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”.



There is a crack in everything

Years ago a friend gave me a ‘page-a-day’ calendar of quotations and sayings that were meant to evoke a kind of Zen-like wisdom.

At first I loved it. I trawled through and accumulated a set of my favourites.

Years later I hated it. I wondered who had picked the quotations, and what mercantile interest had crafted this bizarre interplay of culture and commercialism.

But the inspiration was genuine, and the care of my friend was sincere. So over time I’ve come back to appreciating the meaning behind it.

One of the quotations I remembered well was a verse from a song by Leonard Cohen.

I subsequently came to admire Cohen, and have been listening to his music in the wake of his death this year.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

That crack in everything – the gaps we feel in our own existence – our instinct is to fill the gap, to seek immersion in pleasure, power, or profit. We want to distract ourselves from the emptiness at the edges of our existence.

The heart of all vices, compulsions, and evil lies in our impulse – part fear and part desire – to consolidate our grip on life. We fear our limits, we fear the holes life punches through our veil of self-control.

If we could only become something better, achieve something more, cover over the gaps, then life would feel complete.

But completion lies in the opposite direction.

It’s not the holes that are the problem, it’s the rest of the veil. It’s the thin layer of pride that we try to stretch across the whole of our existence.

We fear losing control, but the control itself was always an illusion. Even our fear is an illusion within an illusion, because we can’t control that either.

So when the holes are getting bigger, as the veil begins to thin, our fear might even increase.

‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom.’

People interpret this to mean that we should fear God, as if that’s a smart choice. But wisdom in Christianity is not just a state of having knowledge, it is an aspect of God. Wisdom is divine. We could just as well say that fear accompanies God’s presence, because our pride cannot abide Him.

The holes in our pride, the gaps and limits of our self-control are reality shining through a delusion we keep alive only through our own mistaken efforts.

The delusion, the mistaken efforts, we don’t really know where they began or what drives them. It isn’t our self-control, since that does not exist.

It’s a terrifying thought, when all that is left is our desire to hang on to control against what looks like darkness, emptiness and death.

But at some point that veil will be torn in two, and we will realise that what seemed like darkness was a light too bright for us to see.

Untying knots

I thought it was Hui Neng, but apparently Lin Chi wrote:

I have no teaching to give to people; all I do is untie knots.

I’ve recently finished the fourth draft of a novel I’m working on, and waiting for feedback from a reviewer. The drafting process has dragged on, giving way to the daily demands of raising a child. But the need to work on it, to get something done, was a fixture in the back of my mind all this time.

Now that I have nothing substantial to work on for a while, the need to get something done has lumbered into the foreground and is stomping around, nervously seeking fresh prey.

I didn’t realise how strong it was, but I guess committing to writing a book presumes some degree of long-term motivation.

So now I’m sitting here, quietly possessed by the spirit of accomplishment with no satisfying avenues of expression at hand.

It’s a rare moment of deeper self-awareness.

And in the context of recent thoughts about free will, the illusion of self, and acceptance of reality, I feel that this need to accomplish something is another knot to untie.

Because – believe it or not – I have actually accomplished things before in my life, and it doesn’t feel like this, this slightly desperate need to find a worthwhile goal to immerse myself in.

This feels quite a lot more like the boredom and frustration that often plunges us into mechanisms of distraction and escape: food, tv, games, etc.

I’ve tried to explain in earlier posts that the thoughts and impressions that feel like “me” are just thoughts and impressions. If you observe closely, “me” is always changing, and you can even ask the perennial non-dualist question: if this is “me” then who or what is it that is observing “me”?

This strong desire to accomplish something is one of those impressions that constitutes “me”. It just happens to be a very forceful and deeply held impression, one that is capable of stimulating and initiating other, associated thoughts of “me”.

In other words, this is a big knot and it is tightly bound.

So how do you untie a knot?

It’s a bit tricky, because if “you” doesn’t really exist in terms of agency and control, then the knot is being untied in spite of, not because of, the illusion of control.

This is why the untying of knots is attributed to grace – an external, divine influence – or to the equally divine wisdom or insight that cuts through the illusion at the heart of this “knot”.

Because in reality the knot itself is just a thought or impression. It is not in control, it does not have real power. It is more like a symbol of how your mind is functioning. It is like a label that tells you what is going on inside your mind.

So here’s the thing: the kind of wisdom or grace that cuts through the illusion and unties the knot is the same wisdom or grace that dispels the illusion of “me”.

And as such, this wisdom or grace does not come about because of anything “you” or “me” can do. Rather, it comes about despite the illusion of “me” and “you”.

It comes about, because it comes about. It simply comes about, and the mind ceases to create the impression that this “knot” has power, or that this knot is “you”.

The conflicted storyteller

For years I’ve struggled on and off to write fiction.

I once wrote a novel, but it wasn’t very good. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t very good, and I needed it to be so much better if I was to push it, believe in it, take it as far as it could go.

