Thoughts on Time, Grief, and the Self

I would like to begin by considering two radically different pictures. First, consider the original notion of an atom: a kind of indestructible, unchanging, simple. That is, because it had no smaller parts, i.e., it was simple, and it was further then taken to be indestructible and unchangeable, since to be destroyed or changed, it would require smaller parts that could be taken away or replaced. Now imagine such an atom moving through the world, interacting with various things, but not being affected or changed by those interactions. Throughout all of its interactions and relationships with other things, it remains exactly what it is, this singular, unchanging atom. It hangs out with other atoms for various times, but then moves on, unchanged by the interactions.

Alternatively, consider another picture. Consider a seed that falls from a tree, catches the wind, and lands a ways away on the ground. With the air, light, and moisture it comes into contact with, it begins to change, sending down a tiny shoot that will form a root and opening up to the sky, to the embrace of light. Over time it interacts with, enters into deep relations with, the earth, the air, the sun, water, and even other organisms, such as fungi that form a symbiotic relationship with its root system—and we should not forget gravity, space, and time, all necessary to its existence. One summer there is a drought, and the young tree nearly dies. Ten years later it is still stunted from that summer and near death. But the soil is rich and the sun and water plentiful, and so it grows after many years to a great height. At one point though lightning strikes it, causing a split down its trunk. This doesn’t kill it but it forever alters the life of the tree.

What is the primary difference between these pictures? From my perspective it is that the atom’s nature, what it is, how it is, is intrinsic to it. That is, aside from its origin (if it has one), it is causally unconditioned by the world. The world does not leave its mark on its features, for it has no features, being a simple atom. The tree on the other hand, is what it is in complete dependence on the rest of the world. The kind of tree it is of course depends on its parent, but leaving aside its origin, we see that every aspect of the tree, its height, its girth, how healthy it is, the extent of its roots, the strength of the wood, etc., are all dependent, all conditioned, by the environment over time. If the tree had grown up and lived in an altogether different environment, even as the same seed, it would be a very different tree. Over time, the way it grew, the way its “being” enlarged would have been quite different. This is not at all the case with the atom.

And, so, let us now turn to a consideration of the self. While I think that the idea or concept of “self” is non-univocal, i.e., has multiple senses, I do think we can speak generally and usefully of the self. And here by “self,” I “simply” mean that which one takes oneself to be. For example: I am so-and-so, who was born here, loves this person, reads books, doesn’t watch sports, grew up here, and wants to one day live there—it is that self that is of concern when one contemplates one’s mortality. I take it that that is sufficiently clear for us to work with, even though there are a ridiculous number of complications that we could consider. Continue reading

Life and Death, Sunshine and Rain: Accept one, Accept the Other

This morning I came across the lovely Buddha Doodles illustration with the Khalil Gibran quote: “If I accept the sunshine and warmth, then I must also accept the thunder and lightning.” It’s a wonderful line to think about. For what exactly does it mean? In what sense must accepting the one mean accepting the other?

I am aware of at least one other explicit version of the idea, namely, in the Daoist text the Zhuangzi, though I imagine it is surely found in some form in Buddhist texts, as well:

Suddenly Zilai fell ill. Gasping and wheezing, on the verge of keeling over, he was surrounded by his weeping family. Zili, coming to visit him, said to them, “Ach! Away with you! Do not disturb his transformation!” Leaning across the windowsill, he said to the invalid, “How great is the Process of Creation-Transformation! What will it make you become; where will it send you? Will it make you into a mouse’s liver? Or perhaps an insect’s arm?”
Zilai said, “A child obeys his parents wherever they may send him—north, south, east, or west. Now, yin and yang are much more to a man than his parents. If they send me to my death and I disobey them, that would make me a traitor—what fault would it be of theirs? The Great Clump burdens me with a physical form, labors me with life, eases me with old age, and rest me with death. Hence it is precisely because I regard my life as good that I regard my death as good. (Emphasis mine. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings With Selections From Traditional Commentaries. Trans. Ziporyn, 45-46.)

