Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Grow and Decay, Grow and Decay, It's Only Forever

Brad Warner:

When you call yourself a Buddhist, you invite people to define you according to all their preconceptions and prejudices about Buddhists. Of course this goes for any religion or for any group you choose to identify with. If you call yourself a Christian or a Republican or a Punk or a Polyamorist or any of those things, you’re inviting people to define you in the way they have defined those things in the past. You have to accept at least some aspects of the common definition of those things.

There are benefits to doing this as well as problems. If you want someone to know how you feel on issues like abortion, global warming and military spending without having to spend a lot of time going point-by-point through the issues you might simply say, “I’m a conservative.” If you’re trying to get people to buy your album and you know they’re not going to take the time to listen carefully to every cut, you can categorize it as “hardcore punk” — even if it ends with a nine minute song featuring sitar, sleigh bells and Mellotron like the new Zero Defex album. You also benefit by aligning yourself with a group whose ideals you agree with, or at least mostly agree with simply because there is strength in numbers.

Nobody ever agrees with every stereotype random passers-by might associate with whatever it is they’ve chosen to align themselves with. There are political conservatives who believe in women having the right to abortions. There are Born-Again Christians who vote for Obama. There are even Buddhists who supported the bombing of Iraq. People are full of surprises.

It's not just I.D. badges of tribal identity in particular, of course. There seems to be a general law of entropy in the noosphere as well — ideas and concepts are forever decaying into clichés, slogans and buzzwords. Heuristics designed to save time and facilitate easier conversation end up sacrificing the nuance that made point-by-point discussion so fruitful. Cooking from scratch is time- and labor-intensive, but when we find ourselves distractedly wolfing down prepackaged microwave dinners, we usually realize we lost something important along the way in our thoughtless pursuit of speed and efficiency. The same applies to thinking and writing. Too often, communication gets reduced to flashcard symbols and shorthand script.

No joke, I often spend a few hours working on a single post. Mainly, that's because I'm either struggling to articulate something I've never said in so many words before, or because I've read something that, in its power or novelty, forces me to consider it carefully, so that writing about it is simultaneously a process of figuring out what exactly I think about it. Clumsily thinking out loud like that doesn't make for the most eloquent posts, but if writing a post comes too easily, I take that as a sign that I've already covered this territory enough. If it's become second nature for me, it's too close to becoming a shtick, so it's time to move on. It should always be a bit of an uphill climb. I'm not trying to corner a niche market of punditry, or provide reliable content to build an audience so I can cash in on ad revenue. I write because I have to, because I can't imagine doing anything else.

Since I used a post about Buddhism as a springboard here, let me phrase this in Buddhist terms: This blog is my discipline, my practice. As Brad recently said about meditation, this activity is its own point, its own meaning. The six or seven people who read this post carefully aren't necessarily going to notice or care how long it took me to write it, but that's not the point. There are no goals to be achieved. The practice itself is what matters. I'd like to be a better writer and a more profound thinker, but there's no point at which I can claim to have arrived there. Practice lasts your entire life. I forget where I read it, I forget whom it was about, and I even forget the exact wording, but there's a quotation burning in my memory that went something like: "Writing allowed him to 'get right' with himself in a way that nothing else could." Yes. That.

Diogenes famously said that "Other dogs bite their enemies; I bite my friends to save them." I don't have any pretensions of "saving" anybody, but I do feel compelled to snap at complacency wherever I see it. I got so disgusted with the way things are done in the political blogosphere — you praise and link to your ideological allies, and you politely overlook their flaws in silence. Being part of a group or a movement compromises your independence, and in the case of blogging, where, for the most part, you have a bunch of people typing stupid shit on the Internet and deluding themselves into thinking they're changing the world as a result, it seems positively foolish to me to limit yourself like that. Sharing voting preferences, say, is not enough of a reason for me to consider someone as being on my "side". I may be more ascetic about it than necessary, but I want to avoid the sense of obligation and expectation that accompanies social relationships. I don't want to have to deal with the distraction from my practice.

I value anyone who stimulates or provokes me to the sort of thinking I love most, whether I'm personally well-disposed toward them or not. I'm most interested in people who surprise me with their restless zigzagging across boundaries. Complacency is the real nemesis.