I had a go at mapping early Buddhist practice systematically. It’s over-simplified, of course, despite the fact that I couldn’t get it to look as elegant as I’d wanted. There’s a lot missing, such as the brahmaviharas’ value as concentration and insight practices, and their role in facing off against the hindrances. Some of the value was in my own reflection, and maybe it highlights a few connections at a glance.
If we think critically about critical thinking, we may find that sometimes we need to apply a little faith—not too much, not credulity—in order to get started, give something a chance, make progress, find out for ourselves.
Social media creates an illusion that the world is wrapped in layers of information. We start to think and act in accordance with the idea that reality involves posting photos of ourselves, seeing what our friends did on holiday and writing about what we’re thinking. When we abstain from doing this after some years, the world feels like a claustrophobic dream in which everything that happens takes place inside your mind alone, an exhilarating thought that this and only this is your life.
Carrying the world-as-information in our pockets, it’s tempting to believe that what we experience when we watch a sunset or listen to birds arguing in treetops is only part of reality. The other part, we assume, is the part that can be quantified digitally and reproduced. However, these reproductions are a shadow cast by something no longer there. No comparison is possible between the image of an ocean sunset and the reality, unless we reduce the reality to an intention to photograph and share our experience. We should always entertain the possibility that reality is only what is here now, and that this is not reducible.
Another stealth effect of social media websites is the way in which they exacerbate our sense of self. They invite us to write a definitive bio to describe ourselves, frequently in the space of a few sentences. We quantify our friends, close friends, organise people into lists, promote our doings and cleverness, give our relationships their proper labels. All of this information may be true in a narrow sense but made concrete it becomes a castle in the clouds, far removed from the person who is actually living in one moment in time and changing all the time.
How should we live, considering that human history–as we’ve known it so far–may be coming to an end? If the ice caps melt, if the Amazon burns, if the world becomes a hot and desperate place we will lose the narrative of progress and security upon which our choices and values are based. What is the point of our commercial and cultural endeavours when this civilisation is so far out of balance?
Impermanence is nothing new, of course, but previously it was easier to turn a blind eye to the precariousness of life. We could believe the world would always be there, much as ever it was. There have always been parents, governments, schools, employers, and advertisers who are all too ready to give us a game to play to keep us busy. These forces have preserved their momentum but nothing matters in the way we once thought it did. What are the works of Shakespeare when crops fail? Who cares about an ambitious startup? Sporting successes? These things seem to be haemorrhaging relevance. It was ever thus – but now it becomes harder and harder to filter out the roar of emptiness.
To be aware of our finitude is a bittersweet thing. It makes urgency the currency of our times. Urgency for gratification, urgency to act, urgency to fix problems. However, there is also an urgency to live in the present. Whatever else we do, an urgency to show up for life whatever it contains may be the trait that ultimately decides the quality of our lives. This means being present and reflective. It means giving time and energy to things that matter, however we decide what they are. Perhaps this global crisis clarifies what is truly important in our finite lives. It teaches us that we can’t depend on a future that has always been uncertain and indifferent to our designs.
We keep playing the same old games, looking around to see how earnestly everyone else is playing. At the same time, it’s hard to know what’s next. Can we give up consumerism or will we continue destroying nature? Do we want economic growth or economic contentment? I find this very hard myself and frequently ruminate on what kind of device will make my life easier — usually when stressed out by those very gadgets.
So what do we really need as human beings? This is where the humanities can be restored to their rightful place after decades of devaluation. You could say that Shakespeare’s plays matter more than ever, especially to the individual mind and heart. Art has an inward effect. It can enrich our appreciation of life beyond the urge for sensory satisfaction and conspicuous consumption. It can make sense of our relationship to the world, to ourselves, and to each other. And art is often less destructive than other things we can engage with. The carbon footprint of reading a poem is smaller than many outward-bound activities but the personal reward over the long-term can be much greater. Art, literature, music, psychology: we may value these things more as a society in years to come, rather than seeing them as luxuries.
Meanwhile, in the 2,500 year old Buddhist tradition, we find the Pali word “samvega”, often translated as “spiritual urgency”. In this unpredictable world, meditators have always been chastened not to waste time but to practice meditation as though their life depended on it. To seize the moment. Ironically, I avoided my meditation bench to futz around with this piece and enjoy my favourite (unpeopled) view in the world, above. Even so, looking out at the horizon and finding myself actually where I was taught me a brief lesson in taking things as they come, and not trying to get anywhere but where I am. I was able to put down my ambitions and neuroses for a second and realise some very basic things about how I want to experience the world. It reminded me that even if the future is uncertain there is always this moment–only this moment–in which to live.
As you may or may not be aware, life as we’ve been living it is probably over. Greenland and Antarctica are melting much faster than expected. CO2 is reaching levels at which, historically, there have been plants and trees at the South Pole. There is the threat of crop failures and food shortages in the years to come, more social instability and perhaps even collapse. Things could get very ugly. And still there is no meaningful articulation of a new worldview at a governmental level. We insist on economic growth, and hope for technologies that will allow us to maintain our dependency on profligate energy use while counting our carbon calories. Meanwhile demand for the low-cost air travel and red meat that developed countries have indulged for so long is spreading internationally.
But, hey, let’s not be too hard on ourselves. In this undependable world, which biped mammal blessed (or cursed) with a pre-frontal cortex wouldn’t seek security and advantage through high-carbon technology? Who doesn’t want light and heat at the flick of a switch; quick, safe, and efficient travel; an abundance of tasty and sometimes healthy food; a dizzying array of toys and gadgets to ease our existential anxiety? Of course we want these things but how does one power such a Promethean fantasy? Fortunately, we found all this highly combustible black stuff in the ground. All we had to do was dig and burn. It has been a hard dream to let go of but that’s all it was: a dream.
Perhaps homo sapiens will return home in the not-geologically-distant future: gathering around a fire on the savannah, using rudimentary tools, eating ridiculous amounts of fibre. And what will be said in the red light of that fire? What stories will they tell, what wisdom will they share under lonely stars? Fragmented myths about the age of peak energy, maybe. And perhaps there will be–still visible if they know where to look–an Ozymandian reminder of our impossible lives. Maybe they’ll be happier in small ways, more connected to themselves and the mystery of life. Maybe this is a journey we are all asked to undertake.