A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Thursday, 12 February 2015

A Different World

Have you considered the possibility
that everything you believe is wrong,
not merely off a bit, but totally wrong,
nothing like things as they really are?
If you’ve done this, you know how durably fragile
those phantoms we hold in our heads are,
those wisps of thought that people die and kill for,
betray lovers for, give up lifelong friendships for.
If you’ve not done this, you probably don’t understand this poem,
or think it’s not even a poem, but a bit of opaque nonsense,
occupying too much of your day’s time,
so you probably should stop reading it here, now.
But if you’ve arrived at this line,
maybe, just maybe, you’re open to that possibility,
the possibility of being absolutely completely wrong,
about everything that matters.
How different the world seems then:
everyone who was your enemy is your friend,
everything you hated, you now love,
and everything you love slips through your fingers like sand.


(Thanks to Andy at Pilgrimpace for introducing me to this poem.)

The creation of the universe (Wikimedia Commons)
When you think about it, all things — the universe, the world, all inanimate things, all animate things, ourselves, protozoa, electrons — are governed by the law of cause and effect. It's the way it is. In fact, without this expectation we would feel completely disoriented in a surreal, irrational universe, and would probably go mad. The Big Bang was perhaps the very first cause (though what caused that?) — bringing about every effect there has ever been. Each animal and plant, each rock and stone, each configuration of weather and landscape, each slice of history, geography and geology, each thought, deed and action that exists depends on a network of influence and being influenced, of cause and effect, of cooperation and exploitation, of cost and benefit. Look at the food chain, the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the movement of the stars, the planets and the seasons. Look at the effects of heredity and environment on human beings, on all living creatures. Look at the now-incontravertible Darwinian theory of natural selection (which led, however, to the sinister phrase 'survival of the fittest'). Look how we constantly use conjunctions such as 'if . . . then', 'because', 'so that', 'since', 'consequently' and 'therefore'. Look at everything.

The reasons for things and the results of things can be simple or complicated: 'A' followed by 'B' prompts 'C'; we predict the sun will rise each morning because of the earth's self-rotation and orbit round the sun; we throw stones into a pond and watch the ripples; the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil may set off a tornado in Texas. All our motions — even the most routine duty or automatic gesture — have causes, many of which are hard to trace unless we involve ourselves in continual self-analysis. All our stirrings — even the tiniest movement or most insignificant thought — have consequences, many of which we will never be aware of.

Despite post-Einsteinian and modern speculative physics, most of us believe that life is a temporal progression, a linear track through space forged by cause and effect, action and result. But supposing it isn't always like that? Supposing there's a different way of seeing things? Supposing everything you believe is wrong, / not merely off a bit, but totally wrong, / nothing like things as they really are?

Cambodian buddha (Wikimedia Commons)
It may seem impossible to challenge, to sidestep even for a moment this eternal line of relentlessly falling dominoes. But I believe it can be done if we use certain Zen tricks and techniques, mind sets and meditative practices. In the Four Noble Truths Buddhism shows us the indisputably hard reality of life, i.e. that life is suffering, and that suffering is caused by greed and desire, ignorance and delusion, hatred and the impulse to destroy — and by our attachment to the mental, physical and sensory world replete with all these negativities. In the final two Truths we are taught how to disentangle ourselves, to liberate ourselves from suffering and the causes of suffering by following the Eightfold Path, or Middle Way, as a route to enlightenment or nirvana (no mystical state somewhere 'out there', but a state attainable in the 'here and now', suffused with deep peace, joy and compassion). The Eightfold Path consists of eight 'steps': Right Understanding, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration — stages which all cultivate independent thought, a positive attitude, empathy, deep awareness and a kind of 'moral' rectitude.

My point here is that it is in our power to change the cycle of desire (cause) - suffering (effect) -  further desire (an abortive attempt to escape suffering) - further suffering if we break the connection between desire and suffering by eliminating desire. In other words, rather than accepting the inevitability of long-established chains of cause and effect, we can disrupt them — break the links. In this and similar acts we assert individual choice and freedom, free will if you like: things don't have to be this way! (I suppose you could argue philosophically that by asserting this free will you are still using the cause and effect principle, i.e. your free will causes your new state of being, but can you go along with me and just call this semantics? I think you understand the gist of what I'm trying to argue.)


martine said...

