“What… is water?” asks the fish

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.

David Foster Wallace

I got into a merry debate with the lovely Pink Agendist about choosing day-dreaming versus being in the moment that ultimately elicited that we broadly agree: reality is a hugely interesting topic. In his touching speech, David Foster Wallace says :

The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

In a disarming manner, he admits that he isn’t saying anything ground-breaking. His point, however, is that it is so hard to keep the important thoughts in front of us that they are worth repeating. It seems that from Buddhists to Seneca to Darwin, the main philosophical thought that resonates with me is: be aware and adapt. Even in his seemingly grim Letter 61, Seneca says:

Let us set our minds in order that we may desire whatever is demanded of us by circumstances, and above all that we may reflect upon our end without sadness.

Few concepts send my mind into a spin like this. Part of me resists: humans accomplished what they’ve accomplished by defying their odds, not by accepting what is demanded of them. Siberia demands that you freeze to death or leave, for example. However, I think it is a misinterpretation on my part. Seneca is instead saying: find a way to use this situation. What is demanded is that one figures out how to chop wood and sustain a fire, so one has to manage themselves in such a way that they could do this eagerly and well. This one sentence explains the nature of cognitive behavioural therapy used today: changing one’s mind will change one’s emotions – and how one behaves. The point isn’t to idolise Seneca. I am sure that many generations of John the Caveman said it before him. The point is that the concept is as relevant today as it ever was.

Another part of me says: what are the circumstances – and what do they demand? I made a little graphic to show the nature of my confusion. Understanding the circumstances may require the sort of insight that I am not even aware exists.

developing self awareness though mindfulness

I haven’t figured out another way to get closer to understanding any of the above other than through mindfulness and reading the works of philosophers that stood the test of time. Even then, reading a philosopher’s thoughts is secretly wishing that someone else has it all figured out. This is another brilliant point that David Foster Wallace brings up: even if one doesn’t think that they have a religion, they still worship something – and have some kind of default setting:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship… The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings.

Just like Pema Chodron explains, it is part of human nature to assume that someone else has the answer. After all, that is what we are conditioned to believe as children through the behaviour of adults – they always know best. When we ourselves become adults, that void is then filled with some kind of worship. The only way to snap out and have the ability to choose again, even for a moment, seems to be by being in the moment.

I am tangentially involved in game development and recently came across a game called The Stanley ParableIt involves a corporate employee and his choices. The game is incredibly philosophical, touching on the concept of choice and free will – and I couldn’t do it justice here. However, if you have nothing to do on a dark January night, it will rock your world.

Have a mindful weekend, everyone.

28 Comments Add yours

  1. Anony Mole says:

    “Everybody worships.” Yes, I suppose that’s true. But I believe for a different reason.
    The fact that everyone alive right this moment has chosen to forgo the reality that life, all life, all matter, ultimately, has no meaning. That the heat death of the Universe WILL occur, and that no matter what you do, you will die and all of your descendants will die and that all you or they will have ever created will be turned to dust. This is the truth.

    But we all choose to ignore it. In a way we worship a fallacy that we, ours, everyone, everything has purpose. We don’t know what that is, but we believe it.

    Rather than an inconvenient truth — it’s a convenient falsity. Life abhors questioning life.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Perfectly true; but we can create “collateral meaning”. Meaning in an effort to decrease suffering. That has value in and of itself.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Anony Mole says:

        I would consider your concept of “collateral meaning” as an adjunct to the general theory of intentionally creating meaning for the sake of meaning. I get your point, but it’s somewhat of a tautology, no?

        My comment, which side tracked Martina’s post, was only meant to point out that our awareness of the water in which we swim is an extension of our unintentional distancing from the true reality of existence. I realize that the doctor’s post was a more focused, or “in vs out of-the-moment” reference to our surroundings. Whereas I might consider our unintentional disregard of our true position in time and space a necessary provision of existence. We *must* ignore the water, the matrix, our being, in order to survive. For true examination and acceptance of our situation would only, in my opinion, prove to be ultimately nihilistic. And once you’ve achieved a perfectly nihilistic state — it’s time to die.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Wow, you’re going to have to elaborate. I am currently writing about nihilism in the context of Christianity, Buddhism and stoicism. You mean to say that you think there is absolutely no meaning and no absolute truths?

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Anony Mole says:

        In my view, if you examine the complete picture of the Universe, its existence and its eventual demise, then yes, there exists no meaning of any kind.

        Humans, and life in general, does not like to stand at that edge of nihilistic totality. So, we back away from it (because, you know — we’re life), and create versions of meaning, and purpose. And it’s these contrived truths that we adopt as life’s purpose, whichever variation one cares to select and make one’s own (like reducing suffering, or achieving nirvana or happiness, or joining your personal god.)

