Friday, November 20, 2009

Part II

Okay, so if you're more or less on board with the premise of the previous post——that our species' angst arises because of the dissonance between what we want (permanence and stability) and the shifting, squirming impermanence that circumstances really offer——where does that leave us?

Assuming that a happy state is what we all seek, there are two conceivable solutions. One, we can attempt to create permanence and stability in our circumstances and in our identities. We can try to make the world fit our desires. Generally speaking, I think this is human solution of choice. We try to make become permanently healthy, to solidify our level of comfort in the world. Through career, or family, or good deeds, we try to give our name and reputation some permanence, even eternity. Hence, a wealthy man builds a law school and names it after himself; an artist seeks glory; an actor, a star on the hollywood walk of fame. Nations try to establish themselves as cultures for the ages. We try to convince ourselves that we are real, in other words.

These efforts can work for a little while--at least long enough for us momentarily convince ourselves that we're succeeding. We actually can change the world to our liking, at least for a little while. We can extend the average length of a healthy life. We can send men to the moon. We convince ourselves these are momentous, fabulous victories, signifying everything. We ignore the fact that to die at 90 rather than 70 is, at the end of the day, still to die. Most every human triumph, in the final measure, is slightly hollow, as the truth is never really escaped. I'm exaggerating this for effect, but you get the idea.

Eventually, the rug gets pulled away, and illness visits, poverty descends, or reputation becomes sullied. Waistline sags, the memory grows feeble, friends forget us. And through it all, we're constantly trying rebuilding the sand castle, trying to defend the illusion against the evidence.

This is the point where disillusionment can be an important gift. To become disillusioned, after all, means to be relieved of your illusions——to forfeit your false beliefs, in others words. It's not a terrible thing to wake up and see that a lot of our ambition is rather meaningless.

The danger, though, is that we'll swing to the opposite pole. If I can't make life constantly to my liking, we think, then it automatically means that life is shit. Nihilism can set it. There are people who travel in this direction, but never come to the point where there realize that nihilism is its own form of illusion.

Rather than seeking to remake the world to match our wishes, the second option, the one much less traveled, would be to work with the wishing itself, the illusion, and see if we can't bring it more into alignment with the ways things really are.

This, I would suggest, is the more revolutionary approach, and the one that perhaps has more real potential for creating a happy life. It is a life of letting to to things as they are, and it is quite alien to us. We really can't believe such a thing is possible, and dismiss the mere idea as lazy hogwash. We defend our right to hold on to delusion.

A bit of experiment, though, can begin to convince you that there's something to different approach. Perhaps our ability to truly and wholly "let go" can only happen for a sporadic few moments at a time before the need to control things again reasserts itself. Pay attention, though, and you may realize that those few moments of utter surrender to the world is as peaceful as anything you've known.

Some people with whom I talk to about such ideas will mutter that such a life would be nothing more than laziness. A life without the attempt to control the world is no life at all, they'd say.
In point of fact, though, a life of surrender very often will mean abandoning our inaction, and allowing oneself to act with unusual strength and power in accordance with the natural flow of things.

A tiny little glimpse of this approach can be experienced through a very simple meditation exercise once taught to me.

"As you pay attention to your breath, abandon the illusion that "you" are breathing. Instead, consider the possibility that the universe is breathing you."

Part 1

I don't think it takes great powers of observation or enormous insight to conclude that the human animal exists in a kind of restless condition. There are some philosophers and nihilists who would describe the human condition as one of never-ending suffering, sorrow, or original sin. I don't know that I'd go quite that far; but if you practice mere observation,  it does seem logical to conclude that our species is vaguely dissatisfied with its existence, and is almost always squirming and striving for something more.  Spend a day looking around, and you will see that virtually everyone seems to be longing for things to be different. It is the reason behind most everything we do.

I have a theory about why this is so, and here it is:  the reason we, as a species, are unhappy is that we're not entirely sure that we exist.

There is some classic philosophy behind this, which can be found in both the occident and orient. The argument is something like this: For something to truly, concretely exist, as a phenomenon it would be concrete, definite, tangible. Moreover, as some philosophers have tried to show through logic, something that truly "exists" would not materialize or dissolve, but would have stable, non-ending existence.

