Want answers? Learn to ask the right questions

My latest article on MercatorNet explains how to use some key philosophical skills to solve problems in your own life:

“How can I lose weight?” might be the burning question that comes to mind, but that doesn’t mean it is the right question to ask or answer. Most of us “know” how to lose weight, after all. We just have to consume less energy than we expend.

Yet that answer would not satisfy most people. So at this point a philosopher might suspect you are asking the wrong question.

How do we find the right question? How do we, as Bacon put it, question prudently?

Reading the works of past philosophers shows that they spend a lot of time describing situations and problems prior to asking their questions. In other words, they provide context to their questions.

Rushing out and asking “what is the meaning of life?” presumes too much. It presumes we all know what the question means by “meaning” and “life”.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/want-answers-learn-to-ask-the-right-questions

 

Miracle cures and short-sightedness

I’m in my second day without wearing glasses, because I want to cure my myopia.

If that sounds bizarre, let me explain.

The miracle ‘cure’

I’ve always been both hopeful and skeptical about the prospect of ‘miraculous’ cures for physical illnesses and ailments.

I use the term ‘miraculous’ loosely to refer to cures that do not match our normal expectations for how health and illness work.

So, for example, I can quite honestly say in one sense that I ‘cured’ my autoimmune disease. My honesty makes me put ‘cured’ in quotation marks because I don’t have sufficient evidence to prove that what happened to me amounts to a ‘miraculous’ recovery from that disease.

In practical terms, I no longer have symptoms of that illness, and I have a subjectively meaningful narrative for how those symptoms came to an end as a result of my own actions.

My rheumatologists were quite happy to give me a provisional diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis based on my symptoms and a genetic marker. The only caveat is that if my symptoms stopped, then obviously they would withdraw the diagnosis.

A skeptical contention would be that if I hadn’t done anything to change my outlook on the illness and seek some kind of psychological cure to the physical problem, the symptoms would have disappeared anyway.

It’s impossible to prove in my case, and it’s hard to imagine an appropriately rigorous medical trial to test the theory (hard but not impossible).

So for me it remains a choice. I had to choose to face my illness as a reflection of a deeper psychological or spiritual issue. In so doing, I observed a pattern to the symptoms that matched changes to my mental and emotional state. When I became aware of these changes and adapted them, the symptoms ceased.

A short-sighted approach

So what about eyesight?

I’ve been short-sighted for a long time. I had my eyes tested in about year 5 at school, but I may have suffered from short-sightedness before that.

Wearing glasses has always bothered me. I don’t like being so dependent on a fragile external tool to interact with my environment. So when my glasses frame broke two days ago I decided to take the opportunity to investigate the problems with my vision.

Meditation on illness

Both auto-immune disease and short-sightedness  relate to extraordinarily complex biological systems.

An auto-immune disease is a good candidate for examination because it consists in essence of the body attacking itself without an obvious external cause.

But it turns out that myopia is also somewhat mysterious, with both hereditary and environmental factors at play.

Myopia is a form of refractive error due to the shape of the eye. I have trouble seeing long distances clearly because my eye is longer than it ought to be.

I don’t know about you, but my response to being told “your body’s immune system is attacking your joints” and “your eyeball is too long to focus the light properly”, is a profound and indomitable sense of challenge.

The spiritual approach

For want of a better word, let’s call this a ‘spiritual’ approach to illness. The idea is that our experience of life is not simply the random outcome of external processes. Rather, our experience of reality is mysterious and meaningful.

What this means is that something like suffering an auto-immune disease or having bad vision is not an accident or a random outcome. It has deeper significance. It relates to your life and your own person as if you were a character in a story.

Whether we continue to suffer from the illness, or find reprieve, I think it makes sense to try to see the personal meaning in it.

For me this process of looking for meaning begins with observing how I feel about the illness, the symptoms, and their impact on my life.

It turns out that despite not giving much thought to my short-sightedness for many years, I do carry strong feelings about it.

Going for two days without my glasses has made me realise how much fear and powerlessness I feel when I can’t clearly see what is going on around me.

