March 11, 2014
Last year’s poverty
was not real poverty.
This year’s poverty
is poverty indeed.
(an old Zen poem)
I’d like you to stay with this talk (below) by Alan Watts through to the end and try to address his questions within yourself. It is about business, so no matter how you make your living — and even if you’re unemployed –I suspect you’ll get a lot out of it. After you’ve listened to Watts, you can read some of my commentary below, though that is far less essential.
The illusion of the past is created not by direction but by distance. That is, time is directionless, or at least in no way direction-dependent. No matter what direction you look to in the sky, you are viewing some past — light that was there long ago and is now finally visible here.
Why, then, do we imagine Time as an arrow with one direction, one flow, whose movement has no fluidity, no potential for transformation? According to one increasingly popular theory, the universe is an arrowless grid of mathematical art, a kind of computer simulation. If, from such a perspective, direction has no ultimate meaning, no reference beyond the ephemeral position of a solitary observer located on an ephemeral planet in an ephemeral galaxy within what astronomers tell us is an ephemeral universe — what then of distance?
Now, for a moment, simply as a thought experiment — or, if you will, an imagination experiment — suppose that we remove the observer, the perceiver. What becomes of Time? Watts taught that Time is a convention, a social institution, a system of movement and exchange in human action, just as money is an informational system of human economy that merely symbolizes wealth in the same way that nouns symbolize things. “Time is money” goes the old bromide. Of course they are identical, but only insofar as they are both illusions.
This is the core of the critical error that Watts saw in our society — that we too often, in our institutions and our private lives, reify the symbol. That is, we mistake the sign for the destination. We see money as wealth, and its measurement as the meaning — it’s as foolish and surreal a notion as defining ourselves according to our height or weight: “I am 68 inches” or “I am 189 pounds.”
But we do this: we let ourselves be identified by our status rather than by our real wealth, by our appearance instead of our reality; by what we have instead of who we are. Similarly, we tend to reify the convention of Time — especially in our spiritual notions of it. We speak of the Eternal and of Forever as if they were just stretched out versions of Time: the familiar and often ominous arrow that goes on and on infinitely. We may thus have either eternal damnation or eternal salvation. And if we reject the spiritual, then our option becomes eternal oblivion.
Thus we draw our line of Time and divide it, as if that were an action of common sense. The past has substance to us — it can be studied and either regretted and condemned or celebrated and relived. The future is a barge docked amid fog, onto which we cast hope and expectation. So much of our life’s energy is misspent in this Janus-faced bidirectional longing; we have little left for now, for all the fulfillment and potential of presence.
The big bang — presumably the event from which Time as we know it was born — is, according to some scientists, a mere illusion whose reality is something far more interesting than a mere explosion. Einstein himself intuited this and drafted a paper on the topic, which has only recently been discovered. This new science asks us to imagine a supra-universe with a fourth spatial dimension, whose membranous layer is the 3D universe that we live in and observe. In such a cosmos there would presumably be communication or transactional activity between the apparent and the inherent, the temporal and the eternal, the timeless spring and the time-worn sprung.
Curiously, this all takes us back to business. For if there is a transactional relationship between our lives and that from which it arose, then it seems we had better re-conceive or, perhaps more effectively, re-experience the basis or true nature of that relationship. Watts repeatedly urged his students and audiences to drop or at least suspend the prejudice that we are born into this world, this universe, and try instead the experience of having been born out of or grown from the Earth and the cosmos. It is the difference between imagining yourself as strange and separate (“born into”) or as an essential product of the web of being. Can you see the implications of that distinction?
When you remove the assumption of estrangement, you annihilate the seeds of suspicion. If I am not, after all, some alien fish fallen into the net of this strange and indifferent universe, but rather its natural growth, an exhalation of its breath — in that case I have discovered the foundation of a successful business, which is trust. How we experience ourselves gives all the meaning to how we conceive others.
From here, we can revisit an old question: do I tell time, or does Time tell me? The answer is, “both and neither”; or, as the old Zen masters used to say, “Mu.” This expression is usually translated as “No,” but that is a poor or at least incomplete translation. As another remarkable 20th century philosopher told us, Mu really is saying, “ask again, but from your total intelligence rather than your mere intellect.” The philosopher I have in mind is Robert Pirsig, and his discussion of Mu comes from his classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
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.…
You are living on a membranous child-universe wrought within Time, whose parent from which it and you arose is pure, timeless space. That membrane is as permeable as the membranes of your body’s cells. That is, the membrane is built for transaction, for communication, for taking in and letting out. It is not a wall of division, but a portal for the business of being.
Thus, the desire for the attainment of Eternity is like the notion of spending Wealth. You spend your money, but you enjoy (and hopefully share) your Wealth. Wealth cannot be diminished through expenditure, for it is what you have in the present; it is not a separate entity. So too, Eternity: time can be spent, but the Eternal’s realm has no coin.