Everything

Before you have the chance to say “I don’t care much for religion” or “I don’t care much for science”, let us broaden the discussion. I propose that religion has its roots not in preachers, books or institutions, but in our hearts, yours and mine: part yearning, part awed recognition of something that plucks at the heartstrings. And let us think of engineering, say, not as the sum of what thinkers and craftsmen have produced, but some practical know-how that you and I have gathered, of how things can be made to work in this world.

Let us then, you and I, touch the limits of our own worlds, live in our own spaces, and not be intimidated by the hugeness of what we have not lived, the vastness of “out there”. What we have lived plus what lies beneath our immediate gaze is big enough, contains more than enough for a lifetime. Let us not feel ashamed of our ignorance. The gods are probably kinder than we are to our own selves.

So as usual in this place I shall talk about my own life. It’s all I know. I’ve been beating myself up—nothing new there—for having to redo things I did before, which fell apart. Why do I get things so wrong? Why do I have to try, try and try again? Why can’t I get it right first time?

I have a hardwood garden seat, originally installed on the patio of another house. Where I live now, the backyard’s so small that this great heavy thing gets in the way, wherever you put it, unless you can move it around easily. Wheels are the obvious answer but how to attach them? Bolts aren’t feasible: flanges too big for the chairlegs. I tried wire but after several complicated attempts they still came loose. My latest idea is to lash them with string strengthened with fencing staples. It doesn’t look strong, but time will tell. I’ve had better luck with other ideas. The outdoor sink (K’s brilliant suggestion, to keep my messy jobs out of the kitchen) is a boon, and remains solid, though the bricklaying isn’t pretty. My first go at building a bench, in the front yard, lasted two years. Rain got under the varnish and mortar broke loose under the columns of bricks. The design itself was good, so I’ve refurbished it with new timber, and remortared the bricks.

I curse my trials and errors, but how else can I move forward? I am a child of Nature, a product of Evolution which is Nature’s experimental testbed. The fit survive, the others have their fifteen minutes then disappear from sight. Ceaselessly, Nature produces new designs and lets them go. Such is life and death. Why do we beat ourselves up about it? What is it in us which seeks perfection in this world, when it develops, apparently, by throwing up random mutations, which may or may not survive?

Perfection belongs in a different realm, existing in the eye of the beholder, which throws up myriad ideas just like Nature’s process of evolution. I don’t know if you accept my first proposition above, that religion is about our longing for perfection. Or this, my second proposition: that there are more religions than people, for surely we all worship different gods, differently. But if I had to classify forms of religion, I’d distinguish seekers from finders. Seekers pursue various “shoulds”, beating themselves up as if pain leads to gain. Finders feel it’s enough to give thanks and pray for help as the need arises. To reach this conclusion, I haven’t done a theological survey, of course. I consider other people’s religion as their own sacred territory. I wouldn’t want to stray there. What I speak is merely what I find from asking my own self.

So I say this sphere we call “the world” is built from trial and error: as in Nature, so in Mankind. Only by getting it wrong can we have a hope of getting it right. In any case Mankind is part of Nature. But there is also the sphere of perfection, the Divine. It comes from the same place as unicorns: our fertile imagination. That doesn’t make it any less real, any less true, any less divine, so long as you understand that different spheres have different rules for truth. In the outside world, reliable truth is underpinned by evidence. In the sphere of perfection, “Every thing possible to be believed is an image of truth”; “Everything you can imagine is real”.

Combine the two spheres—they have never been separate, except in our minds—and you have everything.
—————–

Quotations above from (1) William Blake. (2) Pablo Picasso.

PS
Serendipitously, soon after posting the above, I caught a snatch of something on the radio, about the World Cup, and specifically England’s chances against Germany tomorrow.

Thanks to the invention of WWW and search engines, I was able to track it down as a misquote of something from a play by Samuel Beckett, which should read:

“All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Which summarises part of my “Everything” in 18 words.

Only part though. The other part is perfection, which exists in the eye of the beholder but is real and true all the same; even when the eye sees a perfect soul in everyone and everything.

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25 thoughts on “Everything

  1. If religion is about perfection, we can never truly attain what that definition might be. Nebulous though that appears, perfection is likely to be in the eye or senses of the beholder and will not be the same for all. This could lead to all sorts of circular discussion with no one satisfactory conclusion to all.

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  2. I'm sure you're right, ZACL, on all points. Religion is indeed an ongoing discussion with no agreement in sight.

    And yet, what I had in mind was its being driven by an inner impulse, too deep and subtle to be discussable, but powerful enough to dominate one's life, without the support of reason.

    The nature of this impulse is such that I can only really understand my own case, unless there is some very deep sharing with another.

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  3. Oh, “Fail better!” I like that! And thanks for pointing out that evolution is – trial and error. Of course. But I hadn't thought of it that way.

    I wish more science flacks understood that it is about trial and error, and just because there is a new discovery doesn't mean that now we've finally got it “right.” The scientists I've met are very forgiving of final results and being too sure – except for those defending something they've discovered, and that is at risk of being shown to be – what else? Just another step in the process. But in general, I'm very disappointed in academics on this issue. They seize hold of something they are teaching and keep forgetting that it's not a sacred truth, only a provisional truth.