Driving without my glasses is safe enough – I can see every object in my vicinity – but more than a hundred or so metres away and objects become blurred. People are easy to see but impossible to recognise. They become fuzzy humanoid shapes, obvious but unreadable.

The inability to see what’s coming right to the farthest horizon or the very end of the road is fear-inducing. I can see things but I don’t know what they are.

Then there’s the powerlessness. I can’t look down the aisle of a supermarket and read the signs for the food categories anymore. I have to walk towards things to make out exactly what they are. And as for people – they might as well be dressed in shrouds and wearing masks until they come within about five metres of me.

It’s a profoundly alienating experience.

So there you go. This short-sightedness does have a great deal of meaning for me, a meaning I’ve ignored and neglected by wearing glasses all the time.

I don’t want to wear glasses anymore, and that means I have to start confronting and facing these fears and insecurities.

So what am I saying?

Does that mean if I confront my fears and anxieties my eyes will magically change and I’ll be able to see without glasses?

Well, what I discovered when I tried to heal my auto-immune disease was that I had to accept the truth about the disease first. The truth was that my disease was just a reflection of my own psychological and spiritual state.

I know how challenging that sounds, because I resisted accepting it for a long time. I didn’t like the idea that progress would depend on choosing to believe something. If the evidence could convince me, I was ready to believe it. But to just believe, without evidence? That sounded pathetic and weak.

Yet there was evidence. Not evidence that could convince me this was the truth, but evidence that I could make no progress, do nothing more, until I had accepted this basic premise.

To put it bluntly, if my disease really was just some random or genetically determined biological quirk, then I was ******.

If my symptoms weren’t a reflection of my deeper psychological and spiritual state, then there was nothing I could do about it. But if they were a reflection, then nothing was set in stone.

In the end that was the choice: the choice to try to give up or try to find answers.

And if there’s one thing I know from my studies and reading in philosophy and mysticism, it’s that our claims to absolute knowledge of external reality are as much a choice as any.

We choose to believe the world is real, not because we have seen convincing evidence that it is real, but because we have seen evidence that to choose otherwise gives us nothing in return.

If I choose to believe the world is a figment of my imagination, there is nothing anyone can say or do to prove me wrong. But there is plenty that can be said and done to prove that a real world is a much better thing to believe in than a deluded imaginary one.

The paradox of fiction

The struggle to write (good) fiction continues, and it occurred to me today that there is a paradox inherent in the desire to create a world, or characters, or situations that are on the one hand fictional, and on the other hand deeply meaningful and therefore worth writing.

What is paradoxical about profoundly meaningful fiction? For me, all meaning must ultimately be real meaning; yet fiction is by definition unreal. We’ve discussed already how the unreality and freedom of fiction can make it more potent than non-fiction; but now that potency itself raises the paradox. If I can create a supremely potent and meaningful fiction, wouldn’t that fiction either approximate or take the place of my own real ideals and perspective of reality?

If you were going to build yourself a house, you would want it to be the ideal house because it will take a lot of effort to build and you’re going to be living in it for a very long time.  A novel also takes a lot of effort and time to construct, but you don’t have to live in it when it’s done. In fact you live in it until it is done.  Nonetheless, because of the effort involved you want it to be as good as it possibly can. You want it to meet your ideals.

The problem then is that to meet my ideals the fiction must be so meaningful that it ceases to be ‘fiction’ and instead becomes somehow a reality.  This is not so much an expected outcome as a pressure and it explains some of the difficulties I’ve been having: I feel pressed to make my fiction so meaningful that all seemingly conventional fictional efforts immediately fall short and are discarded. I can’t invent a character unless he is the most appropriate and meaningful character – but what if that character ends up being me?  I can’t invent a goal unless it is the most meaningful and significant goal – but such a goal must transcend the boundaries of fiction.

Tolkien may have avoided this problem by regarding his efforts as the creation of a myth for his people. In other words, all his work on Middle-Earth could be justified under the auspices of mythology – a context that lent it gravitas and significance beyond mere fiction.  In this sense, his work broke the boundary between fiction and reality. Myth is, after all, neither truly fiction nor fact but sits in its own strange landscape where history and ideas can coexist. Tolkien’s exorbitant efforts make sense because the meaning he created was not just for himself nor for the sake of writing fiction but for a whole people, for posterity; nor simply for entertainment but for all the vital significance of mythology.*

None of this is to imply that all the good fiction out there is somehow insignificant or inferior. This is a personal creative challenge, not a generic critique, and it likely strikes only a small subset of those who turn their hand to fiction.

