Building Something Around Nothing: The Great Work of Life

December 29, 2007

I’ve had a lot of time to think lately. Which, depending on how you take it, could either lead to good things or bad things. I’m going to count this towards good things.

One of the new themes in my thought process revolves around the walls we build up around life. Reading The Untethered Soul, I’ve pushed further and further up against the concept of the self and found it more and more wanting. I know that’s something I’ve said before. And I know that it’s something that most people disagree with me on [in addition to vegetarianism and a grand transhumanist future], but I’ll push forward nonetheless, in hopes that someone somewhere can glean something from this little essay.

The image that keeps coming to mind for me now involves building a bigger and better house on a certain piece of property. Assume that at birth, you’re given a certain square footage of land. The work of life is building a house there. But as a child, you can’t build anything all that fancy, especially without the help of your parents, siblings, and other authority figures. Slowly, as you pass through the terrible twos and onto mid-childhood, you begin to create things of your own: you populate the house with imaginary friends, you put up your own pieces of artwork, remodel some of the basic infrastructure of the house. Still, at this point, most of the modeling involves copying the works of others, mainly your parents and your siblings.

Slowly, as you reach adolescence, the focus of your house moves from your family to your peer group. Suddenly, it’s more important that your floor plan match your friends, or that you have the posters of your friends instead of the portraits of your parents. Someday, probably around 16 or 17, you realize that you want to create a home all your own, made how you want it, not how your parents, friends, whoever want you to want it. ‘Liberation’ through self-expression is just around the corner. To show who you are, you require the purchase of goods and services.

Someday, though, you may find that the house you’ve loved for so many years is beginning to show a great deal of wear. The roof is leaking, the gutters could use a new paint job, and you certainly need to oil the hinges on the front door. You slowly make all of these repairs, but no matter how hard you try, more and more problems keep cropping up. As soon as you fix one, ten more take its place. The hydra of home repair!

The story continues on like that for most people, making repair after repair of this home for the rest of their lives. Things calm down after a while, and slowly you begin to except that the house has a few issues. It gives it ‘character,’ you think. Much the same sort of character that you had initially tried to infuse into it by means of snazzy posters and fancy vases.

We all know how the story ends, of course. The homeowner has to move out, to a bigger and better place [call it Heaven, oblivion, another ‘home,’ whatever. I don’t know, and I’m fairly certain noone else does either]. And soon the house falls into massive disrepair. Pretty soon the house is completely gone, all that remains is the rubble. And as more time passes, the rubble itself turns to dust, and the land returns to the state it was in before you moved in.

This little allegory makes a simple analogy between your psyche and the ‘house’ you built. I imagine that most people could relate to the different stages [I can only hypothesize about the later stages via observation of pop culture / the people around me]. I also imagine that most people would agree with me that the house, or their psyche, has changed throughout these different stages. They have thought in qualitatively different ways over the course of their life. You need only read Piaget’s studies of young children’s lack of a sense of conservation of mass to see this secondhand.

However, I would depart from this pretty typical view in two ways. One, I would propose that the lot of land itself in this story is just as important, but most often overlooked, as the house itself. And I would secondly propose that knowledge that the lot is important lends itself to building a better house.

The first point is pretty easy to prove, but it’s importance can be overlooked. Especially as I continue to push this house metaphor far beyond the limits I meant for it to hold. Without the lot, you have no house. In this allegory, the lot symbolizes your consciousness. Where here consciousness is defined as what’s left after you take everything else away. If you could remember your state of being while your in the deepest of deep sleep, what would you experience. If you take away all of the physical inputs to the world, all of your emotions, all of your thoughts, what are you left with? What is the canvas to which all of your experience is painted? It’s the thing that all sentient beings share: I AMness. The ‘simple feeling of being’ as Ken Wilber puts it. Once you forget about yourself, or yourSelf, it’s all that’s left.

And this is the lot. When you get down to it, the you that you identify with can’t possibly be the you that you think you identify with. You aren’t your body: all the cells ‘you’ own have cycled in and out of existence at least 2 times by the age of 21. You aren’t your emotions: the way you feel now probably bears little resemblance to what you felt just 2 hours ago. You aren’t your thoughts: you can’t even control your thoughts, they just bubble in and out of existence while you [really they, being your many selves] continue to make a story weaving all these thoughts together. You certainly aren’t your past: the past is only memories that have no real existence outside of your head. And of course, you can’t be a future that hasn’t even happened yet.

What does that leave you with? Well, not very much and everything all at once. It leaves you with the theater through which all of this drama called your life has played through. It leaves you with the ‘person’ behind the scenes that has watched the whole play, but hasn’t partaken in any of it. It leaves you with your Self, with a capital S, the only part of you that hasn’t changed throughout your entire life. The only part that won’t change, can never change. Only at death do you and the Self part, and then you won’t know the difference, because without the Self, the Observer, you can’t very well be aware of much of anything.

So then, which do you think is more important, all the cells, thoughts, rules, feelings, memories, etc. that you’ve built up over the course of your life? Or the background on which they all rely? A loaded question, sure. And one that doesn’t have an obvious answer. Because obviously both are necessary to have existence as we know it. But the house usually gets all the credit. Never the lot.

I think I’ve proved my first point now, so I will move onto the second point, which may be harder to prove but easier to swallow. How does knowing you are the lot and not the house help things? As the house falls to shambles, or is in transition from one addition to the next, what good does it do you to know that you aren’t the thing in flux, but rather the very ground, perhaps with a capital G, that the house is built on? Well, I would guess that the answer to that question should be quite obvious: if you aren’t the house, then you need not worry while it falls apart, while builders renovate it, or while it stands in stasis. Regardless, if you are the lot, you have no worries.

And without any worries, suddenly you’re open to a whole new world of possibilities. Has that divider between the kitchen and the family room always bothered you? But you couldn’t force yourself to take it down because, well, it’s always been there and you can’t quite recall if it lends structural support to the house? If your realize your identity as the lot, or even if you just realize that the lot is there, you can in fact tear that wall down without the fear of destroying anything. You may well destroy the house. But the land upon which the house is built, that can’t be destroyed.

And again, without those worries, you can build a bigger and better house. You can keep pushing onward and upwards, reaching for better and more innovative architectural wonders, without fear that you might ‘mess up’ yourself, your house.

The trick, then, to all of life’s problems is to realize that you are in fact that lot. The house is just there for a brief little stay. No need to worry about keeping up repair. You may or you may not [it gets more interesting when you decide to keep up], but in the end it doesn’t matter. As long as you identify with the Ground, all worries can wash away.

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