Commentaries on the Wisdom of Common Proverbs [posted July 2016]
Can’t see the forest for the trees.
Comment: Too much focus on empirical detail obscures the larger pattern or whole (or ‘holon’: a whole that is a part of another whole etc.). Just feeling the abnormal heat of the day won’t ever give you a notion of climate change. Just seeing that homeless beggar or the underpaid worker won’t ever give you a notion of capitalism. Step back and up. You cannot see a forest, a society, a planet, a system, a structure, you can only imagine or think it. Conceptual thinking includes seeing and sensing like a forest includes trees, but it is a higher and deeper faculty, a more evolved whole or holon. And conceptual thinking, necessarily dual in nature, in turn is included and transcended by a higher and deeper faculty, that of non-dual cognition or contemplation/meditation.
Can’t see for looking.
Comment: Who is looking? Why the strain? Can the eye see itself? You only really ‘see’ when you don’t look too hard, with strained, egoic intention, the look of potential domination, instrumentalisation, manipulation. Analysis of parts has its very necessary place, but as in contemplating a painting or landscape, in order to see the whole pattern, relax the eye, soft-focus, allow and receive rather than seek and pierce.
You can’t step in the same river twice. (Heraclitus, c. 500 BCE)
Comment: All is flow (anatta, panta rhei). But who is doing the stepping? A river stepping into a river? Can ‘you’ even step into a river once? And does a wave need to do anything to realize it is water?
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Comment: All is change and flow, and flow is apparent or ‘empty’: it depends on something stable and fixed to flow past, and the apparently stable and fixed is in fact also changing and flowing. Although the current and river constantly change, the current and river also stay Current and River, ‘watercourse way’, Tao. This flow is the furious action of appearing/disappearing and of non-action (wu wei). On a social level: the more capitalist society changes, the more it furiously creates and destroys things and relationships in search of profit, the more it stays capitalism (self-accumulating money, domination, heteronomy, elite power). Many revolutions have ended up the same way.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Comment: Instrumental, ego-centred intention and goal, egoic cause and effect, just set up more unintended causes and effects, and so on. Vicious circles ad infinitum, samsara, karma. Like bad intentions, good intentions get in the spontaneous way of The Way (Tao). Rather than willing the good, simply get out of your own Way, and all will be Good (if not always good).
If you meet a Buddha on the path, kill him.
Comment: Every Ism means schism. Even the dogma of no-dogma can be a dogma preventing self-realization. ‘No more grand narratives’ is itself a grand narrative. Use Wittgenstein’s ladder to meaning, then kick it away. Use the raft of words, then leave them at the shore. All else is word idolatry, word magic that entrances minds, that people often even kill for, and the core reason for existential human suffering.
A rolling stone gathers no moss.
Comment: No attachment, no-mind rolling with the Flow of Tao gathers no fixations, opinions, dogmas. Keep mentally on the move, nomadic, flexible. Yet ‘rolling’, loosely held opinions can also be necessary, can be pretty little green growths after the rains of thinking, helping to fix and build soil on which forests of wisdom may grow, each idea-tree singing a different tune in the wind that blows where it will. So:
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Comment: Don’t totally reject the old or bad, rather sift through its self-contradictions and partial truths, lift up and integrate them into the new and better. This latter process is Hegel’s ‘Aufhebung’ or supercession: negate, preserve, lift up. This three-step waltz also defines human growth: differentiate, dis-identify, integrate. Then do the same for the new integration all over again. Never-ending development to ever higher levels. Never let thought stand still in some static position, some binary, cocksure of itself, dogmatic, complacent, stagnant, dead.
Jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
Comment: This often happens when the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater, and then the more things change, the more they stay the same. This may describe the trajectory of many failed political revolutions. The usual solution to this danger of the binary non-alternative is: a pox on both your houses, choose neither frying pan nor fire but a qualitative leap upwards from both into a completely new field of perception, enquiry and action.
To understand everything is to forgive everything.(Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner)
Comment: This blows open everyday mind. Against our habitual narrow moralizing and hasty judgementalism, this is the proverb both of all great art and of the Buddhist Boddhisattva: compassion (karuna) comes from standing back and seeing sub specie aeternitatis all the infinite web of causes-and-effects that form deeds and behaviour we might not like, i.e. seeing everything from the perspective of eternity, of awareness, insight, wisdom, enlightenment (prajna), and from the heart.
Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.
Comment: Chanting this one, even children here realise the essence of both nominalism and Buddhism. Names, insults, are, objectively, just hot air, word magic, voodoo. Words can only hurt the other-directed, i.e. those who live by them, take them in, identify with them, are dependent on, and see themselves as no more than functions of, other people’s words and opinions. When there is no such heteronomous, crowd- and other-directed self, there is nothing to be hurt.
Dark Aphorisms [posted 01/15]
All good people contain – indeed must contain – a spark of dark, all evil people a splinter of light. If not, they become inhuman, cardboard caricatures of angels and demons. They become dangerous, or, worse, boring.
Iago is more interesting than Othello, Mephistopheles than Faust, the Trickster than the Dali Lama or Mother Theresa. We humans love the twisted and wide, are quickly bored by the straight and narrow.
To embrace one’s own dark is not to identify with it. To identify with it is to deny one’s goodness. To deny one’s goodness is as predictable and boring as the opposite.
The Trickster creates culture, innovation, change. And their destruction. A bit like capitalism. Thus the anarchist quandary: How can we eliminate capitalism without losing the Trickster?
When the first humans left Africa, they were following the Trickster’s footsteps in the sands. Now his footsteps are leading us back to that little one world we had, but on a planetary scale.
The Trickster’s shimmering, Luciferian light leads us forward with its spark of dark.
Look in my eye, said the spider to the fly. Hello Shadow, my old friend, it’s good to talk to you again, said the fly. And saw the universe open up like a black hole pregnant with potential. So this is what ‘dying’ is, it thought, just before no-thought.
Thinking and Not Thinking [posted 07/13]
Thinking is talking to yourself. Thought is self-speech.
Talking to yourself is the way you maintain ‘you’ and your world. What that first ‘you’ is, is a mystery.
The deep truth of both indigenous notions of The Dreaming and of Descartes: speaking/singing maintains the world, ‘cogito ergo sum’.
When you stop talking to yourself, both ‘you’ and the world stop.
What is there when they stop can, by definition, no longer be thought or said. A possible term pointing towards that which is beyond thought, language, world and self is the necessarily negative one of the ‘non-dual’, or ‘nirvana’.
‘We’ and our worlds thus emerge from, or are, the ‘non-dual’ or nirvana that talks to itself. The dual and its sufferings (‘samsara’) arise from nirvana and the non-dual.
99.9% of our time is spent thinking-doing, maintaining our sense of ourselves and world, keeping it stable. Perhaps we could stretch the 0.1% of the time in which we are mindful of doing so.
This lifetime of thinking-doing would seem to imply a deep, seldom conscious fear as our main driver in life, a fear of instability, insecurity, dissolution, death. Perhaps this is the mental equivalent of our physical drive for survival.
Talking to ourselves, expressing ideas and opinions happens especially strongly when people come together.
Talking with others, different people bring out different aspects of our thinking and thus ourselves, even as they tend to reinforce our mutual or separate mind cages, our personal versions of collective ‘word magic’ that define ourselves and our worlds and act as invisible membranes blocking them from direct perception.
Not-thinking is thus easier when alone, in solitude but not loneliness, but still difficult.
Not-thinking is not supressing thought, which is just another process of thinking. As ‘mindfulness’ or ‘awareness’, it seems to be a synthesis of doing and not-doing, of practice and grace.
The brain or mind can be seen as a filter, a collectively evolved organ inside all of us, that keeps us from being seemingly overwhelmed by Reality, the non-dual or nirvana beyond thinking. It does this by constant chattering.
With our evolved brain acting as a filter, we are thus saved from overwhelm at the price of being shut out from Reality, from realising No-Separation, from seeing directly instead of ‘as through a glass darkly’.
Rationality is rationalisation. Although we are seldom aware of it, thoughts arise from deeper layers than the rational neo-cortex.
With practice we can become aware that conscious thoughts come AFTER impulses, desires, wishes, intuitions, judgements, decisions which have occurred in the deep body-brain, traditionally often located in the guts, heart or ‘hara’ centre.
