Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A relevant digression

I've tried in recent posts to make the argument that the idea that the mind and body are separate -- that the self is somehow apart from its physical embodiment -- is mistaken. That's important for the philosophy of public health in many ways, which I intend to try to unpack as I go along. Once we unify the psychological and the biological - which I think for most people's sense of self would represent a movement from what seems the innermost core to a larger sphere -- the next step is the social, and that's where I want to go, to think of human health in a terms of a comprehensive bio-psycho-social model.

But I wanted to stop and take note of someone who thought about these issues a long time ago, in a really strikingly modern way. That's Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in what is now Nepal and died somewhere around 2,400 years ago. He is usually called the Buddha but that seems inappropriate to me because according to the earliest records we have of his teaching, he said that he was an ordinary person and that anyone can become a Buddha, which simply means one who is enlightened, i.e. somebody who can see the truth. So he was just a Buddha, not the Buddha, and we should just call him by his name. Many people, for essentially that reason, call him Sakymuni, which means the monk or sage of the Sakyas, the clan to which he belonged.

Of course in order to view his ideas as modern we have to rip him out of his context. In Gautama's time and place everybody believed in reincarnation, that when we die we are reborn as some other being, human, animal, or supernatural. This belief was so completely integral to the culture that his philosophy had to take account of it, but in my view Buddhism fits with the idea of reincarnation very awkwardly. One can dispense with reincarnation and most of the core Buddhist ideas still make sense.

I must also say that, unfortunately in my view, the school of philosophy and community of seekers that he founded wound up evolving, over time, in numerous sects and cultural phenomena most of which are distinctly religious in nature, which often elevate him into a kind of God, and are concerned with supernatural ideas. Although we don't have any direct record of his teachings, the earliest documents, created some time after his death from oral tradition, clearly indicate that he would have been appalled by all that.

He was, in fact, agnostic when it came to God or Gods, and he did not concern himself with religious belief. He said that it was futile to inquire into first causes, that we should devote ourselves to questions which can be answered by observation. He said that nobody should believe anything he said without testing it empirically.

He also said, and this is what is most relevant here, that the self is an illusion. We are just the temporary confluence of various parts that happen to come together during our lifetime, and when we die, it all falls apart, and we are gone. Even within the limitation of a lifetime, the self is an illusion because, first of all, nothing is permanent or even stable, but everything change. The self we perceive now is not the self we perceived a year ago, or ten seconds ago. Finally, the boundary between self and body and self and world can only be drawn arbitrarily, they all interpenetrate and interact so that no real separation exists among them. (That's why the whole reincarnation thing doesn't work very well. If there is no self, what exactly is being reincarnated? A lot of Buddhist scholasticism is about wrestling with this problem.)

This philosophy may seem depressing or nihilistic at first glance, but it is the opposite. It's the key to freedom from suffering, which is the usual fate of humans but for which he had the diagnosis and the cure. Suffering is caused by what is variously translated as desire or attachment, but if we recognize the illusory nature of the self, egoism melts away and with it the frustration of desire and hence suffering. Furthermore, when we are no longer concerned with the needs of the ego, we are freed to experience compassion for all sentient beings. Far from being nihilistic or apathetic, the Buddha is filled with purpose, but that purpose, universal enlightenment, is entirely unselfish.

He taught various methods for achieving enlightenment, but one I particularly want to mention here is mindfulness. As I said earlier, we generally act without awareness of why we act, in fact we generally act without even being aware that we have made a decision. That's how we end up saying cruel things that we regret or taking unreasonable risks or screwing up a task. One extremely important practice is called mindfulness -- to try, throughout our daily lives, to be self aware, to notice what we are doing and to reflect on what might be our motivations and the wisdom of our actions. This has many potential benefits, but one of them, ultimately, is to reveal that the self we thought we knew never existed.

Of course, enlightenment is an ideal, a goal which none of us really expects to achieve. But think of it as a path, a way of living. Because Gautama's philosophy was essentially pragmatic, and concerned with methods more than metaphysics, it is a good model for contemporary forms of psychotherapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy, and indeed I have met psychiatrists who base a lot of what they do on essentially Buddhist ideas. So I offer this as another way into some of the problems I've been writing about lately, for what it's worth.

No comments: