.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, September 06, 2007

who are we?

As established in yesterday's post, I never have only one project on the go. What else, then, have I got going besides a massive novel (and intended sequels thereto)?

One project, I suppose potentially a nonfiction book, is a more or less directed inquiry into my own beliefs. What do I believe? What do I think is true?

I remember reading, years ago, I think in an astrological text by Zipporah Dobyns, that it is a good idea to discover what one's beliefs are, to bring them from the darkness of unconsciousness into conscious awareness. Twenty years later I'm still working on it.

Who knew that this task would be so difficult? It is much complicated by the fact that, as the painter Robert Henri put it,

Most folks don't think what they think they think.

He's pointing to our capacity for self-deception. For while we tend to deceive others more or less all the time, or at least conceal our true thoughts from them, the issue of self-deception is less obvious, and indeed impossible to discover without outside help. It doesn't have to be professional help: other people are well able to act as mirrors for our self-deceptions. Others can see clearly where we're kidding ourselves, as we can see where they're kidding themselves.

The specific project I'm now working on is centered around the question of identity, and my working title for it is Who Are We? Who are we? I find this question provocative, mysterious, koan-like.

And indeed in a sense it's a very Buddhist question. Buddhist analysis shows that the root of all our suffering in life is one thing: what we call our ego, or the thing denoted by the word I. Then it instructs us to isolate this I to discover what exactly it is.

The Buddha's answer is that if you look long and hard enough, you will discover that there is no I. What we call I is a shifting collection of thoughts that exist first of all for convenience, and then become a matter of intense emotional attachment. When we look very closely, we find that everything we think I is, it isn't--and that it isn't anything other than these things either. It's a movie projected on mist.

Very well. I'm prepared to accept that the ego, the I, has no ultimate existence. It's not for me to contradict a wisdom tradition of 2,500 years' standing, or the teachings of a practice that has brought me so much personal benefit. But how about on the relative level? My keyboard and coffee-mug don't have any ultimate existence either, besides being a temporary agglomeration of atoms in a particular configuration. Nonetheless, for practical purposes, in those configurations they have existence and usefulness. As my teacher Sangpo at shedra, the monastic college at Gampo Abbey, taught us, relative truth is not so much in dispute, because it's all a matter of convention and convenience anyway. These are the things that are true essentially by agreement, rather than in the nature of things. If we argue over whether a certain thing is or is not a coffee-mug, for instance, it's really just an argument over a definition--not over the essence of anything.

All right. But in purely conventional terms, can I define what I am? Can I discover how I, and how we all, use what we all call I as the basis for our actions? What do I think I mean when I use it?

In writing my story for The Mission, I came to see the issue of identity, especially as it manifests in what we now call identity politics, as a key thematic strand. Why do "my people" hate "your people"? What's going on there? Why do we care about the fortunes of our local hockey team, even when its members hail from Sweden and Finland rather than anywhere nearby? Why do thousands get depressed if the team loses against "them"? Isn't that peculiar?

These questions are just a few bite-sized samplers of what got me involved in a parallel nonfiction project--a work of philosophy, really.

I have other projects too--but more of that perhaps another time.

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home