Sunday, April 25, 2010

Never Ending

As a follow up to yesterday's article True Lies, Joy and I have had a bit of a conversation going regarding the permanence or impermanence of things in life. Joy commented:
Well, can you tell me one thing for sure, that will never end?

I find it useful to see everything in life as things that come and go. Begin and end. Just like the rhythm of your breath. It originates from a Buddhist training as part of learning to let go of attachments.

When you know that the good thing will end, you are free to enjoy it rather than clinging to it or trying to prevent it passing by. When you know that your pain is just temporary, it becomes easier to relax in the pain rather than building fear and tension around the never ending pain.

A friend told me that he used to believe that we only dies because we believe that we will die. What do you believe?
Joy's comment inspired me on several fronts...

Absence of Proof vs Proof of Absence
One of the biggest differentiators among people is whether or not they accept the absence of proof as the proof of absence.

Many people casually accept something as impossible simply because it hasn't proven possible. The impossible can be personal (e.g. running a marathon or playing the violin) or it can be global (e.g. world peace or running a three minute mile). Whether it's "I've never been able to" or "No one has ever been able to", absence of proof is instantly translated into proof of absence.

Others don't seem to care about what has been done before or whether or not something is considered to be possible. They just decide that they want to do something and they do it. If they fail, then others may chalk it up to stupid arrogance. If they succeed, then they're credited with being brilliant visionaries.

Each of us has situations in which we act one way or the other, we vary in frequency and degree. Some of us come pretty close to always accepting absence of proof as proof of absence. Others, come pretty close to never accepting it. For example, Joy is someone who pretty much always is ready to go for something (whether or not it has been proven) and yet she asked a reasonable absence of proof question: Well, can you tell me one thing for sure, that will never end?

So, which of the following best represents your perspective.

The absence of proof that something can be done...

A. ...proves that it can't be done.
B. a strong indicator that it can't be done.
C. ...doesn't prove anything.
D. a strong motivator to try it.
Now, whichever answer you picked (A,B,C or D), think of examples where you've exhibited that manner of being and thinking. How did it serve you? What would have happened if you had taken on one of the other perspectives? How do you respond to people who take on of the other perspectives?

What Answer Would You Like to Hear?
Now onto permanence. One of the things I love about the Buddha is his notion of pragmatic truth; something is true because it achieves the desired effect, not because it is factual or absolute. When someone would approach him with concerns about the afterlife, he would ask him what he wanted and what he feared. If he feared death because he was afraid that there was no after life, then the Buddha would tell him that there was indeed an afterlife. If he feared death because he feared the afterlife, then the Buddha would tell him that there was no afterlife.

The 'truth' was that which would cause the person to cease worrying and being fearful, to let go of his attachment to the afterlife.

On and on and on and on...
I've mentioned before that when I was about six I was exposed to the concept of infinity. My dad used to like to get me and my brother Dave to do arithmetic in our heads. He would ask questions like, what's 453 times 236.

I would systematically walk through each of the digits of one number multiplying them by the other and get my brother to remember the intermediate results. For example I would calculate 6 times 453 is 2718 and tell Dave to remember 2718. Dave would start saying 2718 over and over. I would then calculate that 3 times 453 is 1359. I would multiply the 1359 by ten and add it to 2718 and then tell Dave 16,308 which he would begin reciting. I would get 906 from 2 times 453, multiply it by 100, add it to Dave's 16,308 and proudly announce the answer was 106,908.

The better we got at this, the bigger the numbers my dad would give us. I started asking questions like what comes after millions? And then billions... And then trillions... and so on.

One day we got to a googol which is 10100. I asked my dad, "What comes after that?"

My dad responded, "Infinity. But that's a googol times a googol times a googol times a googol..."

Who Wants to Live Forever?
I sat thinking about infinity trying to figure out how long it would take me to do that kind of multiplication in my head. Something inside me flipped and I became really scared. I would lie in bed at night trying to imagine infinity. I would watch a never ending throng of numbers and multiplication problems parading past my mind's eye. I just wanted it to stop.

My six year old mind had neatly concluded that each of us lives until our hundredth birthday, then we die and go to heaven where we live forever. The idea of living forever, which had at one time been really comforting, had suddenly become terrifying. I can remember the look on my mom's face one night when she came into my room to see why I was crying. I blurted out, "Mom, I don't want to live forever!"

She didn't really know what to do.

I imagine that the Buddha would have said, "Don't worry, you won't live forever."

How Are You Served?
It's amazing how much time we can spend arguing about what is true and what is not, especially in situations where the conclusion can't be proved one way or the other, or, situations in which a none of the arguers know jack about the topic.

In the end, I think Joy nailed it by pointing out that it's not so much what you believe as it is how your beliefs serve you. The 'truth' can be such a distraction from accomplishing whatever it is we want to accomplish.

What beliefs do you hold as truths? I'm not referring to beliefs you would declare to be the absolute truth. I'm referring to beliefs that shape your life as though they were absolutely true. How do your implicit truths affect your life... your relationships... your goals... your dreams. What would you change?

Happy Sunday!


  1. I was really pleased after replying to your blog yesterday: I realised that for years I had heard about "everything passes" - and I realised that "I got it" after the break through I had during my Vipassana retreate this easter. I have really enjoyed seening everything as things which comes and goes - and it is a belief that I want to hold on to (don't worry: I'll let go of this belief the day I die, so it is not lasting forever)...

    The "thruts" I am clinging to are about how people should treat eachother. You should not hate, you should not spread rumours, you should adress the person directly... all these shoulds about not only how I behave - but how others should behave. I am SO looking forward for these truths to end...



  2. C - doesn't prove anything
    I'm neither motivated or demotivated by the fact that I don't know of any who have done it. Wanting is enough.


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