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Friday, December 31, 2021

"Lived forward, understood backward"

“Life is lived forward but understood backward”, says T S Eliot.

Living forward, we carry with us everything we have learned over the years from our parents, our family, school, friends, books we have read, lectures we have listened to and our lived experiences at home and at work. All of these were observed, experienced, interpreted, stored in memory, and recalled as we “live forward”. We live forward with a cluttered mind – with everything we have learnt, helpful and unhelpful perceptions, interpretations, and conclusions. Yet, we cannot live forward without that cluttered mind with its useful and essential information and also all its unhelpful/wrong ideas, biases, prejudices, and expectations.

In addition, we develop our own values; at least we should, if we devote any time to this task. We tend to cling to those values, even if shown to be unhelpful or harmful.

We think we act rationally, always. Do we? Is it possible to be so, always?

We think we are wise. Are we? Are we just being clever?

To understand our lives backward, we obviously will and must use what we have learnt and remember about ourselves and about the world around us. Can we truly understand the world around us and ourselves as they truly are, and not what we perceive them to be?

To understand the world, we have to observe it both from the inside – from being in “it” and also observing from outside. By this criterion, we just cannot know the world for sure and fully, because it is impossible to be outside of the world to observe it. The images of the world taken from satellites are just images and that too from inside the cosmos. We cannot have a complete understanding of this world because of this absolute reality.

We have some sense of the world from being inside of it, our lived experience, of being a human. There are as many experiences as there are living organisms with a nervous system and a sense of awareness. Those experiences are colored by the nature of the species and their way of life, and their niche in the web. As pointed out by Prof. Nagel, how can we know what it feels like to be a bat – living upside down in dark caves, unless we can get inside of them?

Our perceptions are colored by many factors such as nation of origin and its geography, language, customs, religion, economics, and status in society. These perceptions are further colored by individual experiences in life. They are colored by reason and emotion. They change throughout life as they should. We cannot, therefore, have a complete understanding of ourselves either.

It appears to me that to understand life and this world as they are, we must reflect from a child’s point of view. In other words, let me imagine myself as a 3- or 4-year-old. How would I have looked at the world and myself without a cluttered mind? This is what the Buddhist scholars call the “innocent mind”.

I am looking at the people, the plants, the animals, the sun and the moon and the stars for the first time. No one told me what they are, and if they did, it did not register. (This is the attitude of great poets. To me, Rishi Dirghatamas of Rg Veda is the best example)

With Innocence, I will wonder: “I have never seen this before. Have no prior experience. What is this? How did this come about?” In other words, my reaction is one of awe and mystery. My reaction is that of a newcomer, unbiased, full of curiosity, and of fear, without prior expectations or notions.

With Curiosity: “What is it? How can I find out? Will it hurt me if I go near? On the other hand, it may be useful to me, help me?” I approach cautiously because that is how I am made – to explore. If it harms me, I have learnt something. (At this stage I would not even know that I can get killed, because I do not know what death is)  I will remember and will not do it again. May be, I can eat it? May be, this person may become my friend? Unless I explore, how else can I find food or a friend?

With Trust, Faith and Hope: “At this stage I do not know what those words mean. But, if I get into trouble when I explore something, will there be someone (like my parents) to bail me out? Can I go to them to help, to give a hug and to protect me?” When I reach out to a thing I have seen before, will it behave the same way as it did before? Will my mother be there always, whenever I need help?

Thinking further on this issue, I get the feeling that I can trust Mother Nature to give us food and water and shelter, if I know my limitations; She will give me a hug and comfort me when I need. But Father Law (s) of Nature is strict. I can trust him also to strictly enforce the law. I will find out quickly if I disobey.

There lies the problem. When I am alone, I am good. When I become part of a “mob”, I tend to break this trust and get into trouble.

With a wide-eyed sense of awe: “Vow; what mysteries? these colors; these mountains; these rivers; the rainbow and the thunder; and the volcanoes and earthquakes. How did they come about? Did I behave badly? Will they go away and come back?”

I do not know whether I make sense even to myself. But am going wherever my mind and my heart take and putting them in words, a poor substitute.

If I cannot reach that state of the child’s mind - the innocent mind – I can practice daily meditation with a sense of Innocence, Curiosity, Faith and Hope of a child’s mind and with Humility, Open Mind, Loving Kindness and Compassion which I learnt later in life.

Let me close this year with the following message: May you be well; may you be safe; may you be free from suffering; may you lead a life of sharing knowledge and wealth, and may you lead a life of Harmony with the external world and Peace with the internal light.  

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