Francisco Varela
Ethical Know-How
Action,Wisdom, and Cognition
Stanford University Press 1999

pg 60-75
Keywords : self: a virtual person - nonsubstantial self that acts as if it were present, like a virtual interface - selfless "I" - Ethical know-how is the progressive, firsthand acquaintance with the virtuality of self - wu-wei - It is no ground whatsoever; it cannot be grasped as ground, reference point, or nest for a sense of ego. It does not exist - nor does it not exist - decentered self ideal - compassionate action is also called skillful means (upaya) in Buddhism. Skillful means are considered to be inseparable from wisdom - Individuals must personally discover and grow into their own sense of virtual self.


Even if we like these ideas about selfless selves at both the basic behavioral level and the more elaborate cognitive level, as Dennett puts it: "We want to exempt ourselves. The problem is that it seems as if we at least are very different: we are top-down, centered, globally directing."  This is why we feel compelled to project a centralized center or agent, be it a homuncular soul-like entity, or a vaguer sense of "self as a process."

I think that the radical novelty of our newly acquired and still fragmentary understanding of emergent properties in distributed network processes lies precisely in that they are strong metaphors, nay, exemplars, for what is a selfless self a coherent whole that is nowhere to be found and yet can provide an occasion for the coordinated activity of neural ensembles

I underline the strength of these metaphors because without the numerous examples worked out recently this apparent paradox of nonlocalization liable to designation as a totality becomes a contradiction, and unless this apparent paradox is addressod on this constructive meta-level, we quickly slide back into the traditional debates about the existence versus the nonexistence of the self and the person. 

The seeming paradox resides in a two-way movement between levels:"upward" with the emergence of properties from the constituting elements, and "downward" with the constraints imposed by global coherence on local interactions. The result (and the resolution of the paradox) is a nonsubstantial self that acts as if it were present, like a virtual interface

The more we see the selfless nature of our selves in various "regions" of the organism, the more we become suspicious of our feeling of "l" as a true center. Either we are unique in the living and natural world, or else our very immediate sense of a central, personal self is the same kind of illusion of a center, accountable by more of the same kind of analysis as we have already performed on the basic sensorimotor cognitive selves.

Needless to say, my preference is squarely with the second alternative:
What we call "l" can be analyzed as arising out of our recursive linguistic abilities and their unique capacity for self-description and narration

As long-standing evidence from neuropsychology shows, language is another modular capacity cohabiting with everything else we are cognitively. Our sense of a personal "I" can be construed as an ongoing interpretative narrative of some aspects of the parallel activities in our daily life, whence the constant shifts in forms of attention typical of our microidentities. Whence also the relative fragility of its narrative construction.

If this narrative "I" is necessarily constituted through language, then it follows that this personal self is linked to life because language cannot but operate as a social phenomenon. In fact, one could go one step further: the selfless "I" is a bridge between the corporeal body which is common to all beings with nervous systems and the social dynamics in which humans live. My "I" is neither private nor public alone, but partakes of both. And so do the kinds of narratives that go with it, such as values, habits, and preferences. 

In purely functionalist logic,"I" can be said to be for the interactions with others, for creating social life. Out of these articulations come the emergent properties of social life for which the selfless "I" is the basic component. Thus whenever we find regularities such as laws or social roles and conceive of them as externally given, we have succumbed to the fallacy of attributing substantial identity to what is really an emergent property of a complex, distributed process mediated by social interactions. 

Such emergent social properties can be projected as "exogenous" reference points, as is traditionally done, but they can equally well be deconstructed by the kind of analysis I have followed here. Interestingly, even if we accept a re-interpretation of the "I" as virtual - as the product of linguistic closure and emergent distributed properties - our natural inclination in daily life is to continue as if nothing had changed. 

This is the best evidence that the process of self-constitution is so entrenched that seeing through it requires more than a convincing analysis. Exploration of the sunya, the virtual nature, of this deeply entrenched and continuously active drive for identity constitution is a matter of learning and sustained transformation.
The Main Proposition

We now have what we need to grasp the nature of the emptiness of self and its relevance for ethical know-howModern Western science teaches us that the self is virtual and empty, and that it arises continuously to cope with breakdowns in our microworlds. 

Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism teach us that ethical expertise is progressive in nature and grounded in the ongoing realization of this empty self in ordinary life and action.These two strands support each other, and at this point give substance to the following postulate, the core of my proposition in these lectures:

Ethical know-how is the progressive, firsthand acquaintance with the virtuality of self.

We normally avoid this aspect of our fragmented, virtual nature, and yet praxis is what ethical learning is all about. In other words, if we do not practice transformation, we will never attain the highest degree of ethical expertise. Learning to embody the empty self is certainly difficult, but all these wisdom traditions agree that the acquisition of this expertise is not only progressive and open-ended but centrally important.

