The Question

What is The Question? You have probably asked it many times before. It takes different forms such as: What is the purpose of life, What is “it” all about, Who am I, or any other existential question. Many people have questions like these and there are no shortages of people selling answers or cheap solutions. Some examples of “answers” are cosmologies such as one where God loves you and when you die you will be with Him in Heaven, The Secret Law of Attraction, or even Buddhism, science, or drug induced peak experiences. While some of these might provide solace, ways to improve your life or your intellect, or insight into The Answer, none of these provide The Answer itself. Unfortunately, The Answer to The Question isn’t easily transmitted. It is as if—despite the sages that have come before us, with their teachings and their writings and their methods—we must each reenact the journey for ourselves; to perpetually rediscover all the depths that have already been explored. You can’t look it up on Wikipedia and you certainly won’t find it in this blog post; if you could, The Answer wouldn’t be referred to as The Unknowable.

The Answer is ever elusive because The Question is ever evolving.

Why is the answer to questions like “What is it all about” and “Who am I” so elusive? It is because as answers are discovered by the question asker, the question asker evolves and thus so does the question. As one’s understanding deepens, “it” and “am” and “I” deepen even further, just past one’s grasp. In this way, answers to The Question are always temporary—satisfactory only to the old you. As in the Tao Te Ching: “The name that can be named is not the constant name”.

Don’t despair

As you progress in life you often times feel like you’re losing ground, less certain about your abilities or your wisdom, than when you were younger. With The Question coming up time and time again, and with some of the answers that come up, it is understandable that one might come to a nihilistic view, an existential crisis, or depression. However, this infinite treadmill can be a source of comfort too; no matter how much you “get it” there is always room to “get it” more. Whatever span of life you have left, you can use it to grow the depth and span of your relationships, to strive towards liberating all sentient beings, to improve your artistic abilities, to reaching ever higher levels of awareness, etc. You may never achieve The Answer, but you’ll be more impressive than if you had never attempted.

So, What is “it” all about?

I invite you to leave a comment with what you think it is all about. I’m inclined to say that it is all about growth via asking The Question in pursuit of The Answer. Though this answer might get me hit on the head by a Zen Master’s stick!

Foot notes:

  • From a Zen standpoint you can get The Answer in an instant. It’s not that “you” “get” The Answer, it is that you are The Question and there is no Answer, or you are The Answer and there is no Question, or both. This will get me hit too 🙂
  • If you only ask The Question, but have no actions in life you’ll probably become suicidal. Better to live an integral life where you ground The Question in a meditative practice, keep physically active, socialize, and eat a healthy diet.
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11 Responses to The Question

  1. What is an Integral Life?… Good question…

    Check-out our new growth-based community over at IntegralLife.com launching later this summer to learn more, explore similar questions, and meet similarly inquiring folks.

    Also check-out the Integral Life Practice kit at myilp.com.

    Great post, cheers,
    Robert MacNaughton
    Community Director
    Integral Life

  2. lion says:

    Since I didn’t ask “What is an Integral Life” I guess I just got some integral spam!

    For anyone interested in ILP, here it is for free:
    http://thepiratebay.org/tor/4130828/Integral_Life_Practice_Starter_Kit

  3. Nick Halme says:

    In my opinion (and not to devalue philosophy) lots of these inward questions and the pangs that follow can be explained with science. Please don’t cringe, bear with me. Biology in particular is a way for humans to take complex things and make them simple for us to understand. That is, it provides no ‘answer’, but rather it provides an unobstructed view.

    Richard Dawkins has some inspiring work on the subject of why and how we are here: http://richarddawkins.net/firstChapter,7

    Both Dawkins and Daniel Dennett suggest that we perceive reality the way we do because of our physical size as a species. I believe there is a bit of Cartesian philosophy that is reinforced by this fact, as in our reality is ‘determined’ by our perception. To us a rock is solid, but we know that its molecular construction is mostly empty space. To a tiny, tiny organism a rock may indeed be made of empty space.

    So that’s dandy and all, but what does it have to do with an outlook on life? Well, for me it means that we as humans are rather self important animals. We have the luxury to dwell on our existence but the problem is that there IS no REASON. It’s a human conception that we grasp onto. We are here so that we may continue to be here; everything we do revolves, whether consciously or not, around preserving our genes — or rather, our genes use US to make sure they are preserved and propagate.

    So in life I, personally — I don’t want to seem like I’m forcing any beliefs on anyone here — live with the realization that my purpose is to live. I enjoy living as much as I can, learn as much as I can so that I can better understand that life, and am comforted by the fact that civilization is here to help us organize as a species, not to control us. I don’t feel pressured by social norms, because they are merely our own constructs.

    To paraphrase from one of Adam Robert’s amazing books: We are not good or bad, the possibility always exists for both, and it is our own perception that compresses our own choices into our reality.

  4. lion says:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment Nick.

    “it is our own perception that compresses our own choices into our reality.”

    Which is why I feel it is important to engage in Shugyo (as well as philosophy and science); to increase one’s perceptive ability.

    I once had a realization that the purpose of life is to be happy, but that feels like a long time ago. I like the way that Jonathan Blow put it: (I’m going to paraphrase) All things being equal, happiness is a fine pursuit, but I don’t think that all things are equal.

    Not to devalue Biology, but the question remains: Who is reading Dawkins? Who is being used by their genes? I’m asking to see the you before your parents were born—what is your original face?

    To quote a friend: “Very difficult.”

  5. Nick Halme says:

    George Orwell has a great quote about happiness: “Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness.”

    I don’t know if it is an answer, but Dawkins does have a response to your last question “I’m asking to see the you before your parents were born—what is your original face?”.

    I’m paraphrasing, and quickly, but it should communicate the general idea. We are more complicated than mountains or moons or stars — physics is not complicated; the study of physics is complicated because it is hard for humans to understand, but these things are simple.

    Dawkins uses a mountain as an example. If you were to look at a mountain, it seems complicated. It is made of thousands of stones and earth, all arranged in a pattern specific to that mountain. But that pattern is only complicated because we are observing it with hindsight. With hindsight, that pattern is a mountain with a name. But in reality those stones and debris could have fallen in any pattern and made a mountain. It is indeed different with a human.

    This is where his blind watchmaker analogy comes into play. Part of this is communicated through a quote from physical chemist Peter Atkins

    “…A great deal of the universe needs no explanation. Elephants, for instance. Once molecules have learnt to compete and to create other molecules in their own image, elephants, and things resembling elephants, will in due course be found roaming through the countryside.”

    What it’s getting at is there is no original face. We would think there is one, because we are observing the situation with hindsight. What we recognize as what we are is simply the current and most efficient way for our genes to configure themselves. A creationist once argued that if he were to pick up a stone, then he might assume it has been there forever. But should he pick up a watch, intricately manufactured, should he not assume that it was put there by someone? Dawkins argues that just because something is engineered, it does not assume intelligence. He presents an example of the bat, which developed a form of highly advanced sonar along with additional technical solutions before humans conceived of sonar or radar. This ‘human achievement’ already existed in the natural world, along with the solutions to technical problems such as send/receive frequencies (so as not to damage the receiver with the high frequency output required, bat ears and human sonar/radar shut off their receive functions and turn back on to receive the lower return values).

    What does it say about the genes of a bat?

    Furthermore, and not to say that what you are suggesting is a God, Dawkins has argued that the answer to biological life cannot be that it was created by another, more complex form of life — it is a contradiction.

    I do understand what you mean by “Who is being used by their genes?” and it is an interesting question of consciousness and perception. I stand by the ‘middle world’ theory. We are capable of thinking inwardly and questioning our impulses, but who is to say that’s not because of how we were built, and who is to say that it is special? There is a rather famous short story called Flatland (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flatland) that ties back to one of Dawkins’ examples: if instead of a human you were a water insect, would you perceive reality as a flat plane? Would your genes have constructed your mind to deal with your natural size and surroundings by allowing your mind to perceive reality in that fashion?

    What I’m suggesting is that our consciousness, what we would hold to be our spirit or being or what have you, is a byproduct of our gene’s survival. It operates in the way it does because it is advantageous for our survival. We think ‘but there must be something more, there must be a reason here’ but I believe we’re looking for an answer that doesn’t exist. Therefore it is very difficult, and many structured belief systems, religions included, exist to help us cope with that. We have built ourselves a safeguard, because it is very hard for us to deal with the fact that we are not as ‘important’ as we would like to believe. To know that we are as much a part of our environment as a frog or a cat is unnerving. One physicist lovingly refers to the human race as ‘biological scum’ in the grand scheme of things.

