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Philosopher’s swan song, artist’s statement

This is about a real turning point: at the age of 60, I’ve finally decided what I want to do with my life. Better late than never, you might say.

At school I had no idea what I should or might like to do after leaving. But here’s a thing: I clearly remember deciding, at some point in my early-to-mid teens, that I wasn’t going to get sucked in to classifying myself as either an arty-crafty or a sciency-techy person. I was a real bookworm and spent many happy hours in the town’s library, particularly at the low end of the Dewey classification system, among the books on religion, philosophy and psychology, and I guess it was some of that reading that inclined me in that direction. Or that lack of direction. But I also took out quite a lot of books on electronics and related subjects, belonged to the school “radio club”, and modified and built a number of electronic devices, mainly radios and audio amplifiers.

On the basis of what were considered not great higher results (B in English and C in physics) my parents decided a sixth year, with a view to getting into university, would be a waste of time. My father had heard that Post Office Telephones gave a good grounding in electronics so that’s where I went, but my interest was waning. While still at school I’d been suspended for a few weeks, along with friends, for possession of cannabis, and now some of my colleagues turned out to turn on, so I got back into that, and then into the hippy-ish drug culture of the time (early seventies). None of my friends then had any scientific or technical interests whatsoever (or none they shared), but here’s an interesting thing: though at school one of my worse subjects had been mathematics, on a one-day-a-week telecoms course at college, on a Monday following a tripped-out weekend (LSD), I suddenly found the maths quite easy. My problem must have been some sort of mental block, that the acid ate away.

I left the Post Office after about four years, then for another three worked at various jobs and spent some time unemployed, eventually getting into university as a mature student (which meant a lower qualification threshold). I chose to study subjects that interested me, regardless of job prospects, being very far from career-minded. During the first term I went to a talk on Transcendental Meditation (TM) and took it up, becoming a regular meditator. But I remained a cruiser, generally doing the least work I could get away with. The resulting qualification was quite good considering, an honours degree in philosophy and psychology, but it wasn’t good enough to get into any postgraduate programme. Not that I was specially keen on doing that, but I would have if I could, being fairly fascinated by one or two particular philosophical problems, and having absolutely no idea what else I might like to do. Anyway, for another spell of several years after graduating I worked at a variety of jobs, none of them using my degree, and spent some time unemployed. But this was when I got into both computers and photography.

We’re now in the early-to-mid eighties. While working as a taxi driver I bought quite a good SLR camera (Pentax ME Super (Wikipedia)) and took it with me to work. I remember the owner of the place where I got my processing done being quite complementary about some of the earliest efforts, black and white street scenes at night. I graduated to doing my own black and white processing and printing—my flat though quite small had a large walk-in cupboard that became a darkroom. I did a lot of experimenting, enjoying technical challenges such as low light, and learned a great deal. I must have had plenty of spare time, because I also acquired one of the early “home computers” (Oric Atmos (Wikipedia)) and taught myself to program it.

I was not awfully happy in my work, though, and my father was even less happy with what I was doing, or not doing. On his very strong suggestion I applied for and got onto a “conversion course”, MSc in information technology for people with first degrees in other disciplines. As a way of capitalising on my technical interests and experience to greatly improve my job prospects, it was very definitely the right move to make. But it meant moving away, losing my flat and therefore my darkroom. And here’s where we come to a somewhat strange part of the story: I wasn’t really conscious of that as a great loss at the time, but my enthusiasm for photography waned greatly, and I was generally quite far from happy. What seems most strange to me now is that only very recently have I come to realise that the drop-off in photographic enthusiasm must have been a direct consequence of the loss of the darkroom. And due to that blindness, even when I did get another place of my own, I never tried to set up another darkroom, it never occurred to me to do so, until just a few weeks ago. But over all that time, I’ve been struggling with depression.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the depression was caused by the lack of a darkroom! But they’re not unconnected either. I blame my depressive tendencies for the failure to understand why I’d lost the photographic drive—I just assumed it was part and parcel of my rotten life.

