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It Was a Musical Thing

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In Sapiens, Harari mentions Buddhism a couple of times, as a means of escaping the absurd mission of our lives: the constant chase of positive feelings and repression of negative feelings.

When you crave positive feelings, you are waging a losing fight against nature. Harari gives the example of standing on a sea shore, watching the waves come in and go out. As one wave comes, you are overcome with excitement, but you cringe in horror when the wave goes out. Thus, you determine to spend the rest of your life reacting ecstatically as each wave comes in, and despairingly as each one goes out. You know the inevitable will happen, but like Sisyphus, you are condemned to eternally repeat your mistakes.

A more realistic example is sports. If you watch a sports fan watching their favorite team, they are engaging in this absurd exercise in the plainest, most naked way possible. They are watching a game in which their favorite team must overcome their opponents, who are often no less capable and no less skillful than they are. In a game that transpires over the course of two hours or more, a fan’s eyes are fixated on the game, they are completely absorbed by the events unfolding in front of him – every tackle, every foul, every pass, and every score.

Everything that occurs that increases the likelihood of his team winning is seen as good, and he will react by rigorously pounding his fist, while everything that decreases the chances of that happening is bad, and you can recognize these by loud noises, grunts, profanities, table slams, and the occasional squeaky plea to the gods.

The drama is fun, it is exhilarating, in fact, there are few things in life that can compare to it. Ask your friend about whether he thinks watching more games is good for his psychological health, and he will reply that he cannot live without them, that his life would be meaningless if he couldn’t watch his team play every week. Yet that cannot be a reliable test for deciphering sane behavior. For millennia, thinkers have placed little faith in our ability to know what’s good for us.

A heroin addict or a gambling addict or an alcoholic or a smoker can all easily justify their decisions to be addicted, by saying that it imbues their lives with pleasure. We are quite irrational creatures, as has been relentlessly documented and observed, both by philosophers, theologians, and scientists. Saying something is good because other people seem to enjoy doing it is not a very sophisticated application of our rational powers.  

People who are not sports fans, do not feel too conceited, you are not much better. You may take pride that unlike your ape-like brethren, you do not stake your emotional health on arbitrary contests that you have no control over, but you are likely drawn to some form of entertainment, perhaps the latest Games of Thrones episode is good enough to catch your attention, or the latest blockbuster Avengers movie.

The Buddhist perspective would categorize these forms of entertainment as definite routes to unhappiness, and not only that, but you are committing a dual error when your happiness hinges on these events unfolding in your favor. You are relying on external events (outside your control) such as the hero winning, or your team scoring more, to give you satisfaction, while at the same time, you are relying on your internal feelings of joy to rise up to the surface at the right moments. The escape from suffering according to Buddhism is to be indifferent to the events in both the external world and the internal world.

You can argue that the limitation of this worldview is that life would be bland without the ups and downs, without the excitement and adventure, without the rush and the disappointment – nobody looks at a rock and wishes they can be a rock. A rock’s life is boring, it doesn’t have any adventures it can tell anyone about (unless someone accidentally kicks it), and it cannot relive exciting memories that are meaningful to it. Our brains are wired to experience highs and lows, and there is no sense in fighting it.

To which the Buddhist would reply, ‘Yes, of course, but the core issue here is not joy, but suffering.’ The only real thing that exists is not your ephemeral feelings of happiness, those will pass you by, you will not remember them, they will not affect you for more than a few moments, and as you experience more of them, you will require even more to satisfy your growing appetite.

But suffering always affects you. You are constantly suffering because you are constantly yearning for something positive, and you are always trying to suppress the negative. It is like being constantly bitten by a snake while occasionally eating some fruit, and saying, “Ah, but wait, life would be really miserable without the fruit.”

You can spend your life this way. You can wake up every morning, chasing after the incoming waves, looking for them, and when you can’t find them, become increasingly distraught.

“We thought of life by analogy with a journey, with a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at that end, and the thing was to get to that thing at that end. Success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.”

Alan Watts

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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