Lessons from Psychoanalysis

We should avoid dismissing a concern with personal transformation as a bit of philosophical chinoiserie. Consider for a moment a Western tradition that arrives at a convergent conclusion: psychoanalysis. For my purpose here, psychoanalysis is particularly important because it is the only Western tradition centrally concerned with a pragmatics of human transformation

As Lacan says,"The unconscious is ethical at its core." But this remark must not be interpreted in the received Western tradition of rational deductive principles for action. What Lacan is claiming is closer to our argument here: the ethical implies putting the status of the knowing subject into question, and thus highlighting the need for therapeutic space provided for the person by the analytic situation. 

As is well known, an analytic "cure" is not a medical treatment, but rather the creation of a sort of suspension for the craziness of desire, which is tantamount to saying a suspension of the acquired manner of emergence of the virtual self. This position is in itself ethical: it is the ethics of a know-how concerning the unconscious. This sort of ethical know-how requires that we attempt to realize that no moral principle is in itself realizable, since the analytic process makes it progressively clearer that we are doomed to never be satisfied with any set of hopes and expectations, however rational they may seem to be. There cannot be any social order or moral order that is objectively desirable. 

The root of this is the fundamental psychoanalytic discovery that in contradistinction to theories that posit a unified central self, Freudian theories of the subject explode the self into pieces, both within the person and between persons. The analytic stance on ethics cannot then be based on compassion in the sense of sympathy or caritas, for this is always and already contaminated with the structure of the wildness of desire. Instead, it proposes that we suspend the temptation to be identified with the other and, in-stead, undertake a journey of learning to see ourselves and others as inescapably transitory and fragmented. 

The demand for this ethical link is manifested then in the only true love possible in the psychoanalytic world, that of transference. Instead of creating a link between the illusion of an ideal center or moral principle, this transferential love is always attempting to reveal to the subject that all the traits he takes as ideal in himself or in others are subsumed en-tirely in the unrealizable desire to make whole and sub-stantial that which is forever fragmentary and virtual.

This Western tradition professes, at least in some of its schools, an ideal that is close to the wisdom or higher ethical training of the teaching traditions, bot with its own twist. Let me return now to those traditions by describing the Buddhist ideal of the boddhisattva, which we touched on briefly in the Second Lecture.

The Lesson from the Teaching Traditions

In all Buddhist traditions, we have seen, the practice of recognizing the emptiness of the self is the very foundation of emptiness in every moment is known as the practice of mindfulness/awareness or samatha-vispasnya

Essentially a radical not-doing, it is traditionally understood as a universal practice, bot despite having been refined and explored for over 2500 years by over half the world, it was never discovered independently in the West. Instead of a space for the human in the analyst's studio required in psychoanalysis, samatha-vispasnya creates the space through non-action, which includes nonresponse to language.

The mindfulness/awareness student first begins by observing, in a precisely prescribed fashion, what the mind is doing, its restless, perpetual grasping, from moment to moment. This beginning enables the student to free himself from some of his habitual patterns of thought, which leads to further mindfulness. Eventually he begins to realize that there is no self in any of his actual experiences. This discovery can be disturbing. It can cause the student to lose heart and tempt him to swing to the other extreme, that of nihilism. This flight into nihilism demonstrates that the reflex to ding to a substantial self is so strong and deep-seated that we reify its absence as a sort of abyss.

As the student-practitioner continues, however, and as his mind relaxes further into awareness, a sense of warmth and inclusiveness begins to appear quite naturally. The street-fighter mentality of watchful self-interest slips away gradually to be replaced by an interest in others. We are al-ready other-directed even at our most negative, and we al-ready feel warmth toward some people, such as family and friends, in the same way that Mencius begins his ethical training with an examination of our spontaneous concern for the child falling into a well. 

The conscious realization of the sense of relatedness and the development of a more impartial sense of warmth is encouraged in the mindfulness/ awareness tradition by various practices that strikingly resemble the element of extension we discussed in Mencius and the Taoist tradition.

It is said that the full realization of groundlessness cannot occur if there is no warmth. For this reason, in the Mahayana tradition, which we have so far presented as being centrally concerned with groundlessness as sunyata, there is an equally central and complementary concern with groundlessness as compassion. The Sanskrit term translated here as "compassion" is karuna. This translation has some short-comings, but there is no other satisfactory English term. In fact, most of the traditional Mahayana presentations do not begin with groundlessness, but rather with the cultivation of karuna. 

Nagarjuna, the equivalent of Mencius for the Buddhist tradition, for example, states in one of his works that the Mahayana teaching has "an essence of emptiness and compassion." This statement is sometimes paraphrased by saying that emptiness (sunyata) is full of compassion (karuna). Keiji Nishitani, a contemporary writer from the Zen tradition, echoes this statement when he succinctly states that "the nature of the task of the onght is the other-directedness of the is."

