Philosophy Weekend: Satori In Concrete

When we talk about philosophy, we should have some idea what we’re aiming to achieve.

There’s a popular misconception that philosophy has no purpose, other than perhaps to exercise and train the mind. If this were all it was good for, I wouldn’t bother much with it. When I read or write or discuss ideas, I am always hoping for satori, an event of understanding. This Japanese word can sometimes be used to refer to a specific kind of understanding, and it can also be used to describe the sensation and experience of this understanding, which can be so sudden and surprising as to resemble a lightning bolt, or a smack in the head.

But descriptions of satori may over-emphasize its instantaneous nature, because it’s actually not the quickness of satori but rather its permanence that matters most. It’s a popular mistake to think that a lightning-bolt realization must be an ephemeral or elusive thing. Satori can be made of concrete, and can be a sturdy and reliable building block to place further ideas upon. The theory of evolution was Charles Darwin’s great satori, and is satori as well for everyone else who learns and comes to understand the theory. Sigmund Freud’s discovery of dream analysis was also satori, and Einstein’s theory of relativity. Buddha’s moment of enlightenent under a Bodhi tree may be the most singularly celebrated satori in history, but that’s only because there is no biblical record of the specific moment when Jesus of Nazareth realized that the meek would inherit the earth, or Abraham that there is one God. Jack Kerouac once wrote a poignant novel called Satori in Paris, though this is one of his least-loved works, probably because it’s about a guy who goes to Paris looking for satori rather than about a guy who finds it. Sometimes, as in this book, satori makes its presence felt most when it can’t be found

But we yearn for it often, and luckily we find it often as well. What could be more depressing than an entire day without a single moment of enlightenment? We should never let that happen. When we work on crossword puzzles or sodoku games, we may think we’re passing the time or training our minds, but in fact we’re sustaining ourselves with little, constant doses of satori.

Satori is useful, pragmatic. I had a magical moment recently after reading Keith Richards’ memoir Life. Like many guitar players, I’ve never been able to play most Rolling Stones songs properly, because Keith Richards uses an unusual tuning system that involves, among other things, removing one of the six strings from a guitar. I’d always understood this tuning system to be something exotic and strange, but his book contains a couple of paragraphs that reveals it to be simpler than I ever imagined. During the first half of the 20th century, Keith explains, Sears Roebuck began selling a popular model of guitar by mail-order catalog, allowing regular Americans of modest wealth to buy modern instruments for the first time. But many of these Americans were banjo players, and as soon as someone got their guitar in the mail they would remove the low E string and tune the low A down to a G and the high E down to a D, thus turning a six-string guitar into a five-string banjo. This, Keith Richards wrote, is the tuning he likes to use.

I wouldn’t say I had a moment of satori when I read these words, because the explanation seemed so simple that I could barely believe it. But I own a banjo, so I pulled it out, looked up “Rolling Stones tablature” on Google, and within about thirty seconds found myself able to play the main riffs to “Brown Sugar”, “Start Me Up” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, three riffs I’d never been able to play before, exactly the way Keith plays them. This, when I heard the chords ring back perfectly to my ears, was satori.

In this case and many others, satori is essentially a moment of synthesis. I had already known what notes Keith tuned his guitar to, and I’d known how “Brown Sugar” was supposed to sound, and I already owned a banjo. What I didn’t know was that I could put it all together so incredibly easily. One thing I want to emphasize here is that there was nothing ephemeral or elusive about this new insight I’d suddenly gained. The knowledge that Keith Richards tunes his guitar like a banjo will remain useful to me for the rest of my life (especially if anybody ever asks me to play “Brown Sugar”, because I’ll be ready).

Musical satori is probably easier to gain than its more abstract philosophical equivalents. Regardless, this should be our goal, and I have a sense that there are some major discoveries out there waiting for us in the fields of ethics, psychology, epistemology and linguistic analysis that will be just as satisfying, once we put the pieces together, as the sound of a familiar guitar riff emerging from a banjo’s five strings.

As we begin a new year of discussion and debate, here on Litkicks and everywhere else, let’s remember this fact, that there are important insights out there that haven’t been discovered yet, or that have been discovered but not yet discussed, and that important realizations may arrive with great speed and simplicity at unexpected times. That’s the hope that’s driving this “philosophy weekend” project for me. If we end up with empty hands, like Jack Kerouac in Paris, I suppose we can write a book about it anyway. But let’s hope for something better than that.

13 Responses

  1. Don’t know if it’s epiphany
    Don’t know if it’s epiphany or revelation, but… what if we circled back to your post on diacriticals and threw the word “communism” in the whirring blender. Just as a sonic thought experiment, if we deemphasize the harsh accent on the first syllable–the Kà (Cirque de Soleil)–in favor of the sound in the second syllable–the Mew (the Pokémon character–what happens? Potential alchemy, no?

