves at differing points of what we might consider enlightenment, or disillusionment. We repeatedly run into this question to greater or lesser degrees in almost any interaction. Perhaps it can be considered an “innocent” question if it is asked outside of using its answers within the fulfillment of a desire to “win?”

To paraphrase Krishnamurti’s answer, he said we should respect the dreamer and not cause unnecessary pain, but we should keep an eye out for those we might recognize as also being awake so that we might enter into dialogue with them.

I take that to mean that unless we can reciprocate from within an awareness of the perilous condition of an incomplete sense of our proprioception, that we are all subject to the urge to dramatize our existence and that we act out of a position that exposes our own vulnerability instead of trying to buttress it behind fortifications, then we should not go barging around “changing people’s minds!”

In that spirit, here is a possible answer to, “What about the Cathedrals?”

*

If we live in a world under the imminent threat of ecocidal destruction to vie with the greatest of the six great extinction horizons of Earth’s life, then it behooves us to give proper weight to the responsibility *civilization has had for getting us to this point. It does not mean that we are entitled by any particular construction on our conclusions to set about a program of counter-destruction to “Right the wrongs of our enemies!” This reaction is a sign of a continuing entrapment within civilization’s framework.

There are elements of the awesome and of beauty and the wonders of community, and an appreciation of craft; within these artifacts that is testament to creativity and conviviality. They show signs that their makers celebrated with an exuberance and a clarity of spirit we find it hard to fathom today, so much deeper into our decline than they were. Still we cannot forget that the society that built them seeked to universalize a particular hierarchical construction that championed the clear conscience one could achieve even while using others as means to an end by positing a crystallized “eternity” in which all wrongs will be righted in a far-off tomorrow, an ancestor of that “Future” we remain enthralled to with its utopian majestic rewards for the faithful and dystopian systematized vengeance for all the rest. If we cannot hold an empathy within us for both what they affirmed and for their inability to break out of the bonds of illusion and find a better path, we will never be able to do any more for our own predicament than gnash our teeth and hate ourselves for not achieving the potentially impossible.

Nothing that I see in the insights I’ve been exposed to revolving around the questions of Being lead me to believe that holding ourselves to the narrow choices of “salvation” or “damnation” have any place in the situation we may call creation. Disillusionment is a letting go of the drama of keeping score as much as it’s concerned with shifting our attention from out of any other rutted pathway so that we might find a more valuable integration with what is. It lays bare our vulnerability. In doing so it shows us how an acceptance of that vulnerability can create the conditions for another form of awareness.

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