Beyond Suffering

Freedom is not something you get; it is something you reveal. Thus, since freedom is what you have and what you are already, it cannot really be taken away from you. Oppression, either from without (government, authority, etc.) or from within you (guilt, fear, complacency) can make it seem that your freedom has been “taken away;” but these oppressors actually do no more than cover freedom, encrust it, enshroud it.

The means of ego — both institutional ego and its dark reflection within the individual — are insidious. Ego is a vortex of language that pulls you ever deeper into itself, while presenting a relatively calm or clear surface. A few examples may better illustrate this point.

Consider the following expression: “suffering is a natural (or essential) aspect of life.” It seems true or at least reasonable, that is, consistent with lived experience as we generally know it. We all suffer during our lives, so it appears senseless to question the idea that suffering is natural to life. This, of course, is the apparent meaning of the Buddha’s “noble truth” — all life is suffering (the question of whether the Buddha actually meant that it is so by Nature would lead us to a separate discussion).

So there you have a belief, and a very compelling, even a powerful belief at that. Let’s see where it might lead us.

“There is nothing I can do about my suffering — I can fight it, certainly; I can become noble through it; but I cannot escape it.” This is a fairly logical step from the primary belief in suffering as natural to life; yet this new belief adds something — a sense of helplessness before the “reality” of suffering.

A further step of belief takes us into ever darker waters of this vortex. For after helplessness come despair and then judgment: we find ourselves cast into the regions of Hell, often without a guide such as Dante had. Then comes ego’s bitter reprisal against Nature: there must be something wrong — with Nature, with life, and therefore with me — for there to be such suffering. This, in turn, opens the door for guilt and self-abasement to enter.

For our purposes here, I’ll set aside the myths and commandments used by religions and other authority-based belief systems to both entrench and benumb the personal sense of the inevitability of suffering. It will be better to remain on the psychological plane here; but remember that these systems of belief only tend to make the problem worse (long ago, God came to Earth and suffered just like, and even more than, you do now; so stop complaining).

As you can see by now, once you’ve allowed yourself to be drawn into the vortex, the only way out is down, further into the spinning darkness relieved only by an artificial and catechismal light. This, incidentally, helps to explain the emotional, rhetorical, and often physical violence of the true believer: he lives deep within that vortex, and must make everyone around him feel its misery as he does.

So, what is the way out, if such a thing is possible? To find a way toward an answer to that question, we have to return to where we started.

Once again, freedom is what you truly are; not some remote treasure that you must struggle to obtain. We “lose” freedom only when we bury it in fear, paper it with lies. Thus, the way to freedom from suffering is not denial, but retreat. Let’s go back to the first premise of ego’s destructive syllogism, and really examine it.

Suffering: An Empirical Analysis

We will begin with a plain, empirical approach: what scientific evidence is there that suffering is a natural and necessary part of living? Most scientists would tell you that this is a question that simply lies outside their proper bailiwick: suffering is not a natural force like gravity or electromagnetism. It is not physical matter or measurable energy, but rather a judgment made about both lived and observed experience. Suffering boils down here to certain signals activated within the brain or nervous system in response to environmental or organic corruption, invasion, or disease. There is little more to say about it scientifically than that it is almost certainly not a universal phenomenon: that is, for example, so far as we know, light and matter entering a black hole do not “suffer” from being sucked in and subjected to the extremes of pressure and quantum distortion that make them seem to become annihilated. What actually happens to them is rather that they are ported through extra dimensions into another universe.

So science appears perplexed or at least silent before our foundational premise of suffering, even if much of its practical activity (in fields such as medicine, applied physics and chemistry, etc.) is devoted to attenuating suffering. There is no evidence that suffering is an essential aspect of Nature; only that humans and other life-forms seem to experience it. The scientist, if pressed on the point, would probably admit that the premise, “health, joy, and well-being are essential aspects of Nature,” is equally valid.