Thus sunyata, the loss of a fixed reference point or ground in either self, other, or a relationship between them, is said to be as inseparable from compassion as the two sides of a coin or the two wings of a bird. 

Our natural impulse, in this view, is one of compassion, but it has been obscured by habits of ego-clinging like the sun obscured by a passing cloud. This is by no means the end of the path, however, for there is a further step to be made in understanding beyond the sunyata of primarily negative terms: no self, egolessness, no world, nonduality, emptiness, groundlessness. In actual fact, the majority of the world's Buddhists do not speak of their deepest concerns in negative terms; these negatives are preliminaries - necessary to remove habitual patterns of grasping, unsurpassably important but nonetheless preliminaries - that are pointing toward the realization of a positively conceived state. To be sure, this state can be threatening and paradoxical, as we already evoked in discussing wu-wei in Taoism. It is no ground whatsoever; it cannot be grasped as ground, reference point, or nest for a sense of ego. It does not exist - nor does it not exist

It cannot be an object of mind or of the conceptualizing process; it cannot be seen, heard, or thought of. Thus many traditional images exist for it: the sight of a blind man, a flower blooming in the sky. When the conceptual mind tries to grasp it, it finds nothing, and so it experiences it as emptiness. It can be known (and can only be known) directly. It is called Buddha nature, nomind, primordial mind, absolute bodhicitta, wisdom mind, All Goodness, Great Perfection, That which cannot be fabricated by mind, Naturalness. 

It is not a hair's breadth different from the ordinary world; it is that very same ordinary, conditional, impermanent, painful, groundless world experienced (known) as the unconditional, supreme state. And the natural manifestation, the embodiment, of this state is karuna - unconditional, fearless,"ruthless," spontaneous compassion. 

As a contemporary Tibetan teacher puts it poignantly:"When the reasoning mind no longer clings and grasps, one awakens into the wisdom with which one was born, and compassionate energy arises without pretense."  How can we understand further this unconditional compassion? We need to backtrack and consider the development of ethical and virtuous action from the more mundane point of view of the student. The possibility for concern for others present in all humans is usually mixed with the sense of ego and so becomes confused with the need to satisfy one's own cravings for recognition and selfevaluation; these were the categories that included the village honest man of Mencius among others. 

Here, instead, I am referring to the spontaneous gestures that arise when one is not caught in the habitual patterns - when one is not performing volitional actions out of acquired habitual patterns. In other words, actions that embody and express the realization of the emptiness of self in a nondual manifestation of subject and object. 

It is the decentered self ideal also expressed in the ethics of psychoanalysis. When action is done without the business-deal mentality, there can be relaxation and this is called supreme (or transcendental) generosity or prajnaparamita.

When discussing wisdom from the point of view of this highest ethical expertise, the Sanskrit term often used is bodhicitta, which has been variously translated as "enlightened mind," "the heart of the enlightened state of mind," or simply the "awakened heart." Bodhicitta is said to have two aspects, one absolute and one relative. 

Absolute bodhicitta is the term applied to what is considered fundamental in most Buddhist practices, the experience of the groundlessness of sunyata, or the (positively defined) sudden glimpse of the awakened state itself, which reminds us of the demand for intelligent awareness that Mencius demanded for the truly virtuous man. Relative bodhicitta, on the other hand, is that fundamental warmth toward the world which practitioners report arising from the absolute experience, and which manifests as concern and appropriate action for the welfare of others beyond naive compassion. Conversely (in the order in which we have previously described these experi-ences), it is said that it is the progressive extension and de-velopment of a sense of unproblematic warmth toward the world which leads to the experience of the flash of absolute bodhicitta.

Practitioners in these teaching traditions obviously do not realize any of these things all at once. Like any learning journey, it takes time and a sustained discipline, with many semblances of progress and retrogress along the way. But practitioners report that they catch glimpses that encourage them to keep striving. One of the most important steps consists in developing compassion toward one's own grasp-ing fixation on the ego-self or maitri. The idea behind this attitude is that confronting our own grasping tendencies is a friendly act toward ourselves. As this friendliness develops, our awareness and concern for those around us enlarges as well. 

It is at this point that we can begin to envision a more open-ended and nonegocentric compassion. It should not be surprising at this point that one of the main characteristics of spontaneous compassion, which is not a characteristic of volitional action based on habitual patterns, is that it follows no rules. It is not derived from an axiomatic ethical system or even from pragmatic moral in-junctions. Its highest aspiration is to be responsive to the needs of the particular situation. Nagarjuna conveys this attitude of responsiveness:

Just as the grammarian makes one study grammar,
A Buddha teaches according to the tolerance of his students;
Some he urges to refrain from sins, others to do good,
Some to rely on dualism, others on non-dualism;
And to some he teaches the profound,
The terrifying, the practice of enlightenment,
Whose essence is emptiness that is compassion.