After a few years of consideration and doing other things – mostly discussing fiction with like-minded friends – I’m well aware of some of the faults in my past efforts. But like everything I do, there has to be a deeper reason, a cause or problem that prevents me from achieving what I want to achieve.  I must be missing something profound.

I still haven’t found the answer – I’ve found a dozen answers, and collectively they help, but it’s not enough to break through the malaise I feel when I try to write fiction.

Part of the problem is that I don’t really want to write fiction….

“Il n’y a pas de solution parce qu’il n’y a pas de problème”

There is no solution because there isn’t any problem

– Marcel Duchamp

That is, my motivation is complex. If I wanted to write fiction, I would be writing it. When I think about writing fiction, in fact I feel terrible about it. I think fiction is pointless, indirect, a waste of time, empty escapism. No wonder I don’t want to write it.

Yet I can’t let it go.

So now I think the truth is more like this: I want to write something, but I don’t know what it is. It is different from my current work, writing non-fiction articles. But the moment I look at the alternative of ‘fiction’ in its various guises, I feel that it is not that either. The reality is that I do not know how to write fiction yet, and all I have in mind to guide me are a dull set of limited conventions. I can easily write non-fiction because I know the essential parameter of seeking to understand and to solve a problem.  But when it comes to fiction I don’t know the essence, only the conventions and accidental characteristics.

So what are the essential parameters of fiction?

It turns out that ‘fiction’ is not a very useful word. It simply means something ‘imagined’ or ‘shaped, formed, made’.

‘Story’ is a better word. I do want to write a story, and it turns out that ‘story’ comes from ‘history’: a “relation of incidents”, not distinguished from the modern use of the term ‘history’.

So if I want to write a fictitious story, it means I wish to relate a series of incidents that did not happen. But why would I do this? What is the point or purpose, such that I could make it a good story, rather than a bad one?

Perhaps the essence of a fictitious story is not so different to the essence of an actual history? Indeed, if we go back further, from the Latin historia to the Greek historia, we find that the meaning changes from “narrative of past events, account, tale, story,” to “a learning or knowing by inquiry; an account of one’s inquiries, history, record, narrative,”, which is in turn derived from histor “wise man, judge,”.

So is a history an account of the inquiries of a wise man?  But surely the real purpose of stories these days is merely to entertain?  And surely the kind of work that goes into creating modern fiction has little at all to do with wisdom and inquiry? Isn’t imagination and creativity the very opposite of inquiry?

This is, for me, the crux of the problem. Non-fiction is inquiry. My articles and even my private writing is aimed at inquiry, understanding, illumination. But my attempts at fiction appear to travel another direction entirely, toward imagination, unbounded elaboration, essentially frivolous fantasy.  And if I look at any one of the stories I’ve enjoyed in my life, can I truly claim to have learned anything from them? Have I gained anything more than entertainment and escapism? Is my desire to write fiction in fact a desire to participate in escapist entertainment more fully?

What do we gain from reading fictitious histories?



What it means to be free


In my reading of the early free will debate it became apparent that our modern notion of ‘free’ is quite different from that of the Greek philosophers.

For us the freedom of a ‘free will’ implies an unbounded capacity, the absence of limitations, the ability to pick and choose according to our own desires.

But for earlier thinkers, those who laid the foundations of the ‘free will’ concept, to be free meant to be rational, wise, and virtuous.  Free did mean the absence of limitations, but only the kinds of limitations that stop us from acting and being as we ought.  The apparent paradox is that wise and virtuous people have no freedom in the modern sense: an honest person is not free to tell a lie. We might even say that virtuous people are ‘enslaved’ by virtue, and the wise have no choice but to act according to wisdom.

The ancient understanding of freedom was built around a normative sense of human potential and human virtue, just as a doctor’s understanding of health is built around a study of the correct functioning of the human organism.  ‘Free’ was defined in that context, not in a modern context of existential doubt and an overarching relativism.

Freedom for them was like the free movement of a joint. In a state of health your shoulder should be free to move within its proper range.  If you dislocate your shoulder you may be able to extend it beyond its proper range, but this would not be considered ‘free movement’.

Ultimately, this ancient idea of freedom is grounded in an equally deep understanding of what is good for us, such that being free means having an unrestricted opportunity to pursue and enjoy these goods.

It certainly casts a different light on our contemporary sense of freedom and individual autonomy, which is less about the content of our choices and more about our sense of power and sufficiency in the face of obstacles and limitations.  The modern idea of freedom and autonomy puts an emphasis on overcoming and avoiding obstacles at a cost to our understanding of wisdom and virtue.  It’s why so many people apparently choose to have Sinatra’s “My Way” sung at their funerals.  In the end we take comfort not from diligently pursuing something greater than ourselves, but from what is essentially an egoists self-justification set to an uplifting melody.

I think on some level we know that virtue is a kind of limitation, which is probably why we fear it. Not only is virtue difficult to achieve, but it means giving up attitudes and actions that, for most of us, are the substance of our lives.  To be free of our attachments and desires is indeed an intimidating thought.