The Personal Approach: Daily Unburdening

We seem to be left, then, to test these competing premises in our own lives, our own experience. But rather than accepting one or the other of them, let’s try an experiment in unlearning what we have unblinkingly accepted as true. For nearly all of us, that would be the premise that suffering is an inevitable part of living, as natural as breathing, eating, and defecating. To unlearn something as concretized and deep-set as the suffering premise, we will have to turn within, for that is where we can best reveal and employ our freedom to choose.

Neuropsychologists are beginning to understand that, in terms of “the relationship between language and action, [research] supports the philosopher Wittgenstein’s view that language ‘is woven into action’.” That is, our words become a part of our bodies; when we accept something as true, it becomes a physical part of our selves. What we affirm and what we reject very much determine who we are — this, we find, is true even of those in supposedly “vegetative” states.

Yes and No: perhaps the two most potent words we have. This is one of the foundational aspects of our animal nature; you don’t need a graduate degree in neuroscience to understand this, because you already know it.

Well then, what do we do with this knowledge; how can we make it work for us? By practicing it consciously, in ways that have been clear to philosophers and visionaries from the most ancient times forward. It is a process that the poet Lao Tzu called “daily unburdening.” That is, you let your mind benefit from the same kind of daily elimination that your body uses to remain healthy.

We will return to that practice later. First, however, a little background: this practice of using yes and no as the active guidance system of the organism that leads it through life and holds it to its natural center, its holographic region of inner stability — this practice is a psychological phenomenon. That is, it brings mind and body into a primary unity that successfully handles all the problems, challenges, and questions that are, or seem to be, presented to either separately.

There is a psychological answer, rooted in yes and no, to every situation and problem in lived experience. On the plane of daily life, choice is, or should be, always an option. But at the philosophical level, where mind tends to work alone, the situation is different. Once again, an example will illustrate the point better than dry explanation.

Is the Universe Infinite?

Is the universe, or the cosmos, finite or infinite? This is a fairly serious question for scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers. Infinity is by now embedded into some of the core ideas and even practical applications of both traditional math (calculus) and the “new mathematics” (nonlinear dynamics among them); and in numerous fields connected to some real-world applications, such as nanotechnology research, astrophysics, and computer programming.

The consensus appears to be (a) that infinity is “real”; and (b) that the universe is infinite. But there are some prominent voices of dissent to be heard, and they cannot be brushed aside. Some mathematicians say that infinity itself is an absurdity, and therefore assert that we must assume a finite mathematics — i.e., on in which there is a “greatest number” that in turn leads us back to zero. By the same token, there are astronomers and astrophysicists who believe that the assumption of an infinite cosmos is simply too irrational and loaded with impossible consequences to be taken seriously. They point out that an infinite universe entails not merely the possibility, but the necessity, that everything and everyone that exists also exists simultaneously in every possible form across the universe. That is, I am now writing here, just as I am, in another part of the universe (or in a “multiverse” — a separate universe); and my life is being lived in all its infinite (or near-infinite) possible moment-to-moment variations across the length and breadth of the infinite cosmos. The “infinity-deniers” in the astrophysics community offer the concept of a space-time continuum that wraps back, or folds upon itself, as one theoretical explanation for a finite universe. That is, the universe is indeed vast — vaster than our minds can probably conceive — but it is limited because of the very nature of space-time.

The proponents of infinity, who appear to be the majority, have some very solid circumstantial evidence on their side. There is no such thing as a “highest possible number,” because any number that you identify can always have one added to it. Their reasoning is similar in matters of astronomy: space, even with its warps and woofs, extends infinitely — if you come to the “end” of space, what do you think you’ll encounter beyond it? In addition, they add that infinity “fits” into numerous theorems and formulas that guide both theory and practical application in mathematics, physics, and astronomy.

So, it appears to be one of those fundamental intellectual questions that may probably never be conclusively answered: is the universe finite or infinite?

My answer would be: neither. Not both — just neither. Clearly, this is going to require some explanation.

I say, “not both,” because to say that the universe is both infinite and finite would be a game of intellectual tag — a meaningless response in the same way that some people say, “all religions are true.” We can take the question seriously or ignore it entirely; but we cannot address it lazily.

