Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Circumstances Don't Matter!

Humans have existed for at least 200,000 years. Indoor plumbing, meanwhile, has been around for less than 4000 years (and widespread use of toilets less than 200 years). And yet, we imagine the vast majority of people who live in developed nations would find the concept of life without toilets to be well-nigh unbearable.

Indeed, the same is true of virtually any technology--once it becomes part of our daily routine it is hard to imagine life without it. The trouble, of course, is that we mistakenly equate the life we have with these tools and gadgets as better than the one we would have without them. Think of it this way--was everyone miserable 5000 years ago due to the lack of plumbing? Of course not--they had never experienced it, so how could they miss it? Hmm...

This gets at a point we have made in the past (and which Krishnamurti hammered home with a relentless consistency)--the "self" in which we believe so fervently, which we massage, groom, and defend at all costs...is simply a conglomeration of our past experiences (with a bit of genetics thrown in).

Here's a fun exercise--make a list of all the things you absolutely cannot live without. Not your videogame system or cellphone, but things you really need. If you are honest with yourself, you will eventually whittle this list down to one item only--food. Even shelter is a relatively recent human invention, and indeed there are millions (if not billions) who currently live without it. Yes, we realize humans (and other animals) tend to seek shelter for survival purposes, but this does not alter the point--it is certainly possible for one to survive without it.

The reason circumstances seem so important is because we interpret them through this lens of "who" we believe ourselves to be. Two people in identical circumstances will view their situations quite differently depending on their own personal history. But by adopting this identity we unwittingly rob ourselves of the freedom to live as we wish, instead entangling ourselves ever deeper in a tragic web of our own design.

The pauper who once was King is no worse off than the son of peasants; his belief thereof does not make it so.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

After the people are gone, the land remains

We (at least one of us) have been traveling the past couple of weeks. Traveling always makes us feel especially absurd, as it pulls you out of your normal routines. This forces a certain different perspective.

Things that normally seem important to you when you are at home melt away in your new place. And no one knows who you are either, allowing you to sort of submerge your ego, or drop the curtains of your normal pretenses that you cherish so much back home.

In this case, we find ourselves in New Zealand, very far from home. It is a beautiful country of almost surreal landscapes… misty mountains and glacier-capped peaks, deep green valleys and rainforests, meandering rivers and alpine lakes of all shades of blue.

Stunning vistas like this always bring out the absurd, because it makes humanity seem so small. There is a Maori saying that says, “after the people are gone the land remains.” We saw it on a wooden sign nailed to a post on a dock. It is true. It is hard, we think, to maintain a viewpoint that puts humanity at the center of the universe in the face of such awesome beauty and such powerful natural forces that don’t care a whit about what we do or think.

We were feeling so absurd, we thought to post several times but couldn’t bring ourselves physically to the computer. We were so wrapped up in the moment, just taking it all in. But we worried not – nothing matters, after all, including this blog.

We write because it is a pleasure and because writing always helps to clarify and organize one’s thinking. And we’ve learned some things and gone down some alleys as result of writing this blog that we may not have gone down otherwise.

In any event, this explains our relative absence from the blog, but we promise to return and share our absurd thoughts on our return. We’ve scribbled some notes on napkins and hotel pads and on the back of receipts. More to come…

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Of Time and Obligations

We read an interesting short story the other day by JG Ballard titled "Chronopolis," in which society has reacted to the increased over-scheduling of life by banning clocks. The result is a culture in which no one is really sure what is supposed to happening when, and in which things (seemingly inevitably) go on either for too long or not long enough.

While we are not sure what message Ballard intended to send, we found the concept of a timeless society quite interesting. On reflection, it occurred to us that clocks are a very recent invention, and that humans lived (and thrived) for some time without them. (As, we might add, did the dinosaurs, who as George Will recently pointed out, "lived a thousand times longer than humans have yet lived.") Indeed, it seems almost passe to point out that we are the only known species to have created time-measuring devices of any sort.

