This is nothing less than a radical return of consciousness to what some folks in the Zen tradition call the "beginner's mind." As a consequence, the reductions are difficult to realize because, prior to performing them, we are ignorant of their possibility and their implications. Again, as Eugen Fink put it: Every discussion of the phenomenological reduction, no matter how incomplete, finds itself faced with the unavoidable difficulty of being compelled to speak about it as if it were an activity of knowledge which it is always possible to perform, and which from the very start lies within the horizon of our human possibilities. In truth, however, it does not at all present a possibility for our human [read "natural attitude"] existence. The unfamiliarity of the reduction is therefore not only an unfamiliarity with it as a fact, but also an unfamiliarity with its possibility. Although we also say that all talk about a particularly difficult kind of knowledge quite remote from our everyday knowing ...presupposes actually having been involved with it ...a discussion of the reduction not only signifies an appeal to its actual performance, but also imperatively requires the performance of an act which places us beyond the horizon of our own possibilities, which "transcends" our human [read "culturally conditioned"] possibilities. (Eugen Fink in Elveton, R.O., The Phenomenology of Husserl: Selected Critical Readings . Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970:104- 105).
Definitions of the first, or "phenomenological" reduction, for instance -- definitions such as "the suspension of belief in the existence or nonexistence of phenomena" -- make it appear to the casual reader to require nothing more than a simple act of reason. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. The reduction is a radical shift of consciousness that requires training to realize with any consistent results. For this reason, transcendental phenomenology may be compared with other spiritual disciplines, including the Buddhist traditions of contemplation I mentioned above.
Unfortunately, Husserl left no clear, concise manual on how the phenomenological reduction is to be performed, and students are left more or less on their own to discover the explicit "small-m" methods. Husserl taught that what is reduced is the so-called "natural attitude" about the world; that is (in our terms), the culturally conditioned, cognized environment that is so taken for granted by people that it is tacit and reified, and indeed perceived as being quite "natural" -- the way things are! As Husserl himself put it: Daily practical living is naive. It is immersion in the already-given world, whether it be experiencing or thinking, or valuing, or acting. Meanwhile all those productive intentional functions of experiencing, because of which physical things are simply there, go on anonymously. The experiencer knows nothing about them, and likewise nothing about his productive thinking. The numbers, the predicative complexes of affairs, the goods, the ends, the works, present themselves because of the hidden performances; they are built up, member by member; they alone are regarded. Nor is it otherwise in the positive sciences. They are naivetes of a higher level. They are the products of an ingenious theoretical technique; but the intentional performances from which everything ultimately originates remain unexplicated. To be sure, science claims the ability to justify its theoretical steps and is based throughout on criticism. But its criticism is not ultimate criticism of knowledge. The latter criticism is a study and criticism of the original productions, an uncovering of all their intentional horizons; and thus alone can the "range" of evidences be ultimately grasped and, correlatively, the existence-sense of objects, of theoretical formations, of goods and ends, be evaluated. (Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology . The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1977:152-153)
But the reduction is not simply one of dropping this "natural thesis," or "natural attitude," and leaving a residue of "real world" to ponder. Rather, it is a sort of staged process of discovery of the constitution of the world leading to the point of clear reflection required for apprehension of the essential order of phenomena and meaning as they are produced by the mind . Moreover, the reduction is not a process of analyzing the meaning of words, an activity dear to the hearts of academic philosophers, for words are notoriously ambiguous and fuzzy in their meaning. (Remember my discussion in Day Five of the problem of "transposition?")
What is sought in phenomenology is clear, absolute and unambiguous self-knowledge. What are gradually intuited and changed in the reduction are the many onion layers of seemingly "natural", but nonetheless delusory views upon the foundations of which the natural thesis is constructed. These are set aside via certain knowledge of their artificiality. At the same time the mind comes to gradually intuit the principles upon which it, by its own activities, produces the phenomenal world for itself. And in the process of learning to clearly see the essential properties and processes of mind, the mind comes to free itself from the chains of its own delusory misapprehensions. The mind learns to replace the naive empirical ego with knowledge of the transcendental ego, or what Buddhists might call "the builder" --that hidden "me" that desires the world and for whom the world is constituted by the self.
Discussions of phenomenology always seem to get more technical than the actual doing of the reductions warrants. Perhaps it would be useful to offer a concrete example of the kind of introspection I mean so that we have a shared concrete example upon which to ground our mutual understanding.
May I suggest that you fix your gaze upon some object in the distance. It could be a spot on the wall or a shoe laying in the corner. Whatever. Concentrate your attention upon the object as intensely as you can. Feel the effort it takes you to maintain such concentration. It is especially hard to maintain undivided attention if the object is really boring.
Now, without moving your gaze from that object , shift your attention to some sound in your environment, and concentrate your attention upon the sound of as a new object (but without taking your eyes away from the original object. Feel the effort this shift of attention requires. Then try moving your attention back and forth between the visual object and the sound, intensifying concentration upon each in turn. But gradually begin to watch, not the objects themselves, but the actual effort required to shift attention and to intensify attention upon the different objects. That is, gradually make the effort of attention the principal object of awareness.
When you get the hang of this subtle shift in attention, add a third object, say the pressure of your buttocks on the chair or feet on the floor. Now move your attention and concentration around in the sensorial field circumscribed by the three objects from three different sensory modes, the visual object, the sound and the sense of body pressure. Then once again gradually pay more attention to the effort required for the change in orientation rather than the sensory objects themselves. Study that effort. Add more sense objects (e.g., breath at the nostrils, other sounds, colors in the peripheral field of vision) if you wish, but keep your eyes glued to the original visual object. You may notice that the more you pay attention to the effort -- perhaps an aspect of consciousness to which you have never before paid any attention -- the more the effort aspect "stands out" in relief from the rest of the context of perception.
There are three things I can say about this exercise that will allow you to better understand the practice of phenomenology:
|If you experienced the effort aspect "standing out" from the total field of experience, you have now got a clear example of what we mean by adumbration . the object of attention is adumbrated from the stream of consciousness and if we continue to study it, we are relevating (remember David Bohm's term?) it into consciousness where we may wish to study it, and perhaps name it -- say, call it the "effort," as in our phrases "effort for meaning" and "effort for truth."|
|You also have a clear example of a reduction in Husserl's sense. "Reduction" has many meanings in English, but Husserl used the term in the ancient sense of "leading back to the beginning." He would often say, "return to the things themselves" as in the essence of things, their basic properties as they appear to and in the mind. You have "reduced" effort, adumbrated it, relevated it for study and then let it go.|
| You can do this kind of reduction for the next fifty years, and become an expert phenomenologist, without ever once asking any questions about your brain. But you will recall that I argued in Day Four for the importance of a neuro- phenomenology. All that is required to produce a neurophenomenological exploration of "effort" is to ask what neurophysiological processes are involved in producing the experience of "effort" and control of "attention." And indeed there is a rich literature in the neurosciences that addresses that question.
In order to carry out any phenomenological analysis, the contemplative must learn to redirect attention away from conditioned ways of viewing and toward the normally unconscious processes that participate in constructing the object. And as we have seen from direct experience, this redirection requires effort, and more than the usual self- awareness. Yet the ability to expend this type of effort, and to maintain this level of self-awareness is fundamental to everything Edmund Husserl and the Buddha taught about the exploration of consciousness.
We have come to the end of our discussion of the reduction. I am leading up to a neurophenomenological examination of some of the structures of experience you may wish to adumbrate and study for yourself. But perhaps you may wish to return to Day Seven and continue with our discussion of transpersonal anthropology, or return to the index and come back later.