Thursday, 18 August 2016
Silence and the Cult of the Sword
I knew a man who spent five years in total silence and isolation, contemplating on the sword. In some circles, he was thought to be taking the soft option by choosing to have an actual sword with him - an object on which he could focus his meditations.
Think about that for a moment. Five whole years, alone and in silence, trying to think about one thing and one thing only. And the fact he had that thing with him was considered to be tantamount to cheating.
I took a year-long vow of silence once. Of course, being a cream-puff city boy, it was pretty watered down. No lonely cave in the Wudang Mountains for me. I was allowed to carry on with my daily life, and to say functional things. I could do stuff like eat every day, answer direct questions, tell bus drivers where I wanted to go, and so on. What I wasn't allowed to do was volunteer information or contribute to conversation in any way. And I was absolutely forbidden from telling people what I was doing.
What I learnt from this is that the vast majority of what we say in daily life is utterly meaningless. And if you stay quiet and really listen, you can hear echoes of the lie buried in every human statement. The false, tinny resonance of the construction of persona, of people convincing themselves and others that what we say, think and do is important - that we are important. You discover just how much of our time is devoted to convincing ourselves that there are excuses for failure, and that our shortcomings are no fault of our own. I also learnt that keeping your thoughts entirely to yourself for a year is a very good way to go completely insane.
I think the point of it all was to gain a real appreciation of just how important contact and communication are. In the same way that no-one appreciates the value of food like those who have experienced starvation, the result of living with this kind of silence is the realisation of our own appalling weakness - our absolute dependence on the other. It's rather like that throwaway line in Fight Club. "What can you really know about yourself if you've never been in a fight?" It's the idea that we can have no real understanding of our limits until we have visited some of them. It's impossible to push the boundary if you don't know where it is.
One of my old instructors used to goad us with this every time we thought we'd perfected some new technique. "Are you satisfied?" he would ask. "Are you happy with yourself? In that case, let me congratulate you on having reached the pinnacle of your life's achievement." The idea was that without that central seed of dissatisfaction - without that troubling sense of being able to do better if we just work hard enough at it - life is over.
And this brings me, finally, to the point. I hear a lot of chatter about 'mindfulness' these days, often from people who are engaged in utterly mindless activities. Now, don't get the idea that I think of myself as one who leads the existence of the purely mindful. I'm well aware that, for the most part, I lead the existence of a fucking idiot. The point is that I am aware of it. That I do not excuse it in myself, and that every time I fail (which is most of the time), my sole hope of redemption lies in the full and frank realisation of that failure.
I'm usually at peace with the adaptation and dilution of Eastern ideas as they're absorbed into Western culture. What a lot of angry purists forget is that this is a two way process - just look at the mongrel versions of 'Capitalism', 'Democracy' and the 'Protestant Work Ethic' which exist in China. But mindfulness is one that I simply cannot let pass. In the form it takes when absorbed into the fatuous self-help culture of social media and daytime television, it is completely worthless.
Mindfulness is emphatically not about finding a way to be 'happy' with ourselves. It's about the understanding of rigour, the knowledge of our incompleteness, of the impossibility of perfection and the absolute requirement to strive for it anyway. It has nothing to do with scented candles, crystals, personal milestones, or any of the other garbage we use to loudly pat ourselves on the back in the full view of those around us. And it is absolutely not an escape from the slings and arrows of daily existence.
It's an absolute. A way of being that aims to strip away layers of self-deception, not add more. Adapting it to fit an infantile culture of self-congratulation is not just futile, it's a breathtaking desecration of one of the most important ideas ever conceived.