Unrealized practitioners, of course, cannot dispense with rules and moral injunctions. At the beginners'level, there are many ethical rules in Buddhism whose aim is to put the body and mind into a state that imitates as nearly as possible how genuine compassion might manifest in that situation (just as the meditative sitting posture is said to imitate enlightenment). 

By following these rules, beginning Buddhists learn to actualize compassion the same way followers of Mencius are exhorted to actualize virtue, by extending knowledge and feelings from situations where a particular action is considered correct to analogous situations where correct action is unclear. Most interestingly for our discussion, compassionate action is also called skillful means (upaya) in Buddhism. Skillful means are considered to be inseparable from wisdom.

We must not, however, identify skillful means with ordinary skills like learning to drive a car or play the violin. In some ways skillful means in Buddhism are like our more fa-miliar notion of a sensorimotor skill: the student practices ("plants good seeds"), that is, avoids harmful actions, performs beneficial ones, meditates, and extends his behavior to a wider and wider range. However, unlike mastery of an ordinary skill, mastery of the skillful means of ethical expertise results in the elimination of all habits so that the practitioner can realize that wisdom and compassion can arise directly and spontaneously out of wisdom. It is as if one were born already knowing how to play the violin and had to practice with great exertion in order to remove the habits that prevented one from displaying that virtuosity. 

Thus the true wu-wei of the wise is not manufactured, but uncovered. In Buddhism this is the image of the fully accomplished boddhisattva.

We touch here on an extremely important and philosophically delicate point: Is there a ground underlying the nonsolidity of the self? Or more succinctly, What is left in sunyata? 

The Tibetan Buddhist tradition talks about the constituents of virtual mind as being transformed by the continued boddhisattua journey into wisdom. This sense of trans-formation does not mean going away from the world and getting out of mental functioning, since the very constituents on which the inaccurate sense of self and world are basod are also the basis of wisdom. 

The means of transforming mental constituents into wisdom is intelligent awareness, that is, the moment-to-moment realization of the virtual self as it is—empty of any egoistic ground whatsoever, yet filled with wisdom. Here one is positing that authentic care re-sides at the very ground of Being, and can be made folly manifest in a sustained, successful ethical training. A thor-oughly alien thought for our nihilistic Western mood, indeed, but one worthy of being entertained.

How can such an attitude of all-encompassing, decentered, responsive, compassionate concern be fostered and embodied in our culture? It obviously cannot be created merely through norms and rationalistic injunctions. It must be developed and embodied through disciplines that facilitate the letting-go of ego-centered habits and enable com-passion to become spontaneous and self-sustaining. It is not that there is no need for normative rules in the relative world—clearly such roles are a necessity in any society. It is that unless such roles are informed by the wisdom that enables them to be dissolved in the demands of responsivity to the particularity and immediacy of lived situations, the rules will become sterile, scholastic hindrances to compassionate action rather than conduits for its manifestation.

Perhaps less obvious but even more strongly enjoined by the mindfulness/ awareness tradition is that practices undertaken simply as self-improvement schemes will only strengthen the very egotism they are intended to dispel. Because of the strength of egocentric habitual conditioning, there is a constant tendency, as practitioners in all contemplative traditions are aware, to try to grasp onto, possess, and become proud of the slightest insight, glimpse of openness, or understanding. Unless such tendencies become part of the path of letting-go which leads to compassion, then insights can actually do more harm tban good. Buddhist teachers have often written that it is far better to remain an ordinary person and believe in ultimate foundations than to cling to some remembered experience of groundlessness without manifesting compassion.

Talk alone will certainly not suffice to engender spontaneous non-egocentric concerns and ethically developed persons. Even more than experiences of insight, words and concepts can be easily grasped at, taken as ground, and wo-ven into a cloak of egohood. Teachers in all contemplative traditions warn against taking fixed views and concepts as reality. We simply cannot overlook the need for some form of sustained, disciplined practice or pratique de transformation de sujet, to use Foucault's apt term. This is not something that one can make up for oneself - anymore than one can make up the history of Western science for oneself. Nothing will take its place. 

Individuals must personally discover and grow into their own sense of virtual self.

To conclude: I have tried to weave together themes from science of mind and from the depth of the teaching traditions to illuminate my central concern about what ethical know-how is and how it is acquired. My presentation is, more than anything, a plea for a re-enchantment of wisdom, understood as non-intentional action. This skillful ap-proach to living is based on a pragmatics of transformation that demands nothing less than a moment-to-moment awareness of the virtual nature of our selves. In its full unfolding it opens up openness as authentic caring. These are radical ideas and strong measures for the troubled times we have at hand, and the even more troubled ones we are likely to have.

Varela Ethical Know-How