Monthly Archives: April 2014

Life and death

I am sometimes asked whether Middle Way Philosophy offers a meaning of life, and what it has to say about death. I have often been hesitant in trying to offer perspectives on these kinds of questions, because there is such a long tradition of unhelpful metaphysical speculation about them. However, I think the Middle Way can be applied helpfully here, if only to challenge that tradition of speculation and point us back to experience. This post is the final chapter of my new introductory book, Migglism, which should finally be published within a week or so now. I have added it to the book recently in response to a useful suggestion from Mike Fedorski.

If we are to avoid metaphysics, there can be no meaning to life as a whole beyond the meaning that we experience. That may sound like a familiar truism – that the meaning of life is just what we make it. However, the Middle Way implies a couple of other points here as well. Not only is there no absolute metaphysical meaning to life, but there is no denial of meaning either – life is not meaningless, but rather full of the meaning we find in it. The other crucial point is that meaning is an incremental matter. We are not going to find meaning all at once, as a solution to all our struggles to find meaning. Rather, we can gradually increase the meaningfulness we encounter in life.

I suggest, also, that this incremental meaningfulness is found with our degree of integration. The meaning and value we find in life as a whole, after all, need be no different from the meaning and value we find in different specific things in life: for example, the momentary value we find in stroking a pet, or embracing someone we love. The problem with getting a meaning of life as a whole from these experiences is not that they are not meaningful in themselves, but that this meaning is momentary, and perhaps in conflict with the lack of meaning we may experience at other times. When I’m feeling frustrated in the office later on, the embrace of the early morning is already gone from my awareness.

Thus it seems that we should gradually find more meaning in life the more we become integrated, whether that integration is of desire (bringing our energies together), meaning (bringing our sense of significance together), or belief (bringing our views of the world together). The more we are integrated, the less likely we are to be caught up in inner conflict and frustration, and thus the more likely we are, on average and on the whole, to find life unified, meaningful and fulfilling.

This fulfilment is always relative to the circumstances we find ourselves in. If, for example, you are a citizen of Aleppo being constantly bombed by Syrian government forces during the Syrian civil war, you will spend most of your energy just dealing with extremely difficult and stressful external conditions. However, there will still be more or less integrated ways that you can respond to these conditions. The meaningfulness of your life in such circumstances could only really be measured against what it might have been in different circumstances, whether those circumstances were reasonably secure or even over-protected – not against some abstract absolute. Some people can be destroyed by difficulties, while others gain an intense sense of fulfilment by responding in an integrated way to them.

One of the basic conditions of difficult circumstances in life is the ever-present threat of death. Like other conditions in life, it seems that the key question is whether we can accept death and respond to it in a balanced way, rather than anything about death itself. Speculation about death itself is just a distraction from the Middle Way – whether such speculation involves beliefs about an afterlife (or reincarnation), or the denial of such beliefs. Our living experience gives us no purchase at all in justifying either affirmation or denial of afterlife beliefs, so, for example, the amount of debate about rebirth that distracts Buddhists who are otherwise interested in practising the Middle Way is rather unfortunate.

Death itself seems to be just a condition of life. It is something we are often inclined to forget that it is the temporariness of our living experience that makes it meaningful to us. An eternity of pleasure could be no more meaningful to a breathing, changing creature than an eternity of suffering, as we can only grasp the idea of pleasure or suffering in relation to an experience in which things change. The idea of such an eternity is thus just a symbolic abstraction. In practice, our pleasures are pleasurable and our pains painful only because they are impermanent, and the same could be said for life as a whole.Complaint_in_Hell

So, death is just a condition of life. It may be one that causes us anxiety, but anxiety is just another term for conflict between a part of us that is attached to living experience and a part that recognises the inevitability of death. If we can still that conflict, through integrative practice of one kind or another, there seems to be no reason why we should not make progress in stilling our fear of death.

I understand the sentiment that leads Dylan Thomas to write

Do not go gentle into that good-night,

But rage, rage against the dying of the light!