Now we jump back to the present, or almost. Maybe a couple of months ago I began, often while meditating,* to experience creative visions and impulses. I’ve had these before, but to nothing like the same extent, they were both many and varied. Since taking up fine art printing I’ve been watching a lot of arts documentaries, and sometimes these ideas would be linked with them, but other times they could be sparked by almost anything. I considered taking up painting and drawing, wood turning and carving, cold casting and acrylic moulding, and probably other things I don’t remember now. But how to choose? Eventually, due to the range of impulses and possibilities, it occurred to me that maybe it didn’t matter too much exactly what I did, as long as it was something creative. Then I remembered that many of my creative visions over the years have been monochrome, concerning form, texture and tonality rather than colour. Strangely, again, it is only now that I link that back to my darkroom experience of the early eighties—I’m sure that must have been another mental block. I’ve even thought about painting using only black and white paint! But anyway, the point is that now, with the idea of focussing largely or entirely on monochrome, I find some of my old photographic enthusiasm returning. And since I discovered what’s now possible with hybrid photography (digital taking with old-style printing), it’s becoming really quite strong.

*Nowadays I do Buddhist meditation rather than TM, which is recognised not to be particularly good for depressives.

A while back, maybe a year or two after getting the MSc in philosophy, and despite finding that many of my own ideas survived that trial, I decided to give up on academic philosophy. But now, I think, I’m perhaps giving up on philosophy altogether. Or maybe not in absolute terms—I might think a little, maybe even write a little, about it from time to time, but the thing is, I no longer consider myself primarily a philosopher. What I am now—and have been all along, in fact—is an artist, even if a dismally unsuccessful one. Success in a way is beside the point, because this is what I want to do. I’m not sure how I’ll find the time but I’m hoping enthusiasm will generate energy. It might have been good if I hadn’t gotten side-tracked in the mid-eighties and lost almost thirty years of artistic experience, but all is grist to the mill, and suffering is good for the soul!

Artist versus philosopher in fact is a false dichotomy, just like arty-crafty versus sciency-techy. Photography has always combined these, and hybrid photography in particular seems like the best of both worlds. It will take a while to get fully operational, but I can hardly wait! :)

(In case you’re wondering, I don’t now smoke, haven’t done any illegal drugs in years, and have just successfully completed Dry January. But I do have a bit of a caffeine habit.)

Later: as a Buddhist, I believe that self-identifications such as artist and philosopher (and even Buddhist) are relatively superficial. And I’m quite aware that to many people the idea of thinking of themselves as a philosopher or an artist is ridiculous, and people like me are pretentious self-obsessed arseholes—and there’s probably something in that! Ideally, I wouldn’t think of myself at all—but I haven’t quite licked that habit yet. The important (to me) point that remains from the foregoing is that now I know what I mainly want to do. I say “mainly” because there are many things I like to do, none of which I’m particularly planning to give up. But I expect some of them will fall by the wayside, when there’s something even better to take their place.

February 1, 2014   Posted in: announcements, art, photography, psychology  No Comments

Better poem

I need to move more slowly, the previous version had no time to mature. (This paragraph is not part of the poem.)

Light dawns     
   birdsong echoes   
     through an empty building

 
 

June 6, 2013   Posted in: announcements  No Comments

Poem

Not formally a haiku but I like to think it has something of that spirit.

Birdsong    
  echoes  
    through an empty temple

 
 

June 6, 2013   Posted in: Uncategorized  No Comments

There is no alternative…

…or mainstream belief system or lifestyle choice, for me, these days.

This post continues a recent theme, starting with Political and personal independence. There I explain why I’m not taking a position on the issue of Scottish independence. In More on my minimalist commitments, which generalised that to cover not just political positions but beliefs generally, and Reasons to be cheerful, I wrote more about negativity in expressions of personal commitment, which is what sparked all this thinking off for me.

