Overview

In all of the essays contained within my Plan, my concern is with the tendency to narrow the world by neglecting the richness and complexity of our lived experience. The scientistic belief in a mute and ultimately meaningless objective world causes us to overlook the expressive movements of the sick, the nonhuman forces we are sustained by, the subtle feelings of our own bodies like our breathing and our pulse, our meditative experiences, and the diverse sensory realms we inhabit. It is these types of neglect that my Plan aims to address. The first essay is an account of Merleau-Ponty’s theory of expression and speech in his Phenomenology of Perception, and my second piece is an open letter to Buddhist teachers on the use of neuroscientific examples in meditation teachings. My third essay is a phenomenological critique of physicalism, making the argument that the physicalist worldview, which understands phenomenal experience to be the epiphenomenon of an objective physical process, is the result of an ocularcentric orientation. The final essay of my Plan concerns the Chinese medical practice of palpating the mai, also known as Chinese pulse diagnostics, representative of a perceptual orientation that is distinct from the one involved in contemporary biomedicine. 

Excerpts

Both empiricism and intellectualism implicitly involve the ontological dualism of an objective world paired with subjective thought. Throughout the Phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty shows that although both views begin with different sides of this dualistic framework, they actually imply each other. Because empiricism posits a world of objects in-themselves, external to the perceiving subject, it becomes necessary to account for how the subject comes to know these objects as unified through various different situated perceptions of them. Thus, an internal associative act of consciousness must be posited, creating the intellectualist understanding that the mind is responsible for constituting its own object Writing plan was the most intellectually exciting and challenging project I have undertaken in my life so far. My life at Marlboro allowed me to give myself fully to my contemplations, to engage deeply with my many diverse interests and to find the connections between them. Although the writing process was challenging and took a lot of effort, it was also strangely organic—like an extension of my own, personal developmental process.  

As a regular meditation retreat participant, I have heard neuroscientific examples in dharma talks again and again, even in the midst of intensive silent retreats. It seems to me that there is a substantial tension between traditional Buddhist meditation teachings, concerned with direct meditative experience, and discussions of practice from a third-person scientific perspective, which commonly explain meditative experience as being ‘caused’ by brain physiology. There is nothing in itself wrong with tension, of course, and being offered a diverse set of perspectives on practice can be beneficial for meditators. Based on my own experience, however, I am convinced that the introduction of third-person neurological perspectives into meditation teachings can cause confusion for practitioners and limit their approach to practice.

Reflections

I think that the most interesting part of my plan was writing my independent, which was a personal introduction to the Plan as a whole, framing the more strictly philosophical work within the context of my own life. Writing the introduction, I was surprised to find that I was able to tie the various parts of my work together in a very cohesive way, especially as they related to the larger narrative of my years spent at Marlboro.

The philosophical concerns addressed in my Plan continue to be alive for me, and have taken on new shape as I have begun graduate school in Chinese Medicine. Specifically relevant was my work on phenomenology and embodiment, especially Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s critique of the mechanistic, objectivist perspective on the body. I am currently beginning to outline a book that will discuss different paradigms of medical understanding from a phenomenological perspective, aiming to give Chinese Medicine greater weight in our culture and to provoke self-reflection for clinicians on the different explanatory frameworks they employ.