    But as Dawkins urges “As ever when we unweave a rainbow, it will not become less wonderful”.

  6. lion says:

    I’m not arguing for God, but I might be arguing against complete reductionism. I don’t know. From a Buddhist perspective consciousness is prior to matter, but it is our biological structures that are able to channel that consciousness in an experience that is uniquely human. I’m not so interested in this human experience, but rather in a trans human experience; one where my biologically evolved selves such as the ego, momentarily cease their function, giving way to the direct experience of vastness in which phenomena arise.

    Enlightenment is not conducive to biological survival, so flight or flight, ego, and narrative evolved to protect the biology. But, DNA doesn’t necessarily have our best interest in mind, it only has it’s propagation in mind. So we need to be suspicious of impulse: it could be the means to our survival, or the appropriate action of the moment, but it could also be society, advertising, or our DNA tricking us into actions not in our best interest.

    I’m actually a big fan of Dawkins and Dennett; I feel their messages are such a breath of fresh air in a world where even Barak Obama won’t shut up about dogmatic beliefs. But Dawkins and Dennett would, as Ken Wilber has put it, throw the baby out with the bath water. I think their work is important because it could help people at a conformist/agrarian/traditional/mythic membership level of conscious to make the huge leap to the next level of consciousness of scientific/industrial/modern/rational. Where it falls short, however, is in dealing with subjective experiences two or more levels of consciousness higher, the integral levels of consciousness. The trans-rational levels of consciousness.

    While I’ve long claimed that love is nothing more than certain chemicals exceeding a threshold in our neuro-chemical soup (certainly true from an exterior/objective point of view), that knowledge doesn’t go very far in defining the subjective experience of love. You can also point to the functions that love has on a social level but that still doesn’t cover the impact that it has on an individual’s life; Romeo and Juliet’s suicides were not productive biologically or socially (we’ll they did end the feud, but it could have as easily intensified the feud).

  7. Nick Halme says:

    Well put. I didn’t mean to place your argument where it wasn’t, it just so happened that’s where my spiel went, heh. While I don’t think genetic fitness governs our every move in life, I think it produced the machine (us) that makes those choices, so there’s something to be said about reductionism in my mind. I don’t discount philosophy one bit in helping us understand what goes on after the biological fact, but so often it averts its gaze from biology — I’ve always found it strange for people to discuss the goings on of the brain, without discussing the brain.

    I’m rife with Dawkins references because I’m reading through The Blind Watchmaker right now, so I apologize for the saturation, but I have to repeat his argument for reductionism — it’s too good, I think.

    “To call oneself a reductionist will sound, in some circles, a bit like admitting to eating babies. But, just as nobody actually eats babies, so nobody is really a reductionist in any sense worth being against…Reductionism, in this sense, is just an honest desire to understand how things work.”

    Buddhism is something I admire greatly, and actively want to learn more about, but I think it’s similar to other religions/philosophies in that it shrouds its explanations in mystery. It’s like being told the answer to a math question without knowing the formula — it very well may make sense and be as correct as we can say it can be, but it’s hard to prove when it doesn’t expose much of its logic (or rather, connect that logic to some scientific fact).

    I’d like to take the love example and add my two cents. How are we to know that the intricate and seemingly random feelings and actions that originate from that chemical reaction are not the direct result of it? Is it impossible to think that our bodies can produce such grand effects on our own minds through such a simple system? We just can’t bear to think that’s possible; we expect a grander explanation for something so life-altering.

    There is a thought problem that this reminds me of (and I’m sure I’ll smudge the details in reciting it): Once it was discovered that the Earth orbited the Sun, a man asked his friend why anyone would ever believe the sun would orbit the earth in the first place. The friend exclaimed ‘Well that’s easy, it’s because that’s what it looks like, it looks like the Sun is orbiting the earth!’ to which the man replied ‘But what would it look like if the earth was orbiting the Sun?’ Simply, nobody ever thought to take that perspective (at least not publicly); both views are identical.