For quite a while now I’ve been feeling really quite uneasy when people said things that seemed to imply that the world’s going to hell in a handbasket, and despite all the cogitation that went into these previous posts this remained the case, at least until yesterday, when I believe I finally got to the root of the problem. Which is this: the subtext of these statements, I think, is “I’m an alternativist, I want you to know it, I hope you share my views but if you don’t that’s tough because this is me, so there.” There’s an implicit challenge to take sides, to come out either as a fellow alternativist (leftist, environmentalist, caring person, etc) or as an unthinking, uncaring mainstreamer or rightwinger, but to come out anyway, nail my colours to the mast, say where I stand, which has to be on one side or the other because there is no other alternative.

It reminds me of childhood, when I was more than once cornered by two or three other boys who’d then aggressively ask me whether I supported Rangers or Celtic. (These being Glasgow football teams associated with the Protestant and Catholic communities.) The implication being that, if I said the wrong thing, I’d get beaten up. I somehow always managed to avoid the beatings, maybe in part because I genuinely, if unusually, had no interest in football. Also, at the time, I didn’t realise that I was really being asked whether I was Protestant or Catholic. I was an innocent abroad.

I was actually Protestant, not that I’d given it any thought or had strong feelings about it. My parents were occasional church-goers at best and never talked about such things. When I was a bit older, I imbibed left wing/alternative ideas from the people around me. Which is not to imply that I reject all such views now. Far from it. But what I did then and don’t do now is to identify myself as a leftwinger/alternativist. Now I’m also open to any positive contributions that might come from rightwingers and others too. The identification and the prejudice that went with it—to say I’m this is also to say I’m not that—have dropped away. That’s the difference, between my former and present selves, and more to the present point, between myself and those people whose position statements have been bothering me recently.

So for me now, in Margaret Thatcher’s famous phrase, there is no alternative. But that’s not because there is only one option. Quite the opposite: there are many, many options, and to herd them all into two big corrals is not only not useful, it is positively divisive. Like the issue of Scottish independence. Whichever side wins, the personal and political rifts engendered by the debate will take a long time to heal. Is it worth it? Maybe in this case it is. But in general, if I side with anyone, it is the peacemakers. Love your enemy, for he is you.

Further reading: How To Listen When Someone is Venting

Later: I really should know better than to make such statements about what (I think) others are “really” doing. Having given this quite a bit more thought I now see the link at the end as even more apposite than I supposed when I put it there. As I now see it, what this is “really” all about is my difficulties in dealing with expressions of negative emotion. That’s what makes me so uneasy. But this realism, like most, is relative. What I mean is that my issues with negative emotion are currently personally more important. But subtract that, and qualify my interpretations of others’ motivations appropriately, and what remains of this post is entirely valid, I think. The vast majority, if not all, of the issues on which we take sides, are less important than the need to keep to the forefront of our minds what we all have in common.

May 20, 2013   Posted in: politics  No Comments

Reasons to be cheerful

Both of the last two posts were stimulated at least in part by my reaction to people—friends, in real life—bemoaning the state of the world, usually in a vaguely left-wing liberal sort of way. I think I’d have reacted similarly, though, if the moaners—because that’s what I felt them to be—had been right-wingers, for instance saying the country’s been going to the dogs ever since the resignation of Margaret Thatcher. It just so happens that my friends tend to be left-leaning liberals.

The most recent dinner table conversion was quite similar to previous occasions, but due in part to the charming nature of both my companions, it never got anywhere near becoming an argument. What stimulated me to embark on this post, or at least on the thought path that lead to it, was one of my friends highlighting the optimism/pessimism dimension of all this. (If you’re wondering what “all this” is, you’d get an idea by looking at the last couple of posts, but that’s probably not necessary, it’s very general.)

On a previous occasion that person, a fellow Buddhist, agreed with my admittedly simplistic and arguably very naive declaration that, deep down, I feel that, due to Buddhism, everything will work out just fine. But the other night she told a story about someone she knows who is unreasonably optimistic regarding her and her partner’s own situation, while the partner finds the situation made even more difficult by her deluded outlook. My friend agreed that not all optimism is necessarily deluded, but nevertheless said something (I wish I could remember how she put it) to the effect that she couldn’t manage optimism herself. I believe she was talking about the state of the world rather than her personal circumstances, that’s certainly how I took it at the time.

