Surviving a Wilderness of Weirdness with Philosophy as the Weapon of Choice

ethics, fate, free will, future, greek philosophy, human mind, Life, marcus aurelius, meditations, natural philosophy, natural world, philosophy, Spiritualism, stoicism, thoughts

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The media report much fear and trepidation in the wider world, although judging by the look of contentment on the face of passersby, you’d be hard pressed to think so.

(and I swear even the dogs grin, or is that the outward appearance of having a stick lodged in one’s mouth?)

There’s also the unintended consequence of having a lot of people who find themselves with oodles of time on their hands while Covid-19 does the rounds. So how do they while away the hours until the spectre of death subsides, and we can get back to servicing the toothed machine of human progress? Some trek to Everest Basecamp in the confines of their home by scaling the staircase until the carpet goes bald and they follow suit. Others turn their hand to a spot of home teaching the kids until, realising that the transmission of knowledge through didactic discipline is harder than it looks, they dismiss their tiny class early. Others, like me, write obscure blogs that few dare to read, worse still understand. Still others take up new housebound hobbies with aplomb: such as taking 360˚ virtual trips to the Great Namib Desert courtesy of their much-abused smart phones, or else the wise few keep reciting ‘No wild animals in my delicious hotpot, please’ in Mandarin until the phrase sticks.

With this golden opportunity not to go nuts inside a tiny flat in Basingstoke, how many out there have given over their enquiring mind to the acquisition of a philosophy? Ancients, who weren’t busy warring in a sackcloth and sandals, were rather adept at offering sound advice based on the principle that once a man had found a philosophy to suit his ontological needs, he had succeeded in finding the map that would guide a clear path through this impenetrable life. The bold and the beautiful in the Greco-Roman universe swore by this dictum, going so far as to stitch their new ethos into their imperator tunics while on campaign against troublesome Germanic tribes.

The last of the five ‘good emperors’, Marcus Aurelius, was a man revered for being an enlightened and compassionate allrounder with a mind given over to self-examination in ways inconceivable to other emperors, for whom pleasures of the flesh all too often outweighed the pain of asking what does it all mean and what is my true place in the grand scheme? Given the unenviable task of leading the decades-long charge against tribes terrifying the fragile borderlands of the Roman Empire, the good emperor still managed to fit in a famous philosophical treatise before he died. Known as The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, it was in essence a late second century A.D. reinterpretation of an ethical code dating back to a school of philosophy which had flourished ever since Zeno inscribed it in the minds of 4th century B.C.E. Athenians fed up with Cynicism.

Known as Stoicism, this branch of philosophy sought to strip away the bark of long-established wisdom to reveal the true sap oozing out of life: that is to say something vaguely along the lines of a cosmos working in cycles that start and end in fire. All matter that makes up the physical and, by extension, metaphysical questions that Man struggles to intepret works on a rational and logical basis (or ought to). Hence we humans do best when we are exercising reason over hot-headed emotion; hence we attain more understanding of how things are when explaining that phenomena using language built upon the rational rules of grammar instead of, say, an abstract picture or an incoherent grunt.

Sandwiched between the grand cosmological cycles is something we know as nature. Hence. stoicism is arguably the most influential of natural philosophies in its insistence that you and me are very small and limited in the grand scheme of things. By accepting each our minor yet vital role, the pressure is off and therefore happiness through simplicity becomes viable. Nature has a grand design, and if you let it into your heart you’ll soon realise both you are very insignificant and that, in spite of our own individual position far from centre, the universe nevertheless has your best interests at stake. All things occur for a reason. Fate doesn’t have to explain why it behaves in seemingly random ways. If it did, we’d know there’s nothing random about it. Even if an event seems uniquely cruel or inexplicable, natural forces will use the injustice to take corrective measures later on that symmetrically redress the balance, leading to the ‘Ah!’ epiphany that ‘it all makes sense now’. The interconnectivity of events is so blindingly intricate, not even a genius could spot it (shit! Did I just spot it where better people failed?)

