Phenomenology and the Analytical Mind

If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.

– Monk Linji Yixuan (f. 851 CE)

Phenomenology is the study of experience. The phenominist approach is the practice of creating and controlling experiences. Throughout our lives, individuals attempt to create a variety of experiences: birthday parties, dinner parties, dates, and BBQs are but an inconsequential sampling of experiences that an individual may attempt to create with various levels of success. Within the practice of tea, individuals may create a tasting for novices or a chaxi for their fellow practitioners – just as well with various levels of knowledge, skill, and success.

It would seem uncontroversial that phenomenism is considered by some to be the highest level of practice within an art-form – a better ability to create better experiences accepted by the participants is a good skill. I do not subscribe to any counter arguments and will not play devils advocate here. Phenomenism is thus integral to the continuation and progression of an artform as it is the method most successful at awakening others to take up and progress the praxis by attracting and maintaining their interest.

The acquisition of new preferences is predicated on formative experiences which build understanding and appreciation for an artistic-output or artform; such is necessitated as individuals are not born with innate preferences for the art-product or ideals of higher socio-cultural capital, without acculturation into the dominant culture or their select sub-culture. “Acquired tastes” are thus tastes which conform to the highest cultural or economic capital preferences of an individual’s peer-group or selected in-group.

In accepting this argument, we must accept such tenants that:

  1. Preferences, particularly the preferences associated with higher economic and cultural capital, are acquired via formative experiences with an artform. 
  2. Practitioners of a praxis progress their personal techne via direct experience and practice within an artform.
  3. The integration of such techne and preferences into a personal body knowledge is an analytical process of understanding.

Such tenants lead us to believe that analytical excellence is the surest sign of phenominist ability. Take for example a wine taster. A wine taster may be of high experience or low experience, they may have high or low natural ability, and they may be good or bad at certain aspects of their chosen artform. Should a wine taster be unable to tell the difference between a Burgundy and a Riesling, we could consider them (rightfully) a bad wine taster – as even a novice could tell the difference between a red wine and a white wine (caveat lector, caveats abound).

So where do we draw the line? Should they be able to determine the difference between only the major classes of wine (red, white, rose, orange, and perhaps sparkling variations)? Must they be able to identify specific continents, regions, appellation, and even specific Grand Cru plots? Is the identification of grape variety more or less important than the identification of vintage and terroir?

The likely and logical answer is that an experienced wine taster of high ability should be able to identify and differentiate more attributes of a wine rather than less; the ability to identify specific attributes, common or esoteric, is proof that an individual has experience within the art-form and can consciously’ recognize and identify the attributes deemed important within the artform. The skill of blind identification is sometimes called analytical tasting, the specific gradations of which may be important in some future argument. Should we accept that more analytical abilities are better then we must accept that these analytical abilities were gained through prior tastings and experiences with wine; tastings that lead to the appreciation, interest, and desire to learn more about wine, tastings that lead to the integration of sensory information into the body knowledge and analytical framework of the individual thus capable of deploying these skills whenever wine is tasted.

Which finally leads us to the actual question of this article: what is the relationship between phenomenism and the analytical mind? For I posit that they must be in direct and constant conflict. For as we gain the formative experiences in which to appreciate an artform we lose the natural state of mind to appreciate the artform.

It is easier for a practitioner to present an item (a tea or a wine) which they enjoy to a novice than to an expert as the novice is less likely, and less able, to examine the item analytically. The “beginners mind” of the novice experiences the whole and is easily led by the practitioner (with any basic proficiency in phenomensism) to the desired experience.

Presenting such an item to an expert is more difficult – it must be assumed that the expert will analytically examine the item, comparing it to references and prior experiences; such ability comes naturally with the interest and training that one must possess to develop a high degree of analytical ability. Such comparison is more likely to degrade the expert’s enjoyment, at least in comparison to the novice, than it is to enhance it; it thus takes more phenomenist skill (or a better item) for a practitioner to lead an expert to an experience they will enjoy.

In a scenario with a pheomenist practitioner and an analytical expert – who is in control? He who possesses more skill. We often tell analytical experts, sometimes good or great phenomenist practitioners themselves, to cultivate a beginner’s mind; to return to tasting the whole without judging the independent attributes. A great phenomenist can’t rely on what the guest should do – a phenomenist practitioner is great when they can thrust the analytical expert into the experience with the wonder and enjoyment of the whole so easily available to the beginner.

Such a level of practice depends on many factors. The relative availability of economic capital may play a large role in who is impressed; expensive teas and wines are not necessarily better, but it helps to try them to know for sure. We practitioners seek experiences in which we can learn and progress, and yet such experiences shape us into increasingly analytical frameworks of mind which distance us from the original enjoyment we sought in the artistic practice. When advanced practitioners seek out masters, perhaps they are (unconsciously?) seeking out not just a more advanced analytical mind, but a stronger phenomenist mind that can ease them back into those experiences they so seek and enjoy.

Personal cultivation changes the individual; increased analytical abilities are necessary to become a better phemonenist even as they shape us into a more difficult guest. An expert is great when they can kill the Buddha: the analytical mind they’ve invested so much in developing.

What are you Tasting?

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