the car slid sideways
darkness, a wall looming
in the back, we locked eyes
the car slid sideways
darkness, a wall looming
in the back, we locked eyes
across the kitchen floor
raiding the fridge once more
the sun on its surface,
as it meanders through the sward
a thousand blinding stars
the spring wind
leaves twisting rapidly
lime, emerald, lime, emerald
“There is . . . . nothing unnatural in long periods of quite sitting. Cats do it; even dogs and other more nervous animals do it. So-called primitive peoples do it – American Indians, and peasants of almost all nations. The art is most difficult for those who have developed a sensitive intellect to such a point that they cannot help making predictions about the future, and so must be kept in a constant whirl of activity to forestall them. But it would seem that to be incapable of sitting and watching with the mind completely at rest is to be incapable of experiencing the world in which we live to the full. For one does not know the world simply in thinking about it and doing about it. One must first experience it more directly, and prolong the experience without jumping to conclusions.”
Alan Watts on Za-zen (sitting meditation) from The Way of Zen
now a stream
travelling along a curved path
wriggling droplet of water
down the window pane
“Why didn’t you start with this topic this is a much nicer, more positive topic?” Well hopefully you will soon see why I started discussing death before discussing life. As we have explored above, most people go through life clinging to ‘things’ (e.g. nice house, car, TV, computer, make-up, clothes etc.) and ‘conditions’ (e.g. Ill not be happy unless I have this job, this group of friends, this relationship, these sorts of holidays etc.) and most of all they cling to the self because they fear change and they fear the ‘ending’ of ‘the self’. However if we are now thinking that actually change is inevitable and has more positives than negatives, then we need not cling to an idea of the self and an unchanging world. If we are not busy clinging then we can really live.
It is important here for us to consider the concept of the middle-way. Namely that extremes are best avoided and a middle path can be found in all things. The reason I mention this now is you may have thought when reading about change being inevitable, that avoiding change would therefore be either not possible or not desirable. Certainly it is better to go with the flow of the river of life rather than trying to swim upstream struggling against the current. However it would not be the middle-way to just go along with every change that came your way with no discernment whatsoever. This would be by way of being a ‘doormat’ to everyone else’s whims and totally apathetic about changes brought about by society, groups, individuals and the world around you.
In the environment around us we can see that a certain kind of firmness is needed. In physical forms if there were no firmness between one ‘object’ and another everything would just merge. If your skin and bones did not keep you ‘solid’ in relation to the world around you, you would just collapse into a big gelatinous mass and merge with everything else.
There must be some resistance to change otherwise there would be no form yet in resisting change you have frustration and suffering. The answer is to understand that this is the nature of change, not to cling to it and let it flow. This then ceases to be a problem and is beautiful. The fact that things are always running out and disappearing has some hidden marvel in it and seeming notions of permanence bring out the reality of change in a poignant way.
As Alan Watts points out the problem is we have one sided minds, we notice the wave of life when it is at its crest but not when it is at its trough. But you cannot have a crest of a wave without the trough just as you cannot have a peak of a mountain without the valley but we do not notice the valley as much as we notice the peak because high is considered to be good and low bad or at least unimportant but it is clear that every crest is followed by a trough.
You cannot have space without solid or solid without space but the divisive mind ignores space and thinks that its the solids that do all the work. When walking through the countryside you may find yourself admiring the trees now fully in leaf, how solid and green the canopies look. But with a little more thought you notice the ‘space’ above the tree where the dark green outline of the tree meets the azure blue of the sky. Looking further up you realise that without the space above the trees there would be no shape, no outline, no form to the trees. Without the space around the trees the trees could not be.
Conscious attention ignores intervals/spaces such as night, death, darkness, not being, the silence between notes in music all because it thinks they are unimportant. However these are essential aspects of being, you do not have one without the other just as a saw would have no teeth to cut without having valleys between one tip and the next tip, that is the way ‘being’ is made up.
So here we are floating down the river of life going with the flow. Occasionally with a deft movement of an arm bringing ourselves closer to the left shore to look at an interesting sight there, then later with another deft movement flowing nearer to the right shore to see what we can be seen. Now the river starts to flow faster and suddenly we see that we are heading towards a large rock in the centre of the stream. Do we just keep going with the flow embracing totally the change and allow ourselves to be dashed against the rock, when we know with a small movement of our arm we can avoid the collision? Of course not, we act without hesitation change our course and we are past the rock in a flash.