Interesting, thank you

George said...

As I noted on FB, Robert, I'm delighted you posted this poem. I also discovered it on Andy's site, and I found it useful in a book discussion that I led a couple of days ago on the urgent need to get beyond the dualistic, polarizing thinking that continues to separate us from nature, from each other, and from a deeper connection with all that is encompassed in that Ineffable Mystery that goes by many names.

No, Robert, "things don't have to be this way." We need a fundamental shift in the way we look at things. We need to humbly relinquish the almost universal trait that we understand everything, that we are right and others are wrong about things. And thanks for bringing us back the the very practical wisdom of Buddhism. Since picking up my first book of Buddhism in my late twenties, I have felt that there is no better way to understanding life than the Four Noble Truths, and that there is no better path to liberation from suffering than the Eightfold Path. I don't say this to take anything away from other wisdom traditions, because I'm confident that the wisdom of Buddha can be found under different names in different traditions. It's wisdom because it works!

As I look around the world, I see the opposite of the Eightfold path. I see wrong understandings, wrong intentions, wrong speech, wrong actions, wrong livelihoods (in most cases), wrong efforts, and very little mindfulness or right concentration, all of which returns me like a boomerang to the intriguing question at the heart of Frederico Moramarco's poem: Just imagine — stay with me, John Lennon — what a world we might have if only people and nations would consider the possibility that everything they believe "is wrong/not merely off a bit/but totally wrong . . ."

Please forgive the length of my comment. My passion about this has intensified in recent days, especially after the senseless murder of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, the site of one our finest univerities.

Ruth said...

This is very timely for me, following upon a lengthy and not necessarily sympathetic conversation late yesterday with a work colleague, about civil discourse, the lack of it, and the utter hogwash of people believing they absolutely know something and are unwilling to listen to another viewpoint.

I'll reread all of this you've shared. I am quite grateful.

Jan said...

Yes thank you for posting this on a day when yet again I am feeling that everything about me is wrong! How hard it is to cultivate those "right" steps and to walk that path. How hard it is to be disciplined and to practice what you know will only help you to live in this world we live in. How easy it is to take a turn that leads you away from peace. Again and again I am distracted by ego and attachment in proving I am worthy to live in this world. And yet....why would I want to? Because I cannot let go of some noble idea of changing things and relieving suffering? Because I cannot let go of wanting to control and change others? Because I cannot let go of some idea I have about who I am formed long ago and which I do not live up to in my everyday living. Imagine by John Lennon was one of my favourite lyrics In my youth when I was very idealistic and naive. I am struggling to age and remain myself, This idea of myself I keep pursuing and coming up against the same blocks. This poem and your words I will read again, today I am overwhelmed and frustrated with myself and the world. Sorry to sound so despairing! There are ways forward as always, and steps backward will be taken again. Time to regroup I think.

Anonymous said...

That Moramarco bloke seems to me to kind of assume we're all terribly attached to what we believe. Perhaps that attachment to "what we believe" can often be the most pernicious of all those pesky "attachments" that people often talk of letting go of?

Bella said...

I really like this poem and it reflects my current mode of thinking that I am slowly letting go of firmly held beliefs and ideals that have lingered when others have fallen away. It reminds me of the Dylan song "My Back Pages" where "I was older then and ...now much younger"...its both disturbing but also liberating. Part of me knows that it is is nice and safe to have these high ideals and letting them go means a need to stay alert to the risk of becoming cynical.

dritanje said...

I do agree with sackerson's comments re being possibly (!!) too attached to our beliefs. I like the image of 'entertaining beliefs' as guests sitting around your table and talking to you. They arrive and depart, they don't move in. Somewhat as in Rumi's The Guest House.

Cause & effect are valid - as a perception. There are other perceptions. In fact I wrote a long sequence about this, about a different way of perceiving. Too long to quote. But we are multi-level beings. Cause & effect are useful for our daily actions and understandings, and for the concrete rational and interpreting mind - our other minds require and rejoice in something deeper...

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for all these wonderful responses — sorry I'm not replying to them all individually. I enjoyed reading each and every one.

A special thanks to Bella for getting in touch again, and to Jan for sharing her personal struggles. Not despairing, Jan — it's good to talk (write).

Bella said...

Thanks SW :)