In which I riff on entropy and the Buddha’s last words—and try to make peace with the death part of life. All things fall apart.
- Some background
- Good death v Bad death
- Side Note: an Analogy
- Science and visions (also a Chvrches song)
- Why am I sharing this?
- Buddha, meet entropy
- The dark side of the moon
- The bright side of the moon
- Flip the card table
- Entropy and necessary chaos
- Hope in entropy
- Care, in the nutshell of life
- The serenity to accept the things I cannot change
- The courage to do the things we can
- The practice of embracing disorder
Apparently the Buddha’s last words were these.
Things fall apart. Tread the path with care.
–Digha Nikaya 16
This quotation was the focus of last Wednesday’s meditation with Dr. Rick Hanson, psychologist and proponent of combining neuroscience with Buddhist principles.
Disclaimer: this is quite rough, but if I wait to have enough time and energy to edit these days, I will never share anything. Please bear with me 🙂 .
I love Dr. Hanson’s approach because it aligns with my tendency to mash together forms of wisdom our highly specialized world likes to keep apart. In this case, seeing intersections between science and religious or philosophical thought, the value of letting things break down and die, and the necessity of putting human and environmental needs above economics. Globalism must die (and our lifestyles and jobs as we know them) if we are to continue to live.
The odd perspective here is that death, metaphorically and literally, is a natural part of the universe all the way down to our individual, internal human experiences. I mean no disrespect, quite the contrary, to those suffering the grief of lost loved ones. Death is actually a good thing in some important ways. It feels terrible and IS terrible in some very real ways, and literal death is absolute, yes, but also probably most often, necessary.
Good death v Bad death
I have been doing a lot of thinking about the difference between good death (a natural end to a well-lived life, and death that allows for new growth) and bad death (death that takes too much, and destroys or at least hinders the possibility of new growth). Also see my post on this line of consideration called “I Disappear.”
It is my belief that our society needs to embrace this fact of life (things falling apart) in order to heal culturally, individually, environmentally. We need to stop trying to grow incessantly as cultures and economies and individuals, and start embracing the cycles of growth and recession (including both literal and metaphorical death) that occur naturally, and with healthy benefits.
Side Note: an Analogy
Incessant growth or productivity is basically living like Voldemort–yuck. He wants to live forever, but in order to do that, he must distort himself and his world alike. And the irony is that his eternal life must come at the cost of many innocent lives. He eats death, like his disciples. This is basically how our globalist economy works, the success of which is based on unceasing growth, and its success comes at the cost of much beautiful, healthy, innocent life on Earth. Also notice that Harry’s eventual surrender to his own death allows him to break his bondage to Voldemort, releasing the perpetual battle of his formative years, in which he had to become stronger and better and faster and smarter (to grow incessantly along with Voldemort) in order to live. This battle is a trap ….
I have many more thoughts about this analogy, but I’m going to put a pin in it for another post.
It is easy to see this reality that there is such a thing as a good death when we look at the seasons. The only reason we have the living Earth that we do is because of its cycling through the seasons with great regularity. We must become more like the seasons in our approaches to literally everything. That’s my living hypothesis, since reading Clarissa Pinkola Estes in The Women Who Run with the Wolves… probably seven years ago. It is something that needs to be practiced, not something that you understand once and then put to the back of your mind while you carry on with life.
Science and visions (also a Chvrches song)
So the Buddha said all things fall apart, and we should tread carefully. I thought this post was about entropy, a scientific concept, you might think. And… What place does a religious philosophy have in science? A lot actually.
When we take the time to think about it, we can see that a lot of tried and true religious and philosophical principles are ahead of science in some important ways. Science simply needs to catch up, and I believe it will eventually, to a degree.
There are some things that are extremely difficult if not impossible to study. My psych research methods course from a million years ago now (15 years!) calls it measuring the weight of smoke. This is a metaphor obviously. The weight of smoke can be measured, but not by putting it on a weigh scale. It is a less strictly direct and obviously observable process. There are scientifically known phenomena that likewise cannot be seen directly, i.e. at the atomic level, that we have yet to find a way to observe.
More relevant to religious/philosophical principles and practices, it has been widely known but not well scientifically understood for decades that meditation is a wise and healthy practice. Thanks to the openness of some experts, we do now have some reliable science that helps us to understand important health aspects, but science still has a long way to go to catch up completely.
Until then, we have experts like Dr. Hanson who have done some great work in taking what we do know–both scientifically and simply because of the evidence in its effects–and integrating some valuable Buddhist principles into their healing practices.
Why am I sharing this?
For one, my art practice has necessarily become mostly an art-of-living practice while I regain the strength to create regularly again. I hope this isn’t far off. The other thing is that I see living as an art anyway, and thinking deeply about life, knowledge, wisdom, and human experiences very much informs my art. Posts like this are essentially peeks behind the curtain.
I’m not a magician, but a human being trying to figure out how to make it through life the best I can, same as anyone. The difference between myself and the tricksy Wizard of Oz is that I like to make this process visible. I learned the value of making thinking visible as a teacher. It’s actually quite helpful and productive. It fosters innovation and independent, critical thinking.
Buddha, meet entropy. Entropy, meet Buddha.
Anyway, so I’m doing this Zoom meditation and discussion with Dr. Hansen, and he’s breaking down (haha) the meaning of the Buddha’s last words. And here is where, yet again, science and religious philosophy align.
In his dying moments, Buddha essentially closed with one of very few fundamental laws of nature: entropy, which means more or less that everything falls apart. More specifically, it means that disorder and randomness are steadily increasing in the universe, and that systems tend to move from ordered to disordered, not the other way around. Yadyada everything falls apart, put very simply. AND I got to mention this during Dr. Hansen’s explanation of all the places the Buddha’s final thought here applies to life as we know it.
