Monday, December 24, 2012

The Zen of Christmas

A Buddhist friend once told us, after reading our book The Mermaid's Tale, after which we named this blog, that it reminded him of the Genjo koan. Not being Buddhists ourselves, he tried to explain that, to him, our book had a sense of wonder and selflessness that was familiar from his practice.
To study the way is to study the self,
to study the self is to forget the self,
to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten-thousand things.
As well as continually changing perspective.  We have been thinking about this lately, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas with family and friends. We aren't Buddhists, or any formal religion in fact, so why do we celebrate? What are we celebrating?

In The Mermaid's Tale, we tried to convey a non-jargon sense of 'oneness' that can come from attempting to synthesize much of what is known about life into a few simple principles.  The principles can be generalized to life on all its time scales: as it has developed and will develop in every organism that has ever existed, or will ever exist, within a single lifetime; as it has evolved over 4 billion years; and within ecosystems as beings interact, depend on each other, and, yes, exploit each other for their existence.  (We have blogged about these principles, including recently here.)  

The Western view of life as relentlessly competitive, red in tooth and claw, easily fades if you recognize instead how essential cooperation is to to maintaining the dense, interacting whole, at all levels.  'Cooperation' here doesn't refer sappily to harmonious society kinds of things, though they are included, but to the requirement, on which life is based, that countless factors must interact successfully.  This is true from the use of DNA, to cells, organs, organ systems, whole organisms, species, and ecosystems.  There's nothing mystical about these facts, even if they don't serve the blood-lust of competition that is so central to our society at present.  No, the reality is that we are each at once a whole of tiny parts and and a tiny part of a whole, dependent on the rest to nurture and maintain us from conception to death.  In a more philosophical but again not necessarily mystical sense, indeed, after death we become part of the sustenance of the life that follows ours, ad infinitum.

In a reductionist world that insists on seeing existence as centrally a competition of selfish entities does not account very adequately for the highly integrated kinds of cooperation that pervade life .  Certainly what proliferates more becomes more common, in the usual evolutionary sense, and sometimes that may, as Darwin made clear, be due to a better fit to circumstances (called natural selection).  But even this isn't basically about individual genes or vitamins or any other type of molecule, but about integrated organisms.

Darwin clearly had his own sense of oneness.  He formalized that feeling into an explicitly cosmic idea that all of life shared a common ancestor, and grew as a global panoply of diversity, which his thousands of observations, and those of his many naturalist informants, consistently confirmed time after time after time, and which has never been challenged by biology since.

Darwin was not mystical, and did not feel the need to invoke the hand of a supernatural being in his understanding of the world, so his sense of the whole was an intellectual view of the world, yes.  He saw it as ruthlessly competitive, though he was personally generous and kind, and indeed his view of the world may have led to a sense of selflessness similar to that toward which Buddhists strive, but if he said anything explicit about that is not known, at least to us, but perhaps.  He did write of the grandeur of life in the famous last paragraph of The Origin of Species, and it's not hard to imagine that he wrote this with the feeling of humility that one gets in the face of the sheer awesomeness of nature.   Though, he explicitly rued having turned his mind only to science, which he describes late in his autobiography:
My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts. . . . and if I had to live life over again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.
Some scientists who press relentlessly for a reductionist enumerative ('omic') solution to problems that actually have their importance at a higher level of interaction, would do well to learn this lesson, perhaps.  To do that in a way that acknowledges wonderment, but is not mystical and is grounded in the world is a real challenge for science today, we would argue.

In any case, there are Christians who arrive at the sense of oneness through their own path -- God made the Earth and everything in it, and we must be good stewards of this Earth.  But, people who take hallucinogens often report the same sense.  So, there are many paths to the same shall we say understanding of the wholeness of life.  We can get there spiritually or intellectually, it doesn't seem to matter.

Stars, Hubble telescope (Wikimedia)
But it is this sense that we personally celebrate at Christmas.  The idea that we are one with all in the flow of life, but more: this is at once a humbling and perplexing realization that is most likely, in an ironic twist, unique to humans.  So, let Christmas be a reminder that we are smaller than atoms in the universe, but that at the same time we have the capability to love, many of us to choose our path through life, to create our own sense of meaning and to make sense of our lives in the face of the instantaneous nature of our existence.  

Happy Holidays to you all. 


Anonymous said...

Beautiful - in both theme and prose. I hadn't read that quote by Darwin before. Happy Holidays.

Ken Weiss said...

Thanks. Actually, in his autobiography Darwin goes on at greater length than this quote.

Have a good holiday yourself!

Anne Buchanan said...

Thank you. The holidays are a good excuse to be reflective! Happy Holidays to you as well!

Hollis said...

Nice post ... and happy holidays to all at the Mermaid's Tale. I look forward to more great discussions in 2013. Hollis

Anne Buchanan said...

Thanks, Hollis! We too look forward to more of the same. And Happy Holidays back to you!

Marnie said...