As a point of departure, I want to look at what in Buddhism are referred to as the four thoughts that "turn the mind" (that's only part of the phrase; the other part is "...toward the dharma", but I have a reason for not appending that just yet). The four thoughts are essentially reflections on 1) the fortuitous advent of a human birth, 2) death and impermanence, 3) karma and rebirth and 4) the path to liberation from the round of cyclic existence(s).
There are caveats. One is that I'm not orthodox in my interpretation of what the more technical terms might mean, another is that I'm hedging my bets on some fronts and a last one is that I offer this as points of departure for everyone else to share and reflect on.
According to a well worn trope in Buddhism, it is extremely difficult to obtain a human birth. It is said to be more difficult than the chance blind tortoise at the bottom of the ocean who swims to the surface once an eon and places his head randomly through a golden yoke has. The point is, it's not an ordinary occurrence. I sometimes wonder if this isn't an analogy for the probability that out of billions of sperm cells, only one has the potential to attach to an ovum and begin the metotic process resulting in an embryo.
In any event, the point is well-taken if we see this existence as a precious opportunity to live as fully, consciously and compassionately as possible. Usually, what follows upon introducing this topic is a sequence of arguments that lay out how important it is to investigate fully one's own existence and the connection we have with all other sentient beings. Thus, compassion is requisite and wisdom to implement that compassion equally so.
I feel that it's taken me this long to just begin to appreciate what all this means. If the saying that "youth is wasted on the young" rings true, it's because all you have to do is reflect where in your younger years you could have been more giving and more forgiving. It's also ludicrous to blame your parents, your upbringing, your environment; at a certain point, you get it. We have options; we can bitch and gripe about how crummy our lot in life is or if we're honest, we can see that we have at any given juncture, choices. This brings us to something more challenging.
Say that we come to one of those junctures. Lets say that I take this job instead of another; suppose it doesn't work out, suppose the company fails and my wife and children and I are reduced to food stamps and section eight housing? The outcome isn't predetermined. If quantum physics has taught us anything, contingency is the nature of the phenomena. If determinists want to mewl and puke about how every single detail is predestined, they are vey much missing the point. This will become exceedingly clearer in what is to follow.
Suffice it to say that life is more than the choices you or I make. There are deeper principles at work and this can seem both terrifying and dizzying. It can also open up horizons undreamed.
In order to grasp some small stretch of those horizons, let's look at the next thought.
Nothing gets people going like this. Intellectually-oriented people will say "huh! Well of course all phenomena are impermanent and of course, we all have to die." Good on them. But it reminds me of a Mullah Nasruddin story. Nasruddin is strolling along when a man comes up, bids him good day and asks how he feels. Nasruddin replies, "I feel like a man who does not know if he will still be alive at sundown." The man says, "well, but that's every man's situation!" To which Nasruddin retorts, "yes! But how many feel it?"
For the most part,I don't think we feel the fact of our demises at all or we are aware of the end of phenomenal existence only at a remove. We don't want to think about it, we don't want to discuss it, and if we do, we figure that "it'll happen later down the line" or "there's a better world awaiting my immortal soul."
Well! More than likely,if you form the thought that it will happen later, that's reasonable. You're still alive to think it. The immortal soul bit? This comes closer to what we want to look at. What makes any of us think that this being is going to go on forever (and for those who believe in a punitive afterlife, this is a comfort?) and what is meant by this, "self"? Lets look at this a little bit.
We tend to conflate "I" with self. This "I", to paraphrase Arthur Rimbaud, is almost something completely other. The "I" is a composite, a ghost of acculturation, a synthesis of a "personal history" formed by countless interactions with "others" in a situation called by a kind of consensus, "the World." That's the best I can come up with. Wittgenstein said that "the world is all that is the case." I find that insufficient. The world is a fluid construct of verbal, physical, and mostly theoretical reality. It is transient at best, and the temptation is to say,deceptive at worst. But that belies the sense that the deception doesn't come from the World's side; it's we who deceive ourselves.
The main point is that the world is impermanent because we are impermanent. The world is only the world. It is we who invest it with meaning. This is not necessarily Existentialism 101. It's simply us. And there is great beauty in this, if we choose to recognize that the underlying, relatively constant values that we imbue the world with hold meaning relationally. Do we survive death? This is a meaningless question. We have people on record who have been clinically dead and revived to come back with reports of lights and deceased loved ones waiting, but what if that's simply neural firings as the brain is winding down. You can be clinically dead and there is still organic functioning at a level below what is recordable. Of course, you'd see dead relatives! If you're Christian, you might see Jesus, if Hindu Krishna, if, well, you get the idea. But this is all trivial before the fact that, regardless of your belief, you have to let go of this physical existence. You may live to a ripe old age, doddering and drooling. Or not: maybe you're incredibly sharp at 120, but you - as a body - cannot remain. Sorry, pal. You gotta go.
So why do we assume continuity? Part of it is because our physical structure regenerates at a remarkably fast pace. Atoms come together and wander off. Somehow, structures remain relatively intact, but/and with time, change. Most often, they degrade. But they have to terminate sooner or later.
This also includes our "I." Let's look at this again. The "I" is a composite psychic structure that is formed over the course of time by relations, both "external" (as in social interactions) and "internal" (thoughts and images and feelings and emotions) and the cyclic iterations and reiterations of these relations. Is the "I" completely fictional? Ultimately, yes. But "I" exist in relation provisionally. In relation to you and you and you. In relation to objects and situations that "I" react to. The process of reaction continues to construct this fabricated existence. The up side is that through relationship, genuine caring and acceptance of others can come to fruition and the "world" - which for the moment, we can say is all the phenomena we encounter as individual beings - can be situated as a creative process that we can contribute to building. The down side is that we accept everything we tell ourselves uncritically, beginning with thinking that the "I" is the individual, fixed, permanent and the truth of which is unassailable.
If we take the latter approach, we miss out on the prismatic and multivalvent nature of existence. We also set ourselves up for pretty fearful transactions when we encounter the big issues. For some, this is a positive; a shock can be a wake-up call that what is seen isn't as it is. For others, this can be traumatic; the shock can result in disorientation and disintegration and debilitating emotional turmoil. But at some point, we have to encounter the death of "I."
Of course, there are those who would argue that casting consciousness as an emergent property of biochemical interactions doesn't account for how that very interaction transpires and that the idealisms of everyone from the Vedic Hindus to the Gnostics and Hegel hold fast that the phenomenal word is illusory and erroneous at best. Nevertheless, this transition beckons.
Some hold that one's mind stream passes through various intermediate states before re-entry into another enworldment. Others say that subjectively nothing happens. In either event, we assume that memory of prior incarnate events is wiped. Buddhists hold that only those further along the path to enlightenment remember their previous births. Perhaps this a fine entry to the next post which will use the third thought that turns the mind as the beginning point of discussion.