I read his poem as a protest against passivity and morbidity. It is possible to be too passive in the face of death, or too obsessed with the question of death. If we swap the immediate experience of living for a mere abstract idea of how we might adapt to death, we are merely distracting ourselves from the full use of the life that is available to us. However, I think Thomas’s mistake is to identify the acceptance of death with one partial feeling we have in life. Instead, I think acceptance of death probably comes through integration of our different desires in life. We do not have to fight against our fear of death, but rather incorporate the energy of that fear into an overall recognition that we can live life better in a full acceptance of its conditions – and those conditions include death.

Meditation 13: The Hindrance of Restlessness and Anxiety

So far in my look at the hindrances I’ve worked through sense desire (meditation 7), ill-will (meditation 9) and sloth and torpor (meditation 11). So now I reach the fourth hindrance, restlessness and anxiety. This might be especially timely, given that  we’re approaching the time of year when many students face the anxiety of examinations.

Restlessness and anxiety is the biggest hindrance for me, and, I suspect, for many other people. Perhaps that’s not surprising given that our age is sometimes described as the ‘age of anxiety’. As Steven Pinker documents, in most of the developed world outward conflict has declined. The long-term trend is for Phone_calls_can_cause_anxiety_in_select_individuals Nervous Nedless violent crime and fewer deaths in war. But perhaps that sense of safety has been purchased at the expense of anxiety, which is a sign of inner conflict. There is constant pressure on us to meet social expectations in a rather unpredictable environment, whether that’s through examinations, the market, sexual expectations, responsibility for vulnerable children, or the whims of powerful bosses. Our social environment is increasingly fluid, but also increasingly competitive, and competition breeds anxiety.

So, it’s not surprising that when we sit down (or even stand up) to meditate, anxiety is one of the things that readily surfaces. The distinction between restlessness and anxiety is an incremental one, resting on whether it’s more of a physical twitchiness or more of a mental rumination. The way I experience restlessness is just a sense that it’s impossible to stay on the cushion. Sometimes I even get up without reflection. Anxiety, on the other hand, is likely to take the form of a list of things to be done, or things that ought to be said, or other expectations that need to be met, all of which pile into your awareness, and make it apparently impossible to gain the basic stillness needed to settle into a meditation practice.

In my experience there is only one way of tackling this hindrance that has any chance of working, and that is physical awareness. The thing that can unify your divided, speedy, unreflective thoughts is simply the fact that you have a body, and that this body has sensations. Particularly, the centre of your experience in the lower middle of your body can act as a focal point for physical awareness. This might be aided by scanning all the parts of your body systematically and noting your sensations, or by focusing on the movements of your diaphragm as you breathe.

A good posture can really help this sort of awareness. Assuming that you are doing a sitting meditation, your sense of secure seatedness can also be given an edge of positive energy by aligning your spine in an upright but not rigid posture, and allowing energy to rise up your spine. In my experience, that energy by itself can begin to calm anxiety.

If you’re a bit more of a greed-type and less of a hate-type than I am, you might also find it helpful to reflect on something that inspires you. Rather than scrappy little ruminations that just reflect group pressure on your life, think about something that you really want and that nourishes you in the longer-term. It might be inspiring ideas, inspiring people, great works of art, awe-inspiring landscapes. If you realise that you’re anxious before you start meditating, reading a poem beforehand, or listening to exactly the right sort of calming music, might help you get into the right frame of mind.

Each reasonably successful meditation, where you find a centre, makes it slightly less likely that you will be quite so anxious next time round. But there are always still pressures of anxiety in our lives that make it likely that it will return. A lasting answer to anxiety requires heroic persistence and commitment.

Index of previous meditation blogs

Picture by Nervous Ned (Wikimedia Commons) – Creative Commons licence

John Sell Cotman. 1782 – 1842. The Greta Bridge. 1807.

