Tuesday, January 12, 2010

how things work

In memoir-writing class last week, Grumpy was outlining the book he was writing. It had to do with religion and he had a quite complex foundation that began in the furthest reaches of space, the nano-composition of the earth, electrons, light, darkness and a lot of other foundational aspects describing ... uhhh ... well, I guess he was describing how things, in the widest sense, worked. He didn't use the word "God," but he did refer to the force or energy or intention of it all as "he."

Grumpy was careful and caring in his presentation. There was nothing unpleasant about it -- no Tupperware salesmanship or insistence -- he was just doing his best to state what he thought was true, or maybe what he hoped would be true.

Swami Vivekananda, the Vedanta Hindu, once invited students of his works into a similar way of thinking. Each effect had a cause, he suggested, and each cause was the result of some effect. There were no exceptions ... so he invited students in their minds to think and think and think backwards -- of what cause was this or any other moment an effect; of what effect was this cause born ... back and back and back and back and back and back ... until ... until ... until...

Until what? Until some ultimate "beginning" were established? Until Grumpy's book were published? Until some one true meaning were unearthed? Until some peaceful and assured 'home' were found? Until ... until what, precisely?

The search for meaning and explanation has its uses. Such a search tends to make any (wo)man more thoughtful, humble and, perhaps, kind. It widens what may be narrowed views. It has an up-side.

But it has a down-side as well because the search for meaning can take on a life and importance of its own, as if the search for meaning were intrinsically a good and healthy and perhaps virtuous endeavor. It can become a nesting place for people who imagine there is wisdom in it. The search for a beginning and an end hoists the discovery of the beginning and the end by its own petard.

For example, it doesn't bother me a bit if, in the search for explanation and meaning, someone comes up with the word "God" or "Allah" or "enlightenment" or any other moniker. What does strike me as unfortunate is the willingness to rest on such laurels. If, in the search for meaning and explanation, if, in the search for some 'X' factor, the seeker merely substitutes a warming but unrealized 'Y,' and refuses to go any further ... how could this assure any peace or solution? If someone says "God," then the question becomes, "Who is God?" And if books or litany provide the answer, well, have books or litany ever managed to satisfactorily explain in the past? At best there is some tentative peace, but is anyone looking for 'tentative' in their search for meaning an explanation? Isn't there always another book and another and another? Isn't there always another thought and another and another? If the answer doesn't answer, how could it be the answer? Is "peace in the heart" really peace in the heart?

I guess the best that can be said for questing after meaning and explanation is that it may nourish a willingness to take responsibility and to pay attention ... and to never, ever, give up and loll around in socially-acceptable explanations.

I'm not sure how often such questing ever musters such courage and patience.

I guess the love of war and bloodshed and the fear of peace in the heart is too keen.


  1. Excellent post. You've expressed what I have experienced...while searching for meaning in life, you can miss a lot of living. And that the search can become a distraction to paying attention. Thank you Adam.

  2. You have expressed, IMHO, exactly what I find lacking in most "relgions" or "spiritual paths." I think that is why I am so taken by Buddhism, at least what little I understand about it. Just live in the moment and not worry about the past or the future.

    Thank you

  3. Thanks for taking the trouble to comment Kitewood. FWIW, and I'm not trying to sell it to you, if you study Buddhism a little more closely, I think you will find that, as you say, we cannot grasp the past or the future -- they are gone or have not yet arrived. But the fact is that the present is exactly the same -- there is no grasping it, so "living in the present" is both something we cannot avoid and cannot grasp: By the time the word "now" escapes your lips or mine, it has already become "then." This is not some airy-fairy philosophy or religion. It is just a fact. And in Buddhist practice -- that's "practice," not theory -- students come to realize and be at peace with a past, present and future that cannot be separated. It's nothing special, but it does take some practice.

    Best wishes and again, thanks.