Chapter Five - Final Reflections
What is life?: Final Reflections
And so where does this leave us? There is no doubt many more topics and many more nuances and details within the topics I have covered which could be discussed, but it feels right to close my writing at this point. It would be nice to amalgamate the topics I have written into a finite conclusion to the question of ‘what is life?’, but it would be naïve of me to think that I could answer that. In comparison to the earth we have not existed for a great length of time as a species. We have much to learn about all forms of life. We are at a point in time whereby our best hope is to continue developing, continuing to ask and seek answers to many questions, including the meaning of life. But at this stage and for the foreseeable future, it seems appropriate that we seek with a sense of accepting that we do not know. That way, we remain open to learning.
Chapter Five: Part I
I wrote this book to increase collective thinking, why?
I wrote this book because I wanted to present a 21st century perspective on some of life’s common topics, at least from the perspective I have so far lived. I am interested to hear what you think of my reflections and I am equally interested to hear what your own views are. One of the great things about democracy is that it promotes the idea of hearing a range of views, pooling the collective data to come up with an idea, action, decision etc., which feels as if it serves the greatest purpose for all (though some would argue that this does not always occur). As I said in the introduction, I have yet to have a discussion with somebody on the topics covered in this book, whereby I felt each party did not enjoy such a discussion. I find psychotherapy so rewarding because I get to travel on all sorts of deep and meaningful journeys with people. As such, by writing this book I have been able to enjoy excavating my own thoughts and feelings in hope that you will have enjoyed reading them and importantly, that you will have had a chance to reflect on your own ideas. It is possible that there may be people out there with great ideas about all sorts of things, each of which could contribute to the life experience of many people in a positive way. If I was to find out that just one person was influenced by this book in a way that it shaped their direction in life, that it influenced any element of decision in their life, whether it is their career, relationship, or decision to prioritise Chinese food more or less in their life, then I will feel happy.
The greatest shifts in evolution often involve a collective action. It is the action of the many which propels and develops our species. As such, my hope is that the contemporary dialect of this book may provide a different set of views for current thinkers to ponder, as well as open the philosophical door to many more people of our generation, as we continue to integrate disciplines across science and philosophy in a search for understanding the questions of life. This is why it does not matter that questions have been left unanswered or that many have not been asked. The focus was not to end conversations with my writing, but to create them.
What, if anything, do my reflections propose about life?
As I reflect on what I have written, I am struck that there are a series of common topics which I have suggested are part of feeling good. Is feeling good the aim of living a fruitful life…is that how we determine the meaning of life, i.e., to feel good?
What does it mean to feel good?
I speak of this from a philosophical sense, rather than hard science. To answer this question requires a definition of ‘good’. For this, I will borrow from Buddhism. For me, 'good' relates more to peace, though each person may find their own word for peace. I recently conversed with somebody over coffee and for them, ‘contentment’ felt like the best description. The key is distinguishing this sense of peace and contentment from pleasure. My description of peace is a feeling of being centred within one’s self. Sometimes we will feel positive emotions and sometimes painful ones. But so long as we view these as impermanent occurrences, always changing, we can ground ourselves in a centred feeling of peace, living in the moment of life. The reality is that negative emotions can be good for us. Feelings of depression and anxiety are alerting us that something is not right; the tricky bit is trying to decipher what that is. Or, perhaps we are aware, but we are afraid to change, afraid to trust what our body is guiding us to do (see discussion on OAOB in chapter four). Peace involves finding balance in every moment and recognising this moment as our reality.
