Tuesday October 6, 2009
I remember a friend once saying to me that he thought there were, roughly speaking, two kinds of philosophers in the world. The first kind, when presented with a problem, is the type of person who says, “Hmm… how can we solve this one?”; and the second kind, when presented with a problem, is the type of person who says, “Oh, look, a problem, let’s see how we can make it bigger.”
As with all such neat distinctions, whilst there is some truth in this, at the same time it is probably true that most of us, most of the time, do both of these things. There is a kind of satisfaction, or a kind of pleasure, in solving questions and laying them to rest. But there is also a kind of satisfaction, or a kind of pleasure, in following questions until they provoke further questions, and following these so that they, in turn, provoke still further questions, in a kind of infinite regress. And both of these kinds of approaches to questioning seem to me to have their place.
But of late, I have been thinking a bit about this second kind of questioning, about the kinds of questions that open up new questions that (to steal a nice line from G.K. Chesteron) “make settled things strange”. For it seems to me that one approach to thinking about what is going on in mediation is in terms of this kind of questioning that makes settled things strange. When I sit down on my cushions, paying attention to the on-going happening of things, often I ask myself questions such as these: “What is this thing that is sitting here?” Or, “Where do thoughts come from?” Or, perhaps, “I am hearing a bird outside the window. Where is the hearing taking place?” Or, “Who is doing the hearing?”
Questions such as these, if you keep asking them (and if you also remain attentive), have a curious effect. They are questions that probe away at the fine-grain of experience, and that do not lend themselves to clear an unambiguous answers. Of course, you can forumulate answers to these kinds of questions. Who is doing the hearing? Well, OK, it’s me, Will. I have a biography, a sense of myself, a life… But these answers give rise to fresh questions: “Are you the same as this biography? What is this sense of yourself? What is this life that you have? Who is it that is doing the having?” And if you do this for long enough, whilst keeping on paying attention, looking to experience itself for some kind of a respose to these questions, instead of looking to abstract formulations, something strange happens. The specific questions die away, but the almost bodily sense of questioning continues. And there you are, sitting on your meditation cushions, a big fat question mark plonked down somewhere in the midst of the world.
And it is at moments like these, that it is possible to touch a different sense of life. It is no doubt true that there are many problems to be solved over the course our lives. And so much of the time we are concerned with the kind of pragmatic questions that seek answers. But taken as a whole, life itself is more than a bunch of problems to be solved. It is not, that is to say, a crossword-puzzle that can reach some kind of final resolution. Thank goodness that this is so, because a crossword-puzzle loses all its appeal once it is solved. Instead, at times like these, it is possible to see life as a whole – to borrow the words of Heidegger – as a question that we can never go through, a question that instead, “requires that we settle down and live within it.” And it seems to me that this sense of life as a question that we cannot go through is one that opens up a sense of beauty and wonder when it comes to our existence and the existence of the world, an awareness of the inexhaustible preciousness of things, and of a richness that cannot be exhausted.
For those who are interested, the Heidegger passage in question (!) comes from What is Called Thinking Trans. J. Glenn Gray, Harper Colophon (1968), p. 137
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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