Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Other Side of the Hedge

Lately it would not be Saturday if I was not changing bedsheets, sorting laundry, cleaning the upstairs rooms, and listening to Alan Watts on YouTube. I've heard most of his lectures, but the one today wasn't quite familiar. It had been previously billed as something like "Sense and Nonsense", but was given the title "Coincidence of Opposites" on YouTube. If you're interested, you can listen to it here.

One of the things Watts addresses in this lecture is the Hindu notion of lila, or "play". The lecture is about "purpose", as we all are greatly concerned with our "purpose" in life and if we're fulfilling it. He ponders the meaning of "purpose", and indeed it is a very Christian idea to the modern world, coming from the notion of the "purpose of God". The idea of a Divine Plan is used to keep order in a worldview that assumes that life is good. When evil occurs, we feel it must be the mysterious part of a "Divine Plan" that we don't understand. And of course some are suspicious that the Divine is not necessarily so good, or perhaps that it doesn't exist at all. But all of this is part of our search for meaning, whether from a "divine" perspective or not.

The notion of divine "lila" is both baffling and makes complete sense at the same time. In the Hindu cosmology, the queen of the Three Worlds is Sri Lalita Devi, and the root of her name implies "lila" or "play". The Three Worlds are the Heavens, the Earth, and the Hells. If you read stories of the Hindu gods, they are strange to a Westerner. Why would Shiva grant a boon to a demon? Why would a demon try to engage in strict religious practices? The interactions between the gods and demons (devas and asuras) is bizarre from an ethical standpoint. We are so used to the idea of doing good and avoiding evil, that we miss the point entirely. The entire set of mythological interactions in Hinduism could easily be metaphors for the kinds of psychological conflicts and conundrums that we frequently face as we go through life. It is almost never a flat choice between what is "good" and what is "evil"--life is much more complex than that. It is more like the strategy of a game--we play until someone wins a round, and then we start over again. But it is the process of playing that (should be) enjoyable. Sometimes, as it would be in physical sports, the game can be painful. But it is the process, negotiating what comes next, that makes games and play akin to life. Children learn life skills from playing and creating imaginary worlds; it is not a "waste of time." They also learn to bring new ideas and things into the world; play generates creativity.

Life in and of itself is a baffling paradox from the ethical point of view. What kind of system requires death to have life? You participate in killing every day, when you eat. Even if you are a vegetarian, you have to kill plants to eat. You may not do this killing yourself, but it is required somewhere along the line. Western myth handles this by declaring the whole process evil, even while (ironically) they are great "defenders of life". If they didn't see the process as evil, there would be no need for a "savior" to save you from the world. To view the world as corrupt, and humans as dominant over nature, has created a deep mythological problem. Many scratch their heads at climate change denial, but if you realize how this myth about nature is deeply embedded, at least since the 7th or 6th century B.C., it would make sense. Mythological thinking is entirely unconscious--we don't consciously think in terms of the myth, but the effects are there.

This entire prelude is relevant to one of the stories I've read this week, "The Other Side of the Hedge", by E.M. Forester. The story is told in the first person, and the narrator is running a race along a dry dirt road. He stops because he is tired, and the people he knows keep encouraging him to keep running. But he lays down by a hedge, and wonders what is on the other side. With some effort, he manages to get through the hedge, and promptly falls into a moat. He hears someone laughing at him, and it turns out to be an old man, who pulls him out of the moat. The narrator is increasingly disturbed by this place, where everyone is at leisure and has nowhere to go. The place is beautiful, and he is told that this is the place "where mankind really belongs". But he wants no part of it--he wants to get back onto the road and keep running, even though the road looks desolate and lifeless from the view on the other side of the hedge.

This story is very mythological. Falling into the water and being pulled out by an old man (the Jungian Senex archetype) represents a sort of rebirth into Wisdom. The Wisdom is ultimately rejected in this story, as Forester is trying to show us how we bring much of our suffering, our need to "achieve" something, do the "next" thing, is brought on by ourselves. That race is a game we participate in willingly. But often it is a chore, and we question our suffering. We could view life as it is from the other side of the hedge--a great play with no particular place to go, something simply to be enjoyed in the moment.

Watts points out in his lecture that this notion of the world as play is in the Hebrew Old Testament, in descriptions of holy Wisdom ("Sophia" in the Greek), who was present at the creation of the world, and delighted in God's creation--and expresses in several books (Proverbs, Wisdom, Sirach) the idea that those who remember "wisdom" will have happy lives. Forester is suggesting that there is a wisdom in NOT running the race, there is an abundance in staying in the moment, and not trying to go anywhere or do anything "important". This is conveyed not only in the Biblical verses, but is the basis of Eastern doctrine. Buddhist meditation is very much about being in the "present". If one lives in the present and operates from the center of their being (the archetype of the Self, which is a quiet space), then life is not quite so serious. The "race" is put into context. The game is a very good metaphor, as we can get caught up in the idea of winning and competing, rather than in just playing to enjoy ourselves.

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