I take solace in the fact that I don’t exist. Well…I do, but the continuity of self is an illusion. Just a product of my imagination. And because it’s an illusion, it can be undone. That’s the path of no-self within Buddhist Tradition.When I consider depression and addiction, it’s these sorts of philosophies that I find comfort in.
Continuing with my writer’s block theme, this is another re-posts from the My Life With Kant days. This was originally an audio recording, and this is the transcription. Please forgive any spelling and grammatical errors. Enjoy!
I’ve bitched and complained before about having to live in modern society. Sure, not having to die in your mid-20’s due to a bear attack is awesome, but you know, if business school has taught me anything, is TINSTAAFL…you know, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Everything comes at a cost.
Although living in a production society for the last thousand years has produced tremendous results. Life expectancy has gone through the roof. We can go into FUCKING SPACE! What other species occupying this planet has done that? Love us or hate us, you gotta admit, humans have done pretty well for themselves despite running around with our wangs hanging out just a few millennia ago.
But like I said, everything comes at a cost. Millions, if not billions, of people had to die as a result of disease, war, and other atrocities in order to get to today. So there’s that cost. But what has it cost the human psyche?
We take for granted today that we have language and personal property and government protection and the billions of people that exist independent of you. It didn’t turn that way over night. At one point, somewhere in time, there had to be the first humans. Mind you, it was a gradual change, but what would have been the thoughts of the first people? Of course, it wouldn’t have been, “holy shit, we’re people, and alive!”. But, I imagine (and I’m more than likely wrong, but just entertain me here for a second), primitive humans wouldn’t have had a sophisticated language system to help them process thoughts. It was probably less of a system and more of a rudimentary local dialect, that would have shared similarities with other groups, but would have varied from group to group. Now there’s probably some language theorist out there somewhere calling me a fucking idiot, but that’s besides the point.
The point that I want to reach is, when did this conception of “I” come to be? Do you see what I’m saying? Now I’m sure that some Marxist out there would like to claim that the transition from hunter-gathers to agrarians would have caused a shift in personal identity, where the individual would have seen themselves as primarily a member of their family or group, or something like that. But I won’t go that far. But there had to come at some point where it finally occurred to someone, “shit, I’m gonna die someday.” I think this sort of existential angst is what sets us apart from other animals. I mean, do dogs wonder around thinking about death and life’s meaning? Maybe they do, I don’t know.
But what you gotta remember is, that back in the cavemen days (which was MOST of human existence by the way), discovering meaning wouldn’t have been much of a problem. There’s the argument that because they had to spend most of their time surviving, there was no time to think of such things. But there’s another thing. What would they have compared their meaning to? If they were just wondering nomads, what would have been their definitions of success? They weren’t searching for monetary wealth or fame, their neighbors probably had the same resources and goods that they had, so what more was there?
Of course, this would have been giving early humans more credit than they probably deserve. There was most absolutely oppressors and oppresses. But was there a conception of personal gain? Of history? Or ‘otherness’? I don’t know. But today, we are self-aware animals. But once upon a time, we were just animals.
Over the course of thousands of years, humanity has shifted the primary concerns of existence away from survival. Very few of us have to fear death from the elements or predators. Now we compete with one another. Questions of the day are no longer “how will I eat today.” Now it is, “will my existence matter?”.
We are no longer in a group of a hundred, where we struggled together for survival. Now we are just one in 9 billion people…forced to live in a world where the individual is just one cog in a greater machine. In a sense, there’s an insecurity that the individual feels, knowing that they are only one person within the multitude. Instead of the connection with others, they turn their focus to the inside…the mechanism of vanity. This is only enabled by our technological advancements. The tale of the 21st Century can be told through social media.
Now, perhaps more than ever, narcissism reigns king.
You know yourself, right? You are you…this finite being. Your appearance might change over time, but you still look behind the same eyes. Despite the tides and turns of time, you still remain you. Does it have to be this way? What if the idea of “you” was just an illusion? Let’s venture out of the comfort of European philosophy, and go east.