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  4. It is, as you say, what it is for everyone one of us and in deeply personal forms. I am thankful we are allowed to express these thoughts.

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  5. Vincent, you are surely helping to green the world if the flowers in the pictures are anything to go by. Folding weather-proof chairs in the backyard may have been more convenient than the bench.

    I see all beings as two parts – one the thinking self and other that observes, directs and feels this thought process. Religion to me is an attempt to reach this inner self which is interconnected through all life and part of one Universal Self.

    I posted some more about Nainital in my Blog.

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  6. Look at those flowers.Someone´s got a green thumb in your home. Is it you or K?
    Religion for me is about finding myself and my connection to everybody else. As you said, a journey of trial and error.

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  7. Seems there are as many definitions of religion as there are people. Perfection, the same. Each iteration of a creative endeavor seems to redefine the perfect outcome.

    The pursuit of perfection seems to me to be a process. One in which it is expected, that each attempt, will come closer and closer. However, time tests these definitions over and over, leaving us wanting.

    Don't let the goal get in the way of the process.

    “I don't like these cold, precise, perfect people who, in order not to speak wrong, never speak at all, and in order not to do wrong, never do anything.” – Henry Ward Beecher
    “Perfectionism is the enemy of creation, as extreme self-solitude is the enemy of well-being.” – John Updike
    “I have always suspected that correctness is the last refuge of those who have nothing to say.” – Friedrich Wasiman
    “Perfecting is our destiny, but perfection never our lot.” – C. J. Weber
    “The pursuit of perfection often impedes improvement.” – George F. Will

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  8. Vincent,

    The reddish plant in the first photo looks gorgeous. The veins of the leaves are distinct, and the edge of the leaves is green and cascading. It’s unique. It looks very healthy. In the second photo, light green leaves are growing straight up here and there among flowers. They look edible. Are they some kind of lettuce? And in the third photo, you have lavenders in the back. Right? Also my neighbor grew fucha like yours, and it grew three feet high and never died. Isn't it amazing?

    About religion, I thought “for perfection” is an interesting point of view. I thought religions are for imperfection. But they probably end up in the same spot since perfection exists because of imperfection, and vice versa. Shinran said, “Good people go to heaven. Then, more than ever, bad people will for sure go to heaven. That's my translation. It made me think.

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  9. Yes, Keiko, the first plant is a begonia, a “foliage” variety so-called because its flowers are insignificant. What you see in the picture are the undersides of the leaves, which are especially architectural. It was in the sink for watering. Normally kept indoors near a north-facing window.

    In the second picture the upright leaves are calendula or “pot marigold”. They seeded themselves from last year, that's why they crowded into the space.

    No the plant at the back in the third picture is not lavender but sage (salvia officinalis), used commonly as a herb, e.g. in stuffing for a chicken, or to flavour sausages.

    The fuchsia you are talking about is one that can stand frost and therefore can grow into a bush. I’d like one of those. In fact I am drawn to almost all the flowers my grandmother had in her garden. As a child I would pop the buds of fuchsia to “help them open”. Another perennial from her garden that I’m currently seeking to plant is what we call “Japanese anemone” – as on this link. Is it especially loved in Japan, do you know?

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  10. Charles, Keiko: by saying that religion is about perfection, I'm just throwing out an idea that never occurred to me before. But it's one that's influenced by Platonism (as Christianity was, in its early centuries) – specifically the idea that everything down here on earth is an imperfect reflection of something perfect “up there”, in Heaven.

    I imagine that Plato got the idea from subtle whisperings within his own self.

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  11. Thanks Luciana & Jitu. I'm the gardener in the household, but woefully amateur.

    As for the writing, Jitu, I do see myself as an engineer in writing, not producing it mechanically, for sure, but constructing sentences and paragraphs as interconnecting mechanisms.

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  12. Hayden, yes I agree about this business of defending results (if you are a scientist) and in the same way defending your beliefs (if you are an evangelist, say).

    I think this is an unfortunate displacement of ego. We need to be proud of our efforts, whether in research or devotion, but humble about our results. Best way to do this is to say sincerely that “I may be wrong”.

    Best example I have seen of this is Raymond Sigrist's book on apophatic mysticism, which is so full of I-might-be-wrongs that it almost sabotages its own efforts—a very endearing trait!

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  13. ZACL, yes, not only thankful that we are allowed to express these thoughts, but that it can be possible to express them (because sometimes it isn't).

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  14. Ashok, yes, I think we may be on the same lines here, even though coming no doubt from different traditions. I look forward to reading more about Nainital soon (have been tied up elsewhere!)

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  15. Vincent,

    Oh, that’s a begonia. It’s interesting that you have picked up the hobby of your grandmother. Mine is from my grandfather. I can imagine how many buds of fuchsia you helped open! Did they say to you thank you?
    Hehe. Ah, I mix up lavender and sage.

