Friday May 1, 2009
Over the last few weeks, my life has consisted largely of doing things with bits of paper. Not only have I been working on redrafts for two books (another novel, and the long-promised philosophy book – expect an announcement about the latter here on thinkBuddha in the next few weeks), but I have also been working on the initial research for a further novel, shunting around ideas for various side projects, reading large piles of books, and marking great quantities of student essays, stories and projects. And just at the moment, I confess that I am feeling a bit full up. It gets like this sometimes. As I survey the great, teetering ziggurats of paper that surround me, I can sometimes wonder why it is that I got into this business of paper-mongery in the first place.
The answer, however, is simple: that the world is a fantastically interesting place, and many of those bits of paper – not all, alas, but certainly the bits of paper that I am interested in – are a means of exploring this interestingness of the world. Indeed, many of the bits of paper that I have been reading – the one example that stands out in the last month is Edward O. Wilson’s wonderful Biophilia, a profoundly moving book the relationship that we human beings have with the natural world – have been richly satisfying and insightful.
In my dealings with Western Buddhists – and sometimes in the discussions on this blog – I have sometimes been surprised by how little time people have for bits of paper. There can sometimes be a tendency to dismiss ‘book learning’ as something somehow undignified and inferior. Sometimes the message seems to be this: throw out your books, burn down the libraries, empty your head and just sit in silent meditation!
But this seems to me to be a shame, if only because it cuts us off from so many rich sources of knowledge about the world and about ourselves, from so many fresh perspectives, from so many thoughts that we don’t yet know how to think, from so many questions we have not yet begun to ask, from so many paths that might lead us into seeing afresh the sheer poetry of the world.
The idea that we have to choose – either sit in silent meditation or labour over dry and arid tomes – is, I think, mistaken because our minds are not organs dedicated to performing only one particular task. There are different ways of thinking, and different ways of using the mind. Aristotle knew this, back in the day, when he saw that there was a difference between theoretical knowledge, practical wisdom, and that tricky-to-translate term poiesis – the kind of activity brings things forth things like books, perhaps, or blog posts, or even cakes (actually, as I write this, I’m not sure that the scholars would be with me when it comes to the cakes, but I’ll let it stand).
It is good, of course, to be aware when things are becoming unbalanced. I have met many scholars who could have done with a bit of meditation to loosen them up. I have met many meditators who could have done with a well-chosen book to really engage their critical faculties. And I have met both scholars and meditators who could have done with a bit more social contact, or with a drink down the pub, because meditation and scholarship are both activities that lead – when left unchecked – to unhealthy levels of weirdness and eccentricity.
And perhaps this is the crux: whilst there is much insight to be had from both meditation and scholarship, these are means to an end, and the end is the transformation of the relationship that we have the world. There is a wonderful passage in Michel Serres’s book The Troubadour of Knowledge where he says (and I am paraphrasing with a kind of wild abandon here) that one should read everything, one should swallow the dictionary and whilst one is at it the thesaurus, the encyclopedia and the rest of the library to boot… But then, when one has done this, one should leave the library behind, go out into the hills, walk through the woods, drink wine with friends, take a boat across the high seas. When this happens, you start to forget all the things that you have once learned. This knowledge that you have acquired over the months of labour amongst books and papers and documents begins to sink into your bones and into the body. And one day you wake up without a thought in your head, and all of that reading (most of which you can no longer bring to mind, or have no interest in bringing to mind) begins to at last bear fruit. And the same goes, I think, for meditation. This is advice to myself, masquerading as advice to others: it is good to meditate; it is good to read; but what is really good is to live with wisdom and sensitivity.
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