  2. I’m still a bit confused
    I’m still a bit confused about your definition of satori, but would you say it’s similar to Robert Heinlein’s concept of grokking?

  3. Maybe so, Benoit. I think the
    Maybe so, Benoit. I think the emphasis on “grok” (a great word) tends to be on the persistence of the understanding — you don’t grok something temporarily, but rather permanently. So maybe what I’m trying to do here is point out that, even though “satori” tends to evoke the sense of a sudden flash of understanding, there must be grokking — long term understanding, long term benefit — going on as well when satori occurs.

  4. I had a moment of satori in
    I had a moment of satori in Montreal several years ago. At the time, I was trying to learn Spanish. I had tapes that I listened to, and I even joined a Spanish club. But the going was slow. Then, on a trip to Montreal, I noticed that all the signs were in French – a language that I loved and had studied for years in school. My satori was that I could study for years and become a mediocre Spanish speaker, or brush up a little and become a fluent French speaker. This knowledge eventually led me to move to France, where I indeed became fluent in French. This led to a second satori – not all things followed for money are rewarding, while some things followed for no monetary gain are rewarding in a way that could never be measured by money – such as learing a culture through the native language of that culture.
    So I guess that’s where philosophy comes in for me.

  5. Is sartori the same as
    Is sartori the same as epiphany?

    I’ve had epiphanies that fit into two categories, maybe three categories depending on how I look at it:

    (1) Those flashes of enlightenment or understanding that stay with me; that is, I remember them clearly.

    (2) A flash of enlightenment or understanding that seemed profound at the time, but later on, (a) it seemed rather mundane and I wonder why it seemed like a big deal at the time, or (b) I don’t even remember what it was, but it seemed important, and I believe that someday I’ll revisit that mental state. With these, I am tempted to downplay their importance and assume that my mind was playing tricks on me, but on the other hand, I’m glad to remember how I felt when the idea hit me, so in once sense they are important parts of my life, even though they’ve become tarnished.

    Please note that these are not necessarily drug-related experiences.

    Does anyone know what I’m trying to say?

  6. Bill, I think that satori and
    Bill, I think that satori and epiphany is the same thing. #1 is definately satori or epiphany.
    #2 is a faux epiphany, sort of like a dream, where the impact fades with time

  7. There’s a little line in the
    There’s a little line in the bible that says, “Faith without works is dead,” and I wonder if the same could be said for satori: satori without action is dead. For what is the impact and beauty of new knowledge and new understanding if it’s not put into practice?

    Bill, I’m with you on 2b.

  8. That’s a majorly scary
    That’s a majorly scary picture.

    And I learned a new word. In the case of a writer, would I be hoping that each of my episodes offers its own satori, and that those little satoris, like Legos, may build a larger one offered by the whole work?

  9. Steph, I’m familiar with the
    Steph, I’m familiar with the verse, “faith without works is dead,” and it is a good and true saying. On the other hand, I’m thinking of the old Zen saying, “Before I was enlightened, I chopped wood and carried water. After I was enlightened, I chopped wood and carried water.” In other words, my outward self may not appear to have changed, but something has changed inside, like an inner glow that gives me joy when I go about my everyday actions. Then, again, maybe it does change my actions in some way.

    Levi, is that a negative picture of lightning?

  10. I bought that Keith Richards
    I bought that Keith Richards bio for my father and have yet to pick it up for myself.

    The shocker is a coincidence of just last week that my friend and I were playing some heavier music and his low-E string broke. We were playing blues, and he pushed the guitar into that Richards or a similar tuning after the string broke (I’m a drummer, what do I know!). Neither of us thought anything of it, but because of the newness of the 5 string he commented on it being a little strange to play, allowing him a new approach to his very familiar instrument, but the music that came out of that next 15 minutes was some of the most connected we had ever been in a session. Pure jazz. Nice post, I thank you

    p.s. he also plays one of those Sears acoustic guitars actually. he’s travelling the south by Greyhound with it by his side at this moment.

  11. “Before I was enlightened, I
    “Before I was enlightened, I chopped wood and carried water. After I was enlightened, I chopped wood and carried water.”

    I like that.

    I suppose it’s a bit of both. It’s not so much that our outward circumstances change, but that our perception changes. And with that perception change, hopefully, our actions change to reflect our satori. That doesn’t mean we won’t have to still chop wood and carry water, because those things are part of life, but maybe our attitude will change. And maybe that will lead us to only carry water we’ll actually use and not waste our resources; carry water for someone else who is too frail to carry it themselves; or be thankful that we have the arms to carry the water.

  12. Steph, you summed it up very
    Steph, you summed it up very nicely, I like it! Thank you.

    Robert, that brings back memories… travelling by Greyhound with a guitar by my side. Ahhh, yes.

    Levi, another cool way to invert colors can be found on “Paint.” Paste a photo on Paint and then go to “Image” and click on “Invert colors.” You can get some amazing hues that you might never achieve otherwise.

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