So why “neither,” and what’s better or clearer in that answer than “one or the other” or “both”? To find out, we’ll need to spend some time with the most famous kitty-cat in the history of science.

You’ve probably heard of Schrodinger’s Cat — a thought-experiment published in a German science journal by Erwin Schrodinger. He imagined an experimental apparatus involving a cat locked in a box with a geiger counter containing a small amount of a radioactive substance. If an atom of that substance should decay (Schrodinger posited an equal probability that it would and would not in a given time period), the geiger counter would activate a relay that would send a signal to a hammer that would respond by shattering a vial of poison, instantly killing the cat. Now, he asked, at any time before the box is opened and an observation is made (the cat is dead or it is still alive) — what is the state of the cat? Based on standard quantum mechanical reasoning, Schrodinger showed that the answer to this question must be that, until an observation is made and the “wave-form” of the probabilities describing what is (or is not) happening inside the box collapses (that is, one set of probabilities vanishes in the presence of observation or measurement) — the cat must be described as both dead and alive at the same time.

Schrodinger’s purpose in proposing this “experiment” was to highlight both the peculiarity and inevitable absurdity of standard quantum mechanical thinking — that is, the experiment would create a condition in which the cat was simultaneously alive and dead. Obviously, our intuition tells us that you can no more be half-dead than a woman can be half-pregnant. A creature is either, at any moment, still living or is now dead. As Einstein wrote to Schrodinger in his comment on the experiment, “one cannot get around the assumption of reality, if only one is honest.”

This was, and remains, a problem for quantum mechanics, because scientists realized that the very thought-model that Schrodinger was keelhauling for its inherent absurdity with his cat-experiment was, and remains, a model that has excellent validity, reliability, and predictive accuracy. In other words, the same model, with all its strange rules, that Schrodinger demonstrated to be surreal to the point of nonsense, is the very model that quantum mechanics and its practitioners rely upon in both their theoretical work and its practical applications.

So, applying this historical debate to our question, “is the universe finite or infinite?”; we see that Schrodinger would entirely agree with us that the answer, “both” is ridiculous to the point of meaninglessness. You can no more have a universe that is infinite and limited at the same time than you can have a cat who is alive and dead at once. Yet as we have seen, the infinite universe model answers a lot of both theoretical and practical questions that no other model can, even though it leads to some seemingly untenable consequences, and the finite model is perfectly adaptable to every practical application we know of. One mathematician was known to throw his hands in the air and say, “on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, the universe and mathematics are infinite — on the other days of the week, they’re not.”

We have reached this point in our struggle with the question: equally compelling cases can be made, both logically and intuitively, for each pole of the “either/or” response. But to answer “both” is a cheap escape, a facile dodge that is certainly the most meaningless response of all. Therefore, I propose that our answer be, “neither.”

If our answer to Schrodinger is “your cat (before any observation is made and the probabilistic wave-form collapses) is neither alive nor dead“; we are in effect saying two things: (1) the cat must be, in reality, either alive or dead at any moment; and (2) the cat can indeed be conceived, theoretically, as both dead and alive. That is, the “neither” response includes the “both” response, but adds a critical element missing from it. In saying “neither,” we affirm the impossibility that the cat can in reality be both alive and dead at the same time.

One more comment on the cat problem, and we can return to the universe. One of the interpretations or answers to Schrodinger’s dilemma was known as the “many worlds” theory. This response entails the supposition of a “split cat” — one version of the living cat exists in one plane or one universe; while simultaneously a dead cat appears in another. Because of a phenomenon called “decoherence,” these simultaneous and seemingly conflicting states of cat animation cannot be experienced to the same consciousness of the same observer.

This situation is similar to one of the most challenging conclusions of the infinite-universe hypothesis: in an infinite universe, every possible reality of every possible being is captured in some part of the infinite universe. What both the “many worlds” and infinite universe models fail to explain is why these “decoherent” realities cannot be perceived; nor do they encompass the “both” proposition, which, as we have seen, is the answer compatible with (in the Schrodinger’s cat experiment) the theory that actually works.