So you are told things are changing in for example your social group or at school, university, at work, in your family (wherever) and that you must therefore now do X, Y and Z. But you feel unable to do X and you feel Y is simply wrong and you do not know what to think of Z! Do you just go ahead and do all of these just because you are fully embracing of change? No. This would not be the middle-way nor would we be doing others any favours were we to just go along with things we feel are wrong.
Interestingly going along with things that you feel to be wrong or unacceptable not only harms ourselves and any others who the actions may be directed toward but also those who have ‘suggested’ this course of action as well. So in such instances ensuring that there is a change of course from that which is being suggested is essential not only for our own well-being but also for the well-being of all around us, including the instigators.
We are made to feel by society that we must play a particular role as an individual, our identity is therefore a social institution. When we are young we can take on many roles and may behave differently with nan and granddad to how we act with mum and dad and different again with our friends. But later on we are ‘taught’ that we should settle on a single role a single personal identity. We are made to believe that we have a ‘real’ self, somebody who we really are and whom we have to find – to find yourself, to settle down, to grow up means to fit into a role.
Some people who are troubled and seem to be ‘misfits’ in society often have been unable to find their ‘role’. But the role you play is a social construct as you cannot be an object to your own consciousness, you are a subject to your own point of view. So you can only become an object to the extent that you adopt the attitudes that others take toward you. Other people are mirrors, for through how they respond to you, you begin to learn what they think of you and therefore ‘who you are’. We all tell each other who we are, so the identity that we have in that sense is a social identity.
But in addition to this we have an idea of the ego, the feeling that inside us there is an ‘I’ centre that receives experience and directs actions. This is the inmost ‘myself’ often viewed as ‘soul’ or a chemical function of the brain. This sense of a separate ‘I’ from all other ‘I”s is an illusion as this is not the way we are functioning physically. We are functioning as beings that live in such a close relationship with everything else there is no way of separating ourselves from everything else.
Without air you could not breathe so you could not be without plant life which helps create breathable air also you could not exist without nourishment which is provided by plants and animals. Without the farmer we could not eat nor could we without the people who make the tools used by the farmer and so on and so forth (see how far you can go with this there is essentially no end to the interconnected chains where each link is dependent on the other). So the real ‘I’ is everything. Fundamentally what you are is everything so relax, don’t worry.
As Alan Watts says, your ego is a game and society plays a strange game with egos. The first rule of which is this game, is not a game. This game is ‘serious’ so great social institutions like the church and courts are places where one ‘must be serious’. So we need to realise that it’s a game but still play the game, knowing it’s a game and enjoy doing it. As such we find that we do not need to or wish to take things ‘seriously’ yet we can engage with things sincerely i.e. genuinely as opposed to serious which tends to mean grave and solemn. So one can have sincere laughter, sincere play, sincere love but hopefully not serious. This is not mere semantics but an important distinction which needs to be clarified.
There is a sense in which the Universe is a game, not in the sense of one-upmanship i.e. having to beat someone or something (some people mistakenly live life this way) but in the sense of improvised music and free play. But the point of music is not the end of music otherwise the best musicians would play the fastest or just play one final crashing cord and that would be it. Just as with dancing you do not aim to end up at one particular place in the room, the whole point of the dance, is the dance.
But this view of things is not brought to us in our means of education and societal expectations of ones ‘progress’ in life. Instead we are presented with forms of grading through never ending stages. You start school in the infants, first year leads to second year etc. and then you need to achieve certain grades to do well and go to junior school and this is all aiming towards some unspecified ‘good thing’. Then one needs to do well and achieve certain grades to be in good standing for secondary school. Once again certain grades are needed to go on to University all to help you achieve this ‘great thing’ but it is still not here yet.
Then you go out into the world of work and become a sales person, call centre operator or whatever and you have got targets to meet and that ‘great thing’ is still coming, its coming that great thing the success you are working for. Then you get to 40 years old and you think ‘oh I’ve arrived’, except you realise you don’t feel any different to how you’ve always felt. There is a big let-down as you feel there was a hoax (and this is probably a big factor in what is called a mid-life crisis). There was a hoax, a dreadful hoax they made you miss everything. We thought of life as a journey a pilgrimage that had a serious purpose at the end, maybe success or heaven at the end, whatever. But we missed the point all along it was a musical thing and we were supposed to sing, dance, paint, write etc. while the music was being played, being sincere in our play.