How I see the paradox unfolding is that my continued efforts to write fiction must somehow satisfy my desire for it to be supremely meaningful – a work of fiction that transcends the banality of everyday life. If it succeeds in this, it will then somehow encapsulate the meaning in this life also. In other words, it will have to be more than fiction. It will have to be real, and that is both a frightening and an exhilarating prospect.

 

*People often describe Tolkien as having created his own world, but the implicit solipsism doesn’t ring true. It seems more like Tolkien was reshaping the world, or at least his corner of it, enriching his world through the domain of myth. Perhaps that is why Tolkien didn’t like Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: as allegories, analogies, or on the level of conceit, their significance cannot translate into the real world in the same way that the mythology of Middle-Earth can. Many authors create a few words of a foreign language for the sake of their stories; Tolkien still stands out for having created actual, workable languages. His fictional languages became real things, just as his stories became real as myth.

Has “natural” been de-natured?

My latest MercatorNet piece looks at the supposedly lost meaning of the word “natural”:

We are so deeply in agreement on the actual quantities of numbers that there is no room for controversy in basic mathematics, only for error and correction. Yet when it comes to language our capacity to bend and distort the meaning of words undermines even the efforts of a wise man like Socrates to appeal to the reason of his interlocutors.

By analogy, it is as though most of us are not entirely sure how many is “two”. We know that two is usually less than five, but we’ve never taken the time to work it out precisely. In a society where two can be several different quantities, math cannot really take priority, and the insistence of a Socrates that two is always and everywhere 1+1 will be viewed as merely a firmly held belief, one opinion among many.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/why-natural-is-not-a-meaningless-word

What’s work for you?

My latest article on MercatorNet laments the narrowing of our concept of ‘work’ and the conflation of work with career:

For people who are interested not only in genuine work as opposed to careerism, but meaningful work above all, the current employment system and job market may have very little to offer. Part of the problem is that, regardless of the work involved, a career or a particular job typically represents an overly rigid narrowing of the full range of work – of actual doing – of which we are individually and collectively capable. In other words, to look for meaningful work only in the confines of established careers and job opportunities risks reinforcing a very narrow, very unfulfilling sense of what work is.

Give me the spurious ephedrine

When it comes to sickness I am a coward. I find the suffering associated with illness intolerable, not because of the discomfort and pain alone, but because the discomfort and pain have no meaning.

How do you find meaning in suffering? By alleviating it. Suffering is the bad guy. That’s why, when I caught the flu a few months back and discovered, Ye Gods, I must have never had the flu before, I turned in my hour of need to that angel of blissful sleep and sinus relief: pseudoephedrine.

So when I found myself succumbing this week to the familiar feeling of a dry, itchy nose and a tiny point of increasing pressure behind my eyes I knew exactly what I needed and went straight to the nearest pharmacy, where it turned out they won’t sell pseudoephedrine without a doctor’s script.

I wanted to say “well this will really set production back” but the pharmacist seemed a little on edge already, so I gave them my most understanding, flu-addled smile and left.

At the next nearest pharmacy I waited for 10 minutes while they checked my ID against the registry of pseudoephedrine offenders, and tried not to look suspicious. Pretty sure I failed, but they gave me the precious, precious medicine, and here I am today: conscious, competent, and relatively coherent having escaped the worst of whatever that bout of illness was.

I’ve got no problem with the pharmacies doing what they have to in order to control the flow of key ingredients to illegal drug manufacturers. I just slightly resent having to ask for this awesome, wonderful drug under the veil of suspicion. There’s no way to reassure a complete stranger that you aren’t sourcing ingredients for a meth lab. It probably helps if you’re clean-shaven, well dressed, and not completely over-thinking the whole situation.

