notes on life

Culture gives meaning. The shared rituals, bonds and beliefs bind us together. It also is a reflection of our elevation above the animal state. I have used the word culture here instead of philosophy or religion because the outcomes of these two manifest in the culture. As such then culture has underpinnings and there are many other factors than just philosophy and religion which influence it.

What happens when the underpinnings are compromised? Belief in religion is waning and this is reflected in the changing culture. I class philosophy and religion as the two main drivers in underpinning a culture with true meaning. If then the meaning inherent in life is driven away, what direction does the culture tend towards?

What it has left on the positive side is to tend to psychology which focusses on wellbeing. We see that with the increase in psychology which teaches us to live well. This is one of the necessary replacements once religion is no longer as important.

However there is also a certain regression into the animal side of human nature. Culture sets up certain norms and frameworks to keep us from acting in the animal way. Seen through this lens, culture is a building built upon the foundations of the animal instinct, giving it shape and purpose, and directing the conscience on a set maze through the labrinthine passages within. Culture takes us higher. It attempts to elevate us beyond the actions of animals.

One cross-cultural institution that seems to fit this narrative is the institution of marriage. Some ritual of formalising the union between two people seems to have always existed in all cultures.

Marriage provide a framework within which two people can live and form a bond over time. Interestingly marriage as an institution still holds sway in places where religion is in the decline, although it has been supplemented with the relationship outside of marriage as the primary entry-point into the relationship sphere. A general regression into the 'animal' may suggest the emination of the marriage institution entirely.

Given the institution does not hold the same prominence it once did, and intimacy is not limited to within that bond, the dynamics between the sexes have changed. Where once it may have – to a larger or lesser extent – been navigated within the confines set up by the culture, those confines extending out beyond simply marriage, but also to the general interaction between the sexes, now those frameworks are no longer as relevant, the question is what is the guiding principle which formulates the interaction between the sexes? Naturally it is the culture but what moulds the culture in this respect, when the old ways of thinking holding up the culture no longer apply?

The answer in one way or another seems to me to tend towards our animal instincts. Without a guiding philosophy, our own natures are all that remain.

Naturally we are not completely animal and so we cannot in some sense completely regress into attemping to mate or find a mate through simply fighting off rivals to establish dominance, puffing up to size or displaying elaborate plumage. And yet, to a large degree that is exactly what analogously occurs. Flashy cars, displays of wealth, and displays of muscle seem to serve the same purpose.

There is no moral judgement being placed here. Naturally it makes sense that to remove cultural accretions means we revert back to a default setting, which would be the biological factory setting. What interests me is that we are different to animals. Let us say that it is our intelligence which makes us different. Given we have this layer of intelligence which the animals do not, it does not seem reasonable to assume that seeing relationships through the lens of the animal kingdom only, will have the explanatory power to define what we as humans holistically need from a mate. In other words, for the animal it is procreation driven by instinct. We inhabit that same space also. But the lion can eat, sleep, hunt and procreate and spend the rest of its hours idling away on the savannah without feeling like there is something more it needs to be 'complete'. It is happy to just exist at that level. We as humans do not seem to be able to do that. Most of us cannot just sit and those that can, are able because they have aquired it as a skill through training.

While culture then may regress to the level of the animal, it may produce the idea that the animalistic interaction is the only real possible interaction between two human beings. Much of social dynamics may then become constrained by this belief, and much energy will be expended in how to “intelligently” function on the animal level. How to 'pick up girls' and how to 'keep a man' seem to fall into this category. 'Chivalry is dead' and it doesn't work anyway. 'Nice guys finish last'. These all may be true, and it seems to be to be true on that very level – that is the level of the animal.

I described it as 'regressing' to the level of the animal. That is a value judgement which places culture built upon the animalistic foundations as being 'higher' in some sense. This harks to the idea that to 'rise' above the animal is an act of elevation. Maybe this is from the mind of the animal to the mind of the intellectual. In any case, culture seems to build upon the animal basis, give it a confined space to function, but one that compartmentalises the animal into an overall larger narrative, belief and society.

The animal side is instuitive to all of us as it is hard baked into us. The cultural side also seems to address certain cultural requirements which seem hardbaked into us, maybe not on the animal level, but on the level of the intellect. This makes them harder to understand or at least define. Once cannot however argue against the desire of arousal. Each cultural method does seem to offer a solution to a potential problem which exists. When these are taken to extremes and become a tool of broad repression of the animal side, they cease to function in the beneficial way.

All this seems to – in my mind – point to one thing. We can live at the level of the animal, and it will satisfy a very large part of us, but since we are more than that, it cannot satisfy all of us. To talk from the perspective of relationships, there is the animal interaction between two people and there is the 'higher' interaction that is capable. What that seems to offer me is the 'opportunity' or 'possibilities' inherent in being human and therefore in the potentialities of ways of interaction between two people, as well as every other aspect of life. We accept things as they are and they likely are for very good reason, but they do not necessarily have to be like that. Two people closely related may get stuck in ruts of thinking and habits in relation to themselves and each other. But is there a possibility to play a different game in the two relations?

One thing that interests me in relation to this is the role of zen and meditation. It seems that zen almost wants us to control the brain so that the intelligent side does not conflict or cause agitation in letting life just happen. There is on some level an acceptance that we are all part of nature so no different from the animals, and to be happy like the lion basking in the savannah and to just be ok with existing is the way to enlightenment. Indeed it may be the way to alleviate suffering, to live a life based on animalistic dynamics, but what is this huge brain for if not to be used or to challenge the very instinctiveness of our natures? Do we have the potential to live in a completely different way? Are there good reasons not to regress into the animal?

If we are to plunge into living a life above the 'animal' level, to build an equisite and complex culture which acts as our life filter, the question is what does this do for us, what is the scope of possibility within it and finally where does it lead us?

