Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

The Click

31 May 2014

When I was a boy, it was a girl. She would come into my life, and all the troubles would begin to seem manageable. As I got a little older, it became perfection, Enlightenment, Buddhahood. After it happened, after it was attained, I would be able to see. Then it was stability: I could be here now and attend to all of my needs and those of my loved ones, because I would be constant. Recently it became adulthood. Sooner or later I would know: Now I am an adult, and the knowledge and responsibility of adulthood would follow.

There have been many variations of the Click along the way, but it has always taken that same underlying form. The Click.

The Click is an idea that some sudden change will transform us from one sort of person to another, sometimes from one sort of being to another, or that will transform our lives from feeling one way to feeling another way, permanently. The Click is not a mood change, not a change in fortune (although sometimes that’s the fantasy), nor a life change or life-changing experience. The Click is only ever an idea: The life-changing experience will transform us suddenly and permanently into the being or into the life we most hope for, fully undercutting our gravest doubts, fears, embarrassments, disappointments, faults, and failures.

We are very clever thinkers, so the Click can take subtle forms. For me, the fantasy of the girl was not sudden perfection. (Even Rom-com romance requires conflict.) She comes into my life and we fight, and argue, and work, productively towards our love. It sounds like the desire to be in a relationship, which is what it was. I was painfully isolated at the time. But there is this added feature: She comes into my life and once-and-for-all my life turns towards love, intimacy, compassion, comfort, clarity. The struggle is no longer aimless and impossible. I suddenly find direction and value, and that direction and value, whatever ups and downs life may bring, could never, after it Clicks, go away.

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What is the best thing you can do for the world?

27 May 2013

I should be a little bit more precise. By ‘thing’ I don’t mean a single individual act, but rather a kind of consistent practice. So, how can you order and orient your life in a way that would be most fruitful and beneficial to the world? Yet again, further clarification is warranted. What is ‘the world’? I have in mind a kind of fluctuation of totalities. Rather than following some form of utilitarianism, I’m comfortable with the idea that, just as our consistent practice will not be identical over time, so, too, will “the world” shift and change, at times grow, at times shrink, and so on.

So, then. How can you order and orient your life in a way that entails a continuing reorientation and reordering towards bringing benefit to the world? What’s the best thing you can do for the world?

I am pretty confident the question is still too imprecise and too poorly articulated, but I’ll hazard an answer for myself anyway. Read the rest of this entry »

Higher Purposeless

12 January 2013

‘Atheist,’ ‘agnostic,’ ‘nonbeliever’… You could describe me by any of these terms, but I’ve never been quite satisfied with any of them. ‘Atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ carry such strong connotations; there seems to be a capital-A Atheism these days, to which I don’t feel I belong, and I’ve long associated agnosticism with a kind of waffling, “eh, who knows?” ‘Nonbeliever,’ on the other hand, just feels kind of meh and untrue. I am a nonbeliever in the sense that I don’t subscribe to religious views, but I believe all sorts of things. It strikes me as a bad starting position to call oneself something one manifestly is not. And then you get those Atheists who struggle to accept that they, too, are prone to the occasional magical thinking or unfounded belief, and it’s almost no wonder: if truly a nonbeliever, then how could they be guilty of such things?

Instead, I am starting to suspect that what distinguishes my worldview from religious worldviews is that I lack a sense of higher purpose. I would guess that even ardently religious people find themselves confronted with doubt as to their own private sense of higher purpose, just as I suspect many atheists (and Atheists, too!) actually do have a sense of higher purpose. Not believing in any god or God isn’t really all that important in terms of the way my outlook and beliefs shape my world. It’s that I don’t see a direction to the universe. I don’t see a higher order into which my life fits. I don’t feel the movement of an invisible hand of sorts through my life and history. Read the rest of this entry »

Who I am vs. who I will have been

7 December 2012

Yes, I do very much like playing with tenses, but in this case I want to focus more on epistemology than grammar – though the two are, of course, intertwined.

I think memory, knowing, and identity are also intertwined. An integral aspect of WHO I WAS is WHO I KNOW MYSELF TO HAVE BEEN, which itself is in part a function of memory. For the sake of discussion, let’s take it to be that I am someone at this moment. Of course, who I become, say, a year from today, will have been partly determined by the me I am now—but isn’t it also true that who I am now is to be partially determined by who I will remember myself to have been? To put it starkly: if I close this site, in the intervening months, and delete the content of this post, and no one remembers it and nothing ever reminds me of it (all fairly plausible, wouldn’t you think?), won’t I have been no one at all, even though I BE someone now?

We have good reasons to think ourselves constant, stables selves, unique and singular beings with IDENTITY. But we have more and better reasons for doubting this.

Nevertheless, it’s not quite true that I will have been no one, as a faulty memory is just part of the infinite complex of causes and conditions, and can’t retroactively alter them. But the me I am now will also, being perfectly forgotten, never have existed…

Still, this doesn’t make the decisions made by this me any less significant – and won’t have made them so retroactively (so to speak). It just means that a shift in perspective is in order.

