Notes on Place

Everything comes back to the question of place.

One of the fundamentals of Qi Gong, a practice that is all about fundamentals, is that we attend to where and how we are grounded. Not in some academic manner, parsing theoretical constructs or honing philosophical arguments; in Qi Gong the ground we attend to is this scrap of Earth’s surface directly under our feet. We stay with the facts of gravity and skeletal-muscular resistance that make it possible to stand and move. We disabuse ourselves of willful delusions that tend to destroy our balance while filling our heads with visions of unattainable powers. We repeatedly, in a sustained manner, work to embody our complete dependence on having a place to stand and gravity to resist. Without these, and air to breathe, nothing can be done. We return again and again to these facts.

In attending to our situation and what I’ve come to call in shorthand, our Enormity, we also circle the question of place. Since this attention is carried out in mental effort and in words intended to materialize in shared meaning it is much more difficult to hold onto the fact of a necessary grounding. Again, not some theoretical “grounding.” What is required, as it is with any sort of action – all action resulting from being – is a place to stand from which to act, to which we are attached and to which our actions cause changes that can then move us from where we are to some other state.

As attractive as it may be to wish for some form of Transcendence to take us beyond and free us from the limitations of our physical being and being’s necessity to inhabit a space such wishes do no more than destroy the balance required to act in any way that is not just a teetering reaction to an ongoing imbalance in itself fed by so many previous attempts to reach for a Transcendence beyond our capacity to inhabit.

We need to be somewhere.

What makes this problematic is that the habits of thought controlling our existence have been working incessantly for millennia to destroy every somewhere and leave us to attempt to inhabit an anywhere stripped of its particulars and robbed of its essential qualities, qualities that are necessary for the continuation of Life.

We keep coming up against hard facts. We must be in relation if we are to thrive. Without relation we cannot maintain life. Without relation we inevitably turn whatever energies remain in our power towards the ongoing destruction. No matter what justifications for our actions we might concoct.

Relation is tied to internal relation, what can be called the integration of the self. Without undergoing this internal relation we are incapable of maintaining relation with others and with the whole. We cannot even sense that any such activity is possible. We remain trapped in toxic reaction and again, can do nothing more than contribute our energies to destruction.

These realizations, however hard won, still leave us short of all that is required. At every step of the way as we stumble from our first discovery that something is not quite right, not quite as it seems, we keep running into the question of grounding our actions, our very being, to a place.

Many of the frustrations that arise on this trail are symptoms of incoherence. We tend to confuse internal or inter-relational frictions for this question of place. As we persevere, we find ways to clear these obstacles. But in the end, or let’s say, at every turn, the question of place keeps returning.

An aspect of my own myopia regarding place has been an ease with jumping to the assertion that what appears publicly as the politics of place is mired in the reflexes of thought and therefore hopelessly compromised. I have repeatedly come back to a sense that the only way to avoid futility is to avoid the politics of place along with all the other ways in which politics have been carried out.

I still believe this to be true, but also realize that this does not remove the question of place from its primary location at the center of what we need to address.

Questions of self-integration, questions of inter-relation, these can be addressed, in part, without being blocked completely by our lack of access to a place. This is a relief, and also ends up being an excuse for setting aside the question of place for a later date. We end up kicking the can regarding our need to ground our actions in a here.

Practicing Qi Gong we use the surrender of momentum to keep us engaged with the needs of a movement in each moment. We cannot throw ourselves into a precarious position with the expectation that our momentum will carry us through. This may be the fundamental discipline of Qi Gong. We voluntarily surrender momentum and discover that our customary reliance on momentum is in fact a surrender of our integrity and of the source and center of our balance and therefore the source and center of our capacities to move, to act.

What momentum seems to provide to us is this illusion of being able to power through. What can be useful in a moment in extremis has become a basic assumption that we can just power through whenever we wish. What had been a life-saver when resorted to briefly within a lifetime of attending to the need to maintain balance without it has become the norm, the supposed base for any action. If we give it a moment’s thought it is this feeling of launching off and out into…, a momentum set into motion by a reaction to what is most likely a projection misinterpreted as a perception that characterizes what it feels like to set-off on a course of action. Certainly this is the heady, and therefore dizzying allure of so-called Innovation!™

We come to another aspect of place, time. We need to continuously distinguish between psychological time, a mental illusion at the heart of procrastination and the fact that all of our existence appears to us within a temporal succession of events. This kind of time is inseparable from place. Each place exists as a particularity as a place at a certain time. Everything except the most abstract qualities of any place are contingent on a particular moment in time.