The more we considered it, the more we realized that our obsession with time (for that is what it is) exerts a silent but powerful tyranny over our lives. Not only is virtually everything we do tied to time, but we have convinced ourselves that time is a benevolent master. Thus such comments as "I have to be there at 2:00" stir not resentment (Why? Why must I be there?) but rather pride (My importance is validated by this commitment).

This, of course, ties into the theme of busyness we have discussed in the past--namely, that people today have far more leisure time at their disposal than at any other time in human history (we are speaking mainly of people in the industrialized nations, for whom the problems of day-to-day survival are de minimus), and yet seem compelled to fill their days with "obligations."

Indeed, as we were thinking this issue through we came across a story in the Washington Post magazine that dealt with this very topic. The story discussed the author's life as a harried working mother; more specifically, it detailed the author's annoyance at a researcher who told her she had roughly 30 hours a week of "leisure time," and asked her to keep a diary of a typical week to prove it.

"As I kept my time diary, I realized that I kept putting leisure off, as if I were waiting to reach some mystical tipping point: If I could just finish cleaning out the crayons and shark teeth and math papers and toys and rocks (yes, rocks) from the kids' closets, fix the coffeepot, pay the bills, send that wedding present five months late -- then I could sit down and read a book and not feel guilty. As if leisure were something I needed to earn.

I just felt so busy. That sense of being overwhelmed, explained cultural sociologist Edson Rodriguez, 27, who teaches at the University of Southern California, is a status symbol these days. Everybody who aspires to be anybody is busy. Gone are the days when the goal of the wealthy and elite was to laze around doing nothing. These days, even billionaires are on tight schedules. 'We derive status from feeling overwhelmed,' Rodriguez says. 'So if I don't feel busy today, there's something wrong.'" (Emphasis added.)

There you have it. "We derive status from feeling overwhelmed." Why? Well, if we have all these things to do it must be due to our incredible importance. And not just to those waiting for us, but to humanity at large. After all, such an important individual, with so many critical things to do, could never...you know...die.

Human beings are an historical anomaly. We can foresee and comprehend our own death, yet can do nothing to stop it. While such concerns were of little import when our hours were filled with mere survival, they have become more pressing--and our need to somehow escape from them more urgent--in recent millennia. Thus the advent of religion, which essentially absolved people of the need to figure anything out--"God's will" being the ultimate "Get out of jail free" card.

However, as we have acquired knowledge about the physical world--the bulk of which conflicts directly with religious dogma--religion has become a less-reliable crutch for those hoping to escape the inevitability of their own demise. This has been compounded by the astounding strides made in technology and medicine over the past century, during which the average global lifespan increased from 30 to 65 (for Americans, lifespans grew from less than 50 to nearly 80).

In short, people are living far longer, more comfortable lives than ever before, but are still very much mortal. (Further, the knowledge that has led to such gains has been paralleled by increased knowledge about the workings of life, all of which points not to humans occupying some exalted niche, but rather to our being, to put it bluntly, a more complex form of larvae.) This paradox--our ability to make life longer and more enjoyable, but inability to actually cheat death--is at the root of today's crazed focus on busyness.

The thought of actually sitting quietly by oneself is so terrifying to most people (though by no means all) that they avoid it at all costs, convincing themselves that achievement is a formula for ultimate happiness (not today, but someday...), even as they are presented with evidence on a seemingly daily basis that those who have achieved the most...are still (as a general rule) profoundly unhappy.

Vive hodie!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Absurdity on the shores of Walden Pond

“Men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost.”
- Henry David Thoreau

A fellow who writes such words or thinks such thoughts is half-way to absurdity.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) likely needs no introduction. He is one of the greats of American letters. One of our absurd inspirations, Henry Miller, wrote that he had “unbounded respect and admiration” for Thoreau. “By living life his own ‘eccentric’ way,” Miller added, “Thoreau demonstrated the futility and absurdity of the life of the (so-called) masses. It was a deep, rich life which yielded him the maximum contentment. In the bare necessities he found adequate means for the enjoyment of life.”

