The phrase ‘This too shall pass’ just jumped into my head, so I decided to look up its meaning online. Wikipedia describes it as ” a proverb indicating that all material conditions, positive or negative, are temporary.” It instantly made me think of the Buddhist concept of impermanence.
It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! — how consoling in the depths of affliction!
Which is a great way of expressing the meaning and power of the saying. In happy times it reminds you that they will not last for ever, and in sad times, likewise.
In Buddhism, impermanence is a central idea. Nothing is permanent in our world, everything arises and passes away and is always in flux, and indeed, our suffering, misery and dissatisfaction comes from the fact that we desire and strive for things to be permanent – when they cannot be.
Interestingly, there is more to the Lincoln quote, where he unfortunately misses the point:
And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.
He still strives for the comfort of something that can be eternal and ever lasting – when nothing ever will be. This is the conflict that causes suffering, we will always be disappointed when what we hope will last forever dissolves. He wishes for a ‘prosperity and happiness’ that will always continue and grow, in a world where everything is always changing and breaking down.
Indeed, looking back in a modern light, isn’t this quest for an always ‘onward and upward’ prosperity what is getting the world in so much trouble?
Alas – happiness and prosperity definitely pass. But so too shall austerity and depression.
All things must pass – as George Harrison once sung.
Over on Boing Boing they are running a week of posts celebrating the life and work of Robert Anton Wilson. RAW is one of my favourite writers and thinkers. For some reason I don’t tend to reference him much on here – something I should rectify, but he’s one of those people who really broadened my mind and challenges my preconceptions, and has been highly influential to me. This clip below sums up the kinds of thing that Bob weaved together (Quantum Mechanics, belief systems, “the map is not the territory”, naive realism, religion, Zen Buddhism, the I Ching, skepticism and more…)
For some reason The KLF popped into my head earlier. I was musing on Twitter about how great they were when Caesar Lopez sent me a clip of the duo on The Late Late Show discussing with Gay Byrne their burning of one million pounds. The interview is fascinating – Gay Byrne is clearly mystified by the duo and their action, even going so far as to call them ‘weird people’.
It threw up some really interesting points. Byrne, speaking on behalf of the shocked and appaled citizens of the world, argues that they could have given the money to charity. Bill Drummond makes two excellent retorts – firstly, if they had of spent the money on ‘swimming pools and Rolls Royces’ people wouldn’t have been upset, which Gay Byrne concedes. The act of destroying the money is wrong – but spending it on superflous luxury items instead of helping the needy is not. This exposes an amazing hypocrasy.
Us burning that money doesn’t mean there are any less loaves of bread in the world, any less apples, and less anything. The only thing that’s less is a pile of paper.
Byrne retorts, saying there could have been more bread and apples. Drummond repeats that they did not destroy any tangible goods.
Byrne and the audience do not buy (or understand?) his line of thinking.
Joe Elliot of hair-rockers Def Leppard butts in, saying “I used to talk like that when I was 16”, and the audience also wade in with hostility, and there is a general air of bewilderment. There is also a great moment where Byrne asks “Why are you here?” to which he is answered “Because you invited us….” (It’s really worth watching…some great moments)
I never really understood the K Foundation burning the million pounds until this point. And as I watched it, I kept thinking of Alan Watts’ arguments about wealth and money
What wasn’t understood then, and still isn’t really understood today, is that the reality of money is of the same type as the reality of centimeters, grams, hours, or lines of longitude. Money is a way measuring wealth but is not wealth in itself. A chest of gold coins or a fat wallet of bills is of no use whatsoever to a wrecked sailor alone on a raft. He needs real wealth, in the form of a fish rod, a compass, an outboard motor with gas, and a female companion.
Maybe it was a really foolish act, but at the very least it gets people talking about something which is never really talked about, and now more than ever needs to be – our relationship with money and our concepts of what money really is.
She argues that the culture of ‘positive thinking’ that tries to convince people that their very real problems will be solved if they simply adopt a positive mindset is delusional, cruel and dangerous. She deftly dismantles the idea that our thoughts can somehow physically change our environment – that by wishing for something we can somehow manifest it, and in doing so also demonstrates this can be a destructive act.
She’s right of course – you cannot manipulate your reality by simply thinking positively. I know – I think we all know – people who are like this. I know people who berate me for not being positive about certain things – almost to the point of suggesting they my apparent negative attitude causes the problems or at least supports them.