“Seriously your starting with that topic! You must be seriously morbid or something I don’t want to think or talk about that!” Maybe this or something along these lines just went through your mind when you read the title. You wouldn’t be alone in thinking this, many people would consider it appalling that one would discuss such a topic. This topic is in many respects a taboo subject, little spoken of and thought about even less. Let’s first look at why these reactions occur and why death is treat this way by many.
I know a young girl who has recently become concerned about death and is also worrying about losing those close to her (such concerns are a perfectly natural thing to go through). The parent of this girl said they felt the same way about death and that they also worried about death and the following ‘nothingness’ and ‘ceasing to exist’. It is a shame that many people today seem to be feeling this way. Such discussions take us into the realms of religious beliefs but I will not be going in-depth into this aspect of the topic. I believe the ideas presented below can be followed either without any particular religious beliefs or in addition to whatever your beliefs may be. I hope that I can give you something better than the view that after death there is just ‘nothingness’ which seems to be a prevalent view in our society today, particularly amongst the many people who do not follow a religion.
Whilst there are a wide range of religious faiths practised in the UK predominantly our culture is science orientated and even those who follow a particular religion which may believe in some form of afterlife such as heaven still inadvertently find themselves swept along by the scientific mind set regarding death.
Just to be clear before I continue lest it seem that I am anti-science, I believe science has much to offer us just that it has some serious flaws too. In particular its view that if something cannot be ‘seen’ and/or measured then it does not exist. This in not explicitly stated but this is the ‘deep mindset of most scientists, although there are of course some exceptions to this in certain scientific fields of study such as quantum physics.
But certainly the average person who is not a scientist still has this view of the world as it is what we are taught in school and then later in life by the media. However this then begs the question – “what about all the things science did not know about 100 years ago because it had not ‘seen’ or measured them but have since been ‘discovered’ by science? Did they just puff into existence the moment they were observed, did they not exists before then?”
Why am I mentioning this about science here? Well how can one study or measure what happens after death using the common scientific methods? One cannot. Therefore it is the scientific view that after death there is nothing, void, blackness, you are no more, you are obliterated and nothing of you exists any longer. No wonder people fear death and do not wish to think or talk about it! So just because science cannot investigate things after death, clearly this does not mean there is ‘nothing’.
There are two concepts we need to be clear on before we go any further and which at first glance may seem to be contradictory:
1. Nothing is permanent, not even the self
2. Nothing ever becomes nothing
1. Nothing is permanent, not even the self
Try and think of something that seems permanent and stays the same forever. Let’s say a massive mountain that has been where it is for billions of years. Is this permanent and will it always be there and never change? As the wind blows across its peak minute particles of dust and earth are blown lower down the mountain. As it rains more of the mountains surface is washed down its slopes. Mountains become smaller, there shape changes. If you can stay around long enough the mountain will change shape, move, shrink and ‘disappear’ in time.
I am now 38, am I the same as I was when I was 8? Clearly not. I’m taller my body has changed in a myriad of ways. It is also currently believed that many if not all of the cells in your body completely change every 10 years or so. So is the me now, the me that was then? No. I can remember little if anything of my life at aged 7 now and it seems likely to me that this is due to many of the cells in my brain having being replaced with new ones and hence those memories are gone. Clearly we do not remain the same over time, we are constantly changing.
Can you think of something that is permanent as opposed to something that simply lasts a very long time?
Many people are uncomfortable with the idea that nothing is permanent, particularly the self and so we have the notion of a spirit or soul. This allows us to feel that there is something that is permanent which will ‘carry on’ through life and beyond death. But this then creates its own problem. What do you then say happens to this permanent aspect of ‘self’ that continues after death?
But why is it so bad that nothing is permanent and that things are always changing? If things were permanent would we be happier? If things were permanent you could never grow up, never learn, never experience new things, never have children, your moods thoughts and feelings would be all stuck on one ‘channel’ (better hope it’s a good ‘channel’) – this would not be living. Indeed this is what happens, people stop truly living so desperate are they to cling onto things and concepts desperately trying to make them ‘permanent’, even to the point of clinging onto negative emotions just because they have become familiar aspects of the self. Do not cling to this concept of impermanence either. We need to ‘let go’, breath out and live in the moment.
2. Nothing ever becomes nothing
Take a sheet of paper outside, then burn it! (err carefully please and with full adult supervision of course. The paper has gone, the paper has become nothing right? No. There may or may not be some ash (depends on the type of paper I think), there was energy released in the form of heat and light in the fire. There was smoke which has risen into the sky, some of which was water vapour.