Zeno, the father of stoicism himself, is reputed to have said that fate is an endless chain of causation whereby things are: the reason or formula by which the world goes on. In spite of this complex pattern, nature’s inner workings are, obversely, not mystical and esoteric at all; they are beautiful because true beauty lies in simplicity. That nature is beneficent – an unstoppable force that looks out for each of us if only we’d realise it – is contingent on you, the stoic, playing life as a game involving a basic blueprint of virtues to carry through life’s interactions into every little thing. Seek the four cardinal virtues – 1) justice/fairness/decency 2) wisdom/prudence/deliberation 3) courage/fortitude/endurance, and 4) temperance/self-discipline/modesty – and ye shall find yourself on course for a good death. That’s the idea, as I see it. The moment of death is all that your life ultimately amounts to, so life had better be conducted virtuously if death is to be faced head on, without anguish. There is such an aspiration as a good death, but it must be preluded by a life of self-discipline, fairness, examination, and strength of heart and mind. By the way, a good stoic would urge you not to be virtuous only to for the reward of a least hideous death. Be good, in and of itself, not for what it may give you back. Life is not a financial investment. Do the right thing because that is the natural order of things and to speak the language of life eloquently, we must first understand its grammar and morphology.
For stoics, like Seneca, Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, life exists to be lived, literally like there is no tomorrow. William Faulkener wrote, The past is never dead. It’s not even past. How I do admire that wordplay. That said, Faulkener was no devotee of Seneca the Stoic. To stoics like Seneca, the past is a foreign country. Events that created the mosaic of that life have moved away forever, never to be relived with the veracity of how they were first meted out. Memories are not to be trusted, nor to be dwelt on. And death is not a loss of a whole life but rather just a loss of a moment at the close of that life. The ideal life, according to Seneca, was to be lived in the now, without dwelling on what’s gone, nor the irrelevance of what’s to come. It was to find contentedness in the simple here and now, and to want for nothing. How else to understand what golden threads of alchemy the cosmic fabric is made of other than to look closely at what is all around you NOW?

What the world needs now is love, sweet love, so goes the song. The world also needs Stoicism, meant not as the character-building prototype of the rugged Victorian imperialist (sword in one hand, dove in the other, pen between the toes, and pipe contemplatively in the mouth). Rather, the stoicism that emanated from ancient Athens and Rome was one that understood its demoted place in the natural order. We face a twenty-first century reckoning because we took stoicism to mean putting up with any old shit that life throws at us. Overwhelmingly, that shit was of our own making because we got way, way ahead of ourselves, thinking that two thousand years of Christianity and Islam had transformed each of us into little gods and sinners to be forgiven through atonement and religious devotion. So it was okay to break the ancient covenant with the natural order and go forth and multiply exponentially while scorching the Earth to conquer all before us because it was sanctioned first by the scriptures, and secondly by the arrogance bestowed on us by virtue of having reached a state of civilisation that was deemed far removed from lowly animals (this civilisation, it should be post-scripted, built its sandcastle empire not always on virtue alone).

In an age of uncertainty, rocked by the unvoiced realisation that there are too many of us vying for limited resources in a world wrecked in the search for these valuables, what needs resurrecting from the ashes of a self-deceptive human race is the idea that there are greater forces out there writing the book of life. That we are not gods but men and women who are fallible may seem self-evident, but any visitor from Andromeda would think we had promoted ourselves to that elevated rank. Every one of us might be just a mote of dust in the wind, but life affords us one chance to show our mettle: that if each of us face our remaining days in the pursuit of justice and courage and wisdom and self-restraint we shall once again feel humbled by the enormity of all that surrounds us. While no one gets out here alive, use this present lockdown to fashion your own system of practical ethics. As well as dying with a smile on your face, you might just make a small difference to your own and to the innumerable small lives that together construct the rich tapestry of everything we see and, more importantly, everything we don’t.

Everybody has an answer, but few a philosophy. Everyone wants a life, but not everyone holds the ethical guidebook to embark upon one worth living. Millions likes posting big pictures on Instagram, but how many consider the bigger picture and their own role as but one pixel within it? Why go in search of happiness as if it be a commodity to be acquired when, with the right tools at your disposal, you may reach inside and find it there? Thousands are dying out there (of malaria more than of Covid-19). So why stay at home wondering how you’re going to avoid it when you can stay at home and work out a formula for how to pursue a good life befitting of an equally good death.