Or so I think at the moment.

I love you

20 November 2012

A poem/song of mine from 2007:

when your eyes glimmer from catching your reflection
and discovering, as if for the first time, your loneliness

i love you

when no other words will do
and yet your mind will not stop overflowing with words

i love you

and when no other has quite said it in the way you need
friend, these eyes of mine, i love you

i look forward to watching the lines crease on your face
i look forward to the graying of your beard
but most of all i look forward to seeing the sadness
melt away within these eyes
and be replaced by peace

i look forward to a time when i tell you
i love you
and you do not cry, but smile

Sometimes I speak about things such as “the basic human task,” which, to my slight credit, I emphasize I am only ever guessing at. I don’t know exactly what it would mean for there to be a basic human task, let alone what such a task would, exactly, be. But I know that something in me pushes me to try and orient myself around such a thing – even if only inconsistently, only at certain kinds of moments.

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Remembering interpretations past

22 September 2012

Three months have gone by, and now I’d like to get back to writing in this space hopefully more frequently again. Over the last few months I’ve had many thoughts that I wanted to explore here, and many more that I didn’t even think to but should have, but something kept me back. Around the time of my last post I started to feel the strain and stress of my impending move away from the East Coast and everything and everyone there, away from, in many ways, my former life (which I have been slowly moving from over the last two years), and out here to California, where something new continues to await me. I can write about all that another time. For now, I want to write about memory.

Memory is as primary a mode of human being as any other I know. To be a person implies remembering. Our every judgment, our every association, our every act of immediate interpretation, we cannot help but remember. And yet, memory is fleeting, uncertain, amorphous. Some would say that the past is the past, that what’s happened has happened, and that there are no two ways about it. Even so, all should agree that memory is not so. Of course, we hold fast to some memories, and we imagine many of our memories to be accurate and fixed. Most of the time when we admit to memory’s transience, it is only when we admit to memory’s faultiness. Yes, our memories can be incorrect, can deceive us, and can simply fade and disappear. But we are fools if we accept this simplistic view of memory: accurate or inaccurate, whole or withered, intact or absent.

For one thing, we remember when we interpret, which we cannot but do newly at each moment. It does not much matter whether our memories are concrete and conscious, or whether they are merely the traces of that from which our present mode of consciousness has arisen. But this, too, is less important than the even more basic point I wish to focus on. Read the rest of this entry »

The relevance of old things

21 June 2012

I am at a bit of a hinge point in my career, as I’ve just graduated with a master’s degree but have elected to take a little time before applying to a doctorate program. It’s as good a time as any to ponder the relevance of my chosen area of expertise. Of course, I tend to ponder this fairly often anyway, but right now I’ve got a pretty wide open near-future in terms of scholarship, so I get to try out a few different options for narrowing my focus further…

So here’s one thought: old things remain relevant. Why? How? In what cases? My decision to study Indian Buddhist philosophy is by necessity an argument that at least some old things, at least some old thoughts, remain relevant in at least one sense or another. One strong argument to make would go something like this: although Buddhism “died” in India many centuries ago, the philosophical (and cultural, etc.) influence of Indian Buddhism continued in India and elsewhere, hence it is worth looking at what continues today to form a foundational or at least complementary part of the worldviews and philosophies of so many people around the world. True, but I am more interested in looking into the philosophy itself in Sanskrit from centuries ago, not the contemporary cultural and other remnants and resonances still to be found. This argument, while I find it basically convincing, is not sufficient for my purposes.

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Who are you…

13 June 2012

Who are you to judge…? These words, as so many others, don’t mean exactly what they mean, do they? Firstly, they are only so often meant as an actual question. Rather, they often suggest, “You should not be judging. You are not entitled to judge,” or some such thing. Secondly, the extent to which they are indeed signifying a question, it is one with only two possible answers: (i) “No one, you’re right”; or (ii) a bit of biographical detail intended as a warrant (“Well, it just so happens that my mother was a such-and-such…”). An answer like, “A human being!” is typically seen as arrogant or dismissive or ignorant. But this answer, too, hides further meaning. Often if “Who are you to judge?” is replied with “A human being,” this reply implies a dismissal of the supposed exclusivity of the matter in question. Bigoted terminology is one example of such a sensitive subject. Should I be excluded from the conversation sparked by Gwyneth Paltrow’s recent tweet? Or ought I not even want to be part of the discussion? Etc. “I’m a human being!” would, in this context, mean that this topic is open to everyone, and would imply a criticism of the view that there should be any question of its openness. (As it happens, I’m unconcerned with Paltrow’s tweet, and I don’t think being human is unto itself a good reason to join the discussion, to say the least.)

But, as is my wont, I’d like to read this bit of dialogue more literally and see what comes of it.