The Buddha was concerned with suffering. Suffering is pretty much the story of mankind. That’s pretty much what history is about, right? It’s mostly about how humans have inflicted suffering on each other. And it’s not just physical suffering that ails mankind. Mental anguish paralyzes individuals just as well as its physical counterpart. What are the emotions that you feel when undergoing mental anguish? Guilt, unworthiness, paranoia, and possibly even hate?
In certain Buddhist schools of thought, these emotions find their root in one cause: the idea of the self. You perceive yourself to be the same person one moment to the next. But break down this perception. Time is a flowing stream, and our bodies that house the mind, are no different. In a certain sense, you are literally not the same person that you were 20 years ago. You are growing and changing at every moment. Even our very thoughts are flowing forward in time. There’s not much about you that remains constant.
Yet we pad ourselves with our self-conceptions. Believing that we are among the constants in an ever changing universe.
There might be some relation here with Kantian philosophy. I believe I might have said as much in the first episode, but don’t quote me on that. But in the Buddhist tradition, over-coming the self can lead you towards the path of enlightenment. That sounds pretty Kantian to me. Or we can at least see some parallels between Buddhism and European Enlightenment philosophy. At least I do. The overcoming of self in order to achieve enlightenment sort of reminds me of the unknowable thing-in-itself.
But in the European tradition, at least if you are a follower of Kant, the thing-in-itself cannot be known. No matter how much we try, we have to use the faculties of the mind to understand the world. The mind is finite. We can know that the thing exist, but we can’t know it intimately. All kinds of things are going on around us that we can’t perceive. But our minds are designed in a way to perceive the things that nature created it to perceive. Even the things that you do perceive, probably look different to say…something like a reptile. So no one perceiving THING knows the world as intimitaly as it exist without a mind to perceive it. Your reality, in some way, is shaped by your perception. So perhaps George Berkeley wasn’t completely wrong when he said that a thing doesn’t exist without a mind to perceive it. Which is another callback to an old episode. But he wasn’t completely right either.
I might be going off the rails here. I might be seeing connections where none exist. But so what? I think that both Buddhism and Continental Philosophy see the same thing. You, and me, are the problem. The human mind plays a central role. As where European philosophy largely doesn’t concern itself with evading the mind, and instead I would say that it just wallows in it, Buddhism at least focuses on rising above it.
But perhaps it would be strong of me to insist on the mind being a problem. In a Buddhist light, that is probably not the best way to look at it. However, the mind is a product of nature. And because it is so, it is designed to do certain things. Despite humanity being able to overcome many obstacles throughout its history, the mechanisms that protected our ancestors are still present within us. It is within the mind’s own best interest to exclude itself from its surroundings. To extract itself from nature, rather than seeing itself as another extension of it.
This separation causes the advent of the self. And the self creates the concept of “I”. But your mind, and mine as well, are just creations. The idea of “you” and “me”, are just illusions designed to protect our bodies. The mind controls us, we are encased within it. It’s common to make division between us and the world, but what is the world? Perhaps for expediency, we group other minds in with the world, yet we consider our own to be independent. To take the path towards enlightenment, the being that’s encased within the mind and therefore distinguishes it from the rest of the world, now has to remove that division…To see one self, or better yet, become ones-self, as a stream of the world that moves forward in time.
The European, and less spiritual version of this, we can see as stoicism. Like the Buddhist, the Stoics sees themselves as beings that are a part of a greater whole. Perhaps erroneously, and stereotypically, people tend to associate Stoicism with inaction. And perhaps a few might see Buddhism in the same light. But I have always felt that that was a mistake. I think that what the two schools have in common is their doctrines on time and our relationship towards it. The past is like an unmovable rock, and would therefore be a waste of time trying to move. As Ray Lewis once said “Only fools trip on things behind them”. But the future is like a door. The present is therefore the key towards unlocking that door. So being focused on the here and now keeps us moving forward on our path.