        The Universe itself would have to have purpose from which life would be able to extract its own purpose. But since it doesn’t, and its eventual heat-death ensuring that nothing lasts beyond it, guarantees this, life, therefore, has nothing to base its own purpose on. Any purpose life, us, manufacturers as our personal meaning, is exactly that, manufactured, contrived.

        Now, I don’t spend much time at the edge. I acknowledge it exists, but, for now, allow my DNA to maintain dominion over my existence. My DNA *wants* me to find meaning. Of course DNA can’t *want* anything, but its evolved programming results in organisms which are preprogrammed to derive meaning from nothing. DNA is inherently biased to avoid permanent destruction and for highly cognizant organisms adopting a meaning or purpose in life helps it avoid such annihilation.

        Most days the burden of life’s struggles do not exceed DNA’s biases. But, I suspect, there will come a time when they more often do. At which time, I should think, I would embrace the nihilistic totality.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Hmm, I’m not sure I understand. You acknowledge that your DNA yearns for meaning and our psychology needs it to. I agree that that in and of itself doesn’t produce meaning. However, just because something will cease to exist doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful – as far as I am concerned. Is that where we differ?

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Anony Mole says:

        I think there is meaning because we may choose that there be meaning. It maybe that you believe there is meaning outside of our choosing it to be so.

        Was there meaning before the universe? Will there be meaning after it’s gone? Was there meaning before humans became cognizant? Will there be meaning after the last conscious entity dissolves into the nothing? I think not.

        To me, the concept that there might be meaning in between these events is a false one. And that any aspect of meaning is a construct created by our minds (a product of evolution) to assuage the existential conflicts of our temporary existence. Fun stuff!

        Liked by 1 person

      6. So you’re saying it is more or less a choice – because the ultimate truth is unknowable. Agreed. And yes, I think it is in the eye of the beholder.

        Liked by 1 person

      7. Anony Mole says:

        I’m not omniscient, at least I don’t think so (grin), and I admit that there may be an ultimate truth that is unknowable, but I would have to point out that that statement, in and of itself, could be a rationalization that begets a certain meaning, a derived meaning. Since we can’t know the unknowable, there could be an ultimate truth, which would give an ultimate meaning to existence.

        Sure it’s possible, but more likely is that I just gave myself an out, given my amazing brain (or adequately capable brain). What are the odds in either of these being true? I’d wager against the unknowable truth only because I’m aware of how really good I can be at deluding myself. (And round and round we go eh? More and more fun stuff!)

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      8. Ok, there may be objective truth, but I don’t think there is objective meaning. I think that’s just too much to take on. I am indeed more interested in the psychology of it than the philosophy. We don’t know how we came to be here; how can we know why…

        Liked by 1 person

      9. Anony Mole says:

        If there was an ultimate truth I might be able to derive an ultimate meaning from it.

        I wrote trading software for 10 years. From that I learned that every event, every possibility has a probability. Every fact we *know* is only a fact now and that there is the possibility, albeit small, that we’re wrong, about everything.

        Everything I’ve mentioned so far has been contained in the expectation that at the end of the end, regardless of the how or the why we’ve extracted from all that we’ve known, the Nothing will consume us. This “fact” is a probability. I don’t *know* the universe will come to an end. But I’d wager this is so. If I’m right, the how and the why just wouldn’t matter. If I’m wrong then anything is possible. But then again, we’ll never get to see this, and if I had to bet…

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      10. That’s solid logic. So you’re not a nihilist, you’re just short the universe 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      11. Anony Mole says:

        “The Universe is absurd, but we can create our own meaning within it.”

        Liked by 1 person

  2. GM Wallace says:

    We don’t clearly perceive the truths (i.e. the existential “water” in which we swim) we may feel we need to most often because it is a feature of the fundamental logical and self-referential incompleteness of questioning human being – it is a (or *the*) necessary blind-spot of intellectual self-inquiry. Existential questions tend to be of the Grand Narrative variety but I think that it has been some time since we collectively placed our faith in any one specific grand narrative – the fluctuating fads of politics and culture are indication enough of the poor introspective and material choices we all make of a regular basis, of the necessity for constant upkeep, maintenance and reorganisation of personal beliefs and ideology or adaptive strategy to the changing environment(s) we are embedded in. As the over-ripe Grand Narratives have gone somewhat off, we each appear to be left with little more than a montage of haphazard patchwork quilts of ideology and belief-from-experience to work with. It may all be about improvising with what information is available to us – it may always have been about this but now, in an information economy of such dramatic over-supply, the improvisation has become something of an unremitting, evolving, mandatory intellectual interpretive daily dance – just trying to keep up with the accelerating metamorphosis of the world. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Completely agree with you. I think it is also easier to buy into a Grand Narrative than to agree that there isn’t one – or indeed try to figure it out on one’s own.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. mrslmartini says:

    For Anthony Mole: Life has meaning, because it is happening in the moment. The fact that I will die, and all my descendants will die, and everything that ever was created will become dust, actually gives more meaning to each moment. In this moment I am alive, and I can be kind and bring love to others… what other meaning could there be need for?