So later I got to thinking about this. Why do I feel so optimistic? How is it that somebody who is generally approving of science and technology, and a materialist regarding metaphysics (not values), finds his reasons to be cheerful not (so much) in science, technology and/or economic development, but an ancient Eastern belief system?

Actually, my reasons are very closely tied up with, you might even say based on, the fact that that’s a false dichotomy. It’s not science versus religion, but science and religion coming together to save us all!

More specifically, I foresee science confirming that and explaining why Buddhist practices are so beneficial, resulting in their general adoption. And I expect to see significant progress towards that within my lifetime.

But there’s more to it than that. The philosophy that’s described on this site shows (for instance) how idealism (re values, not metaphysics) and optimism are entirely compatible with metaphysical materialism, and how the concepts of reincarnation and (better) rebirth reflect a deeper reality that can be understood in scientific terms. I have to admit, on the other hand, current writings on that philosophy are not very reader-friendly. But as somebody once said, the best way to feel better about the state of the world is to get involved in trying to improve it. So, even though I generally feel quite good about it already, I could probably feel much better still by spending significant amounts of time doing just that, in ways that make the best use of my background and experience.

I have a letter published in the current issue of Tricycle, the Buddhist magazine, on Buddhism and science. Only subscribers can view it online, so I thought about quoting it here, but it doesn’t really add much to what I’ve said above and in other posts.

I’ll close by mentioning Buddhist Geeks, with whom I plan to spend quite a lot of time, and who, instead of a motto, slogan, mission statement or such, have a question:

Our question, or koan, is: “How can we serve the convergence of Buddhism with rapidly evolving technology and an increasingly global culture?”

(Actually, I think it’s a wee bitty gimmicky calling that a koan, but I’m guilty of much worse myself!)

Through Tricycle and Buddhist Geeks I learned about Kenneth Folk, who says “Ordinary People Can Get Enlightened“. That’s a great reason to be cheerful! Well, for Buddhists anyway, but you can guess what I think about that…

April 16, 2013   Posted in: Buddhism, philosophy  No Comments

More on my minimalist commitments

Like the previous post, this one is aimed at summarising my position on a big issue, or closely related set of issues. I intend, as far as I can, to minimize my future engagement in contentious debate, online and elsewhere, and I hope that having these statements available for reference will help.

My general approach can be summarised as “radical agnosticism”, following Stephen Batchelor (@Wikipedia, see his book Buddhism Without Beliefs), so I don’t believe—or disbelieve—in anything, whether political ideology or philosophy, religion or environmental stance. Instead I have some “working hypotheses”, such as that Buddhist practice is highly beneficial and that climate change due to human activity is currently one of the biggest challenges facing homo sapiens. The difference between beliefs and working hypotheses is that there is no emotional attachment to the latter: they can be modified or dropped, if appropriate, relatively easily, and discussion doesn’t generate negative emotions. But that’s the ideal: in fact at the time of writing (and probably for some time to come) I do have still have such emotional attachments, for instance I tend to get angry when I come across climate change denying drivel. (We’ll see how I react to climate change denying non-drivel if I ever find any.)

I’ve been more successful in transcending the political divide between left and right. In my youth I certainly tended quite strongly to the left: for a while I flirted with the notion that all of the world’s problems were caused by businessmen. More recently I came to the view that small business is fine, indeed both natural and necessary, while big business is unnatural and, unless tightly restricted by governmental regulation, highly detrimental to society. I do, in fact, still lean that way, but it’s no longer emotionally driven—or to nothing like the extent of my early views, anyway. And I now have an appreciation that was previously entirely lacking of the positive ideas coming from the right, such as the value, for both the individual and society, of individual enterprise. Nowadays I even go so far as to see some good in being “cruel to be kind”, in the right measure of course, where it spurs someone to find resources within themselves and overcome their difficulties through their own efforts. And actual, habitual, unnecessary dependence on welfare benefits is obviously a very bad thing for both society and the individual, and I think it probably does exist, though I don’t know on what scale.