While Gibran may not be saying exactly the same thing that Zilai is with his, “Hence it is precisely because I regard my life as good that I regard my death as good,” it is clear that something similar is supposed to be going on.

But why would accepting one thing entail having to accept another? One obvious kind of case would perhaps be Hesperus and Phosphorus, the Evening Star and the Morning Star, both of which are Venus: “If you accept the beauty of Hesperus, then you must accept the beauty of Phosphorus.” But even that could be challenged. Perhaps Hesperus is the more beautiful because of the context of the evening, or vice versa. Continue reading

The Nietzschean Bodhisattva: Part I

One of the tasks that Joan Stambaugh pursues in her chapter on “Creativity and Decadence,” is to explain what it means to say that “Nietzsche sees art as fundamental to life, as the ‘truly metaphysical activity of man’” (The Other Nietzsche, 21). Nietzsche, Stambaugh says, sees art as not, “a sphere of culture, not as a highly specialized, privileged area for the few, but as that activity of man that is most crucial to his life” (ibid.). Stambaugh finds such a claim rather strange, for aren’t other things crucial to life before art? She sees the resolution of the strangeness in her interpretation of Nietzsche on truth. She writes:

For Nietzsche, there is no truth in the traditional sense of that word. The world of the will to power is in constant flux, not the undefined, undetermined flux of Heraclitus, but the flux of shifting centers of power that increase and decrease, but never remain the same. True knowledge of this world is impossible, in fact, it is incommensurate with the very nature of the world. “Knowing” is simply a pragmatic falsification of the world for the purpose of dealing with it more effectively. Therefore, instead of despairing over the fact that there is no static, finished world to be known, the meaningful activity in this world of flux and the will to power becomes art, shaping this world, giving it meaning and values. The previous institutions and endeavors of man are forms of decadence, they distort the world. “Our religion, morality, and philosophy are decadent forms of man. The counter movement: art” (The Will to Power, No. 794). “The belief that the world as it ought to be is, really exists, is a belief of the unproductive who do not desire to create a world as it ought to be. They posit it as already available, they seek ways and means of reaching it. ‘Will to truth’—as the impotence of the will to create” (The Will to Power, No. 585). (22-23)

This denial of truth is very much in line with Nietzsche’s pronouncements about the death of God, which signals the death of the power of the idea of a fixed transcendent world giving meaning to this world. The world is not finished, with its meanings and values already determined. Instead, the world is in a very important sense continually underdetermined as a result of both there being no transcendent, fixed meaning giver, while at the same time that the world we inhabit is in constant flux. So, Nietzsche’s denial of truth is the denial of a kind of Platonic conception of truth/meaning/value. Continue reading

Controlling for Joy

I often have the feeling that my Buddhist practice is in turmoil. Its high and low tides in response to my sorrow’s moon. Sometimes that moon is full, others new, but most often all manner of shapes in-between. This would likely bother me more if I had not read CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters when I was first working through my existential crisis of religion in my early 20s. This short book is a fascinating read, as Lewis relates an exchange of letters between two of Satan’s Tempters, Uncle Screwtape and Wormwood. Wormwood is a novice and receiving instruction from his uncle. When Wormwood expresses satisfaction that his prey’s faith is diminishing, Uncle Screwtape responds harshly, admonishing Wormwood with the law of Undulation.

So you ‘have great hopes that the patient’s religious phase is dying away’, have you? I always thought the Training College had gone to pieces since they put old Slubgob at the head of it, and now I am sure. Has no one every told you about the law of Undulation?