So “neither” seems, by both examination and the mere process of elimination, the most practical and satisfying answer to the question, “is the universe finite or infinite?” And there is another aspect to our “neither” response that adds even more to its attraction, and which will lead us back to our original discussion of the centrality of yes and no to the conduct of our lives. This aspect was explored by the extraordinary philosopher Robert Pirsig in his now-classic book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

Yes and no…this or that…one or zero. On the basis of this elementary two-term discrimination, all human knowledge is built up. The demonstration of this is the computer memory which stores all its knowledge in the form of binary information. It contains ones and zeros, that’s all.

Because we’re unaccustomed to it, we don’t usually see that there’s a third possible logical term equal to yes and no which is capable of expanding our understanding in an unrecognized direction. We don’t even have a term for it, so I’ll have to use the Japanese mu.

Mu means “no thing.” Like “Quality” it points outside the process of dualistic discrimination. Mu simply says, “No class; not one, not zero, not yes, not no.” It states that the context of the question is such that a yes or no answer is in error and should not be given. “Unask the question” is what it says.

That mu exists in the natural world investigated by science is evident. It’s just that, as usual, we’re trained not to see it by our heritage. For example, it’s stated over and over again that computer circuits exhibit only two states, a voltage for “one” and a voltage for “zero.” That’s silly!

Any computer-electronics technician knows otherwise. Try to find a voltage representing one or zero when the power is off! The circuits are in a mu state. They aren’t at one, they aren’t at zero, they’re in an indeterminate state that has no meaning in terms of ones or zeros. Readings of the voltmeter will show, in many cases, “floating around” characteristics, in which the technician isn’t reading characteristics of the computer circuits at all but characteristics of the voltmeter itself. What’s happened is that the power-off condition is part of a context larger than the context in which the one-zero states are considered universal…And there are plenty of other computer conditions besides a power-off condition in which mu answers are found because of larger contexts than the one-zero universality.

The background to this discussion is an old Zen story of the time that a monk asked the master Joshu, “has a dog the Buddha-nature?” Joshu’s response was, “Mu.” It is an answer that encompasses “not this, not that” and “both.” As Pirsig adds, it can also be saying (even in addition to the above), “unask the question,” or (to adapt ourselves to the Zen tale) “you’re barking up the wrong tree.”

Returning to the context of our discussion about the universe, “neither” has a quality that gives it a certain breadth that other answers appear to lack. Just as, in classical Western logic, the word “either” can indicate an inclusive ‘or’ (A alone or B alone or both A and B) or an exclusive ‘or’ (A or B but never both); so can our “neither” encompass both “inclusive negation” (not-A, not-B, not-both — the cat is not-dead, not-alive, and not-both) and “exclusive negation” (not-A alone AND not-B alone — the cat is mu in the sense of being not-dead AND not-alive at once).

What mu adds to our “neither” response about the infinitude of the universe is a certain vibrancy and humor captured in the old Zen story; or, as a more modern expression has it, “no is yes, but to a different question.” This humor is essential to successful living, and lends a kind of laughing realism, as well as an active and open humility, to consciousness and to daily life.

Mu tells us, “get off your high horse of bipolarity, of this-or-that, and face the universe with your mind’s true and whole nature.” To do so, I would add, is to deal from intelligence rather than mere intellect. I will now explain the difference between the two.

Intellect and Intelligence

The dictionary definitions of these two words tell part, though hardly all, of their story. The dictionary correctly focuses on abstract reasoning with respect to intellect, and an implicitly broader ability for knowledge re. intelligence. But such definitions lack context, orientation. Here, then, are definitions for these two terms that may have some more practical value for you:

Intellect: Large brain activity; abstract thought, reasoning, logic. Premises manipulated by defined rules leading inexorably to conclusions.

Intelligence: Thought and knowledge guided by sensation and feeling. Reason with a beating heart and warm, flowing blood. The machine of pure Mind fueled by the energy of life.