Cotman_Greta-Bridge--Yorkshire,-1810Landscape painting in England between 1800 and 1850 became an important branch of art , it took on the status that History Painting once had, important artists at this time were J. S. Cotman, David Cox, Peter de Wint and Samuel Palmer.  Water – colour was the medium in which the British artist was at home, working outdoors was encouraged and many artists travelled around the country searching for scenery to draw and paint which inspired them. John Cotman’s work is part of the  Romantic movement of painting, together with painters like Constable and Turner to name two more. His tutor John Varley encouraged his pupils to ‘Go to Nature for everything.’ Landscape painting was often commissioned by wealthy landowners to portray their houses, their family and surrounding grounds.

Herbert Reid, the art critic wrote ‘ If art was merely a record of the appearance of nature the closest imitation would be the most satisfactory work of art and the time would be fast approaching when photography should replace painting.’ I wonder if that time has arrived as painting on canvas loses favour and ideas take form in other media.

A painter does not want to describe the visible appearance of the landscape but to tell us something about it, an observation or an emotion, but more often an original discovery of the artist which he/she hopes to communicate to us, Cotman transcends the mere representation of the picturesque rural scenes, his skill at design and use of colour takes his work to an interesting level. I would be interested to know what Cotman has communicated to you in this painting, does it embody what you consider to be a British landscape, is it the clarity of the light although the sky is cloudy, the drawing skill shown, the solidity of the rocks, bridge and building, the  illusion of distance, the colours or its poetic quality. A painting is more than the sum of its parts, does it make an instant impression on your senses?

I recently had the opportunity to look at one of Cotman’s paintings, exhibited alongside work by Turner in an exhibition at the Greenwich Maritime Museum, I liked its simplicity,  great skill is required to create simplicity, the success of a painting depends on the way a complicated image is portrayed, the spaces between are just as important. In The Greta Bridge we see reflections in the still water, as though the river was not flowing but as flat as a mill pond. Light bleaches out patches of the river water, to create greater contrast with the dark rocks.

Cotman taught himself to draw as a boy, his father was a silk merchant, he became a marine and landscape painter, etcher and illustrator. He lived in Norwich and was a member of the Norwich School which had been founded by the painter John Crome in 1808, by 1811 Cotman had become its president, he married Ann Mills and they had five children. Cotman was constantly worried about the family finances, he taught to supplement his income. Much of Cotman’s best work was created outside East Anglia, he went on sketching trips, encouraged by Turner. He lived on the coast of Great Yarmouth from 1812 – 23, where he studied shipping and the action of waves. In 1825 he became an Associate of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours, in 1834 he was appointed as Master of Landscape Drawing at King’s College School in London, the painter Rossetti was one of his pupils., In 1836 he became an honorary member of the Institute of Architects. His sons Miles Edmund and John Joseph also became painters. Cotman died in 1842.

The Norwich School had a conservative background influenced by Gainsborough and the Dutch landscape painters. One of Cotman’s patrons was Francis Cholmeley, Cotman spent time as a guest at Cholmeley Mansion near York where he held a summer school. During this time he painted a series of small water colours including The Greta Bridge.  To return to the painting, we see crisply defined shapes creating a feeling of mass and distance and contrasting light and shade along important edges. He used warm, dark colours in the foreground and cool green dark areas in the distance, it is said that the sky showed the influence of his old tutor John Varley. Cotman’s drawing skills along with the controlled washes of colour were painted on thick, absorbent paper, he created the work in a studio, working from pencil sketches and notes on colour made at the scene. He paints layers of colour on top of each other, not wet on wet, the usual method, but after each layer had dried, each layer is darker than the former. His canvasses are small and have an intimate quality, they would hang very well in my home!


