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.
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.
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.
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?
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.