Is there a self?

I’ve been following Robert Wright’s MOOC on Buddhism and Modern Psychology. One of the most interesting ideas at the heart of this course frames Buddhism as a rebellion against natural selection. Wright investigates whether by helping us to see the world more clearly, Buddhism, and particularly meditation, irons out some of the perceptual and affective distortions caused in us by the selection process, and so alleviates suffering.

Wright asks us to imagine that we are walking a trail where a hiker was recently bitten by a snake. If out of the corner of an eye we see a coiled up rope on the edge of the trail, we’d probably jump out of ‘striking distance’ of the rope. Despite colouring our perception of the world, the low-level fear that caused us to see a snake in a rope is adaptive. Even if it causes a false positive 99 times out of 100, the misperception still would have helped us to pass our genes on in 1 case out of 100. The downside for us is that our experience of the world has been clouded by fear. He sees meditation at least partly as a way of ‘reprogramming’ ourselves.

Aside from meditation, one of the radical ways in which Buddhism challenges the strategies of natural selection (which often encourages us to act out of a perceived self-interest) is by questioning the existence of a self at all. When the Buddha said, ‘this is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself’ of consciousness, the body, mental qualities, feelings and perceptions, he may have been denying the existence of a self altogether. Alternatively, as I think Bhikkhu Bodhi suggests, his aim might have been to loosen his audience’s (monks) attachment to their own existences and not to rule out selfhood altogether.

I’ll paraphrase the Buddha’s arguments for there being no self as:

  1. a self should persist over time, while what we actually observe is continual change;
  2. if we isolate the components of our being, we see that no individual component houses a self.*

Both arguments remind me of the Ship of Theseus†, a part-versus-whole problem recorded in Plutarch. Over the years, every plank, rope sail and instrument of a ship is replaced. At the end of this transformation, the ship bears the same name… but is it the same ship?

You could view the name of the ship as another component, one which has not changed, but I don’t know whether that would help you to make sense of what’s occurred. The Ship of Theseus strikes me as being a problem of language and specifically the ultimate futility of labelling things. Though it is useful to categorise the world using distinctions and descriptors, the world is harder to divide than we imagine. Perhaps to point to ourselves and claim ‘this is me’ is naïve.

 

 

*(It’s worth noting that this is held as an experientially derived truth, rather than one derived from logic. Logic is used here more as a pedagogical tool.)
†See Mitch Green’s Engaging Philosophy.

Playtime

I’m just back from a terrific stag do. We were badly hungover on Saturday morning but just about made it to the weekend’s activity which involved tripping up people in giant costumes, penguin sumo wrestling and climbing a rope on a slippery, soaped up bouncy castle (ending up arse over tit). Computer games and books are a poor substitute for the way we used to play in our youth.

Between the hijinks, pubs and clubs, my friend mentioned that his young son often becomes so engrossed in what he’s doing that when the time comes for him to go to the toilet he’ll carry on playing and ignore the consequences. Apparently this is common in boys. Imagine how fulfilling life would be if we took having fun that seriously. Imagine what we could achieve if we had the dedication necessary to wet ourselves rather than put down our pen, guitar or paintbrush. Perhaps this is taking personal productivity too far.

Katabasis

No army marches faster.
Having beaten us, the clouds
dropped their arrowfall into the bay,
blessing our deepest failure.

News reached me on the wind.
Yet more ranks of salt and hate
but there I was, sharing a mind with water
after months of hard dryness.

Stars gleamed like arrow wounds.
There was great, roiling joy
in leaving this land under darkness.
We carried our corpses across waves

to meet the storm and what lived yet
of the lives we could have had.
The further I looked ahead, the further
storm and suddenness looked into me.

 

 

The faint blue glow of friendship

As we declutter our house prior to the big move, it’s been interesting to question what I need in my life. This doesn’t just apply to material stuff, of course, but other kinds of stuff too. For example: how I spend my time (temporal stuff). Unfortunately, it turns out that much of my temporal stuff is expended on digital stuff. So I began to think about whether I could slim down or prioritise my commitments to the internet.

