What is your self, really, in essence? That’s a question that Socrates or Plato would ask, and actually, that kind of question goes back as far as the Upanishads, perhaps earlier—we don’t have any written record much earlier than that.
These early thinkers fell for a trap I wrote about in an earlier post, “Love, Romance, and Meaning,” the trap of abstract thinking: abstract thinking allows us to imagine questions that don’t have answers. The question, “What is the meaning of life?” takes it for granted that life is some kind of thing, or object, and that objects have an essence that makes them what they are. The problem, then, is that the terms of the question don’t have counterparts in reality: there is no thing that corresponds to “life” in the world that we can perceive and measure. There are organisms that are living, because all their internal processes are interacting in a coordinated way. These ongoing processes define what is alive and what isn’t, not some sort of essence.
I got a new perspective on this issue from an interview with John Peacocke in the Fall, 2008 issue of Tricycle. He’s the one who brought up Socrates, Plato, and the Upanishads, and noted that these kinds of questions are in the realm of metaphysics. The Buddha avoided metaphysical questions, “asking not so much what as how.”
“The self, therefore, according to this view, exists as a set of interrelated processes rather than as an unchanging thing; so rather than try to find an essence, the Buddha chooses to simply describe a phenomenon, avoiding the essentialist trap.”
The Buddha got himself out of the trap, but we in the West are the heirs of Socrates and Plato, and although I don’t remember ever hearing the word “metaphysics” growing up in my little town, the Christian culture there was permeated with metaphysical ideas—notions of entities beyond the realm of science: god, the soul, the holy ghost, heaven, hell, etc.
While I was relieved of the belief in god by Philip Wylie at the age of 17, I was left with a metaphysical point of view: I thought there had to be some essential meaning in life, god or no god. The residue of that early upbringing made me miserable for years—most of my life, really—which I’ve written about at length in The Journal.
To think that most of that anguish might have been avoided if I’d grown up Buddhist… But then, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this, and you wouldn’t be sitting there reading it. Ah well…
What Kind of Thing is This?