The trouble with political commitment is the negativity that it tends to generate. And I don’t mean negativity as in mere pessimism or such, but prejudice, anger and hatred. These are highly detrimental to both the person entertaining them and those with whom that person interacts. Anger and hatred, especially, are mental toxins, while prejudice prevents any move towards reconciliation.

I very recently realised, following a dinner table discussion in which hatred (I don’t think that’s putting it too strongly) was expressed towards certain right-leaning political figures, that some people on the political left believe they have a monopoly on compassion. At first this angered me, then when that wore off I briefly found it funny, now it saddens me that anyone should be so narrow-minded. The anger was partly because I felt that I had myself been accused, if only implicitly, of being uncaring in connection with Buddhism.

The idea that Buddhism is or can be selfish is not uncommon, and it is understandable. I think one reason for it is quite neatly expressed by something attributed to Shantideva (@Wikipedia): “Where would I possibly find enough leather with which to cover the surface of the earth? But (just) leather on the soles of my shoes, is equivalent to covering the earth with it…” So I just need to take care of myself? I first heard this quoted by Thrangu Rinpoche (@Wikipedia) on a visit to Samye Ling, in response to a question about anger over social injustice. When the point was pressed, asking whether anger wasn’t surely justified and even beneficial in some cases, the answer was unequivocal: no, it does too much spiritual damage. But doesn’t that imply we shouldn’t care? Absolutely not. The distinction is between negative and positive emotion. Compassion is central to Buddhism, and anyone who aspires towards Enlightenment has to cultivate it, alongside wisdom. One of the most important benefits of meditation is to gain the level of awareness that’s required to control your reactions: you have only a fraction of second, after that it’s too late, but it’s enough, if your meditation practice is good enough, to let you head off anger or any other negative emotion. So anger and hatred are avoided, while compassion and love are encouraged.

The overall aim of all Buddhist practice is to eliminate suffering, and everything in Buddhism is a means to that end. So, some might think, Buddhists want to stop their own suffering, and that’s enough for them. One way of countering that is to say that in Buddhism there’s no essential or eternal self, so my suffering is ultimately indistinguishable from your’s. But that’s a bit abstract, let’s see how it works: if the best way for me to help eliminate your suffering is to encourage your Buddhist practice, how can I most effectively do that? Surely, I need to develop my own practice, both to become a good example, and to gain the wisdom and compassion to understand what you need and how best to offer it to you. (And sometimes I might need to realise that you need to be fed and warmed before you can be expected to give my advice the attention I think it deserves.) So my practice can and should, in principle at least, benefit you and all sentient beings.

It would have been extremely neat to end with that (it was inspired by a traditional dedication used at the end of ceremonies and teaching and meditation sessions), but I feel I have to say a wee bit more. To be able to avoid negativity (or anything else) using that sort of control is not necessarily to know what to replace it with, so there can be a gap, a sort of blankness, in one’s reactions, that might look like uncaring aloofness to others. But it is just the space between the departed negativity and the skilful expression of positivity that will eventually, ideally, take its place. Which is not to say that nobody ever gets stuck at that stage. But just don’t think that caring needs to be demonstrated by negativity or adherence to any particular ideology. The world and the people in it are much bigger and better than that.

April 9, 2013   Posted in: Buddhism, environment, politics  No Comments

Political and personal independence

The question of Scottish independence is one on which every Scot might be expected to have a view. I certainly feel some pressure to take one side or the other. In fact, I’m attracted both by the progressive idealism of the yes camp and the pragmatic conservatism of the nay-sayers. The prospect of my country being a free and equal member of the community of nations is positively intoxicating. On the other hand I fully expect most or all of the consequences of independence to be both difficult and expensive to deal with. But that’s all I have to say on the issue, because I’ve made a carefully thought-through and fully committed decision not to take either side, as a matter of principle.