Too often in our culture, we isolate intellect and mistake it for intelligence. A cold, clear, and elegant demonstration or proof can seem so complete in itself that we will readily mistake an intellectual performance for an intelligent one. We stop there and look no further, ask no more than this. This accounts for some of the fear and therefore frequent hatred of science in our culture: it is an unconscious reaction to the relentless and unanswerable perfection of the logical argument, the scientific proof. We sense the presence of a God there, and retreat or, worse still, rebel.

Another frequent problem in our Western society — especially in our working lives — is that we push the actor of intellect alone and naked onto the stage of life, with no support from the other members in the cast of our personality. Brain divorced from heart is a lonely player indeed. But that is what we are taught to believe; how we are taught to behave. Science delivers proofs, double-blind research findings, and graphically labeled displays of its icy logic. Journalism has descended to an arid exercise of he-said-she-said; the only effort at insight turns out to be flame-tinged entertainment, populist fury with no thought guiding it. In the lifeless gray cubicles of our corporate offices, we push numbers around spreadsheets or platitudes along slideshow marketing plans and seek no greater performance. There is no feeling in it, and thus, no intelligence.

Intelligence calls upon the whole being, the whole brain. It acknowledges that we have always been, and remain animals. The so-called “lower” and “reptilian” brains in the midbrain and hindbrain are responsible for most of what keeps us alive and enables many of the joys of life — breathing, appetite, movement, balance, sexuality, and more are the functions of these “lower” parts of the brain. Intelligence does not deny or demonize these functions, but calls them into its orbit, raises them up from their inferior status, and honors their presence and their purpose.

Intelligence takes us beyond the bipolar dichotomies of this-or-that, and introduces Mu in all of its delightful ramifications. It knows that reason alone has no definitive answer to questions such as “is the universe finite or infinite?” and “is suffering a natural part of living?” and “is Schrodinger’s cat dead or alive?” Intelligence can step off the pole of opposites and into a holographic dimension of potential, where responses to such questions can be deeply felt and even verbalized, though never carved into stone. Intellect is a two-dimensional exercise, whose proofs may be written into a table, plotted and charted; intelligence is always seeking to enter multi-dimensional realms where thought is given the breath of feeling and the food of sensation. What is known as common sense is refreshing because it draws from what is deeply felt, even if it is expressed in what is thought. Should science ever reach the point where it can make a being exist only as a cerebral cortex, I am fairly certain it will be riddled with psychopathology of all sorts, with no body or heart to give it depth, nourishment, and common sense.

Barking Up the Right Tree

So we find that, when we approach a scientist or a logician with questions like “is the universe infinite?” or “is suffering the way of life?” or “is that cat in Schrodinger’s box dead or alive right now?” or “has a dog the Buddha nature?” — we are being like Joshu’s monk and barking up the wrong tree. We often have the same problem in bringing such questions to philosophers. What if we took such problems to poets or animals instead? “Mu,” “Neither,” and the animal’s silence or the poet’s song might give us an answer that we can take back into our lives, an answer that might carry some personal meaning.

Let’s consider the animal’s response first, because that will get us where we want to be with such questions as we face in our real lives. Unfortunately, however, we first have to get over some serious distortions we have about what an animal is before we can make sense and good use of our own animal nature.

How long would it take a monkey banging randomly at a typewriter to reproduce the complete works of Shakespeare? I’m sure you’ve heard this one, and maybe have even heard some answers to it. Scientists who consider such a question wind up leaping over their own assumptions: they can produce (and indeed, have already done so) a computer program that mimics the hypothetical monkey’s random pounding and then, according to mathematical formulas, can project a time-wave with a probability spread to depict the monkey’s approach toward becoming the Bard of Avon. No one ever begins such a project by asking: would a monkey’s behavior be truly random?

The intuitive, common sense answer is, “almost certainly not.” Every animal has senses, preferences, character, and judgment. An animal is not a machine, a random number generator. Our monkey would certainly develop preferences for shapes, figures, shades, positions of letters, keys, and other parts of the apparatus. So instead of designing computer programs to simulate the random behavior of an animal, the scientist might ask himself: “is an animal’s behavior truly random, and what the hell do I mean when I say ‘random’?”

