The Nothingness of Grounds, Ends, and the Meaningless

Children in Laos at the BlackboardI have been thinking lately, in lieu of conversations with friends, about where thinking starts and stops, the grounds and the ends, with the means in the middle. Just as Lee Braver says in his book Groundless Grounds, we do not examine the grounds from which we start as we use them, giving them a kind of nothingness underneath rather than turtles all the way down in an infinite regress.  Wittgenstein’s child at the blackboard is a perfect illustration of this point.  Children learn math as a regular practice, not as a complete and coherent set of rules.  Rules are only called in when there are misunderstandings in following the regular practice, just as road signs are employed when one does not know the way to San Jose.  If we need rules to understand things, then we need rules to understand the rules, and so on, and we have an infinite regress again, this time without turtles.

coffee cupSimilarly, the mundane and meaningless has a nothingness to it for the opposite reason. Consider the things around us that are serving no purpose, which we barely notice.  While we proceed from grounds towards ends, the mundane serves no ends, and thus it recedes as nothing important, bringing us nowhere and to nothing.  Similarly, our ends have a nothingness to them because, in spite of giving things their importance, we do not think beyond them as to where they lead. When I think about pouring myself another cup of sweet, satisfying coffee, I am not thinking about what caffeine will do to my body, and if I am thinking about what caffeine will do to my body, I am not thinking about what significance this may have for scientific studies. One has to move in thought from one to the other, shifting grounds and ends, to put each end in sight.

Zen Circle Caligraphy PaintingThus: The nothingness of grounds is our lack of seeing beneath them, the nothingness of the mundane is our lack of seeing them as leading beyond themselves to other things, and the nothingness of ends is our lack of seeing beyond them.

Thepo Rinpoche & the Hippies

thepo rinpoche and the dalai lamaI just saw a talk by a Tibetan lama, Thepo Rinpoche. I don’t know if he is indeed the 8th reincarnation of Thepo Tulku, but he says he doesn’t know if he is either. Also, when he was living in exile in India, he says that he enjoyed getting visited by hippies in the 60s and 70s as they questioned and doubted him, unlike his fellow monks who venerated his position and never questioned him.  If they had not questioned him, he may never have pushed himself to seek greater enlightenment, as how would he know that he had not already attained it otherwise?

How Can We Try Not To Try? The Daoist Paradox of Wu-Wei

Effortless Action SlingerlandIn his book Effortless Action, Edward Slingerland delves into a deep paradox found in the work of ancient Chinese philosophers.  Wu-wei, which can be translated as either non-action or effortless action, is a state of freedom, flexibility and spontaneity acquired through the practice of living a good life.  It is identified with life and the cosmos, and can be called the skill of living well, the skill of all skills.

While it can be found once in the Analects of Confucius and then later in the Confucian works of Mencius and Xunzi, it is most prominent in the Daoist works of Laozi and Zhuangzi.  Some philosophers, such as the Daoists, say that it is our original state, that which we had before we were born and early as children.  Others, such as Xunzi, say that it is opposite our original state, which we did not have at all when we were immature, and is only acquired through study and practice.

This presents us with a paradox: How can we try not to try?

mind reason and being-in-the-world dreyfus mcdowellHeidegger was familiar with the works of the Daoists, and it is possible to answer this paradox in a Heideggerian way, relevant to the Dreyfus-McDowell debate about the interrelation of thought and action.  When we are first performing an action, we must think as we act and are clumsy in acting, but after we acquire a skill it becomes second nature and does not require the effort of thinking or being clumsy.  I discussed this in a previous post about Chuck Knoblauch over-thinking while throwing to first base.  Zhuangzi, my favorite Chinese philosopher, illustrates this in the story of Butcher Ding, who learns over the years to trust his actions without thinking and impresses the emperor.

pythagorean YIf one practices living life well, at first it is difficult, but after good habits become ingrained it becomes easy and effortless.  Thus, one can become effortless through effort over time, and the paradox is resolved.  This is similar to the forking paths of Pythagoras, the ancient Greek philosopher who taught that the left-hand path of pleasure is easy but it leads to destruction, while the right-hand path of effort is hard but it leads to wisdom, happiness and tranquility.

The problem is that bad habits are as easy, if not easier, to obtain as good habits, and so we must make the effort to choose what will become effortless.