The Accidental Pilgrim

animals, Buddhism, Burma, dogs, Life, Myanmar, People, Reflections, Shan People, South East Asia, Spiritualism, Spirituality, Travel, Travel Photography, Trekking, Tribes

Bidding farewell to that little mongrel was not easy for any of we pilgrims. Those boy monks, hair all shorn, scalp dappled under the Burmese sun, cradled him like they would a baby, in the folds of those tatty robes of saffron red. Watching the eight of us trundle off, backpacks adjusted, into the cool of a highland morning, the boy monks looked more than equipped for the important job that lay before them. That in itself brought hope rising with another dawn.

For the Buddhist, love for even the smallest of things matters as much as carrying the entire weight of the world on a single fingertip. That much we saw there in their dark eyes, in their serene expression, in the oath of kindness they had taken from such a tender age to do the lion’s share of the caring that the rest of the world had given up on long ago in the pursuit of personal happiness.

A youngling may sleep easy when secure in the love that permeates the air. Now an accident-prone bundle of pup might not be the most astute of characters, but when an accident-prone bundle of adult human who has learned astuteness the hard way sees those four paws splashed across the chest of the apprentice ascetic, you just know that that dog has landed well and truly on his feet.

Yet, the creature’s journey through life did not start out with such providence. Nowhere near. When he crashed into us but a few short hours before, his destiny had appeared no different from so many other benighted souls in fur coats: born in a litter to parents who fucked but not out of enduring love, alive for no other purpose than to survive on slim pickings for a few years and then die alone on the packed earth of a litter-strewn back alley.

The solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short life envisioned in Hobbes’ state of nature looked very much on the cards for this three month-old puppy. His only salvation seemed to be his obliviousness. But life has a funny way of confounding even the most pessimistic among us. For that happy and pitiful creature the winds of fate had turned full sail in the space of one day. We all saw with moistened eyes a feat that should offer a sense of calm to all our weary souls.

We started the morning early in a traditional Shan village deep in farming country. The Shan people of Myanmar, the long-isolated nation that British rulers called Burma, are a proud and self-sufficient lot. They occupy the central-east of this vast country where it abuts northwest Thailand and southwest Laos. Farmers, tribal confederates and a people proud as the chillies growing red on blanketed hillsides, they had been our hosts for the night.

Compared to other fraught margins of the republic, their land is considered safe enough to qualify as classic trekking country. From the former British hill station of Kalaw the walk takes the walker on three days of mostly gently terrain to Inle Lake, Myanmar’s second biggest. Through open countryside, on soil tilled and loamy for maximum crop yield, from that village the trek crossed a road and settlement before ending the second day in a secluded monastery on a wooded hillside.

We pulled in at a house-cum-diner for lunch. There where the plates came thick and fast, a steady parade of fellow trekkers filled up before pressing on. The undoubted star of an otherwise nondescript event was a puppy. Plump, carpeted beige and with a short black snout he could have been half-ursine. Unlike other strays, bony, coats dull from vitamin-deficiency, their natural beauty bred out of them, this one glowed. His cuteness and his daftness captivated all who entered, all except the local family who ran the show. Ignoring the sharp rebukes he received every time he bundled through the doorway and into us, this yogi was not your average bear. All the tourists could see that. We wrestled him on the floor and generally delighted in his brazenness and total lack of the kind of wariness that sets your average stray apart from your average family dog.

Upon leaving, our group assumed that this dog came with the furniture. Any fool could see that an addition like that would bring tourists from doggie-mad countries of the west flocking. But no, one man’s meat is another’s poison. We saw the local kids kick and threaten to maim him. Sadism is as sadism does. If indeed cruelty does come on the coattails of childhood, there was no adult on hand enlightened enough to show them the virtue in compassion.

Perturbed by this turn of events (myself and a lieutenant in Dutch Armed Forces, in particular), we first politely told them no, then beseeched them to treat him well. When that policy failed and still the puppy yelped, then coming back for more because he did not know as yet of man’s dark nature, our voices took on a more menacing and authoritative tone. Here we go again, I thought, another bullshit, untutored corner of the world that misguided Westerners take to be all spiritual and the panacea to all our industrial materialism if only we could be there and breathe it in. Here we go again, I intoned, supercilious arsehole backpackers from Western countries standing on judgement with dark-skinned lesser mortals exactly as the old colonials had.

And then, after no more than a smattering of words exchanged between our wonderful local guide and the family of villagers who would steal the innocence from that bundle of joy, we had ourselves a passenger. No more than five-foot-nothing in her stocking souls, she took that little dog in her arms and walked it right out of that village. Taking turns to carry the bundle, some miles out of town, on the margins of a field where things looked safe enough, that dog was gently lowered onto the banks of a gentle, swirling river where the girls got undressed and the wappy delirium of his reaction was enough to restore the faith of the most doubting of all doubters. In that moment, I could see that the Dutchman was falling hopelessly in love, and it wasn’t with any girl in our entourage. As was I.

Other than a heart-stopping minute or two whereby the pup went AWOL in the bushes, we kept a trained eye on him throughout. Through cultivated land, over grasses concealing a whole weaponry of reptilian delights, we pressed on, him trotting along demented with excitement then in our arms overwhelmed into sleep by it. By nightfall our destination had come upon us: the monastery. Rarer sights there were few, fewer still in the rich realms of my experience.

Checking in with our newfound trek mate, our group settled in for an evening of food, drink and merriment in the longhouse where pilgrims come to exchange life stories. There the bungling little fellow did it again, crashing parties, receiving honorary VIP status quicker than an A-list Bollywood star. In the dimness over drinks the Dutchman and I conspired to wrest the little guy away from the tight grip of a German sitting at the next table.

‘Typical,’ he lamented, ‘first they invade my country, now they have the cheek to take my dog.’

‘It’s not your dog,’ I protested. ‘It’s ours. It belongs to us.’

‘Okay. Seeing that Britain did its bit in the war, you deserve a piece of him, too.’

Emboldened by our joint declaration, we invaded the neighbouring table. The kindly kidnapper in question was none other than the German who had offered me brandy in our guesthouse two nights previous. We Europeans, I mused, we should stick together. The dog might be our common interest, but I demand, like a good contrarian from Albion, nevertheless to take back control from those dastardly Europeans. All the while, the puppy curled up, stretched out, did what puppies do in other parts of the world where they are loved. Ignorance can be bliss when you stand twelve inches above the ground, where the world is for big licks and sniffing, snaffling and capers.

When finally the time came on the following morning to pack up and go, we were left with more than a minor detail. What now? Today is New Year’s Eve, the culmination of a three-day stroll in the back country of Burma, the end of a long year of trails and trials and tribulations that tried the patience of not one but a pantheon of saints. We had snatched the dog from the grip of misery. That very deed cannot, must not be sullied. Anything less than a happy ending would be a sad and treacherous affair. Not to undermine the quiet heroism of our guide – who was a gifted young woman, in every sense the inheritor of a new Myanmar reacquainted with the world at large after decades of self-imposed exile from the world at large (the new Aung San Suu Kyi in the making?) – came up trumps again.

Acceding to her request for its sanctuary, the monks agreed to take our dog and to raise him and raise him well, in a loving and trusting community where he would grow to be wise and great among dogs. Given enough time, given enough chanting of mantras, our puppy may even be born again human.

That day, as we headed out on the trail to watch the monastery become the forest, the forest become the lake and the lake become the closing of something special, we knew among us, without needing to iterate, that the experience with that little dog had made us all in the process a little more human.

Where Pagodas Need No Watering

Buddhism, Burma, Myanmar, Reflections, Shan People, South East Asia, Spiritualism, Travel, Trekking, Uncategorized

There’s a land long long time locked away, behind the keyhole, Mandalay.

Peasants in the fields time slowing ticking, planting their rice making slim pickings.

The landscape stretches on and on, the monks’ flowing robes, the roosters at dawn.

Everything grows every vegetable every fruit, music from the earth, Thieving Magpie, Magic Flute.

Fields of Scotch Bonnet, Indian Red, magic lemon that numbs the mouth, nondescript things that go off in the head.

No room in the cupboard to describe it all: ginger, jujube , jasmine, the creeping sprawl.

Magnolias, primulas, tea leaves & teak, minute into hour, day into week.

Slow goes the river thru the Irrawaddy plain, nothing really matters, what was will be again.