The poverty of ideas

This is excerpted from a recent chat with a friend. Many of the ideas are taken from The Wisdom of Insecurity, an amazing book by Alan Watts. The discussion followed from this Zen quote:

A student once asked his teacher, “Master, what is enlightenment?” The master replied, “When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep.”

I don’t believe happiness lies in simply following the instincts of the body. Abstract thinking has its place too. It only goes wrong when it promises something more real than what is real. Take money for example: We look at money, and think of all the things we could do with it, all of which are ideas – projections into unknown futures, concepts of a life with that money – none of which are what would really happen if we had it. Thought is saying our life is imperfect, and that it offers the way to perfection. This is what ideas/belief systems/schools of thoughts are always doing: “Life is dirty, plain, coarse, while X is the ultimate nirvana of bliss and joy”, where X might be: wealth, a beautiful woman, heaven, holiness, etc. All of them, concepts. Our soul cannot live on concepts. It becomes anemic, starving. In response to which, we are offered ever better systems of thought to accomplish our needs. See how the cycle goes?

Without ideas, one cannot indicate where happiness lies. The only truth is that in the midst of all this, life is. Or rather, what we symbolize by the word “life”. So the first task is to abandon concepts as a substitute for life, while accepting all that life is. I’m beginning to think this is what Zen calls “enlightenment” – and that it’s just the beginning.

For it’s as though we dwell within an amazingly accurate reproduction of life inside our minds – a kind of mental, virtual reality – except the reproduction is so lifeless as to be ridiculous! It’s like making paper dolls of all our friends, out of our concepts of them, and then hiding away in a house to play with them so as to be free from the inscrutability of real people. We can try so hard to protect ourselves from the insecurity of life that we cease to live it. Therein lies the first and greatest cause of unhappiness.

It’s even worse when it’s not our own system of thought, but those of family, church, society, because we may not even like the thought castles we’ve locked our soul into. Yet still we do it, for the security it claims to offer in the form of others’ approbation.

In order to give up the world of concepts – this kingdom of names – we must love what life is, including all death, pain, sorrow, agony, since these are no less “life” than pleasure, joy, and bliss. But owing to the agony of these differences, consciousness shrinks away from the fullness of life, running away into worlds of the mind where a false hope offers only joy. This must end in a quality-less stasis, however, since sorrow is what makes possible the perception of joy.

I think, once we taste of the real bittersweetness of life, we will find that nothing else is needed to appreciate being alive. How is life ever lacking? If there is sorrow or pain, it means joy and pleasure are all the more piquant when next we find them. So perhaps happiness is a question of the depth of our awareness – our vision – and not the constant changes that ideas favor.