It’s surprising how many people I’ve agreed to ‘follow’, how many marketing emails I neglected to unsubscribe from, how many services I have an account for and have never found useful. Hey, it’s all free. Then, yesterday, I deleted TweetDeck and a shiver went through me. It was a physical feeling of relief.

I have this vague idea that social media is useful but it’s very hard to say how, and what the cost is. It’s usually an open ended and very poorly defined activity, at least the way I use it. Not SMART.

There’s also the mental bandwidth it hogs: the repetitive cycle of posting and checking; the fear of missing out. The impulse to tweet about something as it happens to you is the mental equivalent of having a ‘share this’ button embedded in your experiences. I do want to share some of my experiences but in a form and manner of my choosing. Does being retweeted help me to understand myself and others? Does the new Facebook design help me to be present in the living of my life? Probably not.

I know several people who love Twitter and would say it has changed their lives. Maybe they’re more purposeful and professional in their use of it than I am. Many writers use Twitter to build an audience and find like-minded fellows. When Joe and Hugh and I launched our poetry pamphlet, The Inner Sea, it reached people on Twitter who never would have read it otherwise. That was a really positive thing but the results didn’t really justify the amount of headspace I’ve given over to it.

I have some deeper problems with social media and reactions that take place on a shallow, literal level. It’s not always an advantage to communicate by reflex and so publicly. Experiences take time to change us and to reveal their importance. Independence, the feeling of being out of touch, the sense of time passing slowly, patience, possibly even peace. All these are things of value to someone who writes; all are things that could be gained by losing social media or toning it down.

It’s easy to be enchanted by the faint blue glow of friendship. At its best, social media is an egalitarian echo chamber; at its worst, a squawk box for brands to banter through. If I had the courage of my convictions I suppose I’d close my accounts, let time pass as slowly as possible and miss out on everything.

The art of finishing

There’s an amusing book review in the TLS about Musorgsky and his fellow composers’ capacity for procrastination. Apparently, chief among Musorgsky’s offences was working on two operas at once, finishing neither.

I generally think our passions are good at telling us when to work on something and when to let something else ferment. However, it no doubt takes a concious effort to actually see final drafts through to completion, especially when it comes to ambitious visions such as these.

one of Walsh’s leitmotifs is the lackadaisical fashion in which most of the kuchkists applied their gifts. He quotes Rimsky-Korsakov, the big exception, recalling a time in the 1860s when the group could congratulate themselves because Nikolai Lodyzhensky “wrote one romance, Borodin got an idea for something, Balakirev is planning to rework something, and so on”.

— Paul Griffiths, Musorgsky and the Mighty Handful

With that in mind, I might make finishing things my new priority (though I’m not entirely sure what the old priority was). I recently browsed a list of ‘100 books you must read before Andromeda and The Milky Way collide‘ and realised that I sometimes have trouble finishing other people’s novels, let alone my own.

But to be clear: things can be too finished, especially if by ‘finished’ we mean spending countless hours retrospectively removing all trace of the process and craft. That kind of perfectionism is demanding and often detracts from the work by ironing out the idiosyncracies and expression that most people find interesting.

Perhaps it’s best to just do what comes naturally and see what happens. If you end up writing ‘Night on Bald Mountain’, it can’t be too bad an approach.

Things as they are

Last night I read a fascinating essay in the LA Review of Books on Donald Richie, an expatriate writer in Japan. I was struck in particular by this quote from Richie’s The Inland Sea:

The innocent does not look for reasons behind reasons. He, secure in the animal nature that all of us have and only half of us admit, is able to see that all reality is what the West finds merely ostensible reality. Reality is skin deep because there is only skin. The ostensible is the truth.

