When you have a really successful yoga practice or meditation, you can find the rest of the day begin to edge you into frustration. You can begin to feel as though you deserve the fruits of your labour, as though you have a right to ease and tranquility for the rest of the day. That’s not how it happens, though, and setting up a clear pattern of entitlement is just another way of being attached to results. Results mean nothing. This work is all about letting each experience arise, just as it is, and letting it go, just as it is. The fantasies that there is a connection between what I have done and what I am entitled to expect is the delusion of conditioning and draws us back to karmic cause and effect. The lesson is in letting go even of a successful practice (or a successful encounter, a pleasant exchange) so there is space for the next relationship to come to awareness, paid due attention, and then released in its turn. The only progress that matters is the progress into what is happening, just as it is happening, releasing at each expectation, each fear, each attachment that can only bring suffering. (A better description of this process can be found at http://www.tricycle.com). But you knew that.
Wisdom is the recognition of which activities, attention and language realise freedom from suffering and which activities, attention, thought, focus and language trap us into replicating rigid patterns that recreate suffering. Differentiating between them requires a strategy. This strategy can vary enormously from individual to individual and throughout time. After all, the context of one’s understanding is utterly dependent upon the conditions and history that have led to the current situation. One size most certainly does not fit all.
Imagine a situation in which you would be utterly free of suffering, now and ever after. This situation is only possible if you release all attachments. It is not a state most people would even desire, since it requires that there is no attachment even to loved ones. It is, in a scientific understanding, the achievement of absolute entropy, when the exchange of information becomes nothing more than potential, never realisable because the distance between potential points of exchange has spread too wide. This is the state towards which we are, in any event, headed, albeit in the long term. Who would voluntarily choose to pursue a strategy that led to this state being realised even a moment before all other options had been explored? It is a kind of anti-state. Nothingness. And yet…
And yet living so that this is the state to realise, to release into, has some extraordinary effects. For a start, the emptiness that this state implies is not emptiness but potential. Entropy is not the end. It is pure potential. A point at which nothing more can happen and yet at which all potential exists. Flat calm. Think of it as a metaphor rather than as something that you can imagine (it is unimaginable). Then zoom in on this little human life and see what would happen if you put this understanding into practice.
Firstly, imagine that you understand, fully, that the implications of existence are the inevitable end of entropy. Imagine that in the context of conscious existence. See if you can imagine the death of each entity, each relationship that had any level at all of awareness of itself. Human death may be the easiest to empathise with but the more creative among you will also be able to visualise how it might be to be a whale, a seal, a fish, a worm, even, or seaweed: all driven by the urge to avoid annihilation. Imagine all the ways in which annihilation can potentially occur, even the kindest, the gentlest still being an end, a cut-off point. Then see how different the relationship to this point is when there is any level at all of acceptance, of realisation, compassionate and considered as relational, that the acceptance, the release from holding, allows this process to unfold with more ease, and it is just this ease that allows relationships to flourish in the moment to moment awareness of the exchange, taking joy in its temporality, knowing that it will pass but making an art of the impermanence and setting, as a resonant pattern, the very idea that each connection holds briefly, casts a shadow hunched or dancing, and is gone. To the idea that there is no point in making an effort to release into this free flow of interchange, it can only be answered that if it is the right way because it frees not only my own attachment to suffering but also that of all my relationships, then it justifies itself by the same logic of its recognition that impermanence is necessarily the state we’re in. Why make impermanence a hell of attempting to hold things in a rigid state when that resistance only causes suffering? And when the opportunity to draw one’s life into the liberating pattern of letting things interact exists as a potential at every moment? And to the idea that insists that this asks too much of us, there’s only this to say: resistance is, in the end, more work. Investing all that energy in keeping a hold of things when you could be appreciating the free interchange between yourself and any other relationship, that’s suffering.
In practice, what might this approach mean? I’m disinclined to give guidelines since already, those lay rigid patterns around which ideologies can be built and guilt at not having done enough builds itself quickly into a prison of inadequacy and doubt. What it means in each individual case will emerge individually. For this person, it might mean giving up the urge to accumulate wealth. But for someone else, if the wealth is accumulated in ways that involve free exchange of information and which allow that person to invest in restoration of natural systems of interchange, like biosystems, then this might also be how the meaning of this approach pans out. Developing an ability to watch where one’s own conditioning has created vulnerabilities and then working out how to develop strategies to draw one’s awareness into a broader arena around those strategies so that new possibilities for how to respond begin to emerge, that is the way of liberation.
“All conservation of wildness is self-defeating. For to cherish we must see and fondle and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wildness left to cherish.” Aldo Leopold
I don’t know if it was Aldo Leopold’s words that first inspired this debate for me: what basis could there possibly be for getting people to curb their actions when those actions were motivated by the urge to see beautiful places, or experience unusual or extreme situations? An image of a line of footprints, then tractors, trailers, concrete laid, spreading across tundra, slicing it into increasingly compressed squares. Perhaps Europeans see it more clearly because we have less room. Particularly those of us living on these islands flung into the Eastern Atlantic, knowing that the edge is very close, that there is not a huge stretch of prarie and beyond that, range upon range of snowcapped peaks.
Firstly, and most obviously, it is the human species, that connaisseur of beauty, that loses most. Most of us will never step on pristine shores that have never felt a human foot. Most of us will come to places that have been marked and emblazoned, even if only virtually, with brandnames, that have been photographed and pawed over in the minds and words of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of eager human others. Does this matter? Many people might say that it makes no difference to them at all. But if you were the first that ever burst into that silent scene, to shift Coleridge’s image marginally, can you even imagine how utterly, extraordinarily humbling and at the same time, stupendous and exhilarating, that would be? It would be like being the exploratory eye at the very forward edge of the wave of curiosity. It would be like going beyond anything anyone had ever been or done before and standing out alone, at the precipice. There would be a sense of loneliness, of course. One can never share these experiences, by definition (unless, of course, one goes in a team, but even then, each sensation is individually felt). Yet there would be a sense of collapsing boundaries, of opening into something utterly new.
Some places will never be fully explored. The heights of the Himalaya will no doubt remain mysterious, at least as long as the climate makes them an arduous adventure (though the climate, we cannot forget, is changing fast). The depths of the sea are hidden to all but a select few. Antarctica now has strictures on it. The Galapagos is expensive – and money is an effective ring-fence for many places that might otherwise attract more populous attention.
Secondly, although we are in an inevitably unsustainable relationship with the world around us (we will all, after all, die, and, in the end, so will the species) nevertheless, there are good reasons to suppose that we can do something about the kind of relationships we have, both with the world, and, indeed, with one another or even with ourselves. Just because we are going to die does not imply that we make no effort between birth and death to make the experience, whenever possible, marginally less painful for ourselves or, indeed, for those around us (even if most of us usually include in that later only our loved ones).
There might continue to be arguments about the truth or otherwise of climate change for some considerable time to come (make no mistake, I am of the strong opinion that climate change is a fact, and human-engendered), but there is no reasonable way around the notion that the human race is having an exponentially negative effect on biosystems and biodiversity and that a simple mathematical calculation will prove that, given the finite nature of the planet, and our reliance on it in every conceivable way for our survival, continued growth and consumption at increasing levels does not compute.
So, we, humans, are both all in this together, and all in something unsavory together. Can we do anything about it? Determinists or those who deny that we have any degree of freedom can legitimately jump ship at this point: if you don’t believe we have a choice in anything, then you might as well ditch the notion of voluntary action altogether. This is an argument for voluntary action, so it doesn’t apply to you. Everyone else can stay tuned in: we are agents, in a strange sense, but in a sense, nonetheless.
We are not agents in the sense that we conduct and control the flesh within which the mind resides. This is the fallacy that we fell for long ago but against which we must (metaphorically) beat our wings, because metaphors are tricky, dangerous illusions that manipulate and distort our relationship with reality. The best clue to our agency lies in our evolutionary roots. We evolved as survival systems, more or less successfully, along with all the other processes and systems, large and small, that we see either around us or in the fossil record.