Humans are amphibians— half spirit and half animal. (The Enemy’s determination to produce such a revolting hybrid was one of the things that determined Our Father to withdraw his support from Him.) As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for as to be in time means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation— the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks. If you had watched your patient carefully you would have seen this undulation in every department of his life— his interest in his work, his affection for his friends, his physical appetites, all go up and down. As long as he lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it. (Lewis, Chapter 8)

Every one of my interests, both philosophical, spiritual, and even recreational, has always succumbed to the law of Undulation. And, again, with my Buddhist practice the peaks and troughs so often correspond to times of illness and health. This might make it seem like it is only important to practice when ill or otherwise suffering. If that were the case, it would make it even more difficult to be grateful for the hard times—for if there were no hard times, practice would not be necessary, on this view. Continue reading

Dirty Ontology: The Muddy Waters of “the” Self

“When the water is deep, the boat rides high. When there is much mud, the Buddha is large.”
—Dōgen, “The Indestructible Nature in Deep Muddy Water” in the Eihei Kōroku

 

“Know thyself” is the fairly famous injunction inscribed overhead at Apollo’s temple at Delphi. The meaning of this may be less obvious than it seems, but regardless of how it was intended, we can read it in different ways depending on what we understand by “knowing” and what we understand by “self.”

I originally became interested in thinking about different conceptions of self in the context of death. Consider the original reasoning that got me interested in philosophy: “If there is no God, then there is no soul. If there is no soul, then there is no afterlife. If there is no afterlife, then the self ceases to exist upon death. Ceasing to exist is not good. Thus, death is not good. Thus… fuck.” But that conclusion depends on a very particular conception of self. To use a turn of phrase from Walt Whitman, it presupposes a conception of self where the self is contained “between one’s hat and boots.”

It seems to me that this idea strikes us as obvious (where the “us” in question is quite Western). That is, if I am not a self-contained, independently existing soul, then I must be this flesh and blood that “I” haul around everywhere. Mustn’t this be true? How could I be anything else? Even if I, or even an entire culture, were to say that what myself is is something other than this flesh and blood, this lump of flesh, how can that make it so? It’s obvious, isn’t it? It couldn’t. After all, consider the most extreme case: if the entire earth were to be destroyed, I would certainly still survive entirely intact if I managed to get away on, say, a spaceship. If not a soul, then I am necessarily this lump of flesh. An analogy: Calling my cat a “dog,” giving it dog food, a dog bone, and making it sleep in the doghouse, does not make him into a dog. I cannot make my cat something he is not by my treatment of him.

Continue reading

Midlife Crisis: Or First Draft of a Book Preface

It seems to me that my life, like surely many people’s lives, resembles the trajectory of modernism to postmodernism (to post-postmodernism?). That is, like many people, when I was a child everything was imbued with a robust intrinsic identity and meaning, both of which could be definitively and determinedly known. One of the most obvious examples of this was the faith in the near omniscience of my parents, and once in school and out of the house, in that of other adults. In the very beginning, there is truly nothing unknown; and though I did not have firsthand knowledge of it, I knew others must. When a child like this, the pronouncements and judgments of parents and adults are absolute, unquestionable, and though sometimes terrifying, an ultimate source of security. There is the recognition of one’s own limits and simultaneously the boundlessness of the abilities of adults, not the least of which was the ability of my parents to make me feel secure and loved.

I know others had very different childhood experiences—something my wife reminds me of regularly, for which I am grateful. Perhaps I was ridiculously naïve; I’m sure plenty of other children either figured it out or at least had premonitions of their parents’ limitations much earlier, but not me. It would not be until my late teens that I really began to question not only my parents’ abilities but the soundness of social institutions more generally. For along with confidence in parents and adults, comes confidence in institutions. I mean institutions such as the church, school, government, business, history, and the unsurpassed, and unsurpassable, greatness of the United States. When young, so many of these seem to work by an intrinsic magic, only to turn later to have been “nothing but” a placebo effect. Continue reading

Epicurus, Dōgen, and Not Fearing Death

Accustom thyself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply sentience, and death is the privation of sentience,… Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.
(Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, From Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers)

Restating what I take to be Epicurus’ point, when we are alive, we are not dead and thus death is not an issue; when we are dead, we cannot know anything good or bad, since we no longer exist; thus, when dead, death is not an issue. The immediate objection, or the one that comes to my mind, is that I can now, while alive, justly fear death because what I am fearing is the cessation of all possible future “lived nows.” What life seeks and fears losing, we might say, is an endless succession of lived moments. So, sure, when I die and cease to be, I won’t be underground in a coffin hating every moment of it, just as before I was born, I did not lament not yet being born. But I sure as hell can not want THIS to stop.