In other words, such “thought-experiments” as monkeys-at-typewriters and cats-in-nuclear-boxes are, at their best, exercises in idleness, and more frequently mere bouts of stupidity that are unworthy of the name science. We have come upon a principle that may guide us in what follows: an animal’s behavior is never random. We have begun to “bark up the right tree.”

We can use this insight in a number of ways. First, it can help us relax a little in our attitudes toward science. Once we understand that scientists can labor under the same false assumptions, the same delusions, as a corporate CEO, a politician, or, in fact, ourselves, then the fear and resentment of science as some sort of godlike knowledge loses its energy. Why should we kneel in awe toward anything that can’t recognize the simplest truth that is verified by our experience (whether, for example, as pet owners or self-observers) — that no animal’s behavior is ‘random’?

Randomness itself, like suffering, is not a demonstrable quality of the universe or life: it is a judgment, passed with no basis in experience. There is no more logical basis for the conclusion “life is random” than there is for “life is suffering.” In fact, all the evidence leads toward the conclusion that there is a remarkable order to the universe and to life; that the cosmos is infused with what the physicist David Bohm called “implicate order.”

So let us now send our monkey back to his proper home, far away from typewriters and intrusive scientists, and ask how our own animal nature might handle some of these questions we’ve been pondering. To understand and appreciate our own animalism is to gain a fresh perspective on yes and no and Mu, and bring the order of Nature into our own lives. That is, this will be worth some thought, feeling, and effort.

The Bodily No

Earlier, we mentioned the ancient Chinese poet Lao Tzu and his recommendation that we adopt a lifestyle that includes “daily disburdenment.” Here is the poem in which the old sage gave this advice:

Pursuing knowledge: daily accumulation.
Following Tao: daily unburdening.

Decrease, diminish, deprogram:
Continue in this till power is dead.

For when action lacks force,
Nothing is left unaccomplished.

Rely upon your true eternal nature,
And you will never have to strive again.

But let your life become
A game of inner commerce,
And you will never cease with making deals;
You will never feel fulfilled --
In this or any other world.

What Lao Tzu is urging upon us is not merely a Zen retreat or an extra prayer on Sunday: he is saying, “this inner elimination or cleansing must become as much a part of your life as your body’s “daily disburdening.” We are all body, for as long as we are in this life: why should the mind work any differently than our bowels, our urinary tract, our sweat glands, or our upper respiratory channels?

Indeed, what if you couldn’t defecate, sweat, urinate, cough, or sneeze at all? Well, you’d probably expect to get very sick and soon die. Lao Tzu is reminding us that the mind needs the same health-supporting habits of daily elimination.

Seems reasonable enough: now comes the big question — how? Well, no one had to teach you how to clear your bowels, empty your bladder, or sweat: you just did it; you’ve done it for longer than you can remember. It is part of your animal nature.

Lao Tzu is telling us that we also already know just as well how to keep our minds clear of waste and toxins — thoughts, beliefs, and negative emotions that can make us just as sick inwardly as an impacted bowel or urinary stones can make us sick physically.

When an animal is provoked or attacked, in most cases its first reaction is retreat: it will back off, quietly or with a warning sound, and seek to put some distance between itself and the threat. It’s not flight — the animal rarely runs away; it merely withdraws while carefully monitoring the threat. This, I would argue, is an animal or bodily “No.” It’s as clear a form of communication as there is in Nature, and usually very effective at restoring balance, a kind of environmental homeostasis. And it comes with the genetic equipment, coded into DNA, probably in hormones activated within the brain.

It should go without saying that we have that, too. The animal species known as homo sapiens also has the benefit of language, and that is the unique expression of our bodily “No.” This is the tool we can use to unlearn falsehood, strip away delusion, and neutralize the acid that our culture sometimes adds to our emotional reactions. You already know how; you simply need to remind yourself.