“Go faster, harder; be stronger, tougher,” – just some of the words I use as mental self-flagellation in those critical first five minutes pounding the pavements on my early morning runs. At the same time, there’s another voice in my head asking why: “Why go faster? Why not slow down? When you slow down, you notice more – so go slow, take your time, pay attention…”. And so it goes on, the perpetual battle to find the right pace, to stay in motion while also remaining present.
Of course the very act of running necessarily requires you to propel your way forward. But I often wonder in the process of doing so why we feel so compelled, why indeed we feel this sense of urgency in life in general.
From the moment we enter the world, we are thrown onto a trajectory where the only destination of which we can be certain is the exit. How we fill the midsection is, for the most part, up to us to determine. Whether we relish this as an opportunity for self-realisation, or seize up at the overwhelming nature of a wide open space can be discerned from the language we use to describe our state of being at any given moment. In virtually every case, it’s the language of linear travel that we use to plot our position as we navigate life’s torrents.
We “climb” proverbial ladders in a bid to reach personal or professional summits, we “reach for the stars”, and we’re forever told to “aim high”. And when those lofty heights elude us, our hearts “sink”, we are “crestfallen” and we “plummet” to the “depths” of despair. We’re either accelerating forwards, or we’re decelerating backwards.
What is it that we’re saying when we talk of highs and lows? Why do we linguistically frame our lives this way? How have we even come to collectively associate and articulate “forwards” and “up” as signs of progress, while assuming “backwards” and “down” to be regressive?
Our metaphors are our metaphysics – we fool ourselves that the drama of the rise and fall frees us from the void.
The 1960s philosopher and self-proclaimed “entertainer”, Alan Watts, renowned as an interpreter of Zen Buddhism, famously railed against the idea of progress. Throughout his immense catalogue of writing and lectures, he urged for an approach to life that transcended conventional ideas about the purpose of modern life.
In his essay, The Age of Anxiety, Watts suggests that the language we use is more than just a descriptive framework; it’s a metaphorical trap we walk into, blindly guided by conventional ideas of what makes life meaningful. We talk of movement and travel because we feel it is the only way to live. To move in a forward direction provides a sense of purpose, whereas to slide backwards or to stand still suggests a stagnation in the goals we’re made to think we should be striving to achieve:
“On the one hand, there is the anxiety that one may be missing something, so that the mind flits nervously and greedily from one pleasure to another, without finding rest and satisfaction in any. On the other, the frustration of having always to pursue good in a tomorrow which never comes, and in a world where everything must disintegrate, gives men an attitude of ‘What’s the point anyhow?’”
Our habitual procession through a series of ups and downs is therefore symptomatic of our fundamental anxiety with life. This stems from the perennial struggle to work out why we’re here and how to spend our time in such a way that lends meaning to existence.
Our metaphors are our metaphysics – we fool ourselves into thinking that the drama of the rise and fall frees us from the void in which we might otherwise find ourselves. And yet it’s precisely because we can’t bear the prospect of a void, of emptiness, of futility, that we trap ourselves in a cycle of perpetual motion that sees us darting from satisfaction to frustration and back again.
The 18th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer inimitably riffed on this idea of life’s inherent futility in his essay, The Emptiness of Existence. He argued that the perpetual motion that characterises most lives is an approach that will always doom us to fail:
“It is the same as a man running downhill, who falls if he tries to stop, and it is only by his continuing to run on that he keeps on his legs; it is like a pole balanced on one’s finger-tips, or like a planet that would fall into its sun as soon as it stopped hurrying onwards. Hence unrest is the type of existence.
“In a world like this, where there is no kind of stability, no possibility of anything lasting, but where everything is thrown into a restless whirlpool of change, where everything hurries on, flies, and is maintained in the balance by a continual advancing and moving, it is impossible to imagine happiness.”
It’s no wonder Schopenhauer has been brandished a doomsayer – he unreservedly posits an uncomfortable truth that challenges prevalent notions of what makes life worthwhile. For Schopenhauer, the struggle is unavoidable; to confront the pointlessness of it all is simply part of the human condition:
“…we are always living in expectation of better things, while, at the same time, we often repent and long for things that belong to the past. We accept the present as something that is only temporary, and regard it only as a means to accomplish our aim…. And so it may be said of man in general that, befooled by hope, he dances into the arms of death.”
The character Johnny in Mike Leigh’s 1993 film Naked is a painfully brilliant embodiment of Schopenhauer’s despair. The film poignantly questions the boundaries of the English class system, juxtaposing the drabness of everyday life with the effervescent mind-space of Johnny, an embittered anti-hero who tumbles from one acrimonious relationship to another. Throughout the film, he encounters strangers, lovers and friends in his one-man battle against all of humanity, with Manchester and London as microcosms of the wider world.
Johnny’s enlightened understanding of the harsh reality of life places him at a fateful distance from the lives of quiet desperation with which he is surrounded, and with which he is inextricably associated. Every word he utters is a superb indictment of the life of thoughtless motion.
We unthinkingly slip into the trap of setting parameters to our existence based on achievements and landmarks.