Thus even extended and differentiated processes of thought, as in philosophy or political theory, are merely extended rationalisations of deeper, pre-rational feelings and intentions. I almost instantly know what I really like/dislike, and I’m now going to rationally ‘prove’ and persuade you of it.
All thinking, all philosophy, tends to dualism because its medium – language, talking to yourself – is itself dual: it expresses and maintains a seminal split between self and other, subject and predicate, observer and observed, conscious and unconscious.
Philosophy is the history of pursuing a plethora of unsolvable conundrums, polar opposites, puzzles and contradictions (aporia) that are not in Reality but the result of its own thinking.
Dialectical thinking is a vain but valiant attempt to transcend philosophy while remaining within it.
Dialectical thinking attempts to overcome dualism by not resting on any side of the polarity, by running fast and light-footedly like Hermes, by sudden twists and reversals like the Trickster. Yet in the end it’s more like that cartoon moment when the road runner is madly whizzing his legs in the air just after he’s run over the edge of the cliff and just before he drops like a stone to the bottom of the canyon.
Even as philosophy differentiates more and more, it remains the cat chasing its own tail, the drum beating itself in search of a (non-existent) fugitive. Its greatest use is in using words to at least point out the cat, the tail, the drum, the fugitive.
MASK APHORISMS [posted 02/12]
‘Person’ and ‘personality’ come from the Latin ‘persona’, an actor’s mask, literally ‘that through which the voice comes’. Most now seem to completely identify themselves with their own personalities, yet European languages still carry an awareness of our personalities being mere social masks, and thus implicitly, of our real selves, or non-selves, speaking through them.
As an actor takes on a mask, the mask takes over the actor. As we take on personalities, our personalities take us over.
People with weak characters have rigid personalities. They seem wedded to their social masks. People with strong characters use their personalities flexibly. They play with their masks.
Poets, as Keats noted, have no identities. Behind their many masks is the Void, the great Emptiness that makes up 95% of the universe. Actually, in this they are no different to anyone else. Their masks just sing and write more.
There are true and false masks. Acting the role of a great singer may just be bullshit or it may help you stay in tune. While wearing a false mask depersonalizes you and makes you a fake, wearing a true mask may help you be more authentic.
Even with true masks, we are both within and without them. We are always actor and audience at the same time. We are the eternal witness trying on personalities and behaviours.
We, all things, are the masks of God, says Vedanta. What a strange, brilliant and inhuman actor he must be. What fun he must have even as wars rage and civilisations collapse.
Looking in the mirror each morning can fill you with wonder at the randomness with which that particular face and body were chosen to clothe your life.
No matter what masks we wear, our eyes stay the same. Often the compulsively smiling or supercilious mouth is the social mask while the soul’s portals, the eyes, are clouded, absent, in pain.
Long eye-gazing is what new lovers do. Falling in love is often falling into another’s eyes. The task is to not just see your own reflection. Narcissus cannot love another.
Avoiding eye contact is what many old couples do. The task is to maintain soul contact through the patina and habitudes of years.
Where infants have lacked the mirror of the warm maternal gaze of affirmation, identity is wobbly or cracked. Life may be spent vainly seeking affirmation in the mirror of others’ eyes. This narcissism now seems to have become something of an epidemic in our culture.
My definition of centredness: a complete absence of interest in mirrors both physical and human.
IT Aphorisms [posted 01/12]
Information gathering is like consuming mass-produced jelly. Knowledge is the effort of chewing your way through meat from an animal you have laboriously tracked through swamps and forests and then slaughtered yourself.
Because the spectacle, capitalist consumer society, knows nothing but information consumption, the labour of gaining knowledge in this society is inherently subversive.
Information deals with fragments and bytes. Knowledge deals in wholes and holons. Wisdom’s currency is silence.
The computer, by definition, can never reproduce the mind and its explicate, the universe. It is ontologically different: it is defined in all its workings by its basic technical structure of 1/0, yes/no, either/or, i.e. by dualism. The structure of the mind/universe, like poetry, is yes-and-no and both/and, i.e. non-dual.
Reading on screen, you quickly skim and scan the surface of information as if the text were an image made of letters floating on the shallows. Reading on paper, you are drawn deeply into the text and, thoroughly immersed, lose yourself as you swim with strong strokes in the complex currents of meaning.
Digitalisation is both potentially democratising and the totalisation of the Spectacle – Capital’s reign of the image – into the very pores of everyday life. Work, i.e. capital accumulation, becomes 24/7.
A computer in every child’s bedroom, a wall-length 3D TV in every living room and the real world dissolves into distraction. This very much suits the powers that be.
Computer screens, like TV screens, inherently hate long arguments. As talking heads are ‘bad (boring) TV’, so reasoning is ‘bad cyberspace’. The medium is the problem, not its contents.
Reasoning takes time, patience, listening. Previously, democracy and reasoning were considered coterminous. This is no longer the case. Where the sound bite and PR media event rule, democracy doesn’t.
Not exercised, the muscles of reasoning slacken and atrophy. The new muscles being exercised are those of scanning and shallow reading, twittering and sound biting, image projection and immersion. And, simultaneously, those of globalizing a One World consciousness.
Information technology and the internet are as ambivalent as capitalism, their matrix. Their potentials point towards the post-capitalist utopia of One Humanity, their actuality is crass commercialism and totalised state surveillance.
Only social and cultural revolution can liberate the democratic and anarchist potentials now nascent in anti- and post-capitalist cyber-phenomena like free software, open source, creative commons, wikis.
[The following aphorisms were first published here as posts in July 2011]
Good aphorisms are like good poems: sharp little pinpricks reminding you of what you know already.
Poetry is how cells communicate when they are healthy.
Poetry and psychology map the universe. Astronomy and physics map the soul.
The deepest sense of the universe can be gotten listening to the sound of a strong wind in pine trees.
A great sense of security in life can be provided by the certainty of the passing of the four seasons.
Looking in the mirror each morning can fill you with wonder at the randomness with which that particular face and body were chosen to clothe your life.
Trying to find your true self is like scientists trying to find the dark energy/matter that makes up ninety five per cent of the universe. Both are a matter of trying to find the dark with a torch.
Trying to find a reason for your cancer may be cancerous.
Like all other religions, socialism is one that has not been tried yet.
Anarchism is aristocracy democratised.
Mature anarchists are aristocrats without serfs.
Meditation is death’s way of getting you to practise it.
You don’t have to be a Buddhist to be a Buddhist.
The whole universe rests on the rock solid foundation of change and ambivalence.
There is nothing perfect in all the universe except the universe.
Democracy is inversely proportional to the number of followers and spectators.
Anarchism is democracy brought to its logical conclusion.
Anarchism is not anarchy but free, self-managed order.
As Zen to Buddhism or Dadaism to art, so anarchism to socialism: the anti-Ism ism.
As long as violent anarchism is not an obvious oxymoron, it will merely strengthen oligarchic power. Violence is always the language of power and domination.
The Achilles’ heel of all oligarchic power is a movement of non-violent, mass civil disobedience. The Achilles’ heel of all resistance to, and abolition of, such power is violence.
I have never understood what, apart from the obvious physical features, the difference between men and women is supposed to be. The same goes for people of different nationalities and races.
Like other forest biota, a good forester is an expression and tool of the forest.
The wise gardener, like the wise poet, knows paradise is a lot of work and a lot of letting go.
The small organic orchard is one that trains and enriches the orchardist as he trains and enriches it.
Physically, chemically and mentally separated by the veil of money, the commercial farmer has neither the time nor inclination to pay close attention to his or her land. That is why it is being ruined. You cannot love a thousand acre paddock of wheat or cotton.
In my utopian (‘good’) society there would be little shrines dotted about the country and cities. Each would contain a jug of fresh water and a small box filled with humus.
Perhaps children can be most quickly and simply taught about the mysterious beneficence of decay, decomposition and death by making and gardening with compost.
The core problem of schools is that they have always been too middle class. Children are born workers who want to DO practical, useful, creative things, not just talk about them, or, worse, be talked to about them. Children are also born poets, philosophers and aristocrats who want to get the widest possible view about everything in the known and unknown universe. Most of the many problems of the middle class school system stem from its structural repression of the practical, creative and philosophical.
A poet is simply someone who isn’t just star dust but knows it.
In the great poem the stars sing from the gutters. In bad poems there are just stars and gutters.
Where was the first moon landing achieved from: Cape Canaveral or the Caves of Lascaux?
Perhaps the perfect eulogy: he was kind, generous, and had a bit of bite. He contributed.