Impermanence

impermanence

In the co-ordinator’s office of the meditation centre where I’m volunteering, there’s a piece of wood engraved with the following:

A beautiful day. It will not come again.

As a call to appreciation, it seemed more urgent than carpe diem. This came home to me while looking out of the window of a bathroom on the upper floor, having ushered a ladybird from the sill behind the toilet to the ledge outside. I stopped to look at the rain lashing the chimney pots and garden, puddling on the flat sections of roof below. That set of circumstances: the grounds, the rain, me, the people in my life right now, will never line up again in quite the same way.

I took the photo above on another beautiful day, not long ago. The door was on a side street, metres from the shops and harbour of a Cornish fishing town. Afterwards, I had it in mind to start a photography project with impermanence as a theme, but gradually let go of the scheme and decided once again to just get along with life and see what happens. A few Big Ideas have come since, and it’s interesting to see how I grab onto them in response to a need for security, or recognition, for example. Sooner or later the Big Idea passes but hopefully a few, small, good ones will have taken care of themselves.

Dream selves

Interesting that in dreams we seem to have a self – whether that be a butterfly or a WWII soldier – though we have no physical body, and the world around us is a tottering, malleable palace. It’s as though the mental machinery that constructs our everyday perception of self and other can at last be seen making shapes out of the mist.

“My God, it’s full of stars”

As far as I know, none of history’s greatest philosopher-poets had their best insights while holding a soiled cat litter tray. But there I was, in the garden after midnight, seeking truth and a clean gravel-filled receptacle for Mr. Biggington. The valley was cool and quiet. I looked up from the decking to see a bright canopy of stars. I gazed upward in hope of a straggling Perseid meteor. None came.

As insights go it was more a way of looking. Consider that concepts we use to categorise what we see lead us to take those things for granted. So when I see a thousand pinpoints of white-blue light that are billions of years old, I think “stars” and continue cleaning out the litter tray. In fact, the constellations our ancestors navigated by for millenia are slowly changing shape. They have no blueprint. No necessary form or intrinsic reason to exist. Perhaps this whole arrangement is fleeting, vertiginous chance and should be honoured with our closest attention. Maybe that’s what poetry does for us, I thought, as I finished cleaning up cat shit.

 

 

The Story of Stuff

The Story of Stuff is a powerful indictment of consumerism. In twenty minutes it paints a horrific picture of the planet-stripping supply chain that furnishes us with ephemeral gizmos. For instance, did you know that for every binload of recycling you put out, there are 70 bins of waste produced further up the chain?

Most astonishing is this quote from economist Victor Lebow in 1955, which seems to have been stated in seriousness:

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”

It’s clear that we have to find alternative ways of living and producing. As many have pointed out, it’s not like the current system is making us happier or healthier. Chatting with a friend in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, we were sure that change was in the air, that governments would take this opportunity to make decisive policy changes. How wrong we were. And yet, everywhere you find people who think the same way. Clearly, Lebow’s is an idea whose time has passed. The question is will change follow in the global economy, and how much too late?

Thinking about nothing in particular

I’ve always been interested in the question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ I remember walking to school trying to imagine nothing: no planets, stars, or galaxies. (I’d seen these in an astronomy book and was inconsolable when the same book told me that the sun would one day engulf Earth). All I could think of was blackness, but I realised there would be no colour black so I imagined total blankness in white. Then I realised there would be no white either. Totally flummoxed, I gave up.

Perhaps the hardest thing to realise is there would be no observer. Every now and then, that question returns. I now think the question itself is part of the problem. We’re clearly confused about what ‘nothing’ is. We can’t even imagine it, let alone experience it, or measure it. One way of rethinking ‘nothing’ would be to see it as an extreme position on a spectrum, and give up the dualistic idea of something/nothing. Everything is marked by constant change: what we think of as void is teeming with possibility. Perhaps nothingness is nothing more than absolute potential.

 

 

Anatta, or ‘no self’

Here’s an exploration of the Buddhist view of anatta, commonly translated as ‘no self’ or ‘not self’. Although I’m not an authority on this, I’ve been thinking about what anatta might mean in comparison to our normal, conditioned view. Let’s suppose that View A is commonly held:

View A: there is a conscious self, an “I”, who possesses a body and senses through which it perceives the world.

Now suppose View B is the Buddhist view:

View B: there are sensations, memories, concepts, feelings which comprise consciousness in each moment.

