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Author Archives: kjirsten severson

kjirsten severson is from the magical Black Hills of South Dakota and currently resides in Portland. She began her official journey into philosophy in graduate school, first in Washington, DC and then in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh had a particularly undeniable impact on her. Studying philosophy within the environment of a stunned and stunning city proved a potent opportunity to feel her humanity rawly and with a sweet, sharp poignancy, so much so, she felt completely altered, and unpredictably, even to herself, dropped out of her PhD program after three years. Before leaving Pittsburgh for an extended road trip with no return date, she was given a Smith&Corona typewriter by Eileen Keelan. After three or four months on the road (she can’t remember), her van broke down in Portland, OR, land of the unemployed over-educated. She was home for the third time in her life. Without the demands of a regular job and thanks to generous friends, kjirsten began typing on the typewriter in her studio apartment overlooking NE 9th and Roselawn. First annoyed by the little “nothings” that seemed to be piling up, she gradually began to see what they were doing. Awed and humbled, she stopped resisting. The result is a 350 page manuscript she hopes to publish under the title, an unnarrated memoir. This art project is the first step to realizing that desire, along with her wish to create a “walking book” – an installation of the first chapter from an unnarrated memoir.

It may not be apparent, but my art project is all about connecting us as humans. My gift is to focus on the hidden roots in the basement of our thought in order to allow for more connection than rational discourse allows. However, there comes a time when I must come upstairs to speak our everyday language. Now is one of those times.

This post is a collection of posts I made on FaceBook prior to today, election day 2020. No matter the outcome of the election and the events that may follow, you and I have a chance to empower democracy simply in the way we regard one another. And that is the core of my message below.

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Before I get to the heart of my message, I must note that one concept that has no useful place in our democracy is white supremacy. This nation never has been a white nation. It was built by the labor of black and brown people just as much as it was built by the labor of white people. It was built by white people who held no power as much as it was built by white people who held power. It was built by peoples whose descendents, generationally, have been abused and targeted with social and violent disdain.

This generational abuse was made possible by dividing the unification that occurred throughout the history of this country between poor whites and poor people of color. White supremacy was a weapon used against poor white people as well as against people of color, used to divest them of their allies.

Furthermore, the United States was built on land that was taken from people who had created well-established civilizations thoughout the “New World”. It was built by nearly exterminating numerous peoples whose progeny are now US citizens and have had to live in a twisted story which denied their lived histories and cultural wisdoms.

If we wish to unify, we must recognize that US Americans are ALL of US, the United States has no grounding without ALL of US. The United States does not exist without ALL of US.

In large part, President Trump won because he was able to capitalize on the unaddressed damage caused in this country by the (largely unintentional) arrogance and narrow-mindedness of intellectual urban elites. Their pride, to the point of conceit, had marginalized several different populations in this nation. Their dismissive attitudes toward uneducated; toward working class people; toward rural people; toward “America’s poor whites”; and toward religious believers, especially Christian, enabled Trump to sweep up a majority of them and transform them into his swing vote.

President Trump is the complete opposite of an uneducated person, a working class person, a rural person, a poor white person, a truly faithful religious person and yet he was able to sweep so many into his base because he HEARD them; he RECOGNIZED them; he UNDERSTOOD their experience of neglect; he SPOKE to them; and he SPOKE FOR them. Every jab and cheap shot Trump has taken at intellectuals, scientists, and party-politicians has felt incredibly satisfying to so many US Americans, regardless of their party affiliation, who had been neglected and belittled by the language, biases, and assumptions of the middle to upper educated urban classes.

If a vote for Joe Biden is to be believed to be a vote for a unified nation, then everyone who supports and promotes Biden must recognize their own arrogance and dismissive attitudes toward other US Americans who live in a different world than they do, are surrounded by different assumptions than they have, and frame concerns for this country in a different manner than they do.

I strongly believe there is opportunity for political unification if we can get beneath our own self-righteous tendencies, cultural assumptions, and partisan warring. Donald J. Trump’s approach and language as President of the United States, has been an unbelievably potent accelerant, exacerbating the already growing political polarization to near democratic death. This experience has plunged us into an urgent necessity of changing course and resituating how we approach political dialogue. If we do not do so, we will be heading toward a totalitarian state. If we cannot collaborate as a unified nation, we cannot govern ourselves. We cannot maintain democracy. We will fail our forefathers’ dream.

In order to act from the recognition that US Americans are all of us, I offer a list of suggestions as a starting place from which to begin a dramatic shift in our political dialogues. The change will not come easily; the partisan divide began decades ago, has been enflamed by social media, and is of tsunami strength today. However, please, let’s not give up. Let’s try to come together.

10 Ways to Strive for Unity: Creating the United States out of United Citizens

I believe each of the suggestions below is a requirement in order to come together and offer ourselves a solid place to start re-unifying the United States:

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1. Believe that our strength to overcome national hardships lies in our ability to unite; let all our words and actions be grounded first and foremost in a desire to unify US

2. Forgive each other their ignorance; ask for forgiveness for our own ignorance

3. Check our own self-righteous attitudes, ground ourselves in humility, accept constructive critique; strive to recognize how our own hurt is fueling anger, hatred, and distance

4. Do not accept or perpetuate demeaning attitudes toward poor white US Americans, uneducated US Americans, rural US Americans, and religious US Americans; do not accept or perpetuate dismissive, complacent attitudes in regards to the racism embedded within the US American judicial and economical systems and within every single American social institution

5. Seek to know better those whose experiences have been ignored and voices buried

6. Locate our common grounds by recognizing our different lived experiences, and thus our different perceptions, interpretations, and judgments