This brings up another way in which we now find ourselves alienated. This time not just from our own selves, from each other, from our place, but we have as a condition of the mode of thought apprehended under the name Modernity become the first humans to be located primarily in a time that has been increasingly and in an ever accelerating manner a time held within smaller and smaller discrete units.

“Oh! He’s so last week!”

“1994 is calling, they want their ______ back!”

These jokes, now already hopelessly out of date themselves, rely on this feeling that we inhabit an ever shorter time span and therefore can never find a time, in the sense of a collection of ways of being and perceiving, of embodying and inhabiting, that last long enough for us to feel present in them, to feel at home.

In this way our sense of inhabiting time has increasingly become a sense of being adrift in time, an eerie corollary to our sense of being adrift in place-less places.

These losses of effective place and effective time are both quite recent. They have also become unavoidable signs, the effective markers describing the state of our being at this time and place. Only a few centuries ago, and in many places that were once isolated from this growing Enormity, it was possible to live a lifetime, for a people to live generations, in a distinct and particular place with a sense of duration of time that maintained the kinds of continuity that allow life to develop and be ready to face whatever disruptions inevitably appear. This capacity, this kind of refuge from a level of blasting erosive effects, does not exist any longer. No one on earth is immune. No one can even sustain the illusion that this necessity for life is still available to them.

This brings us to the question of grief.

There really is no other term for the constellation of reactions and responses we inexorably face upon arriving at this realization. We can try to hide it under some sort of vague, displaced dissatisfaction. We can lash out at scapegoats for our discomfort. We can work into a frenzy of anger and justification for all manner of destructive reactions. But we cannot long hide from an ever-present sense of grief.

One thing that has shown itself is the need to distinguish grief from grievance.

A grievance is a sense of being owed something in compensation for a loss. We have a grievance and we, “Take it to court!”

Having a grievance, we can only maintain this condition by holding ourselves aloof from the loss and aloof from the consequences. The loss is not really here so long as we hold out hope that our wish to be made whole again might be granted. The consequences won’t come to roost so long as we feel someone else will be compelled to pay the price for wronging us. In this manner we oscillate between pain and anger and pain and what we wish to call a hope for eventual justice.

What if we were to let the entire drama of grievance go? One thing is certain, just as with every other habit of thought now prevalent this notion of grievance has never brought us any true relief, has it? Every past injustice has irrevocably led to the next one in a reflex of tit-for-tat. What do we really surrender if we surrender grievance? Isn’t the entire mechanism just another example of the way we hold onto the illusion of a useful momentum?

To let go of grievance does have an immediate painful effect. We lose our excuses and are left to face our grief. The pain is real.

The pain is real. How often in our privileged lives do we get to admit this? How often do we instead have the sickening realization that what we’ve exercised ourselves over has left us frantic to deny that our pain is manufactured? This is at the heart of the dangers of Bad Faith. This fear of exposure of our falseness drives us to demonize any potential witness of our failing. Once we refuse to accept the realization that we have manufactured some ersatz pain to cover our refusal to feel our true pain we are truly lost. We become cogs, willing, active, energetic cogs in the machine driving all the destruction. Peer into this abyss and we can no longer be surprised by any last-ditch effort to defend some falling Reich. At that point there is nothing left than to embrace the cold heart of total annihilation.

Seen in this light, is it worth it to deny ourselves access to true pain when it arises?

We’re no closer to having a place, to having a place with a duration of time, but at least we’ve arrived at an imaginable place, an imaginable time. It exists on the other side of our grief. I can feel this like the pain in a phantom limb. It is real. Our pain is real. If we let it be. If we strip away the bad faith whose stench cannot be covered by any demand for satisfaction for any grievance.

Thinking of a place we’re drawn to imagine what we would do there. This reaction to our loss is understandable. It also keeps shoving us off balance. Let’s come back to a simpler question, “Where are we now?”

We are in grief. This is the place and the time we are in right now and right here.

Every attempt to push past this fact can only degrade our position further. It only prolongs and deepens the destruction we are complicit in.

I’ve long been impressed by the difficulty even the simplest expectation of efficacy leaves us in. Once we begin to see through the manic futility and delusion of so much of what we fill our lives with we can not avoid the tremendous difficulty of doing the simplest clean act. This has long led me around the track, from focusing on self-integration, working on inter-relation, scheming towards carving out a place….

What appears at this moment is that these have been last-ditch efforts to avoid confronting where we are. The now of this place that has so little place-ness left in a now that has lost any meaningful duration is a fact. Exploring this fact, these constellated facts, gives us a place to stand. This is our here.

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