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?

Of the combustible and useless varieties of trees

Reading Fire Season, Philip Connors’ account of his experiences watching for forest fires in the Gila mountain range, I was struck by the following passage:

My own insights are fragmentary, fleeting. I write something in my notebook and forget it an hour later. I do not so much seek anything as allow the world to come to me, allow the days to unfold as they will, the dramas of weather and wild creatures. I am most at peace not when I am thinking but when I am observing. There is so much to see, a pleasing diversity of landscapes, all of them always changing in new weather, new light, and all of them still and forever strange to a boy from the northern plains. I produce nothing but words; I consume nothing but food, a little propane, a little firewood. By being virtually useless in the calculations of the culture at large I become useful, at last, to myself.

— Philip Connors, Fire Season.

There are a few old themes at work in this paragraph. Take Case 129 from Zen Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo: Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, compiled in 13th Century Japan:

When Priest Yaoshan was sitting in meditation a monk asked,
“What do you think about, sitting in steadfast composure?”
Yaoshan said, “I think not thinking.”
The monk said, “How do you think not thinking?”
Yaoshan said, “Non-thinking.”

A lot could be said about Connors’ experience of the moment in relation to Buddhist thought (or non-thought) but it will do to note that non-striving and mindful awareness seem prominent here. Now let’s look at his closing line, “By being virtually useless in the calculations of the culture at large I become, at last, useful to myself.”

Notice that Connors doesn’t say he is useless to the culture – he’s performing an important duty, after all – more that he is forgotten by that culture. He here echoes Chuang Tzu’s dream-parable of the useless tree. In it, an old carpenter named Shih, encounters a large oak standing in a field. His apprentice admires the tree but Shih admonishes him, explaining that the wood is so gnarled and filled with knots that it’s not worth cutting down. That night, the old oak appears in Shih’s dream to explain that trees which bear fruit are cut, pruned and interfered with, so that they cannot live long; trees that are otherwise useful are cut down for their wood. The gnarled oak reveals that it has spent many years trying to become useless and that this uselessness has indeed become very useful to it. Would the tree have reached its enormous size if it had been useful to carpenters?

Connors, P. (2011) Fire Season. London: Macmillan, pp. 52–3.
For commentary on Case 129 of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, see Schireson (2011) Zen in Fresno and Central Valley. Available online: http://kuzanzen.org/2011/04/non-thinking/ [Accessed: 02/03/2015].
For more Chuang Tzu / Zhuang Zhou try The Book of Chuang Tzu, translated by Martin Palmer, or The Tao of Nature in the Penguin Great Ideas series.

The art of running slowly

I’m getting back into running after a few months’ break. In the meantime, my fitness has evaporated and I’m carrying some extra pounds. Not only that, but my Achilles tendon has been sore for a while, probably due to overtraining on these beautiful but brutal coastal trails. For example, last summer, my brother and I put together a half marathon training run that ended up with a total elevation of 2,500ft. It was a fantastic run. A sea fret filled the precipice off the coast path and only the faintest ghost of the rocks below could be seen through the fog. But the terrain is hard. I remember feeling broken two weeks into my last training cycle.

Dan suggested running with a heart rate monitor. The plan is not to overreach by keeping my exertion within training zones 2 and 3. In my current state of fitness, that means occasional walking, especially on hills, and crawling along at what should be an embarrassingly slow pace. Except I don’t find it a chore at all. In fact, the first run was a minor revelation. It wasn’t a slog or a struggle, I got to stop and admire the view frequently. It helps that I was running down to the beach, I suppose, but there are lots of other details to enjoy. Birds didn’t startle as soon as I came near them… I’m not saying that small woodland creatures flocked to me as I ran, like some kind of Disney princess. It’s just that there’s time to notice what’s there: whitecaps, sunlight in the branches, bitingly cold wind. At least, there is when I’m not compulsively checking my wrist monitor. Hopefully I’ll develop a better inuitive sense of what I can sustain in the long run, so to speak.

There is a method in this moderation, however. The idea is that by running slowly, you train type I (endurance) muscle fibres which are more fuel efficient and help to remove lactic acid. When you run hard, you’re relying on high power, low efficiency type II muscle fibres. This is fine for a while but you can only store so much high energy fuel in your legs. So this might be why I usually ‘bonk’ in the last three miles of a half marathon (…and why beer and a burger is always so appetising post-race). It will be interesting to see whether a gentle way can accomplish more than my usual ‘all or nothing’ approach.

In any case, there’s a nice contradiction in the idea of running slowly. It brings to mind festina lente (‘hurry slowly’ / ‘make haste slowly’), the old motto of the Medici’s and something Shakespeare riffed on from time to time. In English we say, ‘more haste, less speed’… but the lack of paradox makes our saying comparatively flat. Festina lente, to me, is the idea that the best way to accomplish something is to do it slowly, deliberately (but not by charging at it head-on) and perhaps persistently: by working with your fate rather than rashly against it; or perhaps to do something bold in a leisurely fashion. Hey, it worked for Augustus.

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’.