The ash will go into the earth and add to the properties of the soil which supports a myriad of plants and animals. The energy in the form of heat and light will have impacted on the near-bye environment in ways I can’t even begin to comprehend. The smoke and water vapour released has risen into the sky and become part of a cloud. The cloud then travels around the world releasing rain on another continent, helping plants grow and humans and animals to drink, eat and live. Still think the paper has become ‘nothing’?
So we die. The body and the self that we have become very familiar with (attached to) ceases to exist in the form that we or anyone else would recognise as ‘us’. This is just one of many changes we have been through over the years. No one who knows you now would recognise you as you were in the womb (or earlier) and probably not even as you were at age one. At death our physical form changes, so we have become nothing have we? No. It is just another change, nothing is permanent after all and nothing becomes nothing.
I believe one of the factors in our thinking of life and death as we do is that we tend to think of many things in a linear way. In this case I mean people think of life as a line that has a beginning middle and end. So what happens when you are travelling along a line and you reach the bit labelled ‘end’ and the line stops? Why you drop off the end of course! This linear view of things can be seen throughout our culture if one but looks. Think of a narrative in a book or film for example. These typically all have a beginning middle and end and no doubt you will have been taught such at school. I believe there may be some avant garde stories that are not linear but I don’t think there are many.
Thinking about things in this linear way is entirely arbitrary. Why not think in circles instead of lines? Think of a circle (and the positions on a clock) at the twelve o’clock position we have a ‘start’, at the three o’clock position we have a middle then the six o’clock position we have an ‘end’ then at nine o’clock a middle and then we are back at twelve o’clock, ‘start’. Is this any less valid than the line? Maybe its better? At worst it is just as arbitrary as the line. But when you examine the world around you closely and indeed the Universe, we begin to see that things tend to be cyclic.
Still concerned that there may be some aspect of yourself floating in a strange dark void after death simply because this is all science can come up with for such an unknown? Lets look at something we have already all been through, the moment before. Before; that is the point at which you believe you came out of this world into existence, to become who you are now. You may consider this to be either at the moment of birth, or a certain point of cell division in the womb or at the point of conception it does not matter for our purposes when you feel you became you.
Before continuing on this, to clarify when I say we come ‘out of this world’ this is as opposed to ‘into this world’ as people tend to phrase it. The latter suggests we come from somewhere outside the world which could not be the case. Just as an apple tree ‘apples’ the World or Universe ‘peoples’, it seems unreasonable and nonsensical to think we have been transplanted here from ‘outside’ the World. As such we come from it and are of it.
Consider that you could equally suppose that in the time before you ‘became’ you, you were floating in darkness then too. After all, the time before your life is equally as unknown as the time after your life. Just for the sake of the argument if we suppose this is correct and you were floating in this ‘dark nothingness’ before your current state of existence, was this necessarily a problem or a concern? You were not you yet to be concerned about such matters, to the whatever that became you that was in that place of ‘darkness’ this was a ‘normal’ state of affairs. Equally after this life you will change again and not be the you, you are now and so there will be no you to be concerned about whatever condition you may be experiencing.
As you can see from the paragraph above this is the point at which language really starts to reach its limits in describing such experiences and states of being which in part accounts for why various philosophies stop talking about certain things that are largely beyond language and use more ‘novel’ methods of imparting such wisdom such as the methods used in Zen for example.
It seems clear to me that this concept of ‘dark nothingness’ after death has been conjured up through peoples fear of no longer being themselves, of losing their self, their ego. The question is why cling to such a thing when you know that nothing stays the same and that nothing ever becomes nothing. It is clear that myself at age 8 does not in the least resemble the me now at 38. Do I morn or fear the loss of the 8 year old me? No. Do I morn or fear no longer being the 38 year old me when thinking of myself becoming aged 68 in the future? No. Although of course some cling desperately to their younger ‘selves’ at certain stages in their lives which is just yet another symptom of living in the illusion that things can be permanent. As we have discussed above such an unchanging state would not be desirable anyway. Such clinging to external conditions and the self has been described as shadows grasping at mist.
So in conclusion, all things change as nothing is permanent but because they change they never become nothing. I’d love to hear any thoughts you may have on this topic.
Footnote: As previously stated I do not claim the above ideas are all my own unique thoughts, indeed can anyone claim this for their philosophies. However I acknowledge they have been greatly influenced by and in some cases taken entirely from some of the following: R H Blyth, Alan Watts, Thich Nhat Hanh, Nietzsche, The Dalai Lama and Buddhist/Taoist philosophy in general, to mention but a few.
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