Anyway, the beauty of pseudoephedrine is that it almost totally removes the pain and discomfort of flu-like symptoms – symptoms that otherwise might drive a person to try to scrub the insides of his upper sinuses with a bottle-brush, or stab himself in the Canthus with a chopstick.

But with a couple of pills the pain is gone and I just lie in bed waiting the rest of the illness out. So what’s the point? If I can avoid the pain and misery what’s the point of being sick in the first place? Avoiding the pain means ignoring the problem, but there’s still a problem there, and it’s one that people have faced in the past: trying to make sense of illnesses, both the deadly and the merely unpleasant.

I used to put some stock in the idea that illnesses had their origin in psychological states; that the long-term damage wrought by physically manifested negative mental states made us susceptible to various diseases and dysfunctions. But I never found a convincing systematic approach to it, and demonstrating it scientifically would be almost impossible. Nonetheless, there are studies showing, for example, that people who endure adverse events in childhood are significantly more likely to suffer chronic illness as adults.

I have no doubt that a great number of human beings are wracked with deeply-buried psychological distress and emotional turmoil, nor do I have trouble believing that there are clear biological mechanisms linking these subconscious psychosomatic states with increased risk of various illnesses. We are, after all, embodied beings with a rich and delicate interplay between psyche and soma.

In moments of clarity I can see the connection between my own chronic ailments and key stress events or problematic psychological states. It’s a link that many sufferers find meaningful even though the orthodox medical line is drawn at absence of evidence.

Hypervigilance and habitual physical tension go together hand in overly-tight-and-uncomfortably-stiff glove. And while I can’t afford a barrage of salivary cortisol tests, I’m willing to bet that the levels of stress hormone would be highly responsive to a tendency to catastrophise, within an overbearing sense of culpability for any and all future difficulties and challenges.

A serious illness has meaning – whether it be real or merely suspected, we can take it as symptomatic of a deeper need for change, a cue to examine our life more broadly. But a humble cold or flu? The ubiquitous runny nose and sore throat I get every winter when the room gets too cold and dry overnight? The miserable experience so easily moderated by controlled medications; what’s the point? Where’s the meaning?

Pretty much every traditional religious or spiritual discipline says we are living incorrectly in some way; that our original nature or harmony or grace or whatever has been thrown severely out of order, with both spiritual and physical sickness and misery ensuing. The common cold may not be a profound sickness, but it is still a reminder that things are not as they ought to be – or more to the point, that we are not as we ought to be.

As the Dao De Jing states: “The holy man is not sick. Because he is sick of sickness, therefore he is not sick.”

What do you live for?

mountain view

View from a mountain in Fuzhou, South East China.

I was thinking this would be my 101st blog post, but apparently that was the previous one…

Nevertheless, I’d like to take the opportunity presented by this 102nd blog post to thank everyone who has read, followed, or commented in the past three months.  Having a blog has changed my approach to writing, and it’s been gratifying to have such a positive response from readers internationally.

Like everything in my life at present the blog remains in a state of development with its ultimate end still unclear.  Like parenting, writing, studying, kung fu, music, and no doubt every long-term human endeavour, there are always new levels of challenge, refinement, and skill.  Sometimes it seems like we’re going in circles, or back to the start, and I’m pretty sure at times I’m just repeating mistakes I was too stupid to learn from the first few dozen times.

At other times I think the mistakes are there to keep us humble, to remind us how good it is to be able to enjoy a night’s sleep without your child waking up screaming and crying, or how nice it is to be able to speak without the pain from a sore throat you got after leaving the fan on all night when it wasn’t really that hot.  Or how refreshing it can be to just sit quietly in your living room without obsessively checking your email or compulsively refreshing your favourite websites; listen instead to the traffic go by and readjust to the subtler pace of non-virtual reality.

I think I might be a Quietist at heart; not the Christian heresy, but the philosophical approach:

Quietist philosophers believe that philosophy has no positive thesis to contribute, but rather that its value is in defusing confusions in the linguistic and conceptual frameworks of other subjects, including non-quietist philosophy. By re-formulating supposed problems in a way that makes the misguided reasoning from which they arise apparent, the quietist hopes to put an end to man’s confusion, and help return to a state of intellectual quietude.

