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.

 

Freedom from desire

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An interesting theme in my current studies is the boundary between self and other, and how this boundary shifts as a consequence of different theories of free will.

For example, a simple theory of free will might hold that one acts voluntarily except when one’s actions are the result of physical coercion or ignorance.  Non-coerced actions can be considered the product of free will.

But a more complex theory of free will would recognise that sometimes we act in ways that are difficult to own as fully voluntary, such as eating dessert when you’ve sworn you want to lose weight.  No one has physically coerced you to eat the dessert, yet in the broader context of your wishes, intentions, and subsequent regrets, it doesn’t seem quite right to say that eating the dessert is representative of your free will.

Accordingly some have suggested that we are not free when we act in accordance with our lower appetites.  In the same vein, others have said that ‘free’ actions are those which arise from truly rational considerations. To exercise free will is to act in accordance with rational desire; anything less is a kind of slavery.

But in accepting this more nuanced view of the will, we implicitly redraw the boundary between self and other; the coercive forces we face are no longer external, physical agents but internal appetites and desires.  What is the ‘self’ that is the subject of these appetites, the self that might somehow will instead to follow reason?

This internalisation of the self is not a necessary outcome of a more complex view of free will, but it does make such a perspective easier to adopt.  We start viewing ourselves a little like a homunculus positioned somewhere back behind our eyes, controlling our body and attempting to reason and make choices while assailed by powerful appetites and desires.

The internalised self may be a promising line of inquiry for when I start examining Chinese philosophical texts on the topic of free will. Take, for example, this extract from the QingJing Jing or ‘Classic of Purity and Rest’, a Daoist text developed supposedly in response to the emerging Buddhist theme of ’emptiness’ typified by the Heart Sutra.

Now the spirit of man loves Purity, but his mind disturbs it. The mind of man loves stillness, but his desires draw it away. If he could always send his desires away, his mind would of itself become still. Let his mind be made clean, and his spirit will of itself become pure.

As a matter of course the six desires won’t arise, and the three poisons will be taken away and disappear.

The reason why men are not able to attain to this, is because their minds have not been cleansed, and their desires have not been sent away.

If one is able to send the desires away, when he then looks in at his mind, it is no longer his; when he looks out at his body, it is no longer his; and when he looks farther off at external things, they are things which he has nothing to do with.

Sending the desires away may imply a similarly internalised view of the will, such that one is able to control or manipulate mental faculties as though they were external objects.

The end point in this Daoist context is achieving a state of purity and stillness concomitant with the Dao itself:

In that condition of rest independently of place how can any desire arise? And when no desire any longer arises, there is the True stillness and rest.

That True (stillness) becomes (a) constant quality, and responds to external things (without error); yea, that True and Constant quality holds possession of the nature.

[…]

He who has this absolute purity enters gradually into the (inspiration of the) True Dao. And having entered thereinto, he is styled Possessor of the Dao.

 

It is intriguing that the Daoist text portrays desires as an intrinsically disturbing force that should be ‘put away’.  This presents another opportunity for fruitful comparison with Stoicism, where such desires are viewed as the product of our assent to false beliefs.  This is, in turn, reminiscent of the Buddhist assertion that the unsatisfactory nature of existence can be traced back to ignorant desire.

If we put aside desires, our mind and spirit will revert to their natural purity and stillness, bringing us back to the influence of the Dao.  This is consistent with Wang Bi’s much earlier commentary on the Dao De Jing, the heart of the Daoist Canon, in which he depicts the goal of the sage as embracing ’emptiness’ through renunciation of private interests and desires.

I think this critical attitude toward desire is a crucial part of serious religious practice universally.  We should not be surprised to find it emerging in the context of Daoism, Buddhism, and even Stoicism, as part of a broader attempt to discover the root of humanity’s failing and misery, and the path towards a renovation of the human spirit.