Middle Way Thinkers 1: David Hume

This is the start of a new blog series on Middle Way Thinkers (the meditation series will continue, but with more varied contributors and less frequently). What I mean by a ‘Middle Way Thinker’ is a well known person of the past or present who has made a major contribution to our thinking about the Middle Way. There is already a page on the Buddha on this site but not much on anyone else. I’m going to offer a bit of background and a summary of some key ideas of each figure, and try to distinguish their ideas that support the Middle Way from those I think less helpful. It’s not going to be restricted to philosophers, but may include all kinds of thinkers from different cultures and times.hume1

I’m going to start with David Hume (1711-1776) because I have such a soft spot for him, and he made such a creative contribution to philosophy, despite his mistakes and imperfections. Hume was born to a family of minor gentry in the borders of Scotland and attended university in Edinburgh at the age of 12 (normal in the eighteenth century!). He was given to philosophical reflection from an early age, but also inspired by the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ that was taking off during his life. He lived at various times in London, France and Edinburgh, but his major work A Treatise on Human Nature, was composed while he was on a kind of study retreat at a rural French college called La Fleche. He poured his amazingly new ideas into the Treatise, but it fell ‘still-born from the press’, as Hume put it, gaining few readers. Although he then tried to present his ideas in new forms (his two Enquiries), he eventually got so disillusioned with the lack of public response to his philosophy that he turned to writing history instead.

What’s so thoroughly important to the Middle Way in Hume is his emphasis on experience as the basis of our judgements. Although there were empiricists (such as Aristotle and Locke) before Hume, they were not nearly as thorough and rigorous in their allegiance to experience as Hume was. Unlike his predecessors, Hume applied the criterion of experience to areas like the self, causality, ethics and religious belief. Where his predecessors had been patchy in their allegiance to experience, sometimes falling back on dogma when the going got tough, Hume followed it through all the way.

For example, Hume recognised that you cannot actually experience a cause – all you experience are two events that you generally assume are linked because they occur so frequently in succession. One billiard ball hits another and apparently causes it to move, but we only have the frequency of their interaction as the basis to call this a ’cause’. Similarly, Hume recognised that when we look inside our experience we don’t actually find a self, just a lot of experiences of thoughts, feelings etc. that we tend to assume are ‘ours’. The ‘me’ label that we apply to these is just a label, as we don’t find a separate ‘me’ amongst the thoughts and feelings.2-tined fork

But perhaps Hume’s biggest achievement, in my view, is what is often known as ‘Hume’s Fork’. You can imagine Hume’s fork as a binary choice, like a fork in the road, and it applies to claims. Either, he said, a claim tells us something relevant to experience, or it tells us something about the relationships between ideas. We can’t accept that claims about relationships between ideas tell us anything relevant to experience. Here is the blistering way he puts this in the rousing finale of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning of quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matters of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

I think this is the first attack on metaphysics in Western philosophy. He was basically pointing out that a claim that is only concerned with the ultimate and abstract zone beyond experience (what philosophers call the a priori) can do not more than tell us about the conventions that we apply when trying to understand the universe. It tells us nothing about the universe itself, or for that matter about ourselves or our values. To assert that it does is deluded in a very basic way that confuses the sign with the reality. In this sense he was independently revisiting some of the insights of the Buddha.

However, as with every other philosopher, there are also ways that I think Hume veered significantly from the Middle Way. I think his biggest mistake was the fact-value distinction, which he virtually invented. Hume assumed that because we need to justify our beliefs in terms of experience, we have to confine our beliefs to factual ones that can be justified through scientific observation. A justifiable ethics for him would also have to be based on factual observation about acceptable moral attitudes in society. This popularised the regrettable assumption, that haunts a lot of Western thinking to this day, that ethics is inherently subjective – in contrast to ‘facts’ which can be absolutely objective. This is a false dichotomy for which we have paid with much confusion.

Nevertheless, on the whole I tend to find Hume an inspiring figure. He was a courageous figure prepared to think things through, defy the establishment, and trenchantly reject dogma wherever he found it. But despite his free-thinking, he was no dour Scottish puritan – rather an imperfect human figure who liked a good dinner and enjoyed the pleasures of friendship.

Some web links on Hume: