“The problem is my back hurts.”
Quadratus lumborum strikes again! I was not being facetious when I suggested this was a common complaint. In a recent post, I suggested that a “problem” in the body is never truly a problem of the body. I asserted that such cases are the physical expression of tension or struggle that we are sustaining with some aspect of our experience. These points of contention manifest multidimensionally, echoing up through what I called “Three Kingdoms”—namely physical, perceptual, & conceptual, or alternatively body, mind, & spirit. In this installment, I hope to continue to investigate the idea of “problems” & in so doing so, further deconstruct the dungeon of our own mistaken metaphysics.
“Denmark’s a prison.”
“We think not so, my Lord.”
“Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.”
Hamlet the Dane intuited this much in the Second Act: that an experience becomes a problem when we insist that it must be so. We ourselves engender the problem by naming it as such; we sculpt it out of the undifferentiated lode of our experience. In cleaving our phenomenal unity to distinguish a problem, however, we have concomitantly created a solution of proportional magnitude in the other half. Problem & solution arise together in our conceit, though our attention often favours one or the other moiety.
A painter, in summoning forth a figure with his brush, concurrently & necessarily defines a background. What was first an indifferent void of blank canvas, now encompasses two aspects. Even so, we are all artists of our experience.
Two particles—one of matter & the other of anti-matter—arise together & then mutually annihilate each other in the spirit of ontological fraternity—a similar expression of physical & metaphysical polarity.
It is accounted that the Almighty himself deals in such dualities:
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
Only this was not real darkness because He hadn’t made light yet. Why? Because the said darkness might as well have been half a million lux (ie five times brighter than sunlight on the Fourth of July). Or more. Or less. In any case, it would make no difference: without their interplay, to speak of “light” & “dark” is to utter stuff & nonsense. The two represent opposing ends of a single continuum. Without this standard of relationship, light is just mathematical values of probability on a theoretical electromagnetic spectrum. But when in the following verse, God says
Let there be light
& proceeds to “divide it from darkness,” in this deed He creates the continuum & establishes a standard of complementarity, thus engendering the terms with significance. Today, light & dark are opposites a mutual coincidence; a secret confederacy in which each provides the backdrop for the other to shine. Our experience is really no different. When we, as we are wont & used to do, fixate on a problem, we are ignoring at least half of our experience.
When, however, we manage to broaden the scope of our attention to include the whole, encompassing the polarity between problem & solution, then remedy reveals itself. Then like the Gingham Dog & the Calico Cat, they gobble each other up. Then what we first cleft asunder we cleave together again like two faces of a Subway sandwich—happy reunion (this yokage is a culinary analogue to yoga.) Plainly stated, things take care of themselves…when we let them.
Our struggles arise because, out of habit, we often do not provide the space for this process to transpire naturally. We often respond to problems with the question of “what do I need to do?” Instead we might as “what do I need to stop doing?” The Chinese name this concept 自然, in pinyin zirán, which translates literally to “that which is of itself so.” Zirán is the self-organising principle behind the flow of tides, the change of seasons, the bloom of cherry-blossom—actually everything that there is. Nobody does these things; they just happen. The crux of it is: we ourselves are not separate from this organic carnival—Man & Nature: perhaps the most insidious apparent opposition of all. When we imagine ourselves to be discreet & autonomous from the procession of Nature, we only intensify generate struggle on two fronts: one by striving to affect processes over which we have no effectual power, and the other by superimposing a delusional dichotomy on top of it…not to mention acidifying the oceans & poking holes in the ozone layer (cats don’t piss on their beds & even dead fish go with the flow).
Evidently, Man is extraordinary. Often when we taste the slightest hint of frustration in a fruitless enterprise, we react by tightening our grip, by trying harder. Confronted with uncertainty, our inclination is to manage our affairs with a heavy hand. But these things can only be held lightly. A bell rings when stricken, unless you grab it—in which case it goes “clunk.” That’s because you’ve fixed it & has no resonance therefore. Impulsively & compulsively, we react to our problems by trying to “fix” them in precisely this way. The world is fundamentally vibrant, vibrational, continually oscillating between apparent opposites in a polarity—physicists call it String Theory & yogis call it spanda; both recognise this undulation to be primary. And yet we so often persist to insist for fixity. It’s a good thing we fail because the cosmos would probably disintegrate or something.
We can’t fix the world, but indeed this doesn’t stop any of us from trying. Here I am, trying to carve symbols in running water, as it were—writing is an insuperable crusade against transience; it’s unavoidable. To fix what is fleeting like trying to catch the the first rays of sun at dawn in a container made of words, or with letters, to pin a butterfly as it flits off from a Himalayan poppy: this is the tragic enterprise of anyone who writes—why all poets die. You either get with the transience & suffer, or live in denial of it & suffer twice—once for being born & another time for sustaining the delusion that it be otherwise. Life & death are happy confederates no less than any other apparent opposites. Nevertheless, cheer up, it’s no, reason to despair:
Nothing in the cry of cicadas suggests they are about to die.
In fact, it’s wonderful.
It is told of a man who once came to the Buddha asking for a fix to his struggles. “I can’ the help you,” The Enlightened One serenely responded.
But the man was insistent: “How is it that they call you Buddha when you can’t even solve my problems?” the man demanded, waxing indignant.
Gotama turned back to him and answered “You will always have 83 problems in your life. Some will go, others will come to replace them. I cannot help you with those.”
“Then what do you do?”
“I can help you with the 84th problem. That’s the worst one of all—it’s what drove you here today.”
“What problem is that?”
“It’s that you think you need to get rid of the other eighty-three.”
Suppose we could come to experience problems & solutions as two faces of the same thing. Suppose we felt pain & pleasure as two qualities of being alive. We could appreciate tension because only through it can we know ease.