I cant think of his examples now, but some I can think of are the slow degradation of an abandoned building over time; ice melting; salt and sugar dissolving; a campfire turning wood into heat, smoke, and ash; and making popcorn.
The other idea that this reminds me of is the adage that the only true constant in life is change.
The dark side of the moon
The implication from these is that it is wise to accept change and disorder, things breaking down, as facts of life and work on making peace with things that come and go in our lives.
This does not entirely change the likewise factual discomfort we humans and other creatures experience with change, but we can stop raging against the dying of this light. All we can do is our best. The rest is not up to us.
Sometimes the best we can do is grieve our losses: a job, the middle class, economic stability (within the current system), youth, loved ones, lost dreams, the illusion of equality in our world, and on and on.
The bright side of the moon
However, there is an equal and opposite implication to this fundamental law. With destruction comes the opportunity for creation and innovation.
Powerful people and institutions have been capitalizing on this (literally) for decades. This Shock Doctrine is by no means positive for anyone but the already rich and powerful (DO check out this book by Naomi Klein if you haven’t already). HOWEVER, it is potentially the time for every individual person to take advantage of the opportunities that come with destruction. Take the opportunity to build new life that ceases to depend on the paternalistic/exploitative western system we operate under.
Flip the card table
Flip the card table. Start your own business. Co-op with members of your community doing the same thing. Pay a lot more attention to institutions and economic activity that respect and reflect the need for agility and diversity. Give and receive in turn. This may be a bit of a pipe dream, looking at human history, but that is no reason not to shoot for it all the same. To quote Guns & Roses, “Smoke ’em if ya got ’em.”
(Non-pharma produced plant medicine is another interesting branch of wisdom and healing that western science is only now beginning to catch up to. Non-western sciences have known these for ages, but we in the west disregard these like petulant children who need to learn things the hard way and are quite pompous and rude about it. I know because I’m one of these, minus the pompous and rude bit.)
In whatever way it is necessary, roll with the punches and the heaving waves, move like water toward the sea, which always finds a way… unless the river is being drawn to depletion by factory farming practices…. Hmm this is a considerable diversion. My life is like that actually.
Even so, as I grieve a vibrant, and productive life, there is in this the opportunity to reinvent myself. Has the door to something you’ve valued closed? Keep moving until you find a window. What can you do to effectively spread your energy out into the world, not a vacuum, like a campfire? What crops can you sustainably water? What food can you sustainablly provide? What wisdom?
I hope people are starting to see the equivalent depletion of nature and ourselves, among the masses, as human beings.
Entropy and necessary chaos
Our world has once again become too narrow. This idea of things falling apart sounds crappy, and it definitely can be, but it can also move us to expand and open to a larger and more balanced life. It can move us to aid the entropic destruction of systems that are long overdue to surrender to entropy. In what are these systems already breaking down? Can we support that process? What do we do with the energy this process produces?
How can each and every one of us take our power back from a system that restricts and “organizes” it–centralizes it in a perverse form of trickle down capitalist-corporate communism–to the point of impoverishment and madness of the masses? (One in five Canadians is suffering from mental illness right now.) This globalist (expansion based) economic system takes and centralizes no less than the power and physical and abstract resources of workers (both blue and white collar). Because it must expand indefinitely to succeed, it sucks everything dry, people included. It also in doing so aims to work against entropy which requires more and more. Always more.
Hope in entropy
Perhaps there is more hope in entropy than meets the eye. There is also a lesson. The goal is not to take personal power back so we can crush our enemies. The goal is to take it back so we can share it with our communities, the people and causes we value, and the systems that, in fact, support us and continually adapt to our needs and failings and ideals.
Care, in the nutshell of life
Hence the second part to the lifetime nutshell advice from the Buddha. “Tread the path with care.” Power is not the goal. It is the byproduct of caring for ourselves and others above money and power. It is one of those paradoxes. If we want power and resources like money, we need to put them aside and put something deeper and more human above all. If you want to find something, stop looking for it. Sometimes logic works: where did you see it last? But often, true wisdom and power are much less superficial, and much more humble.
The serenity to accept the things I cannot change
(or do/know on my own)
There are often things we simply cannot find by known methods or by virtue of our own strength and control. There is a lot of wisdom in learning when and what to let go. There is a huge amount of wisdom in opening ourselves to what we don’t know… and to what we don’t know that we don’t know.
The courage to do the things we can
Accepting the laws of nature does not mean we do not go to war to take our power back. Our white male supremacist society will not go quietly. And this may always be a part of true social and environmental justice. But this war is not to replace the powers that be. It is to transform them by also simply moving beyond them (with or without their participatuon) and focusing on what is far more important. In my opinion, this means building and supporting individuals and communities intertwined in an agile, adaptive system that reflects unique and diverse modes of knowing/unknowing, creating/destroying, and productivity/letting ourselves be.
Tolerating the uncertainty of life according to its natural laws, I believe, is our next true core challenge as a species. The system under duress now is too individualistic, too repressive, too controlling, too exploitative. Any new system that is to prove sustainable must hold in balance this fundamental law that, yes, life is inherently creative, but in equal measure destructive, and that everything, sooner or later, falls apart. But just as life eats death, when one thing falls apart, it makes room for another that, if we can help it, is more relevant and balanced than what came before.
I also talk about this notion of life emerging from death in my post The secret life of trees.
The practice of embracing disorder
Without further ado, here is the recording of the meditation hosted by Dr. Hanson. I hope you enjoy.
My mention of entropy is briefly but enthusiastically included in the discussion after the meditation. Credit to Scotford Von Castlehousen for my interest and expanding understanding of this very cool scientific notion.
Enjoy life, friends, whatever that means to you. What else is it for?
Nap time for me.