We have the potential to find peace in all that we do, so long as we live in the moment and not in the worries and anxieties of our ruminating mind. I would rather direct you to other books (e.g., Gunaratana, 2001) for elaboration on these points, rather than enter that discussion here; however, I would like to provide an example of how this sense of peace and pleasure can be distinguished scientifically. You may recall the dopamine and oxytocin discussions I covered in chapter three. I suggested that dopamine is a neurotransmitter which plays a big role in the feeling of pleasure. We know we ‘enjoy’ something because a release of dopamine tells us so. However, there are times when a dopamine release can be detrimental to us. We can become addicted to trying to achieve dopamine releases, e.g., through drugs such as alcohol or foods like chocolate (yet alone cocaine and other hard drugs). I read about a piece of research in which scientists placed a lever in a rat’s cage (Olds & Milner, 1954). Whenever the rat pressed this lever, it received a stimulation which activated a pleasurable feeling by stimulating the part of the rat’s brain involved in releasing dopamine. The rat continued pressing the lever up to 2000 times an hour for 24 hours, ignoring the need to eat, drink, sleep or mate, as it was so focused on achieving the pleasure hit. As humans, we have an enhanced cortex which means that our brain is able to see the bigger picture, reducing the chance to be caught up in this pleasure seeking suicide. But, it is still possible for us to get slightly caught up in the process. This further iterates the benefit of finding a middle ground, locating one’s self closer to a sense of self that can take a more peaceful view on life and acknowledge the messages of emotion without necessarily being a slave to them. The obvious rebuttal here is that I may be suggesting we should ignore and avoid emotion – this is definitely not what I am saying. It is vital to be conscious of our emotions, to be able to hear the internal messages of our body, they are a key to our survival process and they propel the fruits of life and the passions of art. I am in danger of entering into a wild tangent here so I shall centre back to my point. It seems that a sense of feeling ‘good’ or ’happy’ is an important aspect of living life, but it is possible that we need to define what we (notably in the West) define as ‘good’ and ‘happy’; perhaps the key is to seek balance rather than extremes.
Sometimes peace can be mistranslated as being passive but this need not be the case. Being at peace does not necessarily mean that we are in a lethargic and slow moving state; we can find peace amidst a bungee jump, during exercise, intimacy, and in every other activity in the world. In an example of being attacked by somebody wielding a weapon, a peaceful state could allow us to recognise the feelings of fight or flight which will occur for us; we can then make a streamlined decision to run for it or to approach our attacker to disarm them. But even the latter choice can still be peaceful; we can try to disarm in a manner in which we do not set out to intentionally harm, or we may try to use words of compassion. If physical aggression is required, we disarm without undertaking superfluous actions of retribution which will end up leaving us feel more pain and possibly guilt in the long run. Given the speed at which such events can transpire, i.e. in the blink of an eye, it is useful to try and bring a sense of peace to every second of life, whether this is walking, washing the dishes, during exercise etc. If we work on maintaining peace in moments of calm then we will be better prepared and aligned to bring peace amidst moments of haste and pressure. I shall conclude this talk on peace here, but I suggest anybody interested can obtain further information and guidance within mindfulness literature.
What else could be the meaning of life - experience?
I do feel that overall, learning to appreciate the moment we are in and appreciating the fragility and rarity of each life experience can help us centre ourselves and prevent us from worrying too much about the past and the future. As I discussed in part 3, I still hold onto the idea that death could occur at any point each and every day, as it helps me put perspective on not worrying about the passing events and occurrences of each day. Death can be a useful tool to live. Whenever something which I perceive as negative or worrying occurs, it is realisation that things could be worse - i.e., I could be dead and no longer have any experiences, good and bad – which provides me with a renewed enjoyment and appreciation of the very moment I am currently living.
This basic nature of experiencing life is a sound possibility for being the purpose of life. It is a very simplistic view, but it serves great evolutionary benefit.
What about the purpose of life being to reproduce and evolve?
A lot of my writing has come down to evolution. I cannot take myself away from this. The more I learn within science, the more I see the genius of evolution. It is so easy to look at other animals and take a straightforward view that their existence and traits are driven by evolution and yet think of ourselves as separate and somewhat special, but it seems likely that the same thing applies to humans - we are animals (Morris, 1967/2005).
This is why reproduction and survival form a central tenet to many of my discussions. We need to reproduce and learn how to best survive and adapt in order to continue. If the wish for immortality did not exist - whether consciously acknowledged by outwardly wanting to live forever or unconsciously processed through the desire for children or to be remembered - then the species would die out.
However, throughout this book I have discussed Buddhism and suggested the advantages it can bring to one’s wellbeing. And yet monks, so far as I am aware, do not have children. So if everybody took that approach then would we not die out? As far as I am aware, a lot of traditions (though not all) require ordained monks to take a vow of celibacy and subsequently not have children. This is similar to Catholicism and other forms of religion. For me, this goes back to my suggestion that whilst having children is an innate evolutionary drive, there are those who choose to obtain their life purpose through other means. In Catholicism, I imagine priests believe that the sacrifice they make in abstaining from marriage, intimacy and children, is in the name of God. Perhaps they feel it is their responsibility to teach and carry the message of the Bible and such things to people. They believe in heaven and so they have conviction that their immortality will be achieved through their place in heaven. As such, this suggests that a wish for immortality can still be seen as a key purpose in life because even when children are removed, even when Priests are not aiming to achieve it through having success and subsequent legend within their career, they seek it through heaven. In fact, the message of seeking a place in heaven (i.e., immortality) was a consistent message I received growing up with Christianity, suggesting its prominence in human purpose. I am not wholly sure what Buddhism discusses about afterlife; however some traditions talk about the wheel of life and suggest that the aim is to get out of the cycle of suffering and rebirth by becoming enlightened. This would suggest that there is some potential for immortality to be part of the framework; however, the aim is to not crave it but to live in the moment of life.