Since none of these qualities can possibly be applied to the concept we call "self," we exist in a kind of nervous worry about who and what we are....or even IF we are. 

Consider the evidence.  In almost every circumstance, who we are changes moment to moment. One moment I'm a husband, the next a father, now a friend, later a son to an aging father. A supervisor, an underling; an intellectual, a screaming sports fan. Even in the absence of other people and changing circumstances, the self I identify in my thoughts changes every few seconds. 

 Our emotional view of the world, which may define us more than almost anything else, is the most shifting experience of all. Blissfully content one moment, irritated the next. Happy as a clam today; on the wrong side of the bed tomorrow. Full of wisdom and common sense....30 seconds later forgetting where I put my eyeglasses.

25 years old one minute, a second later, I'm 53 years and counting.

The reality truly is that there is a new reality with every passing moment, and that nothing whatsoever is real in the sense of being concrete and stable. In the very moment that some phenomenon occurs, it is already vanishing. No wonder we're all a bit anguished about our place in the cosmos. 

That's the real nature of things: flux, change, impermanence.  Unhappiness, it seems to me, arises because we don't like the real nature of things, and we're constantly fighting against it. It's not much more complicated than that. 

Monday, November 9, 2009

Don't Learn....Remember

The grandfather sat back in his rocker and looked at his grandson. Not for the first time, he was again amused and also flattered that the young man continued to seek his opinion, even now that he was no longer a child. Highly unusual for young adults in these times, when most had little interest in the views of old people. His grandson, though, wasn't exactly a typical twenty-something, that's true.

"Okay then, one more bit of advice before I drive you to the airport," the old man said, then paused. "Don't strive to learn anything at all. Instead, allow yourself  to remember."

The grandson merely raised his eyebrows.

"What I mean is this," the old man continued. "The truest wisdom will never feel to you like something added, like something you're learning new.  More often, it will be something that was already evident to common sense. It will always feel like you're remembering what you've known all along." He stood up, checking his pockets for car keys.  "That's how you know it's the real thing. Wisdom will feel like something remembered."

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Philosopher and the Monk....and a middle-age guy in Minneapolis

On the bus ride home the other day, a woman across the aisle was reading a book with a great title——"The Philosopher & the Monk," and yesterday I picked up a copy of my own.
I've just started reading it, but can already heartily recommend it. The book is a dialogue between a French philosopher and his son——a one-time genetic biologist who gave up a promising career to follow Tibetan Buddhism. The book follows the Socratic method, in which questions and answer gradually divulge a fully developed philosophy for living.

These guys are considerably smarter and more talented than me, but for all of that, there is something in this story that echoes a bit of my own experience in the world. This father and son dialogue is strikingly similar to my inner dialogue over the years. At one time I was a pretty typical westerner, enamored of the power of science and rationality, without much at all in the way of religious sentiment. When I was a kid, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a scientist of some kind. As a young adult, though, I became greatly disenchanted with results of science and technology in human culture, and found myself drawn to various mystical disciplines, and Tibetan Buddhism particularly resonated with me.

Although I continue to read a lot of science to this day, I'm always struck that science only manages to shift the boundaries of the unknown, and never actually eliminates the unknown at all. And no matter how much scientific knowledge gets collected, it has never had much impact whatsoever on the overall experience of genuine human happiness. Nor has science done anything whatsoever to reduce the causes of human unhappiness. Cell phones are now used to detonate roadside bombs, which can hardly be called progress.

Spiritual study, on the other hand is in some ways the study of the subjective truth of human happiness and suffering, and as such strikes me as a discipline of critical importance. Personally, I gravitated to the Buddhist model for several key reasons: First, it is non-theistic discipline which has no need for dogma or superstition. In fact, Buddhism encourages you to trust the evidence of your own experience, and never to trust anything completely on faith.
I have also found the Buddhism offers a clarity and simplicity lacking in other traditions. It is a straight-ahead philosophy with little nuance to it. Most late-arrivals to Buddhism, in fact, are surprised when they discover that the principles mean exactly what they say, and that there is no need to read between the lines.

But it now begins to sound like I'm advocating, when all I meant to do was recommend a good book, which just happens to articulate the inner questions many westerners have about the role of spirituality in a modern society.

The Philosopher & the Monk, by Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard.