Twenty-five years ago, Markus Koch was a defensive lineman for the Washington Redskins. During his third season, he broke his lumbar vertebrae, but he continued to play for three more years. Now in his late forties, he suffers from depression, and when he stands for extended periods of time, his legs go numb.
Recently, Markus Koch reflected on the gap between football fans watching the game at home and the physical experience of the players on the field. To close that gap, he facetiously suggested, players might be fitted with a mouth guard that “registers the impact they’re getting on the field, and at certain g-forces the helmet shell would crack and explode and leak gray matter and blood.” Or, conversely, the fan might be fitted with an adjustable pneumatic suit, which would be “telemetrically linked to a player on the field.” In that way the fan could “experience what the player is going through.”
Markus Koch’s suggestions, quoted by Ben McGrath in his article “Does Football Have a Future?”,* illustrate what McGrath calls the “necessary abstraction that allows fans to view their football heroes as characters rather than as people with families.” Although McGrath’s subject is professional football, the “necessary abstraction” to which he refers is hardly limited to football-watching or even to the world of sports. Truth be told, we create abstractions whenever we watch TV, whether the figures on the screen be football players, celebrities, or the protesters in Cairo. Viewing other people through the lens of the broadcast media, we tend to make characters of them all. And even when we view them “up close and personal,” what we are encountering is not so much their personal experience as their assigned roles and their edited personae, accompanied by a reporter’s interpretive commentary. As the social critic Frank Rich recently noted, when watching the demonstrations in Cairo, we are “more likely to hear speculation about how many cents per gallon the day’s events might cost at the pump than to get an intimate look at the demonstrators’ lives.”**
To be sure, we can always turn off our TVs. But should we do so, and should we become cognizant of what is unfolding within and around us, we may find that the habit of objectifying the “other” persists in our private reflections, even when the other is ourselves. We, too, create necessary abstractions. We, too, mediate, mainly by means of images and concepts, between our minds and our ever-changing lives. And, as the Vipassana teacher Jack Kornfield once observed, what we know of ourselves is often what we think about ourselves. Or what others think. Or some amalgam of the two.
By way of illustration, please take a few minutes to describe yourself. Imagine yourself to be a separate, solid entity, and describe your most salient features. Those features might include your physical attributes, your temperament, your interests, your social and professional roles, and your family relationships. Consider others’ perceptions as well as your own.
Now set your description aside. Sit in an upright, stable, and balanced posture. Follow your breathing for a minute or two. Then do nothing but be aware of whatever is happening in your body, your surroundings, and your state of mind. If a sound occurs, take note of it; if your back hurts, be present for the pain; if a thought comes along, acknowledge it; if you grow impatient, bored, or judgmental, recognize those passing mental states.
When you have sat in this way for ten minutes or so, stop and examine what has just occurred. Compare your self-description with the evidence of your senses. What, if anything, do these modes of inquiry have in common? What kinds of knowledge does each of them provide? To what degree and in what ways was your description verified by your experience? To what extent was your experience encompassed by your description?
To propose this experiment is not to suggest that descriptions are always false or that experience, as the saying goes, is the true and only teacher. Rather, it is to illuminate the choice we have at any given moment. We can draw back, making solid objects of our “selves,” our experiences, and other people. Employing images, concepts, and other vehicles of abstraction, we can make characters of ourselves and stories of our experiences. We can entertain ourselves, while also reinforcing our sense of separation.
But at any moment we can also draw near, both to ourselves and to the world. Rather than cling to our personal stories, we can become fully aware of our moment-to-moment lives, just as they are. Rather than adhere to habits of thought and feeling, we can fully experience our experience, however pleasant or unpleasant, comforting or troubling it may be. And rather than objectify the protester in Tahrir Square or the linebacker incurring a life-altering injury, we can cultivate our connection to others’ suffering.
*The New Yorker, January 31, 2011, 41-51.
**Frank Rich, “Wallflowers at the Revolution,” New York Times, Sunday, February 6, 2011.