7. Recognize that both Biden supporters and Trump supporters have valid concerns, let’s not paint each other with broad strokes

8. Edit out the snarkiness of our posts, do not re-post snarky memes, gifs, posts; seek constructive information within others’ snarky posts, if you cannot find it, dismiss it without reply

9. Fact check any article we wish to forward, strive to use the most balanced sources, or at the least, acknowledge the leanings of our source and perhaps present as well the counterview of the topic from a publication that leans the other way

10. Demand fundamental collaboration from the two dominant US political parties; voice an abhorrence for voter suppression to your political leaders and on public forums

Over the last few decades, we have created a political environment in which we are unable to effectively collaborate. We now play a game of all or nothing. As a result, we no longer listen to perspectives that have discord with our own. We have forgotten that other perspectives necessarily hold value precisely because they are not our own perspective. Other people’s perspectives hold a wealth of information for me and if I learn to take their perspective into account, I gain a broader understanding than I have from my view alone.

However, in the current political climate, we have learned to shut down other perspectives. We close the door without considering their value. We do not allow them to correct our own thinking and thinking continually requires correction. Other voices alert us when our perception has closed in around us to the point of distortion. Our ability to consider the alerts of those outside our own perspective is an essential tool within democracy. Unfortunately for us, this tool has been eroding within our democracy markedly during the last five decades, my own lifetime.

In my mid-twenties, I watched Democrats cheaply and blindly defend President Clinton and his actions during his impeachment. This last year I watched an even more absurd degree of denial by Republicans during President Trump’s impeachment. That increase is not due to the different political party; it is due to the exponentially increasing political polarization that occurred within the two decades between those two impeachments. Our ability to listen to the warnings of those not mired in admiration, to hear their concerns raised, and to willingly investigate must be regained if we wish to proceed toward a stronger democracy.

I do not know what my perception would be, or what I would allow it to become, if I found myself with a US President that was a dream come true to me, but who inspired deep concerns from the other half of our nation’s population.

What would I do if my favorite US President, when considering the national pandemic statistics, publicly suggested that we not count the states that hold a majority of people who did not vote for him? Would it give me pause? If so, would that pause make me stop and question the impact of such a statement?

What if I had a US President who successfully advanced my own personal political priorities, but who, in a public debate, rallied a white supremacist domestic terrorist group to “stand by”? Would I even be able to acknowledge the impact of such a statement on our US Americans targeted by such groups? Or its divisive effect on this nation?

If I made myself answer these questions, my answers would only be part of a thought experiment, for I am not actually in the position these questions describe and I never have been. I would *like* to believe I would be open to discovering if danger was at my doorstep like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But, taking into account all the factors that would be shaping my response (and even shaping the level of my awareness!), I cannot know with certainty that I would be.

For many of you, these questions are not a mere thought experiment. They describe your current political reality. And you will have a chance to know with certainty the choice you made. Deep breath; may you reflect and own your choice with full awareness, whatever it may be.

Lastly, I must make an uncomfortable confession that I believe will bring some needed context for my list of suggestions, my thought experiment (both given above) and to our current situation as a nation:

Until 2016, I had never voted in a Presidential election. I held no allegiance toward either of the two dominant political parties. I hold as many conservative values as I hold progressive values. And I have always believed, and now more than ever I still believe, that only by integrating these values wisely and willingly into the foundations of our political policies and actions (rather than on the surface through forced compromise which has proven disastrous in the past), can we fulfill the seeds of democratic governance that we have been gifted in our US Constitution. My choice to not vote was my political voice; I did not want to contribute to the increasing party polarization that was creating monstrous discourse, policies, and law.

The 2016 Republican primaries dramatically changed the context in which I had always made the choice to not vote. For the 2016 Democratic Oregon primary, I changed my Independent voter registration to Democrat (as was required in Oregon) so I could vote against Hillary Clinton. I then voted for her in the national election as a vote against Donald J. Trump. As self-serving as I believe Bill Clinton was as President, and expected Hillary Clinton to be, I had an even more dire premonition:

Donald J. Trump’s sole interest as President would be to increase his personal power; he would have no other loyalty. And I believe that has been the case. If we compare Republican senators’, representatives’, and governors’ hesitance and, in some cases, overt negativity toward Trump prior to his win as the Republican nominee, to their subservience to him since his election, it seems apparent that Trump has taken the power of the Republican Party and now holds it for himself. The Republican Party now seems to represent Donald J. Trump, rather than the other way around.

President Trump is absolutely gifting the Republican Party with many “rewards” for being his party.

Nevertheless, during my observations of these last four years, I have been reminded of the parable of the scorpion and the frog. And those in the most power of the Republican Party must surely recognize the sting of the scorpion’s tail which has already occurred. They have been no match for Donald J. Trump. The party is now his.

However, for now, he is only as strong as the US Americans that support him and that support comes from diverse motivations. While fanatics may be the loudest, they must not be the only voices heard. They are merely insulation and any reduction of Trump supporters to those voices alone does none of us any favors. Supporters of Joe Biden must not fail in conversations to listen, learn, and work to understand the lived experiences that have led to each underlying motivation. Many motivations are worthy of attention and deserve political collaboration, while only a handful do not.

Regardless of the stormy events we will witness and experience in these upcoming months, remember, we the people now have valuable material to help us continue to work toward a healthy democracy which includes ALL of US. These tumultuous times are the very means by which we will earn the right to continue toward democracy, if we so desire. We haven’t even begun to tackle the fundamental issue within democracy which is the root of our troubles today: The tyranny of the majority. IF we survive this momentous moment intact as a nation, we might actually get a chance to take democracy to a fuller, richer, healthier expression by learning how to be a democracy without the cheap trick of a tyranny of the majority.

