From East To West

I’ve been thinking more — and talking with friends about — my East vs. West entry from the other day. And it occurred to me that, whenever I deal with metaphysical puzzles such as this, it’s nearly always useful to consider how Alfred North Whitehead would have approached it.

Whitehead was an advocate for process philosophy — indeed, he is responsible for the revival of this idea in the 20th century. Though I’ve always thought there were better terms for it; Whitehead himself used the term “philosophy of organism,” which I’ve occasionally abbreviated to “organic philosophy.”

The basic idea here is that process, as opposed to substance, is the primary building block of existence. Put another way, existence is a verb and not a noun. Whitehead’s masterpiece, Process and Reality, is one of the densest books ever written (and right up there with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Heidegger’s Being and Time as the most difficult books I’ve ever read). Whitehead was a mathematician, so his theories are complex and as complete as he could make them. His goal with this book was to generate a “categoreal scheme,” or what I might call a metaphysical map, “in terms of which every aspect of our experience can be explained.” A pretty noble — and perhaps impossible — goal, though I will say that Whitehead comes closer than anyone else I’ve seen. And the reason he comes so close is because he thinks in terms of process. This opens up an entirely new way of thinking metaphysically, which allows for everything from common experience, psychology, magick, quantum physics, relativity, and everything else I’ve tried to throw at it.

So to bring this system to bear on the problem I articulated in the previous entry, I think that Whitehead would say that we can only be aware of the moment; but each moment is pregnant with context (past) and possibility (future). So by fully focusing our awareness on the richness of every moment, we are by definition also focusing our attention on where we have been and on what we are trying to create.

Another way to say this is that the clear-cut distinction I’ve been drawing between past, present, and future is not so cut and dry. After all, without a past to provide context, there can be no present moment. And without a future towards which the present is aimed, there is no meaningful present either.

I think the Buddhist emphasis on the present is really an emphasis on experience; our consciousness can only directly experience the present moment. Past and Future can only be experienced abstractly, through memory or imagination. So when a Buddhist urges us to Be Mindful of the Present, I think she is really saying to Be Mindful of our Experience. And some of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had were suffused with energy, as I was fully mindful of the present moment, but also acutely aware of the reality I was cultivating for myself. This is, at its core, nothing less than magick.

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