A metaphor commonly used for View A is that of a captain piloting a ship. This is the way our language works. We talk of “my” body but it’s not always clear who’s in possession of that body if not the body itself.

In the latter view, the “I” that arises is not permanent. It depends moment by moment upon experiences. These may include physical sensations but also mental events, such as memories and conceptual thought. This “I”, or what psychologists might call the ego, is continually arising and passing as phenomena change. If we look closely, we may fail to find a pre-existing “I” — but this is not to say that there is no reality to our subjective experience. In fact, the opposite conclusion may be drawn: that subjective experience arises directly from phenomena.

In truth, most of us probably hold both views at different times and View B is by no means exclusive to Buddhist philosophy. The question we are invited to ask of View A is, where is this “I” that features so prominently in our worldview? Is it anything more than a thought?

The Girl Who Didn’t Exist

It’s common for children to have disagreements with their parents. However, it is not so common for them to disagree about whether or not anything exists.

So begins the latest fable to be compiled in The Book of Almost Truths. ‘The Girl Who Didn’t Exist’ follows the journey of a young girl sent to the woods by her parents to live with a cranky sage. Under his guidance, she learns a valuable lesson about what it might mean to be alive.

The story was influenced by Buddhist sutras and philosophy, and inspired by the jacket of Edward Conze’s translation of ‘The Diamond’ and ‘Heart’ sutras, which shows a large stone Buddha head seemingly growing out of a tree.

Read ‘The Girl Who Didn’t Exist’ here.

The inattentive life is not to be lived

Before he was sentenced to death by hemlock, Socrates rejected the court’s clemency because it was offered under the condition that he cease questioning the people of Athens. The philosopher responded that, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. Many have considered the implications of this and the force with which the unexamined life should be rejected. One translation has it that ‘the unexamined life is not to be lived’ which seems more reasonable*.

The circumstances of Socrates’ trial related in Plato’s Apology make the context of this remark clear. Socrates held an unflattering mirror up to Athenian society and the nobles and serious men of the day. It is often interpreted as meaning we should critique our motives, those of our peers, and the conventions and power structures around us. I always felt fully signed up for the examined life (how could you not be?) but, in practice, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Before you can get started you need to examine what will be examined, how you will examine, how long for, in light of what? All very worthwhile things to consider, of course, that point to a way of being in the world.

Let’s try a variation of Socrates’ maxim that has been said in countless ways through the ages: that the inattentive life is not to be lived. It’s possible to imagine that part of what Socrates means when he proposes an examined life is that we should live in full awareness of our experiences. We shouldn’t let thoughts, sensations, events just happen to us while we daydream or calculate or simply not see. To use the term associated with meditation, we should be mindful (although unfortunately, I am frequently not). Meditation is a route to self-knowledge, and perhaps a good way to satisfy the other, related, maxim expounded by Socrates, to ‘know thyself’. As zen master Keizan said, ‘To practise zazen is to throw light on yourself’.

Attentiveness touches the spirit of how Socrates lived his examined life. It’s the gentle pressure that unravels the thread in his hapless interlocutors’ arguments. The gadfly philosopher was reported to frequently sit as still and mute as a statue in the centre of the market, deep in thought and awareness of what he called his ‘daimon’, which seemed to be a kind of inner convening, perhaps like meditation, that guided the philosopher intuitively.

To live every moment of the day with full awareness and appreciation is an ideal to strive for and it’s not surprising or to be regretted that we often fall far short. But the reward for trying is life itself. If we are not attentive to the unfolding of our lives, then in what sense are we living? If the unexamined life is not worth living, the inattentive life is not lived.

 

*I learnt this via Mitch Green’s Know Thyself MOOC, but can’t recall the name of the scholar who makes a case for ‘not to be lived’ rather than ‘not worth living’.

Buddhism and the human chain

The philosopher of Buddhism, Jay Garfield, gave a great interview to The New York Times’ philosophy blog, The Stone.

Treat the past reflectively and with gratitude and responsibility, and with an awareness that much of our present life is conditioned by our collective past; take the future seriously as something we have the responsibility to construct, just as much as if we would be there personally.

The quote above is given as one way a Buddhist who does not literally believe in rebirth might interpret it as a metaphor. This could be especially appropriate depending on how you understand the notion of no-self. If we were better able to transcend our egocentric viewpoints, we’d spend more time considering our legacy to future generations. There’d also be the eerie kick of imagining our art and ideas rediscovered when we’re gone – salvaged from the deep forest and seen finally in all their strangeness. Maybe even passed on.

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.