    I really found the David Foster Wallace quote about worship to be inspiring. It is the second reference to him I have come across this week – the other was on Bill Gates’ blog – and I am SO inspired to read one of his books now…

    Everyday I see people engaged in worship – of television, technology, fashion, etc. – that is absolutely unconscious. I love the idea of looking deeply at where and what we worship, and questioning how it gives value (to our life or to others). Ultimately, I tell my children this: what is important in life is being who you are and then doing what you do to make the world as good as possible for others. And that’s all there needs to be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for connecting. I read you comment a few days ago and wasn’t sure where I stand on it. I agree with you about meaning vs nihilism – and writing about this at the moment. ” Perspective is a luxury in a busy household with small children, working parents and high expectations.” – gold!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Steve Ruis says:

    As a sports coach, I find many athletes desirous of competing in “The Zone.” Of course we aren’t quite sure what The Zone is but my working definition is competing subconsciously for extended periods of time. Giving our overlay of consciousness a vacation and allowing that part of us that really knows what to do results in excellent performances. Most of us, though, think that our conscious minds and the thoughts we can hear inside them are the only reality. This is sad and denying of our honest nature. Of course, our conscious minds can engage any number of rather stupid questions, mocked by comedian Bill Cosby in the routine “Why is there air?” Asking the question “why is the air the way it is” is a poor phrasing of the question “How did the air get to be what it is?” showing that we misuse and abuse the word “why.” The only response to the question “What is water?” is to throw some in the questioner’s face.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So interesting. I guess to me mindfulness is a way to engage with the subconscious. Once the never-ending chatter quietens, it is possible for other thoughts and feelings to bubble up. It is clear that a lot of our movements are initiated subconsciously (and some people argue that this means there is no free will). I think this is significant in the context of your work. I guess my question really is – what is hidden in plain sight.

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  5. Heero Yuy says:

    Fish doesn’t know because it was climbing a tree:

    “Everybody is a Genius. But If You Judge a Fish by Its Ability to Climb a Tree, It Will Live Its Whole Life Believing that It is Stupid.”

    Like

  6. It is to your credit as a scientist that you also pay attention to those such as Chodron. She is a very wise woman.

    Seneca’s words appear to me to be an early (for Western culture) description of mindfulness. “Let us set our minds in order that we may desire whatever is demanded of us by circumstances” speaks to the inevitable, the ‘what is.’ I’m an Existentialist or some might say a Phenomenologist by nature, so this makes perfect sense. Take what is given, then choose how to interact with it, or be prepared to do same. There are some rivers that cannot be forced.

    Second part of the quote, “…and above all that we may reflect upon our end without sadness,” is yet another existential encounter. I believe “it’s a good day to die” is attributed to Sitting Bull at Bighorn. And it’s a great life philosophy, at least for me. If we always keep death in our sights, we sharpen our senses to prioritize and live life as fully as we are able. It’s not a morbid outlook by any means, in its essence.

    I love your little meme 😉 These are all questions I asked when younger. And they are necessary to keep humanity moving forward, I think. Yet in the end, they only give rise to other questions. I once had a Philosophy professor I’ll never forget. She was a small, dark, intense woman who looked at me, one on one, and simply stated, “Let’s not ask why, so much as what. And how.” And perhaps I’ll leave it at that. Aloha, Martina.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your insights as always, dear Bela! What and how is already ambitious, never mind why. I am currently researching more into stoicism and working on a piece trying to figure out how it fits into mindfulness, major religions, etc. As for Chodron, she’s so interesting. I’ve only looked at one of her books, what are your thoughts on her?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think she’s fabulous especially for fear-based types. She grounds people in a sense of reality and helps them deal with it in a practical, self-loving way. David Richo is also excellent (don’t know if I mentioned it here, but I was a radio host for 9 years and on my show Alternative Currents, I interviewed many forward thinkers. I interviewed Richo twice in 3 years, I believe – he’s that good). He’s gives the same kind of practical, grounded advice. These are the five things we cannot change about life: 1) everything changes and ends, (2) things do not always go according to plan, (3) life is not always fair, (4) pain is a part of life, and (5) people are not loving and loyal all the time. His premise is that if we can accept these things, we live a more fulfilling existence. (His website is davericho.com).

        Hope you find this of interest, and enjoy your weekend, Martina! Aloha.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Very interesting stuff, I must study David in more detail. Acceptance is a big part of being able to figure things out. Thanks again for your comment – and I must find out more about your radio host career! Sounds super! Have a lovely weekend

        Liked by 1 person

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