What stood out for me however was when she was talking about how things like quantum science is used to attempt to prove the power of positive thinking. She gave an example of a general argument:
Nothing is real. Nothing is true. Whatever you think, that’s how the world is. So, if you think positively you make the world positively according to this pseudo scientific explanation.
This, she implies is the general idea that
You can change the world with your thoughts.
What immediately leapt into my mind is the opening lines of “The Dhammapada” one of the oldest and most revered Buddhist texts.
We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Which appears on the surface to suggest a direct link between thought and the ‘world’.
Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.
It also states:
Speak or act with a pure mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakable.
This too may seem to suggest ‘positive thinking’ – there appears to be a direct cause and effect between state of mind and positive or negative outcomes. This, however, is a misunderstanding and one which I think leads to Buddhism often being dismissed along with various self-help things, positive thinking or ‘new-age’ ideas.
There are a number of ways in which what the Buddha is saying is not endorsing the power of ‘positive thinking’.
One requires understanding of how reality is viewed in Buddhism. Many schools of thought, certainly in Mahayana Buddhism, argue that there is only mind. There is no objective reality ‘out there’ – all phenomena are nothing but mind, and all perceptions are mind. The only way to know things exist is with the mind, so there is no way of knowing anything beyond your mind, so the only reality is mind. So in a crude way, Ehrenreich’s sample argument that she dismisses that:
Nothing is real. Nothing is true. Whatever you think, that’s how the world is.
Is not entirely untrue from a Buddhist perspective, but only again in the most crude way. It is enough to say that the Mahayana viewpoint of reality stresses the non-duality of mind and ‘the world’.
This is, however, a hugely complex subject and one I am certainly not learned enough in to tackle in any big way – suffice to say that this view removes any kind of separation between perceiver and perceived, thus ‘with our thoughts we make the world’ becomes a much more literal statement. If you want to know more about this, I highly recommend “Contemplating Reality: A Practitioner’s Guide to the View in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism” by Andy Karr which is a really thorough explanation of the Buddhist view of reality.
In more practical terms however, I think what the Buddha is saying is not only not an endorsement of positive thinking, but indeed agrees with Ehrenreich’s argument. It also points out aspects of the debate that she does not touch on.
Having laid waste to ‘positive thinking’ and ‘negative thinking’ to boot, Ehrenreich’s ‘radical suggestion’ is ‘realism’. She argues that we should try to figure out what is actually happening in the world and see what we can do. We should not pre-tint our glasses as we gaze at reality – we should see it as it is and act accordingly. This is exactly what Buddhism teaches, and through the basic practice of mindfulness meditation encourages us to train in and cultivate. The Buddha formulated his great truths and the path to liberation by meditating and seeing reality how it really is. He did not ‘think positively’ and affect change – he inspected reality and discovered the truth. He was concerned with the here and now, and what was arising, through diligent awareness of the mind and body.
So, the Buddha does not urge us to ‘think positively’ – indeed the words he used were:
Speak and act with a pure mind.
Pure is not the same as positive. A pure mind is unblemished – it is not preconceiving anything but simply accepting reality as it is. We are then urged to ‘speak and act’ with this mind.
The Buddha then said that to do so :
happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakable.
You may argue – does this still not claim a physical reaction or positive gain from mental states? Note however that the Buddha said speak and act. These are physical actions with consequences in the real world. Thought alone is not enough. Ehrenreich’s position is that ‘positive thinking’ alone will not achieve anything – and she is right. But by acting in a manner which is inspired by a pure mind, the Buddha argues will have positive benefits.
If you go about your day with an angry mindset you will act accordingly – and those actions will bring trouble. Similarly, if you go about your day with a ‘positive’ mindset you may act in a way which is inappropriate, your perceptions and understanding fogged by a mindset which is preloaded and not in tune to reality.
The Buddha claims that happiness will come if you speak and act from a pure viewpoint – one in tune with reality. One could do this by following Ehrenreich’s advice.
Try to figure out what is actually happening in the world and see what we can do.
Both argue that we should inspect reality as-it-is, without false mindsets to influence us, and act accordingly.
So before your mind starts to analyze, accept everything that exists as the contents of your life. Open your eyes and see all beings vividly, as they really are, right now, right here. That is called Right Seeing, the first step of Shakyamuni Buddha’s Eightfold Noble Path. After that, with a calm mind, profoundly think what you intend to do. Then, whatever it is that you do, do it wholeheartedly.