Walden, the book he is most famous for, was a book we used to re-read every other year in our youth, it seemed. It was an important book in shaping our early life philosophy. In those formative years, Walden was an inspiration.

We still have the old copy which stirred us so long ago. Its margins well marked, highlighting favorite passages. We were pleased to find much absurdity in it.

Some random selections pulled from a recent browsing of Walden…

“We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do.”

“I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely.”

“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”

“However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names… Love your life, poor as it is.”

Ah, the absurd. It is like holding a hot cup of joe between your cold hands on a frosty winter morning. Reading Thoreau you come to appreciate again how life is right here in front of you. It’s not hard to live a contented life. We make it hard because we are unwilling to release the baggage that makes things difficult, or that make contentedness elusive.

We’ll cite Henry Miller again, who writes so well of Thoreau. “'Life is bountiful’ he seems to be saying all the time. ‘Relax! Life is here, all about you, not there, not over the hill.’”

Self-emancipation from the chains of anti-absurd society is really at the heart of Thoreau’s message and is the example he set in his own life.

Monday, January 11, 2010

All in your head

How can one tell if The Matrix is based on reality? (Assume for the sake of simplicity that there is indeed some objective reality.) It's a trick question, of course - the genius of the movie is that there is no way to tell if we are free-standing individual beings interacting in the physical world...or merely brains hooked up to electrodes that simulate such an environment.

The more interesting question is how you would behave if you discovered the latter were actually the case. What if someone provided irrefutable proof that your perceptions of reality were no more than electrical impulses fed into a brain in a vat. Would it change how you live your life? Should it?

As you may have guessed, this is more than a theoretical exercise. Everything that you perceive as reality is, in point of fact, simply your brain processing electrical impulses. Whether or not such impulses are (as we assume) triggered by external stimuli is beside the point.

Beside the point?!? Really? How can that be? Surely it matters whether our family and friends are flesh and blood or mere wisps of imagination...doesn't it?

To answer this, let's go deeper. When we talk of family, for example, exactly what do we mean? Do we mean the physical incarnation of our wife and children? While this seems logical at first blush, it is easily falsified--consider the common lament of those with relatives who suffer from Alzheimer's: "It's not him/her anymore." So clearly there is something we mean besides the physical. But what?

What we refer to, of course, is this nebulous visage of the self--the thing that makes them "who they are." But as we have discussed ad nauseum in this blog, the concept of self makes sense only if one is prepared to accept some sort of duality--i.e., something beyond the physical, a stance riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies (which of your "selves" through the years is the true you? what of those with mental illness/brain damage?).

So again, who do we mean? The answer, as we see it, is that this concept of self is purely illusory; said a different way, the "person" we refer to when we speak of our wife is simply a construct in our own mind. That is not to say that there is not a physical manifestation of her, nor that others do not have a similar construct of this individual known as "our wife" in their own minds. But the concept that there is some independent entity--some "self" underlying the physical--is simply not true.

As Krishnamurti put it:

"There is fear in relationship, because in relationship we have created the image of you and me. The man and the woman each has an image of the other, a picture, a symbol, put together by time, of many days, many years, or an hour. And their relationship is between these two images. Look into it and you will see the actuality of it. We cling to the picture, to the image, and we are frightened of losing that image."

Indeed, the more one tries to pin down the "self" the more difficult it becomes--the best we can tell, what people refer to when they talk of "someone" is more or less some conglomeration of that individual's life experiences, coupled with genetic tendencies. We mash this together into an image of "who" they are, then convince ourselves this "self" actually exists. We do not notice the contradictions when we utter such statements as "he's really changed," or "she used to be much less anxious." In effect, we want to have it both ways--we want the comfort of believing there is some self independent of the physical, but also that this self can morph over time. When one thinks about this for any period of time...it is an incredibly fantastic assumption.

The main reason we believe it, of course, is that the illusion of our own self is so powerful. Indeed, we consider the feeling of self to be the most persistent and vexing aspect of human life--no matter how often we rationally tell ourselves that "we" do not exist, we cannot escape the feeling, deep down, that we actually do.

As Alexander Waugh put it in a recent review of a book on time: "we seem to understand time when we are reading about it, but as soon as we put the book down we are unable to explain it." Much the same could be said of the absurd...

Friday, January 8, 2010

Rethinking happiness

We only caught the tail-end of the final episode – “Rethinking happiness” – of a three-part PBS series titled “This Emotional Life.” The snippets we caught dealt with some interesting ideas on happiness as they relate to age.

Older people, it seems, are generally happier than younger ones…. 65-year-olds are happier than 47-year-olds who are happier than 25-year-olds.

There are all kinds of reasons, but the gist of it, by our lights, is that older people are happier because they are more absurd.

One of the reasons researchers found for happiness in older people: they were less burdened by the future. “The future is a burden,” one of the researchers said. We plan for it. We worry about it. And it affects our present day happiness. Older people, perhaps because they have less of a future, worry less about it. “I know I don’t have that long to live,” says one elderly lady. “But it’s a rewarding a time.”

This idea is very absurd, as the ideal absurd man lives in the present and certainly does not fret over his future.

And, sitting there looking back over a life lived, older people realize they have less control over what happens… and gain some comfort from accepting what has happened. Acceptance, too, is a big part of the absurd. Just taking things as they come and making peace with the universe at it is.

Another idea: older people were more comfortable about who they were, their own strengths and weaknesses, and were more secure in their likes and dislikes… they were better at arranging their lives to suit them, rather than trying to meet some other, external, standard. True to the ideas of the absurd, happiness is within.

As we say, we only caught a little bit of this show, but we found some of the ideas fascinating and useful and pass them along for what they are worth. It also jibes with what we’ve speculated on before about age and the absurd.

Many of the things we think will make us happy, won’t. Happiness truly comes from the deep wells within – from acceptance, from living in the moment, from absurdity itself.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

No plans, no goals… and no worries

“Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.”
- John Lennon

The great old roads of Rome were often straight, so straight that they have become minor engineering marvels that still impress us today. Harry Eyres (“When straight is a bit narrow”) writes:

“The directness with which the Romans achieved their objectives can still astonish us: even our motorways are not as straight and pay more heed to natural contours than some of their roads.”

The Romans were military minded. Efficient. No fooling around. Their roads were there to create the shortest path between one point and their objective. All those towns ending in "–chester" or "–cester" derive their names from the Latin word castra which meant a sort of military camp.

Eyres suggests a “metaphorical consideration of this whole question of roads and paths.” He wonders if this idea of building fast and straight roads has come to dominate our thinking in other areas of life.

We think he has a point.

What particularly inspires this line of thought is the custom of making New Year’s resolutions. We don’t make any. And we find the practice, at least as most people do it, to be anti-absurd. People seem to want that clear objective, like a straight Roman road, that will take them to some desired point out in the future.

In a sense, many people invest their happiness in achieving these goals and objectives. If they don’t lose weight or get that promotion or clean out the basement, it will make them unhappy. It will bother them. They will feel like failures.

But really, none of it matters. Our concerns are so ridiculously petty, why magnify them by making resolutions? Goals are self-imposed chains. Throw them off! This reminds us of one our absurd inspirations, Henry Miller. “I don’t plan things in advance,” Miller wrote. “When I want to do something, I do it.”

The absurd man just is; he takes life as he finds it. This is not to say he can’t get better at a thing or improve his lot. He simply lets these grow naturally from his passions and interests. If you enjoy gardening, then garden to your heart’s content – and your garden will bloom under your cheerful efforts. And when it no longer interests you, then drop it. Don’t hold to some arbitrary goal you’ve made for yourself. Be free – and absurd. If nothing matters, then your plans don’t matter either.

When the Romans left, many of their roads fell into disuse. Obviously, the straight paths are not always preferred. The older roads of the “ancient Britons, Druids and other shaggy-haired characters who roamed the land” came back. The people took the old woodpaths that meandered through forests to uncertain ends. As Eyres writes, “Woodpaths don’t lead you definitively out of the woods but, then, by learning woodways and woodcraft, you might come to see the wood as somewhere full of possibility.”

What a great metaphor for the absurd, which focuses on the present, on living in the moment instead of some uncertain future (or life beyond death). Life is, indeed, full of possibilities. We find it freeing to open up to those possibilities and experiences, rather than try to fight to control your life – as if you could do such a thing anyway. The idea of the woodpaths also stands as a nice contradistinction to the straight Roman roads and goal-mindedness of anti-absurd society.

The absurd minded fellow doesn’t mind meandering. One never knows what one might find wandering down the uncertain woodpaths. And it doesn’t matter what lies in the path. The absurd man aims for contentedness wherever that path may lead.

Rees on absurdity

We came across the following comment from Sir Martin Rees and found it a wonderfully concise (and wildly thought-provoking) expression of absurdity...

“Most educated people are aware that we are the outcome of nearly 4 billion years of Darwinian selection, but many tend to think that humans are somehow the culmination. Our sun, however, is less than halfway through its lifespan. It will not be humans who watch the sun’s demise, 6 billion years from now. Any creatures that then exist will be as different from us as we are from bacteria or amoebae.”

Monday, January 4, 2010

The joy of detachment

Happy New Year! We trust everyone had a wonderful holiday season (buttressed, of course, by the knowledge it was no more or less meaningful than any other season...)

We have been thinking a lot about detachment lately - in short, the ability to view one's physical (and mental) incarnation as one would view any other individual, rather than believing our self occupies some special and exalted place. We have discussed this many times, as this whole issue of shedding identity is critical to truly embracing the absurd.

For example, have you ever observed someone stuck in traffic - throwing up their hands, pounding on the steering wheel, or even yelling at the cars in front of them - and thought how ridiculous they look? Of course, to the individual who is racing to pick up his kids, or get to a job interview, or to any other "important" appointment, such an attitude seems the height of callousness. And indeed, we (as everyone else) have been in situations where it seemed vitally important to get to...whatever crucial and life-altering event awaited us. (Although now that we think about it we can't recall exactly what was so important - but it sure seemed so at the time!)

The point of detachment, therefore, is to view oneself as we view anyone else - to jettison our "knowledge" of what is or is not "important," and instead move through life with a true sense of equanimity. This, of course, is easier said than done - while the rational part of our brain may know we look ridiculous seething in our car, it is simply not so easy to override the reptilian part that knows we are late for the interview.

One method we have found useful in such situations (and yes, this may be considered a "trick") is to follow events down their ultimate path. For example, why does it bother us that we are late for the job interview? Well, we might not get the job! Which means...we might not be able to pay our mortgage...which will mean we have to move to a smaller place (or live on the streets!)...which will be significantly less comfortable (and more dangerous) than living in our house. The ultimate worry, of course, is that we might have less money with which to buy things such as food...which might endanger our survival (and that of our family). Or perhaps we are worried that not getting the job will affect our wife's opinion of us (or the opinion of women in general), which will restrict our access to sex.

Once we have determined the underlying worry (and this pretty much always comes down to food, sex, and shelter), it is an easy jump to the conclusion that the whole thing is a purely biologically-driven response, with a nod to Richard Dawkins' insight that humans are, essentially, gene-replication machines.

In other words, we are not worried about the job. We are worried (as always) about our ability to survive and reproduce, since these are the features which have enabled our genes themselves to survive. Our belief that the job is "important" is a cover-up of sorts, a culturally-driven abstraction to shield us from the horror that job or no...we (and our family) are eventually going to die.

Consider this: approximately 146,000 people die every day (that's about 100 a minute). Someday it will be you. Do you want to spend your remaining days planning for the "future," trying to craft a "full and meaningful" life that will still, in the final analysis, be no more consequential than dinosaur droppings, or would you rather live each day (and minute) as its own, taking joy from the simple fact of being alive?

Detachment provides a shortcut to this joy...