Continue reading

The Metaphysics of Choice—How Abortion Gives Birth to Life

“If I had watered the flowers yesterday, they wouldn’t be dead today.” Such counterfactual statements are tricky because there is no way to confirm their truth, since in this case I didn’t water the flowers. For it’s always possible that they would have died anyway due to some unknown cause or because they needed watering two days ago if they were not to die today. Still, even though counterfactuals present such problems, we can still make reasonable claims about them. Consider, for example: “If Barnes had not had the flu, then he would have gone on the trip and died in the plane crash.” It’s possible something else would have prevented his going, but he could well assess for himself that nothing else simultaneously happened to keep him from going (no death in the family, for example) so that he most likely would have been on the plane if he hadn’t had the flu—and, thus, the flu saved him.

I often think about such cases because I think they point out how the smallest seeming choices and occurrences ripple forward in time to great consequence. One such example in my own life was in October 2008. My then wife, Jennie, and I had in July moved to San Marcos, Texas from Iowa after I graduated with my PhD but could not find a tenure-track position anywhere. We moved so she could do an MFA in creative writing (poetry). But then we decided to get divorced in early October. While I was feeling alone, and impatient not to be, in late October when I was asked whether I wanted to go to Austin for dinner and drinks with a few friends and a woman visiting one of them from out of town, my initial response to myself was, “no.” I’m not much for going out, but then I reconsidered and decided to do it after all. Having made that choice, on March 15th, 2009, I ended up moving into an apartment in a row house basement in Washington, DC, with that friend of a friend. I’m fairly confident that that would not have happened if I had not changed my mind about going out with them to Austin, for she was leaving the next day and I would not have seen her again otherwise, at least not under those same conditions.

Continue reading

Everyday Tea and Rice—Everyday Time

In “Continuous Practice, Part I,” Dōgen writes:

In the continuous practice of the way of buddha ancestors, do not be concerned about whether you are a great or a modest hermit, whether you are brilliant or dull. Just forsake name and gain forever and don’t be bound by myriad conditions. Do not waste the passing time. Brush off the fire on top of your head. Do not wait for great enlightenment, as great enlightenment is the tea and rice of daily activity. (Shobogenzo, Tanahashi 2010 edition)

What is it to not “be bound by myriad conditions”? What is it to not “waste the passing time”? How is great enlightenment the “tea and rice of daily activity”? These questions and others can be approached by looking at our relationship to time. Continue reading

Dying. Suffering. Death.

I have suffered death since 3—
Grandmother’s open casket—
casting a shadow on everything since

I have suffered the death of
insects—some drowned,
some squashed
many on their backs refusing
to go gently

I have suffered the death of
animals, some by my hand—
both accidental and with tear-shuddering
compassion—
some on the vet’s table
some on the bathroom floor
all struggling, gasping: suffering.

I have suffered the dying of
family,
never death itself, that moment.
The hospital bed.
The nursing home bed.
And again,
the struggle, gasping: suffering.

I have suffered the death of
myself—or at least its
thought and imagination—
countless times in the weight
of the shadow.
….
But how to die? In my sleep?
So easy and not suffered.
Then,
on the table?
on the bathroom floor?
struggling and gasping: suffering?

I want to die
sitting upright
actualizing the wholeness and
depth of the grasses and trees,
the mountains and waters,
the true human body.

I want to die in
solidarity with this world.