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we are in the chomp of the ouroboros as i’ve been laid up with what has been coined a “long hauler’s” case of covid19. those stories for another time. for now: the paradoxical us.

the pandemic has illuminated the layers upon layers of dis-unity that is dissolving the united states. this inability to unify is largely a product of human perception. an individual’s perception is created by environment, experience, exposure, and inherited value systems. our lived experiences of “being american” differ radically from one another. comfort as well as fear often keep us from a communion with those that do not share our experiences nor our translations of our own lived-experiences. we live divided from one another.

the world wide web can be used to step into the perception-creating shoes of another. however, instead, our divisions, generally, have been deepened by commercial algorithms that prevent our different lived-realities from “naturally” or easily or effortlessly informing each other. some powerful interests across the political divide are invested in exacerbating the divide. human tendency toward arrogance and self-righteousness enflame the divide. habits of language fortify the divide.

most people who live in the usa have similar underlying cardinal values. we want opportunities to flourish. we want children to escape violence. we disagree about the practices and policies that might enliven these cardinal values. our secondary values clash. let’s not enter those conversations until we establish first and foremost a single shared vision:

is there a bountiful belief among us to create a social environment where no us american child born, no matter the body of that child, emerges with a target tattooed into their flesh and with social nourishment, support, and affection devoid or thin at best?

that aim does not match american history nor contemporary institutional structures and practices. as such movement toward that single shared vision will require change, but this shared belief can serve new us america with a common ground if we anchor ourselves to it unwaveringly. And right now “race” as a social identity is the most fertile place to examine that ground.

some white people are addicted to the story of white supremacy and the social, psychological, and economic advantages it gives to them as individuals and families. some white people do not wish to navigate their human existence without those advantages. for some white people the idea of white supremacy might be their most deeply felt social advantage. they have felt waves of social scorn, but at least they think (if even so quietly that they themselves do not notice), i am white.

race is a critical concept in us society due to its economic roles. due to slavery in the usa, white us americans received an inflated sense of return. they worked hard and this new country flourished. the labor black slaves contributed was not included in the accounting. their labor was invisibilized. likewise, continuing systemic racist ideologies, practices, and policies gave white us americans an elevated sense of themselves as a group. black us americans were not establishing economic self-sufficiency at the same rate. the additional barriers, obstacles, and down-right active dehumanization of black us americans did not inform white us americans’ perceptional frames. except perhaps as a permission slip.

meanwhile, us classism mixed with the american dream enhancing economic standing as a moral index by which to judge and value or de-value individuals. white us americans born into poverty have been and still are targeted with social disdain and excessively hampered by social stigma, bias, and systemic classism that largely lock in their legacy as poor whites. their disadvantages go unrecognized. frequently, they are judged, even by each other, as if their relation to the american dream were identical to ivanka trump’s. only racism prevents them from being found at the bottom of swamp.

the ouroboros symbolizes that everything is connected. but we often do not realize it until we have severed our own body. intense emotional responses to our perception of our experiences are inevitable. and valid. and worthy of respect and honor. by recognizing them, feeling them, and breathing through them, they become equipped to lead us to a deepening empathy, a wider reflection, and a grounding humility. once our emotions pass through those corridors, our best choice may be violent change. but it might not be. violence has a way of re-seeding itself with no loyalty to its farmer.

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Consider non-violent communication as a primary tool for your participation in this revolution. Marshall Rosenberg’s book of that title is an excellent introduction. Also, George Lackoff’s classic, Don’t Think of an Elephant holds insights to help you speak more effectively with those who live outside your perceptional frame. It is also a good lesson on how to be mindful with the creation of slogans so they reach a wider audience than those who already think and perceive similarly to you.

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When I worship, it is not for any god. It is for us. Godness is the worship and the worship is my religion. I can return to its feeling, trusting “us” whenever I like. It is fortifying. Though, from time to time, interrupting my seamless movement from this faith is a healthy skepticism tugging my shirt: But. What if you trust it and then it dissolves like all the other religious beliefs you’ve held before? Those times of dissolution are difficult, so perhaps it is wise to prevent such a time, give way to cynicism and to not trust in anything.

I answer: Every belief I have will change, will transform and will end. If I lose You, I will refinde You. Not define. Refinde. It’s not from our definitions of Godness that we find Godness. Finding Godness includes the difficult times of transforming my beliefs, and those difficult times have proven to be the richest.

On noticing the inevitable location in which I find myself in the journey of the ghost in the machine today:

I am 48. It got here so quickly. Inevitably I feel like I need more time. I could continue to “wake up” for the number of days that humanity has existed (and will continue to exist) as a creature that is waking up to our humanity, to my own humanity. My fraction of existence is scant. Even so, now I feel I must begin drawing up; the time for pure observation is over. I must make a sketch of a foundation that might describe what I pull out of this journey as useful and thus begin the creation of my memorial:

Nothing matters except the great motion (everything is part of the Great Motion) and what I can contribute to this motion; and what I can contribute are my beliefs, which are the fertile plains ushering forth my voice and my actions. They are not Truths. My beliefs are handcrafted stories for the Great Motion.  What story am I telling through the tapestry of all my beliefs woven as this life we call kjirsten?

To notice.

That is the post-contemporary direction. To notice. To notice what we are clinging to and why. And if our findings edify us (“us” as the world with humans in it), add them to the Great Motion as our offerings, our gifts. And here Godness and us unify. These offerings are for all the usses that are of the Great Motion.  And for the Godness that all of us together manifest.

I use Godness instead of goodness because I do not see Godness as pure goodness. It’s too simple. Godness is the composite of all expressions, manifest and unmanifest. Godness is everything AND, necessarily, less. Godness is everything and less. It’s the unendingness of two mirrors facing each other with the unequationability of life itself spotted in the center of each. It cannot be known when it arrives, its arrival can only be recorded as Godness.

I can no longer believe the supreme mystery is pure goodness. “Everything” is our word to symbolize all the nuances of being alive. We, as different bodies, exemplify how vast the nuances are. It’s up to us to deal with it. Not to make it perfect (which is at the unobtainable “end” of a process), but to face up to the moments in the now which is and are unending.  These moments are formatted according to our attention and our inattentions (everything and less).

And while we are flighty herd animals, we are also taking in the journey differently than one another with the radical face of our souls doing the recording.  It ain’t “all pretty” because there is no such thing when we are talking about the human us. What is pretty to me is not to someone else, somewhere else, somewhen else. Necessarily. Because the universe expresses in multiplicities beyond current imagination. Unmappable coordinates. There are patterns and there are surprises. The two co-exist. We coexist.

Recursive and rhizomatic are my models. And they themselves are mutually necessary. Rhizocursive? Every view is possible. Every view is infinite and timeless. Which all views that we remember and discuss through generations are. And even within a generation each view has a timeless quality in the moment called now.

I don’t feel finished. But that’s the conundrumical paradox. There is no finish. So we won’t feel finished. It’s divine; this unfinished feeling is reminding us that that is indeed the case for the ghost in the machine. This I speaking, this ghost, dies, “drops out” while the world spins and weaves. This ghost that erupted in space with your eyes and voice pulling I-kjirsten into existence moment by moment. This kjirsten will end. Lucky am I that I feel a raw love for her, for this project called kjirsten. A love that has taken decades to cultivate and sprout, fertilized continually with the humility to forgive within and without. I feel my fortune.

And from that fortune, I find myself more capable of seeing you along with You, of loving you along with You. And from that love, I find myself in Us and loving us, allowing the becoming of us in all our divergence and dissonance.

To my reader:

How sublime that we get to see and feel our own existence and our interwoven selvings! What a gift. What a trip. And I find myself grateful for you; this ride would be lonely without you. Love comes from us being in it together. I have found that I prefer the terror and joy of unpredictable human behavior and the terror and joy of your witnessing my buffoonery over a “cleaner” isolated existence. I bow my head to you, thank you and ask you, do you feel that raw love for yourself as well? It takes root from the stillness deep within.

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By now you may well know that I am spellbound by our very existence, and more precisely, my very existence, since that is the only one to which I have such mad access! Needless to say I spend as much time as I can meditating on this strange-cake phenomenon I get to call me. Many of my meditations are like those of Descartes, a wondering wandering mind aligning itself along a ladder of rational links of thought.

Many of them are otherwise, when I take the approach to not interact with my thoughts, to not make inferences of any sort, but aim only to observe them as they come, linger and as they go. I focus on my breath in order to resist entanglement. I don’t always succeed, and sometimes I even choose to converge these two meditation styles. Every once in awhile, they mix in such a way and create a dumbfounding experience. This is my first attempt at describing it:

I begin with my breath meditation, I breathe in, I breathe out. I notice where there may be tightness in this path from my nostrils, down my throat, into the breadth of my chest, the bottom of my lungs and deep into the bowl of my belly, and then as it climbs back up and out through my mouth. Once I can maintain the relaxation in that path, I place my attention on my body, looking for places of tension in order to replace it with ease. I know the places to look – shoulders, brow, mouth. Sometimes I discover unexpected tightness – toes, scalp, biceps. I breathe, I relax. Breath, relax.

Once I’ve been occupying this space, when I think I am simply maintaining relaxation, suddenly and without preparation, I will feel a surge of electricity shock me alert and the lightning leaves words in its wake: All of this will die.

My eyes snap open, wide. I attempt to settle myself with focus on my breath. All of this will die. And I try to find relaxation amid the unfathomable: All of this will die. Breath in 1-2-3, breathe out 1-2-3-4-5. Repeat. Sometimes I stick with it, eventually restoring my calm, allowing this thought to leave, and continuing my breathing meditation.

Other times, I allow myself to begin to dissect this thought, “All of this will die.” I begin with myself. That is what “all of this” is. I am the static cling of these experiences called “Kjirsten”. I know Kjirsten will end as necessarily as a wave cresting must crash. I know my actions and presence are itsy bitsy particles on a line of a thumbprint on a painting by Chuck Close, even though to me they feel absolutely central.

I understand that the stories I are, are dime store novels from 1950, quickly drifting, evaporating, disappearing, buried amid the fertility of existence. The “I” in me quiets, doesn’t fight, moves toward its undoing and . . . when synchronicity allows . . . within its own thoughtful dissolution, it somehow becomes isn’t. My I, existing and dissipating, feels outside this is. And for a brief moment, there is a thrill of ecstatic comprehension before my thoughts turn into incomprehensible mush.

This unsustainable impossibility tantalizes me philosophically. It is this very moment which fuels my passion for philosophy and which has fueled these pages of manuscript that I reproduce now as art, and which continues to fuel my exploration on canvas.

To express the impossible. To illuminate where the intellect is dark. To feel the becoming beauty of the not behind the is. It makes the is so delicious.

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Nietzsche asks in The Genealogy of Morals, “. . . what would be ‘beautiful’ if the contradiction had not first become conscious of itself, if the ugly had not first said to itself: ‘I am ugly’?” This quote inspires me to ask, without humans, is there such a thing as “beautiful” and “ugly”? Is a sunset, in itself, beautiful? Is clear-cut, in itself, ugly, as my good friend commented during a hike? Or do we “find” beauty and ugliness only in ourselves? Is everything in our human sense of “reality” confined to mind as Kant might say (can humanity only ever “see” or “experience” through its own constructs of mind), or even more so, is everything human confined to my Bodymind, as I would frame it? And if so, are we trapped by our visceral responses and the intellectual judgments that arise from them? Is that which I call “ugly” destined to impact me with repulsion necessitating my response of distancing, denial, vitriol and/or abrasive action against it?

We feel visceral responses to the balanced and unbalanced, to the validating and the threatening, to a fresh young face and an old decrepit, dying body. The “ugly” is often an object of disgust and fear. And even more complicated, we feel visceral responses to practices, ideas and values. Not always are our visceral responses directly triggered by the aesthetic appearance of a thing or event. However, that thing or event may symbolize a practice, idea, or value that chafes us within, or incites disgust, such as with my friend and the ugliness of clear-cut.

As I sit with these thoughts, I find my mind migrating toward people that seem to overcome the visceral reflex and intellectual judgments of “the ugly”. Sister Helen Prejean seems a fitting example here. She must find the crimes of death row inmates repugnant, and if there is any arrogance or righteous attitudes among them, that repugnance , I would guess, must be even higher. If she does experience disgust and repugnance and find them “ugly” creatures, she seems to have found an alchemical secret of transforming her Bodymind experience of repulsion to connection.

Prejean claims that the less lovable a person is, the more we must find the means to love them. If we are bound by our humanity within the loops of Bodymind, bodily responses and intellectual judgments informing our perceptions, which inform our bodily responses and intellectual judgments, then how does one transcend the obviousness of the ugly as she seems to have done?

As “ugly” is within us, I believe that within us, too, we can find the alchemical secret that seems to cut through, or see through the loops of our perceptions, bodily responses and intellectual judgments. Within myself is “the ugly”. Back to Nietzsche’s quote, he wrote it in context of investigating how certain values come to be esteemed. In so doing, he makes the claim that we all know “ugly” from within. We create this name and it is useful. However, its reverberations may crowd the moment and we get lost in them. We forget that it is a category within us and we stop there, left in our sensations of disgust and repugnance, locked in our judgments they inspire. Are we thus tied to actions of walking away from, detaching from or compartmentalizing that which incites those feelings and leaving them as “other” or forgotten? I don’t believe so.

As “ugly” is a category found within human Bodymind, it necessarily carries with it the possibility of compassion. Compassion (acting from empathy), not only “overcomes” the barriers between us and that which we feel to be “ugly”, but could not exist without “ugliness”, ugliness that I know to be mine. To place ugliness on an outside entity, I must have entertained it internally.

It’s as if that which repels and repulses not only uses the same highway system as compassion, it is the same highway system. The only difference is how our awareness travels it. If I follow my judgments on external ugliness inward, I find myself. And in so doing, I have found a way to respond to it through connection rather than retreat or enmity. The reverberations of “ugliness” dissipate, unveiling a cleaner terrain from which to act and from which to connect through empathetic action.

I might guess that Sister Helen Prejean knows she lives a different life than those with whom she works, however, I would also guess she doesn’t feel entirely alienated from them. She has found the inner roadway of compassion by riding the wave of the emotions that might come from being face to face with humans that have actualized their internal ugliness onto other people’s bodies and lives until she finds their roots in her own internalized self-disgust wrought by her own “ugliness within”. She has cultivated that kindness (of the same “kind”) to extend to the nether lands of human behavior incited by others’ own “ugliness within”. As remarkable as I find that to be, I also find it to be simple, not in the sense that it is easy, but rather that the means for doing so are entirely within our reach every moment, indeed they are within us, within human Bodymind.

And by now you may be wondering, what does the above topic have to do with this art project? Simply put, we have habits of perception, thought and interpretation which this art project attempts to interrupt. The interruption is not a destruction, but rather an illumination of other possibilities within human Bodymind. The art itself makes no suggestions of what those possibilities might be, for that is up to each viewer individually. The possibilities are not radical. They come from small tweaks as illustrated by this above story of ugliness and compassion, small tweaks made possible by the slightest off-beat, the subtlest variation and the needle left to skip if only for a moment. The smallest tweaks that have the power to turn repulsion into love.

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As I continue taking opportunities, I am finding more and more the passions hidden within this art project. I got a chance to speak to a couple high school classes while back in the Black Hills. Doing so has strongly reinforced my belief that people are starving! for philosophy. The piece of my talk that students appeared to resonate fully with was a memory from my own childhood:

I believe I was about nine years old. My good friend, Annie, lived down the street that crossed the top of the small hill where I lived at the base. She and I were at the peak of the hill saying good-bye after hours of play outside. It was summer coming into fall. The twilight was fading and the lighting was surreal. The air felt warm and crisp simultaneously. As I waved good-bye, my own hand caught my eye. And it seemed strangely alien. As I brought it down, that feeling intensified and I called out to Annie. She turned back toward me and saw me staring at my hand. As she came up to me, I asked, “Does life ever feel weird to you? Like, what is this? What are we? What is going on?” And I explained how odd it felt to look at my hand and know it was “my hand”. She started to look at hers, too, and the same sensation came over her. We stood there staring at our own hands as the dusk gathered around us. Eventually, as we stood there wondering, the peculiar feeling began to fade. She and I parted ways, but that memory never has left me.

We are all thrust into existence and structures of living before we even have a consistent self-awareness. These structures of living are gifts from previous peoples; however, if all we are taught to perceive are the structures themselves, certain abilities of ours are neglected and suffering. These abilities never die, they are intrinsic to being human, but they can grow weak and we can begin to feel sluggish about life itself due to their neglect.

The first ability is our ability to reflect on the stunning act of being alive. The second is our ability to reflect on ourselves beneath our experiences and social and psychological shapings. We are life itself, each of us is a fingerprint of the universe, unique and sublime in our very existence. The third is our ability to sense the synergistic dynamic of everything that is. We are a perpetual spiral of webbing, everything is connected, nothing exists apart from the whole. My self-reflection thus can morph into a meditation on self as this one big Self that we are together, along with everything else on this planet.

Fourth, and I’ll make it my final, we may lose the ability to recognize that those structures into which we are thrust are not the real. The real is the canvas behind them, or the space, that allows them to take form in the first place. The real is what makes it possible to create, to shift, to change, to demolish and reconstruct. And this always is.

Imagination is our direct access to this space. Reason is one of the greatest sets of tinker toys we’ve ever devised to place our maps, our structures on this space. However, without the value of imagination, reason just might be mistaken to be the real. Seeing the world and ourselves through the lens of rational explanation necessarily makes an image, a picture, a symbol. If taken only in the literal, its greater potency is shut out from our awareness.

Philosophy and art help us to recognize and to exercise our ability to reflect beyond reason, to the hidden messages we are telling ourselves with our rational stories. They tell us how we feel, what we fear, and how we are coping with those fears. If we forget that our stories speak to us symbolically, even our rational stories, we blindly face crises when those rational stories change.

Why else would new stories such as Copernicus’ notion that the earth moved around the sun, not vice versa, or Darwin’s story that humans could trace our lineage as an evolution over time, sharing ancestry with other primates cause such outrage and call for such great adjustment as they did? Our daily lives weren’t directly impacted from these changes in belief. It’s not like suddenly other primates appeared at our family gatherings, or that we suddenly couldn’t walk a straight line due to the traveling earth. . .

These stories, all four, had spoken to us (and do speak to us) imaginatively. The stories carried (as all stories do!) symbolic significance that secretly informed us of ourselves, our fears, and how we were coping with those fears. Without recognition of the power of the symbolic knowledge that is carried along with literal, rational explanation, we simply fought the new stories. We could not believe them. We had lost connection to the role of imagination inherent within any creation, even the creation of our “truths”.

This art project begins where you are, where we all are, as children of the age of reason. We have learned how to use language literally, and how to explain rationally. But this art project is meant to move its viewers into the realm of imagination and symbol as well. It breaks language into pieces, sometimes in the middle of words, it makes it stutter, it repeats itself maniacally to make us all more aware of that which lies behind the structure of language and the structure of logical thought. May its viewers feel the rush of the fresh air released from the illusory lock-down from the perception that our current structures and maps are everything. Rather, they are images of ourselves, laden with secret knowledges that we are equipped to harvest and that will serve us as we continue to navigate the ever- swirl of existence. Promise.

 

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After all the heavy philosophy present in my “Knowledge and Imagination” series, I figure we could all use some lighter stuff. So, I thought this might be a good time to respond to the people who ask me about my art project. Specifically, what it means, how to read it, and if they “get” it or not.

Okay, so first, let me give my disclaimer. I believe every tool we’ve ever developed can be useful. However, I am also sensitive to our tendency to overuse tools, causing us to forget that others may be available and more fitting for the current moment and need. For example, as a college instructor, I’ve come to believe that we over-learn the lessons of grade school; namely, conformity and learning to “pay attention” to the teacher. We often learn those tools so well, that we forget to think and feel and formulate from within. And then we might not even recognize that we might want to  bring those formulations out for ourselves and others to hear expressed.

This art project is composed of writings that are, in their nature, ambiguous and ambivalent. I want the forces within them to tug at you and pull in different directions, to break apart your habitual perceptions and understandings in order to see what else might come out. It’s true that these writings come from this mix of a person called “kjirsten” –but my personal stories within them are peripheral. Even sacrificial. The best recommendations I can make to those who wonder how to view these pieces are as follows.

First, understand there is nothing to “get”. There is no single message in them. They are inert until you enter the scene. Your “you-ness” activates them. Whatever you feel, you find, you think is their message to you about you. They act as mirrors. Funny mirrors. What we find in them, what we experience from them is information about ourselves. They are not saying anything at all without you.

Second, trust yourself without rushing to “know”. These pieces are challenging for many of us because we may be accustomed to those lessons we’ve received since grade school:

Don’t raise your hand unless you know the right answer!
If you feel confused, you do not know the right answer!
There is no other answer except the right answer!

This art project is meant to assist us in exercising abilities that are neglected and devalued within our current cultural atmosphere. What do you feel? What brought on those feelings? Can you relax not “knowing”? Once we relax without knowing the “right” answer, our “selves” are free to roam into the art pieces, pick up what we may and create an incredibly unique, personal experience with that piece.

These pieces come from a manuscript that I call an unnarrated memoir. It is my unnarrated memoir, but when you entertain the pieces from that manuscript, interact with them, have experiences with them, they become your unnarrated memoir. They are mirrors that reflect a story of you. And if you re-read them at a later time, you might, like me, find that your memoir changes as the stream of life continues to flow through you. Often, new readings of them will bring insights pertinent to the current moment of my becoming me. May they do the same for you!