I wonder at what the best frame to view life through is and the question of seeing life as a sort of game is one that I cannot get away from. The notion of it as a 'game' seems to suggest a less-than-sublime situation, however we can just say it is a 'higher' sort of game. In fact, it is the ultimate game.

If you set up a game you define the boundaries, what can and can't be done, the rules of engagement and what is needed to win. In many respects, and with no intentions of sounding blasphemous or critical, this sounds very close to how God has set up this life.

This lens has a number of implications. Firstly, if you keep this in mind, it can serve to lessen the anxiety associated with taking life too seriously, as well as serve to keep grief manageable. By that same token however, tragedy can seem an absurd notion; things that one should live and experience to their very core can take on a bleak aura. A friend is dead, 'so what?' is the answer. 'This is just the game of life.' To be removed from the joys and woes of life is in itself a tragedy for to not feel them is not to experience life itself.

To view life as a sort of divine game also has its nihilistic perspective. You can believe it but rebel at the notion of playing it, and not take the rules seriously. You can also play it with no passion and drag yourself accross the pitch, just because that is what the rules demand. In that scenario you have no passion to offer and then the question is what use is that verve for life that we all very much have a potential for? Many will rebel at the notion entirely considering it an absurd one, and with that lose faith in God. That maybe to ignore him as if he didn't exist or lose faith in him as one does in a friend – the friend still exists but you don't talk anymore.

Games seek to make life interesting and to allow us to compete, and in that competiton something of the spirit of life and what we are capable of shines through. It would seem to me that life as a divine game seeks the same end. The Quran speaks of God having created life and death to see 'which one of you is best in deed'. Competing in doing good is a constant theme.

As a divine game however, for it to end in eternal damnation or eternal bliss is a concept that I have to consider further. For something that is only a game, the stakes seem very high. After most games, one gets to go home and have a shower and a cup of tea. Many would say that the possibility of evil within life itself it too high a stake. In all games there are still referees to make sure things do not get out of hand. However, if this wasn't the highest stakes game there is, it wouldn't be called life. Anything less than this might be meaningless because meaning itself is bourne to some degree out of choice.

There is a liberation to see what we do as a game. With us at the centre, there are exapnding concentric circles of games at all levels, till you get to the outer ring demarcating the boundary, and that ring is the ring of life. The pressure of expectations to do one thing or another can be alleviated when one realises that we are all just maneuvering piece on the chess board. To take a quick third-person perspective on your decisions in life can be a beneficial therapy.

Ultimately everything we do is a sort of game with parameters and rules. The only good choice here is to play it well. When things are not going well it seems a cruel game. But one must come back fighting into the ring because to sit on the sidelines is to become dead before ones time.

One difference in attitude that I have encountered between zen and religion (semetic/Abrahamic) is the approach to time. Zen appeals to the moment, as the only existence. Neither the past, nor the future exists. The focus is on the moment. The attitude that semetic religion seems to be concerned about is the passage of time and the outcome at the end of it. In zen, one has already arrived. In semetic religion, one is travelling to an end goal. Indeed that end goal is the focus – that day of judgement, that eternal paradise. In zen, the focus lands squarely on the moment. That shift in attitude can bring or remove stresses on a person in unimaginable ways.

While it may seem both are completely separate attitudes – and there is good reason to think they are – with the broader framework of semetic religion in mind, one could bring the zen mindset to bear onto it in a positive way. You can know the end goal, but live it moment by moment. There is a certain anxiety that the semetic attitude almost necessitates upon the believer. The anxiety of judgement and the fire of hell bears down as a firm reality in a way that the non-believer may not be able to comprehend. Indeed life itself is seen as a delusion leading ones focus away from the main truths of a perfect paradise or a perfect punishment.

Life as a delusion also exists as a precept in zen. However the approach here is that the delusion seeks to take us away from our true nature and causes anxiety. Living in the moment and focussing on reality as reality without thoughts superimposed onto it is the remedy. The semetic attitude however deems life a delusion that takes us away from being anxious about the reality of judgement.

If one could comparamentalise the knowledge of judgement, yet still hold it as a true reality, the zen attitude could help one focus on the moment without the delusion of life drawing one into mindless thoughts and endeavours, and still let one live every moment as a sacred reality.

It has to be said that the religious attitude mentioned here is to some degree one-dimensional, but one can only write about one dimension at a time.

The Blanket is a blog to talk about my thoughts on religion, philosophy and life. The religious root of my life is islamic and so the lens I wear is coloured by this. I'm really here to unpick the knots that the journey of life seems to bind many of us in. How do I face life and how does the truth of what I know or have been told square up to what I am experiencing and seeing? How do you move forward with the weight of trying to find truth?

There are so many systems of thinking and ways of approaching the world. The fact that we can move forward with any confidence and without sorting through the tangled morass of thoughts is in my estimation a miracle. It seems to mean blocking out some noise over others, and holding a confidence in the notion that what you believe in or hold close is true. Any challenge of that is swiftly shut down because your whole identity is linked to it. And that is not a bad thing either, for opening that door is opening the door to facing and having to fight demons. Some will see the demons and close the door. Others will venture out onto the doorstep and defend from there. Others venture off into the mists of the dark forest with no knowledge of what is on the other side and no understanding of the monsters lurking. The chances of getting lost, getting defeated or walking in circles are very high. I wouldn't recommend it, but at the same time, some of us are walking in circles and are looking for the tangent to veer off into.

To write or not to write? For the longest time I have been careful and told myself not to. Do not put your thoughts out there. Further, who are you to think your thoughts are valuable enough to share? There is also a concern about internet privacy. I still hold all of these concerns. And yet, maybe this is the tangent.

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