Whether he’s right or not, that’s a profound thought in our age of explanations. It reminded me of the scene in Zen in the Art of Archery where another expatriate, Eugen Herrigel is struggling to allow his bow to ‘shoot itself’. His vocation, philosophy, seems to be a major hindrance:

He had, so Mr. Komachiya told me later, tried to work through
a Japanese introduction to philosophy in order to find out how he
could help me from a side I already knew. But in the end he had
laid the book down with a cross face, remarking that he could
now understand that a person who interested himself in such
things would naturally find the art of archery uncommonly
difficult to learn.

Dabbling with vegetables

I don’t know why it feels like a radical step, plenty of people do it. I’ve abstained from meat for the past two months – with one exception: a steak pie cooked by my dad. A while ago I decided it was better not to eat processed meat and to only buy meat that was raised to some kind of ethical standard. It mattered more how the animals lived than how they died, I thought, and you have to be in the market to change the way meat is produced.

My feelings moved on when my son was born. I was uncomfortable at the thought of generations of animals being bred for slaughter. It seems to me that certain animals have emotional bonds with their offspring. Is it right that we systematically destroy them for commercial profit?

One of the last justifications to fall was the idea that our bodies evolved to eat meat. No one wants to act in opposition to the perceived needs of their body. And it may well have been adaptive for us to eat some meat in an environment of scarcity. Hunting was undoubtedly a formative, possibly thrilling practice that helped us to develop social cohesion. I’d love to track an animal in the wild (though I feel it would defeat the point to then shoot that animal).

We no longer live in that environment of scarcity. In fact, our environment is highly artificial and I sometimes distrust the prevailing system not to serve us people burgers if it could create a market for them. I don’t think that eating meat is necessarily wrong but there’s a difference between picking off a stray wildebeest and subsidising your diet with it, and a mechanised industry in which animals are treated as inanimate products.

I’m enjoying the new diet. Whether meat creeps back in remains to be seen. I haven’t felt that it’s desirable for some time and now it doesn’t seem necessary either.

Minimal minimalism

I’m clearing out my house in preparation for the big move. As it happens, I’ve also been reading about minimalism. Surprisingly for someone who hoards books and hankers after new gear, I’ve found minimalism appealing. It’s a good counterbalance to consumerism as it invites us to question what we really value and what we can live without.

I can live without a redundant laptop and an old PC I built to study (and play games) on; a huge second hand bass cabinet; a broken bass guitar; a budget mountain bike with dodgy gears;  a fine collection of cables and phone chargers; a year and a half’s worth of New Scientist magazine; a few too big shirts and pairs of jeans that I never wear; a handful of books; a stack of notes on poems. Hmm, not that much as it turns out. There weren’t many difficult choices here. Maybe I’ll be braver on the second pass.

Where I think the minimalist mindset will come into its own is in forcing me to doubt future purchases. Yes, I couldn’t throw away my years old Nintendo GameCube and the games I played with friends until the wee small hours. I’m a bad minimalist… but while I’m still attached to that old machine, why would I need the latest PlayStation?

I have a box full of guitar pedals and analogue gear. Most of these haven’t been used since I was in a smoky rehearsal room or playing gigs in Birmingham. No doubt I could emulate these sounds digitally and save myself some space. Somehow, fiddling with ASIO drivers isn’t quite as cathartic as a stompbox. My attachment to this gear offers some artistic limitations. I could upgrade to the latest tech but what would I really gain and would that still be my own aesthetic?

A lot of this stuff was bought at a time when I thought all income was disposable income. Especially the books. A couple of nights ago I was browsing gratuitous pictures of bookshelves, thinking about ideas for a new home when we find one (books are counted as one category of things and this category is allowed to be unreasonably large). I realised that I was lucky enough to neither want much more than I have, nor want much less. There wasn’t a new ideal to strive for, be it consumerist or minimalist. The junk on the shelves was my junk and that meant it was purely up to me what stayed or went.