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Last month, our story finished with a demonstration of how imagination is already quite active in how we create knowledge. However, these days, its participation is overshadowed by its dominant sibling, reason. Rational examination receives the lion’s share of recognition in how we humans “know” anything. However, this was not always the case.

Human knowledge began as an oral tradition. This tradition was rich with metaphor, myth and symbol – all are used to help the listener receive a certain “knowing” about what it is to be alive and a part of this world. As I demonstrated in the last post, it is the imagination that enables us to extract knowledge from myth, metaphor and symbol. We did not lose this system of “knowing” with the written word; however, as we will see by the end of this post, with time, especially here in the West, it does eventually get squeezed out.

Imagination is effective with symbol, metaphor and myth because they all rely on the mystical as their center. There is an “unknowing” inherent with each of them. There is not a “certain” truth within any of them, but a living relationship between the words (or design) and the listener/reader. The mystical is the pure mystery –that which exceeds all our categories of thought, in other words, the purely Unknowable. Imagination, myth, metaphor and symbol all radiate from this unknowing – they are all trying to express that which cannot be said directly. Imagination is the ability to draw knowledge from a recognition of this mystical core.

Reason is often seen as the exact opposite. People generally assume that reason is not based on this purely Unknowable, but instead is situated on sure and solid ground. (The last two posts went into detail in order to show that this is not the case. Reason has no sure footing.) Here is the surprise. We did not always view reason this way. It, too, aligned with imagination, was seen to have a mystical center. Even as late as the birth of this nation, reason was seen as having a mystical core.

How did that change?

One key factor comes from the change in our concept God. “God” once upon a time signified pure mystery. Now, the dominant concept God is something that can be known, “I know God, he is that perfect human, a loving father, a man with a plan, maybe even an old guy with a long white beard. That’s what God is.”

This shift in the concept of God has altered our sense of reason. The phrase “God is the eye of reason” common in the 1700s (just look at your dollar bill and see the top eye at the top of the pyramid) delivers a very different message if “God” is a knowable concept, than it delivers if “God” is the symbol for divine mystery. God as a knowable concept covers over that mystery is at the core of reason , it covers over that the heart of reason is a leap of faith, not certainty.

So now, not only is reason seen as the opposite of imagination, but reason is misunderstood and regarded as some sort of antidote to pure mystery. We take the findings from our rational inquiries and we build “the truth” and we hold up the banner of truth (I know what is going on here!) to cover over the much more challenging and possibly more enriching aspect of being alive as humans: We don’t know what the heck is going on here! ALL ways of knowing depend upon pure mystery in order to generate any story, any “truth”. Underneath all our “truths” remains the Unknowable. The Mystery. The Mystical.

This post is an invitation to no longer misunderstand reason. Reasoning and rational inquiry and beautiful! But they do not and cannot deliver any “knowledge” without relying on the mystical. Reason, in itself, acknowledges the mystical. It is our misperception of it that has buried the mystical from our sight. It is our misperception of reason that has pitted it against imagination. It is our misperception of reason that has led to a devaluation of imagination. It is our misperception of reason that has drained our world of much of the beauty and “juice” that comes from acknowledging the pure mystery of being alive as these weird reflective creatures.

So, now you’re probably wondering, “Kjirsten, what do I do? I don’t want my life dried and devoid of the juiciness that acknowledging the mystical can bring me. A little help here?

Here you go!

  • Remind yourself that all your knowledge has no sure base. Be kind, aim to see how other people’s points of view developed. Allow yourself to feel their path.

 

  • Don’t take everything so literally. Let your imagination exercise itself. All our stories (academic, religious, pop cultural, etc.) are expressions that can be taken as metaphors, as symbols, as myths – stories that deliver “truths” about the human experience hidden in the words, not from the claims of the words themselves.

 

  • Come to Visage, 1046 NW Johnson, on Monday, August 10th. Doors open at 7:30pm. At 8pm or so, I’ll be talking about the magic of words beyond their logical, rational, and literal functions. And there will be about five or six new pieces hanging on the walls! I’d love some company!
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In last month’s post, we traced the circular relationship between experience and the first principles of logic (the fundamental principles of rational thinking that define its scope and provide the foundation from which all its further truths are formed).

In short, in our tracing, we discovered that we use reason to create knowledge about and from our experiences, but experience provides the first principles of logic which govern reasoning. We can see there is a closed, self-perpetuating “loop” within this story, limited to these variables. Rather than find this revelation to be disconcerting, I find it to be a powerful discovery:

Our awareness of this circular relationship shows us that the “truth” of our intellectual and sensual perceptions is dependent on what I make of it all, dependent on what you make of it all, dependent on what each person makes of it all . . . in other words, our intellectual and empirical “truths” are dependent upon what we imagine to be happening.

It shows us that imagination is necessarily a part of human understandings, truths, beliefs, perceptions and sensations. And for me this means that my imagination is a powerful contributor to the “reality” I live and to the world I co-create. My experiences are not “purely” themselves – they belong to me, and I am a rich field. My experiences are laden with what I make of them, sometimes before they even occur. Simply put by Ruth Benedict’s quote from last month, they are mostly imagination.

Imagination functions by reading symbols. Think of a child playing dolls. It doesn’t matter if these are GI Joe dolls or Barbie dolls. The child plays “stories” with these dolls. These stories are not perfect replications of the child’s own experiences, or even of experiences that children have witnessed on TV or in film. They are fabrications based on the symbolism found within their experiences/observations of a soldier, of a mother, of a teenager, of friendship, and so on. Children draw on those symbols via their imaginations and create experiences for their dolls in a story.

A more academic example could be our past discussion of taking our particular experiences and creating universal rules of guidance. We discussed how experience is necessarily “smaller” than a universal principle or rule. Yet, we are able to generate something greater from that meager piece of information. It is imagination that steps in and fills the gap. My experience becomes a symbol, becoming “bigger” than the experience. Or in a survey study, the selected participants become a symbol for an entire group. It is our imagination that allows them to become symbols (since never could a portion of the group represent the whole group with perfect accuracy).

Imagination is already at play in how we create knowledge, we simply don’t acknowledge it. This post is an invitation to engage in an active practice of how we are imagining. The first step is to acknowledge its presence. I’ve given two examples above from our everyday lives in the context of our current culture. However, we can see that our current culture doesn’t readily acknowledge the role of imagination in “knowing”. As a result, I must ask, in what other manners does our current “cultural perception” hide the activities of symbol and imagination from our awareness?

But, this post is already quite long! Which means, yes, you know it, there will be a Part III to Knowing and Imagination! In that entry we will take a time-traveling journey to see how imagination was once a heavily recognized and valued aspect of knowledge and watch as it becomes overshadowed to the point of dismissal. . . stay tuned!

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Experience, contrary to common belief, is mostly imagination.

-Ruth Benedict (1887-1948)

 

I found the above quote in the opening pages to Euphoria by Lily King. It inspired me to tell a story, too. But this story is too long to tell in one shot, so here is the first installment.

Any “big” story found in philosophy most likely needs an introduction to the terms, rationalism and empiricism. These terms are present in philosophy and in science. Empirical science (how most of us use the word “science”) has developed stringent methods to ensure that its sampling, surveying, questioning, observations, record-keeping , interpretations and applications are done well enough so its findings can be trusted.

At the other end of science, and in the broader sense of the term, science (systematic and formulated knowledge), are the sciences that deal only with ideas, not with any observation or experience, such as mathematics and the disciplines that use math to develop knowledge beyond our ability to observe. No matter who you are, when you are, or where you are, 2+3=5. This is an example of rationalist science.

In philosophy, rationalism is defined as the school of thought that believes true knowledge and understanding come from discerning pure principles of mind, and combining those pure principles (rules, equations, laws, etc.) in order to reveal further true knowledge and understanding.

Empiricism, in philosophy, is the school that believes we can create knowledge and understanding by carefully observing our experiences. We use those experiences to reveal principles, laws and formulas.

Hopefully you’ve noticed, that both rationalism and empiricism (whether in philosophy or science) must depend upon some sort of standard of truth against which we can measure our mind’s actions and the links it makes between principles, between experiences, and between them both. There is one science whose job it is to reveal that standard: the science of logic, one of the fundamental divisions of study in philosophy.

Logic studies “the correct principles of rational thinking”. It is considered a pure science, a science of formulae, and it is normally considered the heart of rationalism. Like mathematics, logic is a body of pure ideas, principles, laws and equations. From it we derive an understanding of what can be said and still be logically supported. And thus from it, we gain our categorizations of rational versus irrational. Sane versus crazy. True versus false. Real versus hallucination.

And yes, logic is the standard that empiricists use to determine how to survey, study, question, collect, interpret and apply their observations, in other words, what they can learn from their experiences. If, in our writings, our words, our statements, our claims and our conclusions do not hold together logically when reporting our experiences, then they are flawed and the knowledge they present is considered weak. This system of using logic to derive a standard of truthfulness is fabulously useful and has given us much. However, as we’ll see below, with our recklessness, we often take more than is given.

Briefly explained, experience is what we call “particular” information. It is small – and we use it to try to make “bigger” information or universal principles (or rules) that we can trust, or in other words, that are “true” and “right”. But, experience only ever comes from a sample, or a portion of the universal. And yet we use it to try to make universal statements. We’ve learned through the study of logic that such claims of absolute truths from empirical inquiry cannot be logically supported as a sure truth. “Stretching” a small piece into a larger piece, thins its strength. The particular experience(s) cannot logically stretch into something as big as a universal law, yet I (and most likely you, too) often speak as if they can.

At most, we can make “probable” conclusions from them. And if we are careful in our inquiry, we can hope that our conclusions are “highly probable”. But, according to the universal principles of logic, never are they or will they be absolute. Never will they contain absolute certitude.

And that’s the first part of what is going to turn out to look like a catch-22.

Here is the second. Like all sciences, logic is based on a set of “first principles” – statements that define its realm and also act as the foundation from which all its further findings (truths) are built. The trick behind “first principles,” though, is that they themselves cannot be proven with absolute certitude. They are considered “self-evident” or in other words, so evident, that no one can deny them. Logic has four first principles:

  1. Identity – A thing is what it is, and not something else.
  2. The Excluded Middle – Between being and non-being, there is no middle state. It either is, or it isn’t.
  3. Sufficient Reason – Everything can be rationally explained. . . eventually.
  4. Contradiction – A thing cannot “be” and “not be” at the same time and in the same respect. Logic cannot contain contradiction.

 

How is it that these statements are considered “self-evident”? So obvious, so consistent that no one can deny them? They were determined as self-evident through the experiences of those that chose them and were accepted by their peers. Which shows us that for as much as both rationalism and empiricism depend upon the standard of truth provided by logic, logic depends upon experience and thus contains the uncertainty of experience. Our standard is not absolute. And we frequently have treated it as if it is. And we frequently have treated our rational and empirical “truths” as if they were absolute as well.

Now is time to begin meditating on our quote, “Experience, contrary to common belief, is mostly imagination” and await for next month’s post!

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