Hun 4, 2007

Baby Steps

The unpleasant part of this illness is the feeling of utter fatigue. Also a tendency to grey thoughts of old age, weakness, death. These somewhat stimulated by reading Arnold Bennett’s Journals – a very sympathetic man, but such a pitiful blind workhorse, self-driven until he dropped. At the end of it all, he could say: ‘I made a plan and I stuck to it.’ Well, that’s something, certainly. But the note of obstinacy is tragic, too. It’s the obstinacy of an insect.

Christopher Isherwood
June 4, 1956
Diary entry


Yesterday dawn, I took a walk to the park. I’d been contemplating the figure of Plotinus, his idea of “mind,” and I wanted to understand his words before writing anything at all about him. Had bluffed before and in my dim youth committed what a friend called “charlatanism.” Older, I stood only with my “I don’t know” before this strange philosopher.

It wasn’t supposed to be the usual way I took ideas out for a walk, carrying thoughts out to the night or the morning to question or push them further. During the most engaged “thinking expeditions,” I would arrive at a destination without little feeling – much less thought – about how I got there.

I didn’t care to take Plotinus out for a spin because, if I got his idea right, the spin itself would induce the knowing. The need called for practice. What would yield Plotinus to me were less his words than the very act of walking. But doing so in a special way, that is, I compelled myself to walk “mindfully,” to focus on the movement, think of nothing else, and feel the press of the foot on the earth. I’m a walker. I cherish my ankles over any car. So I thought there would be nothing to adding some “concentration” to my steps. But that was before I threw my legs out for the stretch.

The thirty minutes of walking humbled me. I felt much closer to Plotinus’s teaching that the supreme achievement of the mind was to escape itself. If I failed to reduce (or, consider: “expand”) my mind to one thing, how could I hope to bring it down to zero (and deeper)?

I’m an intellectual by the mere fact that I feed and cloth myself with the produce of the mind more than the work of muscles. It shamed me when I discovered the difficulty in mindfully doing something I did regularly, indeed something I Thoreau-ly loved.

Yes, I pressed my mind on my feet with almost as much gravity as my feet imprinted themselves on the ground. Yet, not half a minute would pass without my mind leaping monkey-like to some idea or memory or name. Had trained it that way, I know. I encouraged it to “free associate,” jump from box to box then as far outside them as possible, to gain distance then perspective. But the walk revealed to me how little control I had over my own thoughts, I who demanded from my students much attention.

Why mind these simple things: walking or breathing? Why hear the heart beat? What need have we, apprehenders of performative theory, communicative action, quantum mechanics, the lowdown on the Dow Jones? What need, we surgeons and loud lawyers, keen protesters and businessfolk? What, we freethinkers!

Somebody climbed Everest because “it was there.” I mind the walk because “it has always been there.” If the cosmic spheres turn in accord with their harmony, trees drink and breathe following the rudiments of their “animation,” and the mammals employ locomotion with either the graze or the hunt informing their musculature, then I who walk and breathe and revolve must refuse to die mindless.