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Saying little about doing what I do

10 June 2012

I can say I study Indian Buddhist philosophy, though I am far from a specialist. I have a long way to go in that regard. And yet I have already found my chosen focus becoming narrow and specialized enough to make it extremely difficult to actually talk about with or even just describe to other people. This is a very grave concern for me, because the impetus for my studies is that I would like to relate worthwhile thoughts and strategies for life from my particular interpretations and investigations of various texts and traditions. I.e., I’d like what I do to matter to people beyond the handful of folks like me who are interested in studying Sanskritic philosophical texts. I’m aware that I will have to become very good at doing high-level scholarly work on a specialized area, and I believe there to be great value in the specialized work I hope to become capable of producing. I cannot (nor should I) expect that all of my work, or even most of it (especially at first), will be relevant in the way I hope to someday achieve. But I think it’s worth being concerned about now so that as I get a little deeper into my specialization I remain aware of the increasing challenge of someday making this stuff relevant.

See, for me philosophical thinking generally is not only relevant but concretely relevant in an everyday sort of way. I’m curious about how world views come into existence, how they seem to exist in an individual conscious continuum like a full-fledged and coherent system, and how they nevertheless remain in flux and incomplete. Why do we act as though we believe ourselves to have completed worldviews when we are so aware of our unavoidable ignorance? Why do we imagine ourselves to form our worldviews, rather than viewing ourselves as products of the worldview we inhabit? When are we correct to do so, when are we misguided, and when do our ideas about how we experience the world deviate from our actual experience of the world? These may sound like abstract questions, but for me they accompany our every action, every moment of our web of relationships. But in a sense this concreteness is just an intuition. It’s not something of which I have a firm, easily expressed experience. I can only say that it’s true and hope at some point to recognize it more fully and put together the right sentences to capture and relate it.

I don’t want to say that Buddhist philosophical thinking, more specifically, is also relevant for me in a concrete, everyday sort of way, only because the phrase “Buddhist philosophical thinking” is not actually all that more specific than the phrase “philosophical thinking,” if at all. But I will say that certain Buddhist concepts and techniques strike me as relevant and worthwhile. Nevertheless, I am in a curious in-between spot at the moment. I know some stuff, but the basic insight I have is that I hardly know anything. I’m not ignorant only in the sense that I know that I’m ignorant. It puts me in a bit of a bind. The philosophical blogger in me wants to riff off various terms and topics found in various Buddhist philosophical texts. The scholar in me wants to keep quiet and spend another few years reading and translating, etc., before feeling confident saying much of anything. These two voices in me find one another valuable, but also a little foolish. So, in the meantime, I guess I’ll just be vague…

Leisure, suffering, philosophy, and Joni Mitchell

21 April 2012

That first part is perhaps a bit too grand a title for this post. (Though maybe Joni will save me.) I’m thinking today about how much leisure is involved in my practice of philosophy and my reflections on suffering. As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m wary of self-pity for privilege, as much as of self-congratulation. I’m privileged, and I suffer, and some of my suffering is connected with my privilege. Etc., etc. That I have so much time – free time, it would be right to say – is the pinnacle of my privilege, and though its dangers are as great as its opportunities, I’ve been able to take advantage and focus my life towards self-awareness (which I think of as super important). I’m extremely grateful for this, but I also often enough forget to be grateful. It is, after all, despite all my whining over the years, very hard to actively understand the minds of others, and so, for the sake of ease, I treat people coldly and from a distance. For many people spending a bulk of their work and leisure time on philosophical reflection would sound like a nightmare, or at least a major bore, so it’s helpful to remember there’s no inherent value in what I do, other than that for me it is inherently valuable. But I also feel passionately that there is potential value for everyone in what I do – both whether they themselves want to and are able to partake, and just to whatever extent I myself do it well – which means there’s also great responsibility.

A long time ago someone said that all things are characterized by three principles I’ll now badly translate as: they are impermanent, they are in tension, and they are not identical with or reducible to themselves. Probably even longer ago some adult cracked wise about youngsters thinking they’d live forever and taking their youth for granted. I’ve long wondered whether these two sentiments are not themselves in pretty sharp tension with one another. (How better should we have been enjoying our youth?) But moreover, I’ve also long felt both were hogwash. Not necessarily the “taking for granted” part itself, just that exclusively the young do such things. Endlessly lamenting the loss of youth (rather than, say, mourning it) has long struck me as being whatever the hideous underbelly of “taking one’s youth for granted” might be. And which youngsters, I had wondered, really think they’re going to live forever? How many people’s lives have not been touched by death, by the confusion and pain of the death of a loved one, or the death of a loved one’s loved one, of a loved pet? I’m not sure I know anyone in my age range who hasn’t known a classmate to die before the end of high school, before the end of college. These are stark examples, and it doesn’t take the death of someone close for the fact of death to make its way into our thoughts. It doesn’t take adulthood for us to reflect on the bizarre question: What will it mean for me to die? (What does meaning mean if I am dead?) And yet, our concerns remained, through high school, through college, on less cosmic concerns than the fact that we all die eventually, and that many of us may die soon. I’ve long held this notion – that there is some bit of wisdom adults have that they are right to wistfully and arrogantly remark on in our presence as if we just couldn’t yet understand – to be obnoxious and misguided. Read the rest of this entry »