(Disclosure: This is another one of those philosophical posts that (optically, at least) has nothing to do with finance or investing. If you’re just here for the finance stuff you’ll probably be happier skipping it)
I’ve been slow to post on the blog lately. Partly because I moved houses recently, and partly because any remaining creative bandwidth had been eaten up by the idea for my most recent Epsilon Theory note.
Recently, a friend and I were texting about the meaning of life. (what? you and your friends don’t text regularly about the meaning of life?) My friend wrote that in the end, all you can really do is carry your cross to the finish line. I quite like this. It cuts right to the heart of the issue. There are no Answers. There is only Process. I did suggest adding an inscrutable Zen twist, however. My version:
In the end, all you can really do is carry your cross to the finish line. Except there is no finish line, there is no cross, and there is no you.
Must be something in the water lately as I discovered (only after my ET note was written) this Ribbonfarm post by Jacob Falkovich dealing with the “self” and cognition. The money shot:
When the part of your brain that monitors itself notices repeated patterns of thought it creates a high-level model called “self” that it can use for prediction. “I” am interpreting the sound as a stick hitting a woodblock. “I” suffer when in pain. “I” think of everything in terms of predictive processing. And “I” will likely continue to do so in the future.
But when a thought or interpretation arises that can’t be predicted from the habits of my mind, there is no reason to assign it to a consistent thinking “self”. The thoughts I’m used to thinking are mine, but the novel ones could be anyone’s or no one’s.
Have you ever had a random transgressive thought (or even a transgressive dream) that disturbed you? I certainly have. What’s disturbing about the experience is that some horrible idea originated within you. Some horrible idea that’s destabilizing to your conception of self. A “residual” in the predictive model for thought patterns.
Every religious tradition acknowledges the existence of these residuals. Broadly speaking, they’re sins. What differs across religions is how you treat them. In the Catholic tradition I was raised in, there is a whole guilt complex built up around our inherently sinful nature (it’s a bit less apparent in the kinder, gentler, post-Vatican II Catholicism I was raised with than the hellfire and brimstone Catholicism of my parents’ generation). Residuals represent corruption. To cleanse yourself of their taint, you seek absolution through confession and penance.
Zen takes a different view of the residuals. Among other things, it teaches you to see them for what they really are: random noise in your thought patterns. The Zen response to transgressive thought is simply to acknowledge it. Observe it the way you might observe a passing cloud. It will pass.
This is not at all to argue that the Zen tradition is “superior” to the Catholic tradition. It is, however, why I think Zen philosophy resonates more with me than the Catholic doctrine of my youth.
What I’ve found to be most challenging about Zen is squaring it with morality. Indeed, one of the most common reactions to my ET note was: I liked this but isn’t the message still that ‘nothing really matters’?
A true Zen master (which I am most definitely not) would whack us over the head with a stick for asking that question. Not only is it the wrong question, it is an irrelevant question. It is a question only a “deluded” mind stuck in a dualistic thought pattern would ask.
There is no good. There is no evil. The enlightened mind is beyond good and evil.
But doesn’t that mean you can justify anything?
Again, it’s the wrong question. Only a deluded mind requires an intellectual basis for moral action. Likewise, only a deluded mind would interpret “beyond good and evil” as “license to burn, rape and pillage.”
Put another way: even in religious traditions where a framework for determining “right” from “wrong” is made explicit, people still sin. Literally all the time. Hell, the Catholic Church I was raised in pretty much institutionalized the protection of child rapists. That fact doesn’t invalidate Catholic religious doctrine by any means. All religious institutions are flawed and corrupt to one degree or another, precisely because they are run by fallible humans. But it goes to show that a clear framework for moral behavior isn’t The Answer. To my eye, it’s not even half The Answer.
I conclude with a Zen story that addresses these “substance versus form” issues related to morality and moral action. It is one of my favorites.
Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling.
Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.
“Come on, girl” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.
Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”
“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”