In one of the film’s many seminal outbursts, as Johnny finds his way to London from Manchester, he scathingly responds to a friend who asks if he was bored in Manchester:
“That’s the trouble with everybody — you’re all so bored. You’ve had nature explained to you and you’re bored with it, you’ve had the living body explained to you and you’re bored with it, you’ve had the universe explained to you and you’re bored with it, so now you want cheap thrills and, like, plenty of them, and it doesn’t matter how tawdry or vacuous they are as long as it’s new as long as it’s new as long as it flashes and fuckin’ bleeps in forty fuckin’ different colours.”
Johnny, rather like Schopenhauer, is a misunderstood idealist. As a viewer, it’s hard not to like him. Despicable, frightening and destructive though he is, he’s undoubtedly one of the most piercingly lucid characters you’ll see on screen. Rather like Schopenhauer, his words ring true, but in a way that – from a conventional, modern perspective – can be hard to swallow.
Compare Johnny’s speech to this from Schopenhauer’s Emptiness of Existence:
“That boredom is immediately followed by fresh needs is a fact which is also true of the cleverer order of animals, because life has no true and genuine value in itself, but is kept in motion merely through the medium of needs and illusion. As soon as there are no needs and illusion we become conscious of the absolute barrenness and emptiness of existence.”
Watts talked often of the age of anxiety, in which doing is valued over being. Our language is evidence of this – we unthinkingly slip into the trap of setting parameters to our existence based on achievements and landmarks. We must reach the next stage of our career, progress to successively better stages of our relationships, move forward in our arguments to the next point of learning – the language we use is an attempt to set boundaries by way of creating points on the metaphorical path of life. These way-markers are a metaphysical antidote to the uncertainty that is the real source of angst.
Admittedly, it’s hard to see the hope for humanity behind the recriminatory expositions of either Watts, Johnny or Schopenhauer. But it is definitely there – if we read between the lines.
There is more to be said for thinking beyond the linguistic and metaphysical conventions. To do so requires a concerted effort to break free from the idea that life has to move along a socially pre-ordained straight and narrow path, where forwards and backwards are the only options and which will therefore can only ever lead to one existential state – that of anxiety, despair and desperation.
Zen Buddhism, part of the Eastern philosophy which influenced Schopenhauer, posits the transitory nature of life as the very reason for its poignancy. If we can reconcile ourselves with the reality of life’s uncertain nature, then we might find wisdom rather than despair in our consciousness of time, and so give greater attention to each moment rather than allowing them to flit by in continual search of the next. In other words, we need not experience the lows as a source of despair, nor are the highs to be automatically taken as a route to certain enlightenment.
Neither our words nor our thoughts can come close to representing the vitality of life, because they are an attempt to fix what is essentially in flux.
Followers of Tao, which translates as “the path”, embrace this uncertainty and so are revered for gliding – as opposed to racing – through life. Tao is not a path that necessarily leads anywhere, neither forwards nor backwards. That’s the point, or rather there is no point. Rather, the key lies in expanding in all directions and none.
To liberate ourselves from anxiety we need to change our mindset and our language, which means shifting our thinking away from the “restricted view of human knowledge” that Watts believed paralyses Western thought. In The Way of Zen, he writes:
“To the Taoist mentality, the aimless, empty life does not suggest anything depressing. On the contrary, it suggests the freedom of clouds and mountain streams, wandering nowhere, of flowers in impenetrable canyons, beautiful for no one to see and the ocean surf forever washing the sand, to no end.”
In another essay, The Great Stream, Watts expands on this idea of semantic paralysis. He argues that “the power of words has gone to man’s head in more than one way. To define has come to mean almost the same thing as to understand.”
Watts admonishes our reliance on words when words are nothing more than imperfect symbols projected by our limited view. Neither our words nor our thoughts can come close to representing the vitality of life, because they are an attempt to fix what is essentially in flux:
“Part of man’s frustration is that he has become accustomed to expect language and thought to offer explanations which they cannot give. To want life to be intelligible in this sense is to want it to be something other than life.”
Of course the language of regular conversation must necessarily concern itself with clear, straightforward communication. How can we then explore alternatives and find linguistic and metaphysical release?
One answer lies in poetry. Reading and writing poetry involves adjusting the tempo of our thoughts, slowing down the speed at which we write and speak. It offers a liberation from life’s vicissitudes by compelling us to contemplate and reflect rather than race and rush.
David Whyte’s The Opening of Eyes is a perfect example of this. As a poet-philosopher, he neatly captures the idea that reconciliation is possible in what he describes as “the civil war” that rages in our minds:
“…life is no passing memory of what has been
nor the remaining pages in a great book
waiting to be read.
It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years
of secret conversing
speaking out loud in the clear air.”
Life is unavoidably a tidal wave of emotions and experiences. But if we stand still for a minute, we might just be able to rest with things as they are.
Image credit: Utagawa Hiroshige, Awa Naruto no fuukei (View of the Whirlpools at Awa), colour nishiki-e ukiyo-e print, vertical ooban triptych, 37.7 x 76.2 cm, 1857, Ansei 4. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston via Wikipedia