  8. lion says:

    BTW, do you have any experience with psychoactive/psychedelic drugs? Maybe that would have been a better example than love. There is a very clear relationship between the change in the chemical balance and the shift in perception or perceived phenomenon; sometimes as if the cobwebs of self are being swept away, revealing things as they really are, and other times making the narrative more fanciful… and while we should study the relationship between the chemical balance and the resulting perception, will we ever be able to say “if you have this diet, you will have the following ideas, or inventions, or what have you?”

    Most Buddhism is just another religion, offering comfort and worldview to make sense of it all to the masses. But the core of Buddhism is actually a science, not a religion, with repeatable experiments and the maxim of “don’t believe anything unless you discover or verify it for yourself.”

    It is perfectly possible that these experiments result in a certain chemical balance, but that doesn’t mean that the experience is reducible to the chemical balance. Perhaps the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

    All this being said, there is a follow up post that I’ve been meaning to write entitled The Shape which refers to the emergent and inclusive unfolding of our reality which is an interpenetrating relationship of observer and observed, of matter and energy, of chemistry and consciousness.

    Are you familiar with Wolfram’s “A New Kind of Science”? (If not, you can just watch this video instead of slogging through his book.) It is basically a proof that simple rules can have complex results. Seems that it fits in with this discussion somehow, probably in support of Dawkins?

    The Sun orbiting parable reminds me of a story involving Hui Neng: One day he overheard two monks arguing as they observed a flag fluttering in the wind. The first monk said “the flag is moving” the second monk said “the wind is moving”. Hui Neng interrupted: “Your mind is moving!”

    One upping Hui Neng, Wu-mon says in his commentary of the koan: “It is not the flag that moves, it is not the wind that moves, it is not the mind that moves.”

  9. Nick Halme says:

    I do, and I understand what you mean about how our perception of the world seems to break down and expose something that just seems more ‘true’. But I think my previous explanation of reductionism is misunderstood — not all reductionists believe that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts, this is the ‘baby eating’ reductionist Dawkins mentioned. Reductionism is understanding that everything is made of something, in a hierarchy. We can start to understand complex things because we already understand the simpler things it is made of — this seems to be in line with Wolfram’s stance.

    And what is complexity? Dawkins specifies it as “the quality of being statistically improbable-in-a-direction-specified-without-hindsight”. So it’s really an argument for absolutes, that all the universe can be explained but we can’t explain it. So for the complexity of human consciousness, just because science can’t explain it now doesn’t mean that it can’t be explained — complexity may at times be indecipherable, but it doesn’t account for mysticism.

    I understand that Buddhism can operate like that, which is why out of all the world religions it is the one that I respect the most. But the conundrum is trying to understand human consciousness WITH a human consciousness. These experiments you speak of are, I assume, achieved through self discovery and meditations, but I would argue that without looking at it from a biological point of view there is no basis for supported facts. It is a clashing of Eastern and Western philosophies; one would rather observe and correlate while the other would rather dissect and specify. The problem with the former is that it involves a lot of assuming, no matter how well educated an assumption, and the problem with the latter is that it can be too narrow-minded and seem to ignore the effects of the complex form. I don’t know where I’m going with that, other than that both Science and Buddhism must admit that they are imperfect.

    The last quote seems like a logic trap, but I’m curious — which I assume is the desired result of thinking about it.

    You should check out a novel by Adam Roberts called Stone, it comes in at around 300 pages so it’s not a huge read, and it brings up some very, very compelling issues with the quantum wave form and how human consciousness behaves when confronted by different realities and realizations — although it’s so well plotted that you’ll only realize that’s what it’s doing once you finish it.

  10. lion says:

    “But the conundrum is trying to understand human consciousness WITH a human consciousness.”

    In zen there is a saying “the eye can not see itself, the finger can not touch itself”. Anything that can be observed must be other than the observer. Thus, anything you observe that seems like your consciousness isn’t actually you. So, who are you? (sorry, have to keep my comments on topic!)

    “The last quote seems like a logic trap, but I’m curious — which I assume is the desired result of thinking about it.”

    Yea, I’m pretty sure that’s the intended result. These kinds of logic traps (Koans) are intended to be mulled over until there is no separation between the question and the questioner… and then, at that moment, who are you?

    I’ll check out this Stone, thanks for the recommendation!

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