We do not choose. We are propelled. Not towards. Away from. Paul Taylor suggests we build our characters and that this makes us virtuous. I think he’s got a point but it is not building – that’s too mechanistic and mechanistic metaphors (as I have said before, and will say again, no doubt) are misleading. Instead, it’s responding, at a very basic level. Our very cells respond to the feedback processes that allow us to watch how we breathe, and to breathe more deeply. This breathing more deeply is itself the result of a series of other strange coincidences and accidents of our personal history and physiology, but it brings about a new direction for us, where we can watch the process of past unfolding into present and into potential futures. So instead of building our characters, perhaps what we do is realise, more and more, and so bring into being a broader, but a looser, set of systematic dynamic connections and relationships, relationships that already exist but which require attention to come into focus. Brought into focus, even metaphorically, they begin to come into the realm, like conscious breathing, of awareness. Imagine an infinite number of infinitely fine threads linking each and every relationship and creating the woven fabric of our own existence. If we cease to think of ourselves as solid constructions in, and separate from, space, this image invites is to see ourselves as holograms through time, gathering and discarding connections as we move, and we are always moving.
I’m going to attempt to move things around today so I have more of a sense of what belongs where. It’s beginning to feel as though I have the bones of a narrative outline, so I’ll put that in one page, and then I have much of the outline of a literature review, so I’ll put that in another. Then I have to think about how to order the arguments but I think a heirarchical approach is (ironically, given I’m talking about anti-hierarchies) probably the most sensible, so that even though I’ve talked about respect and self respect in the outline and review, I’m then going to go back to deal with the detail of the problems of dualism (and relate this to the problem of environmental ethics), the development of understanding in the context of Evolutionary theory, comparing this, scientific, approach, with that of Zen and in particular, with the writings of Dogen, and then putting all this into the context of respect and self-respect and the environment.
I may need some help!
I want to create pages for all the posts I’ve written on the outline and the review, and then begin to think about how to organise posts on dualism and environmental ethics, Evolutionary theory and the scientific approach, Dogen, Zen and the empirical approach, and self respect and the environment.
I’ll begin by just categorising and I’ll upload some of the other work I’ve been doing over the last short while… this might be very messy, so please bear with me as I attempt to let some patterns emerge!
There have been some good responses to Eckhart Tolle who, along with Deepak Chopra, has made a lot of money out of telling people to live in the now. These are some of my own responses.
Eckhart Tolle says that what we perceive as physical matter is energy vibrating at a particular range of frequencies. Thoughts consist of the same energy vibrating at a higher frequency than matter which is why they cannot be seen or touched. Thoughts have their own range of frequencies, with negative thoughts at the lower end of the scale and positive thoughts at the higher (pp146-7)
How do you know this isn’t true?
Because thoughts are not physical matter. They’re perceptions. And the relationship between perceptions and physical matter is complicated. You might be able to identify on an ECG graph whether or not a person is mostly relaxed or mostly excited, but it would be difficult to tell whether they were thinking about Mona Lisa or Quantum Theory. Difficult? I don’t know much about it. But I’d hazard a guess that it’s nearly impossible.
This isn’t my area of specialisation. But I’d hazard a guess it’s not Eckhart’s either.
I suspect Eckhart of some subtle conservatism, based on the fact (entirely subconscious) that he’s interested in conserving his new found wealth. None of this is intended as criticism. This is merely observation and an attempt to analyse and understand a system of thought of one person and how it fits into other systems of thought about which I’ve pondered, given that I’ve had a particular interest in how to live from a young age.
Eckhart says autonomous cars could never work. But there are autonomous cars in existence now.
Eckhart says that Einstein is almost completely free of ego. But there is not direct evidence of this and in fact his wife and his children might disagree. These are just two ideas that appear to come from nowhere.
Monism is the idea that there is only one kind of substance.
Whenever I hear of a position like this, I am reminded of Swift’s Liliputians, arguing and in the end, killing one another, over which end from which to eat an egg.