    About Japanese anemone, I used to think it’s a western flower. The first time I saw in Claremont, a college town near my house, I fell in love with it. I was fascinated with the way it blooms in levels. So I searched for the name and found out a photo in a Japanese book. It is called shuumeigiku(秋明菊). It means autumn light chrysanthemum. I didn’t know it was an anemone. I guess they used to grow in the south and west of Japan when I was growing up.
    http://aoki2.si.gunma-u.ac.jp/BotanicalGarden/HTMLs/shuumeigiku.html
    http://www.smartgarden.co.jp/special/092002/syuumei01.html
    It said the word of the flower is patience or fading love.

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  16. Delighted to see your love for flowers Vincent. You might wish to try the countryside flowering experiment on one of your wandering trips.

    My favorite flower has been the rose – one or the other variety- especially bushes that bloom profusely, another is raunculus (unsure of the spelling). I used to be fascinated by Fuschias but now find them a bit too dainty — another favorite is wild flowers that spring up on their own in different parts of the countryside.

    My love for flowers has come from living in Nainital in childhood (it is full of flowers, both wild and cultivated) and then moving down to the plains that were more arid and the beauty just seemed to be missing partly because the flowers were missing.

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  17. “The gods are probably kinder than we are to our own selves.”

    In my world of experience this describes the path to “moksha”. Also called “liberation” and “deliverance.” And “the truth that sets us free.”

    There is something that whispers to us from the ground of our being, saying, “You are perfectly fine in your imperfection.”

    I can't make a logical model out of that whisper, but whenever I am able to grasp it my sense of well-being becomes unspeakably enjoyable. There is no external objective proof for the authenticity of this phenomenon; it demonstrates its validity in direct subjective experience.

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  18. Raymond, yes, there is the quest for liberation but I don't want it. Strangely, I am more attracted to the rituals of religion – prayer and thanksgiving – without any thought of that moksha model. It's as if I wake up each day with all the instincts of other animals (so far as I can compare myself with them) plus the religious instinct. For all I know, the humblest animal (a slug, say) has that too. I cannot think of any experiment which would establish it one way or the other.

    The only thing I probably ought to learn better is not to beat myself up when things don't go my way. It's bad enough when things don't go my way without beating myself up as well. I don't include my chosen penances in that self-beating-up category though. If I go on a ten-mile walk and get weary and hungry and stung by nettles, I think of it as a pilgrimage for my sins or those of the world. It is certainly cleansing.

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  19. Jitu, the countryside flowering experiment? Is that to sow seeds when you go? I used to think of that a long time ago, when I saw the wilderness beside railway lines. But I don't know how well it would work, as weeds are by definition better equipped than garden flowers. I do it the other way round, having gathered wayside seeds such as Honesty (Lunaria) & planted them in the garden. Or today, when I finally found some four-leaved clover plants my brother found the other day. I dug them up to plant in pots at home.

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  20. Keiko I shall buy some shuumeigiku and call it patience or fading love. That way I would definitely think of my grandmother, who stoically endured (as a devout Christian) her unhappy marriage, and suppressed the passion I believe she had for another.

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  21. Hi Vincent

    “The only thing I probably ought to learn better is not to beat myself up when things don't go my way.”

    We perhaps define liberation differently. I take it to be not beating myself up for any reason. On the other hand, getting beat up by events is perfectly natural and has great benefits.

    ciao,
    Raymond

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  22. Religion and science are both attempts by man to provide perfect answers to compelling questions. The difference lays in what is required in order to accept those perfect answers; in both case you must take a leap of faith. With religious answers you must accept writings and lessons as truths, and with scientific answers you must accept scientific writings and lessons as truths. Both have their supporters and detractors. Engineering is a detailed path by which one may arrive at the physical manifestation of a scientific answer. There doesn't appear to be much religion in that, until you consider the potential impact of mindfulness.

    Striving or perfection is different than striving for a perfect answer. Rather than curse you on your trials and errors I congratulate you on your many projects and on the learning process. Very little has ever been learned by immediately stumbling upon the ideal solution. I am very thankful that the great inventors of our world kept forging ahead after many failures, dedicated to finding the perfect answer to their compelling questions, rather than throwing in the towel after their failed first attempts. Your bench and sink demonstrate the same perseverance; be happy with that.

    Your bench, sink, and other projects also demonstrate Darwin's Theory. Once a version of the project is reached that is fittest and best able to adapt to changing conditions around it, it survives and you don't need to go back and work on it again. A tiny difference in the wood, the works or the widget can make all the difference in the machine, the man or the marigold.

    Have you heard of theories and practices surrounding the concept of “beginner's mind?” It sounds as though these would interest you. A quote goes something like “to the beginner the possibilities are endless; to the expert the possibilities are few.” Beginner's Mind teaches us to approach life with the openness of a beginner, so that we remain available for wonderful possibilities, potentials, and solutions that we might have otherwise disregarded.

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  23. PS (July 2013) on the bench with wheels: the garden was reorganized so that the bench could rest in its optimum position on some paving made of bricks. And so I could take the wheels off.

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