ACHTUNG/GELASSENHEIT:
War, Peace, and Phenomenology


There may be some things that are too important to try and analyze. Saving the world, I'm more and more thinking, is one of those.

I like to ride my bicycle fast. This is how I first caught on to the principle of achtung/gelassenheit, a phenomenological observation on war and peace.

It's a phenomenological truism that our experience can be characterized by the figure/ground relationship. Whatever we perceive clearly and distinctly (figure), it resides against a relatively fuzzier and vaguer background. This counts for objects, sounds, smells, even thoughts and feelings-- whatever we focus on becomes clearly highlighted-- stands out in relief from-- a dense background of everything-we're-not -paying-attention-to-at-the-moment. (This experience, like the music of the spheres, is so constant we don't notice it. When we do notice it, our experience is subtly, radically transformed.)

When I ride fast, I'm looking at hazards and opportunities: those things that might hinder my goal, or that help it. Everything else fades into a blur of things I don't care about. Needless to say, this can sometimes lead me into embarrassingly rude behavior, as I cut off drivers and nearly collide with pedestrians whom I hardly notice. Sometimes, when I ride particularly intensely, I begin to feel as if all obstacles are my enemies. I subtly begin to hate them. Stupid bus. Stupid old guy. Etc.

This is the principle of "achtung"-- the phenomenological source of war.

"Achtung": German for "action/attention." One's goal is all that matters, everything becomes subsidiary to goals: opportunities and hazards, and thing's not noticed. Herein lies the dangerousness of war-- and also its weakness.

What is the corollary phenomenological experience of peace? I spent several weeks just noticing peace when it arose in my world. I became a hunter of peace, which resides in the underfolds and hollows of life, like shadows, giving depth to action. It's in the voices of small children, the shoulders of friends working on a project, the flight of butterflies, the dancing of sunlight in the leaves. It's happens when one relaxes the tight focus and lets the environment's many rich details creep into awareness. The world reveals itself as an ocean of experience complex, deep, and vast. The phenomenologist Martin Heidegger called this experience "gelassenheit" literally relaxing into being-ness.

In gelassenheit, the figure and the ground take on a more equal relation: one senses one's environment, feels deeply, and becomes more subtly sensitive to many things. It is the relation of play, not warfare; the journey, not the goal, is what is worthwhile.
So, to combat war, relax into peace. Don't fear, don't worry. Let tightness and aggression relax into peacefulness and love. Sounds nice and simple, no? Do you see a problem? Of course it's difficult to relax in all but the best of conditions-- not when one is actually being attacked, for example. These conditions can become a strong goal, which of course flips one into achtung! This is what makes fighting for peace so oxymoronic. Hmmm.

If one tries to fight war, one falls into the trap of war.
On the other hand, if one says, "Well, I'll just relax and not validate war," well-- the nazis took over Germany at the same time Heidegger was teaching gelassenheit.

So practically, to make peace a goal would be to combine relaxation with focus. A state of alert balance.
achtung/gelassenheit. This balance is what the ancient traditions of meditation taught, and their practice is one way to cultivate peace in the world. Peaceful resting combined with precise attention is the reward of mindfulness meditation as practiced by many traditions; it can even be cultivated, as Gandhi knew, in simple activities.

If enough people practiced achtung/gelassenheit, a new order would spontaneously emerge from the vast creativity of many intelligences blending. We will not figure out how to solve the world's problems-- we will become the solution.


 

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