Sunday, August 2, 2015

Transience and Death

"Some things are rushing into existence, others out of it. Some of what now exists is already gone. Change and flux constantly remake the world, just as the incessant progression of time remakes eternity. We find ourselves in a river. Which of the things around us should we value when none of them can offer a firm foothold?"
-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6-15
The truth of transience is, ironically, one of the pillars of my always-emerging worldview. The above quote is from Roman emperor and Platonic Stoic philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius. The following are from the Buddha:
"So I say to you - this is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:
Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.

So is all conditioned existence to be seen."
-Diamond Sutra, ch. 32
 "People forget that their lives will end soon. For those who remember, quarrels come to an end."
-Dhammapada, ch. 1
The Green Belt, Austin

Perhaps Buddha would answer Marcus Aurelius's question ("which of these things around us should we value?") by saying that to be attached to any of these transient things would incur suffering, as attachment is the root of all suffering.

Yet, a Roman emperor has different priorities than a sage and spiritual aspirant. Firstly, there's an empire to run. You can't retreat to the hills or sit under trees all day when the people of the known world rely on you for safety and stability.

Stoicism is a philosophy that is geared towards action in the world. While Epicureanism and asceticism may be seen as escapist, stoicism is a brief respite before returning to life's struggles. Aurelius reminds himself of the transience of all things not to detach himself from them, but to put them in perspective.

When viewed in respect to death, the transient things of the world become somewhat insignificant. Everything dies. Nothing is permanent, or in the scheme of things even long-lasting. Yet these things are precious. Everything that exists only exists once, fleetingly. All experiences, all objects, all relationships, are born and die.
"The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff."
- Carl Sagan, Cosmos
"Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
-The Book of Common Prayer
When viewed in respect of the transient, death becomes a great unifier, the mother of all things, the womb returned to. Our component parts emerge from and enter into a great cycle of many cycles of birth and death, of form and dissolution.

We can think of things in terms of life because we do live. We can think of things in terms of death because we do die. This is part of the dual nature of living as a transient being.

Existential philosophy might wonder if there's a reason to exist. Knowing that one will die, and understanding that life inevitably entails suffering, one must elect life, choose life for one's self. The existential philosopher tortures themselves with why. "Why must I live, why must I live like this? Why must I live, whatever I am?"

The Stoic philosopher would understand the reason for their existence. The logos is the reasoning force behind everything, the rational underpinning of the universe, without which things would neither be born or die. Things exist because it is in their nature to exist, and their nature is part of a larger nature of the universe.

Buddhism talks about the idea of dependent origination - everything that arises, arises from something else. One's current experience of life is part of a karmic web, "karmic" here meaning "consequential."

So which things should we value, when all things dissipate? When the truth of transience brings all quarrels to an end, knowing as we do that nothing is permanent or self-existing, what should we worry about at all?

The fact is that we do value things, and we do worry about things. The "should" is a moral judgement, an afterthought, a reflection of the truth of transience. Bound as we are to these transient bodies, driven by pain and pleasure by the instincts that preserve our form while they can, we can do nothing else but prioritize the things that matter to us. Given not the inevitability of death, but the inevitability of life, we cannot help but attach value to the things in the world around us, and it is from the things we value that we derive meaning.

The human condition contains both the confusion and transcendence of being able to create new meanings for our lives. That we can imagine new things and bring them into existence seems to separate us from nature in important ways. Does a cat ever worry about ethics? Does a bird try to "find themselves?" Does a tree spend its latter years in regret about never reaching its full potential? Does the tree have goals at all?

No, probably not. So it seems foolish to turn to them for guidance.

This is the problem philosophy seeks to solve: how to live.

Some say there are no solutions in philosophy, only questions. However, to live, one must move forward with answers. Knowing as we do that all things are transient, all subject to birth and death, how does one move forward?

Balance seems to me the only wise option. One must hold in their minds both the importance and the insignificance of life. Important because it's fleeting, unique, beautiful - but insignificant in its powerlessness against death. One's impact on the world, on the continual churning of the logos, is ultimately very tiny and insignificant in the wider sense of time and space, but at the same time is vitally important to one's own experience.

What a privilege it is to be a thing that exists! How could one doubt their own importance when one is all one can be? If I were a universe I might think no more of myself than a speck of dust - but I'm a human being, and I'm bound by the joys and sufferings of this flesh.

The transcendent truth is that both views - the view of the universe and the view of the person - can only exist together. Identifying with only one or the other will inevitably lead to suffering. Much philosophy attempts to escape this life while remaining inside it, as even suicide prevents escape by destroying the one attempting to do so. But truly, there is no escape. Even in the deepest meditation, in the stillest mind and body, the logos unfolds ceaselessly.

To be or not to be - a useless question. To be and not to be - the only way to truly live.