In chapter 48 of the Dao De Jing (Legge translation):

He who devotes himself to learning (seeks) from day to day to increase (his knowledge); he who devotes himself to the Dao (seeks) from day to day to diminish (his doing). He diminishes it and again diminishes it, till he arrives at doing nothing (on purpose). Having arrived at this point of non-action, there is nothing which he does not do.

The way I see it, we are all either adding to our troubles or subtracting from them.  Everything I’ve done since losing my job has aimed at letting that loss be a real benefit, the final step towards a freedom that I could not have justified under the financial imperative that drove me at that time.  Yet there is a risk of letting these new activities – especially blogging and writing – become a new form of enslavement, a mere continuation of the dysfunctional dynamic of employment albeit with no one to blame but myself.

Being free from a ‘bullshit job’ is a worthy goal when you are in the job.  But once you are free you need a new goal, one even more inspiring and worthwhile now that you have the freedom to pursue it.  As much as I’ve enjoyed writing about my freedom from employment, it’s not enough to keep me motivated.  And as a philosophically-minded person, a superficial goal will not suffice.  I may wish to one day buy a piece of land in the hills and build a house on it one day, but that’s not really a desire, that’s an eventuality.

You know that old line: do you live to work or work to live? I think the answer to that question is obvious. The next question is: what do you live for?  Taking my Quietist impulses seriously suggests that the answer to this question is, paradoxically, not an answer, but the state of quiet we arrive at only when we are utterly diminished; a freedom from disturbance or conflict, a stillness, a calm that is beyond our understanding.

The greatness of a goal is reflected in how insignificant all other worries and cares seem in comparison, just as the view from a mountain top makes everything else look small. In this state of quiet everything else does indeed seem small, and the question of ‘what to live for’ is put into perspective.  Whatever this quiet is, it has the feel of being ‘right’ and ‘real’ in a way that the ordinary messiness of daily life does not.  It transcends the more limited perspective of struggle and strive.  From it, we can enjoy a higher view of life.

 

Learning Chinese the eccentric way

calligraphy

In applied linguistics we were taught that the best way to learn a language is to use it.  How do you use a language? By making meaning.  Meaning-making is pretty much the opposite of memorising vocab lists and taking part in feeble and uninspiring scripted dialogues.

My ideal in learning Chinese has been to learn without making an effort to learn, to learn, as it were, by accident.

But the key to learning by accident is to have a need or a reason to make meaning in your would-be second tongue.  And while I have a number of reasons for wanting to be able to speak Chinese, I have little actual need for making meaning on a daily basis.

Thus far my best efforts have involved an obsessive degree of online searching for information relating to the martial art I practise.  I’ve learned quite a bit of incidental Chinese, can search online and perform fairly slow translations.  But although there’s a surprising amount of transferable vocabulary from martial arts to everyday use, I have to face the fact that this interest is no longer enough to drive my learning.

The next step in my eccentric plan has been to learn the lyrics to some memorable Chinese songs.  The vocab and grammar are generally more transferable, and if a song is good enough it’s hard not to sing along. What better approach to efficient language learning!

I’ve had this plan in mind for a number of years, but have been hamstrung by the limitations of popular Chinese music.  Aesthetic appeal is somewhat subjective, so let’s just say that Chinese pop tends to be quite homogenous, and neither syrupy/nostalgic ballads nor rap are my style.

However, I’ve recently discovered an excellent little tumblr site that chronicles a range of Chinese Indie music!  The odds of finding something interesting, memorable, and worth learning have dramatically increased.

First on the list is this track by 朴树/Pu Shu, titled 平凡之路/Ordinary Road.

I found both the song and the translation via fyeahchineseindie:

徘徊着的 在路上的 Those who are drifting down the road
你要走吗 via via Are you leaving now? via via
易碎的   骄傲着 Fragile and proud
那也曾是我的模样 That was how I once was.

沸腾着的    不安着的 Those who are passionate and restless
你要去哪 via via Where are you leaving for? via via
谜一样的  沉默着的 Like a mystery, and so sullen
故事  你真的   在听吗 Are you truly paying heed to the story?