Why? I’m a Buddhist, and believe in avoiding negative speech, actions and states of mind, as far as I possibly can. Prejudice is pernicious, and anger is a poison, in my view, and the taking of political positions seems inevitably to mean entertaining prejudice, anger, disrespect for opponents, etc, etc. But isn’t it worth it, on issues of such importance? For me, absolutely not. For better or worse, my commitment is to the longer view, the bigger picture, and if that makes me sound pompous, tough titty, I don’t give a shit. (And yes, a little negativity does creep in here, this is an aspiration, I’m not claiming moral superiority.)

But doesn’t democracy demand the informed involvement of all good citizens? Yes, I think it probably does, but then I don’t believe in democracy. Ultimately, that is—like I said, this is the long view, the big picture. Churchill was probably right that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried.” But I believe that enlightened anarchy is better than any possible form of government. I will grant that enlightenment is a long way off, in the meantime the weak still need protecting from the strong, and that’s best done by democratic means. But because I don’t ultimately believe in it, seeing it as merely a temporary expedient, I feel no compunction about being a free-rider.

So this is my declaration of personal independence: to stay aloof from the fray, preserving my equanimity (such as it is), to resist the ego-ridden temptation to view any contribution I might be able to make as important, to keep taking the long view, not to forget the big picture. And yes, I’m egotistic enough to see this as a contribution worth making. It’s just a blog post, after all! :) But more seriously, it represents a commitment to screen my future contributions very carefully indeed, whether on the web or in the pub.

March 21, 2013   Posted in: Buddhism, politics  No Comments

Published at last!

A few days ago I received this long awaited message:

Your article “Mind, Matter, Meaning and Information” has now been published in tripleC volume 11 (1). You can download it under the following link: http://triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/article/view/323/437

By sheer coincidence it was exactly a year ago today (December 16) that I submitted the article. But I’m not complaining, for all I know this might be a typical turn-around time, and there was a fair bit of revision required. (I believe I have some raw philosophical talent, but I’m certainly not a great scholar!)

December 16, 2012   Posted in: announcements  2 Comments

Skepticism, Buddhism, philosophy and science

Fascinating discussion this morning (repeated in short form tonight at 9.30 and available indefinitely on the web) on BBC Radio 4′s In Our Time programme, on skepticism, or as they spell it, scepticism. (I might be suspected of sucking up to the Yanks by using their spelling, but I think it is much more common worldwide.)

I had no idea that the ideas of the early Greek skeptics, or some of them (the Pyrrhonists), were so close to Buddhism, their goal being to achieve tranquillity through suspension of judgement. It very much reminds me of Stephen Batchelor‘s “radical agnosticism”, in which both belief and disbelief in anything and everything are let go, their places being taken by working hypotheses (the difference being that there’s no emotional attachment to the latter).

But, as is Melvin Bragg‘s wont, the programme was very wide-ranging, with Montaigne and Hume among other early modern philosophers having their relationship with skepticism assessed, and its place in modern science coming in too. (There’s another BBC Radio 4 programme, Reclaiming the Sceptic, on skepticism and science, at 9pm on Wednesday 11 July 2012.)

All this, but especially the commonality between Buddhism and science, has regenerated my enthusiasm for non-academic philosophy—not that that was dead, but I’ve done almost nothing with it for ages. I say “non-academic”, because it is far too wide-ranging to fit within any formal study programme, to the best of my knowledge. Due to my busy-ness with the New Business I can’t do anything with it now either, but some day…

July 5, 2012   Posted in: philosophy  No Comments

New Business

I’m starting a new business! It’s called Giclée Print Stirling. If you’re interested take a look at the site. The biz itself won’t start operating much before the end of July, as there’s a lot of preparation to do. I’m going to run it in parallel with the computer repair business for the foreseeable future.

You might think that won’t leave much time for writing, and you might be right. I’m working on an article based on the DMTD2011 paper at the moment, with a deadline of the end of this month (June), but have no plans for any other academic-style philosophy, though I do still intend to write something, sometime, for a general readership. When (or if) the article appears (it’s an online publication) I’ll post a note here. I know thousands of people will be desperate to see it! :)

June 23, 2012   Posted in: announcements, business  No Comments


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