我 曾经 跨过 山和大海 也穿过 人山 人海 I’ve crossed untold mountains and oceans, passed through crowds and crowds of people
我曾经拥有着一切 转眼都飘散如烟 Once, I had everything; but in the blink of an eye, it was all gone
我曾经 失落 失望 失掉 所有方向 Once, I was frustrated, desperate and lost
直到看见平凡才是唯一的答案 Until I saw the only answer has always been an ordinary road.

当你仍然 还在幻想 While you are still daydreaming
你的明天via via Your future via via
她会好吗 还是更烂 Will it better or get worse?
对我而言是另一天 To me it’s just another day

我曾经毁了我的一切 只想永远地离开 I once destroyed myself and wanted to leave forever
我曾经堕入无边黑暗 想挣扎无法自拔 I fell into an endless darkness, unable to save myself
我曾经像你像他像那野草野花 I used to be like you, like him, like wild flowers
绝望着 渴望着 哭着笑着平凡着 Full of despair and longing, crying, smiling and being ordinary

向前走 就这么走 就算你被给过什么 Go forward, as you are, no matter what you’ve suffered
向前走 就这么走 就算你被夺走什么 Go forward, as you are, no matter what has been taken away from you.
向前走 就这么走 就算你会错过什么 Go forward, as you are, even if you might miss things down the road
向前走 就这么走 就算你会 Go forward, as you are, no matter what…(Repeating)

我曾经问遍整个世界 从来没得到答案 I once asked the whole world, but never received an answer.
我不过像你像他像那野草野花 I used to be like you, like him, like wild flowers
冥冥中这是我 唯一要走的路啊 In the darkness, this became my only road

时间无言 如此这般  Time flies, just like that
明天已在眼前 Tomorrow is just around the corner
风吹过的 路依然远 With the breeze blowing, there is a long way to go.
你的故事讲到了哪 Your story,  how much has been told?

*I took some liberties with the translations to preserve meaning

 

“Follow your blisters”

There’s an apocryphal account that Joseph Campbell, the scholar of comparative religion and mythology and originator of the ‘follow your bliss’ saying, was unhappy with the hedonistic misinterpretation of his theme, and exclaimed:

I should have said ‘Follow your blisters.’

The original quote was apparently a reference to the Vedantic concept of Saccidananda: the threefold attributes of Brahman as ‘being’, ‘consciousness’, and ‘bliss’; not, it seems, an injunction to pursue freelance writing, or become a professional baker of cupcakes because that’s where you feel happiest.

Nonetheless, that’s how most people seem to understand it: do what makes you happiest and the path will open, and there are plenty of stories of successful people who took a chance based on doing what they loved.

But Campbell’s follow-up is equally apposite, because the whole point about doing what you love is that you are able to throw yourself into it more fully, to derive meaning from it, and therefore stand a better chance of excelling at it.

Take writing, for example: I’ve put more effort into two months of writing than I did in six to nine months of regular paid employment. It’s not that I shirked my responsibilities, just that initiative was not encouraged, and the work we were given was rather tedious and mediocre.

But because I love writing, I can put in comparatively huge amounts of effort and it feels like nothing. The effort still takes a physical and mental toll, but love of the work leaves me strangely oblivious to it, until I start wondering why I can no longer form sentences and my eyes feel like they’re filled with fine sawdust.

The fact is that Campbell’s transcendent Upanishadic triad of ‘being, consciousness, bliss’ and the more mundane idea of doing what you love do converge. In doing what you love, practising your art and your skill, pursuing something of the utmost meaning, you do in fact approach an experience of transcendence that accelerates and deepens your efforts. You love it all the more because it takes you beyond yourself, and brings you back with an even greater determination to transform this mundane reality, ordinary life, into something far more special, blisters and all.

Happiness ensues…

A friend just sent me this article on the work of Victor Frankl and the idea that pursuing meaning is more important than pursuing happiness:

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,”

http://www.businessinsider.com/a-lesson-about-happiness-from-a-holocaust-survivor-2014-10?IR=T

My only criticism of the article is that it describes the utility or benefits of having meaning in life, which seems to undermine the whole point of looking for meaning over happiness. Is it just me, or shouldn’t the value of meaning be self-evident?