I hope that people do not take this book as me preaching the need for people to become Buddhists, I am merely suggesting that there are teachings within the movement which people may find useful, it is completely your choice whether and to what extent you wish to pursue them. There are aspects within the movement that I do not really agree with. The key is not distinguishing things as completely right or completely wrong, but listening to what feels right within you, what makes sense to you, at a deeper level, below conscious thoughts.
Chapter Five: Part II
What is life – reasons ending?
Another discussion which stood out for me was related to reason. The very subject of this book (what is life?) is to seek reason. We want to know what is going on - our brain wants to predict as much as possible to avoid error and potential harm in the environment, so in some sense it could be argued that life is primarily about seeking a reason. Perhaps this indicates that reason is our God and what we seek through God is reason’s ending, i.e., an explanation of everything so that nothing is a surprise. But I am not convinced by this. I think that reason could be driven by the wish for immortality. I mentioned that reason could be the brain’s way of trying to predict everything in order to avoid surprise and potential harm, which in effect, is to avoid danger and preserve ourselves, i.e., seek immortality. So I think immortality is the driving force of life. One argument against this may be “why do people commit suicide”? But is suicide not a result of maladaptive life? As a psychologist, people come to see me because they are suicidal, rather than coming to see me because they want to become suicidal. Therefore, suicide is a result of life experiences which have led to a maladaptive approach to life. However, there may be people who want to commit suicide because they are suffering with so much physical pain in life, not psychological. Three points here; one is that physical pain is interlinked with psychological; the second point is that there is still a whole debate on euthanasia and in the majority of countries (maybe all except Switzerland), it is illegal. As such, there is a collective movement in society to discourage any form of suicide or killing one’s self, suggesting that there is an overall sense that ending one’s life is against instinct. A third point also links back to the idea of conscious and unconscious wishes for immortality. As mentioned, immortality may exist consciously in the sense of somebody saying “I want to live forever” but actually, this seems more of a rarity. People seem to accept that they will die and may not really pursue the idea of living forever. But underneath, as they have children, as they seek to develop a reputation in their career, are they not seeking immortality, for part of them to live on forever? I think so yes. Some people may be conscious to this and say it so, whereas some may not think of these things in such a way.
Therefore, there is a strong notion that the wish for immortality is a key part of life, if not the underpinning meaning of life. Society and culture is all shaped toward protecting us from harm, placing criminals in jail, encouraging people to be active and eat well. We admire doctors and researchers who prevent illness. We feel pain at the idea of losing a close one.
What about love in relation to immortality?
I discussed that love is a form of attachment and that there are multiple levels of this attachment. In effect, I am stating that love is attachment. It is a label for the process of attachment. We may be hungry but we can describe this as ‘peckish’, ‘quite hungry’, ‘starving’, ‘famished’ etc. These are all descriptions and levels of hunger, but in effect, they are all forms of hunger. This is similar to how love is a description of attachment. The key thing is that love is not necessarily a uniform level of attachment; it is a description of a type of attachment. What I mean by this is that it is possible to love somebody or to show love to an animal or being, without being overly attached to it. This is why I discussed the levels of attachment (see chapter three) and suggested that there are varying levels of love. Each person prescribes their own levels and what items fall under those levels. I wonder if the key is trying to reduce the different scales of attachment, perhaps creating one level of love which can be applied to all. I am not sure about this yet, but Bob Marley did sing for ‘one love’; what are your reflections?
What is life?
It would seem that life is primarily about immortality. In one sense seeking a partner and having children to allow our genes to continue forward. In a second sense by aiming for success in our career or pursuits, so that we are remembered. Either of these can exist alone and would seem to be unconscious processes. Not many people seem to really talk about these things in such a manner. One of the primary aspects of life is attachment. This is at the route of all that we do. Attachment operates at varying degrees and strengths, unique to each individual. Love is part of this attachment process. There is a sense that reason is our God. Our brains are constantly trying to predict our environment, to keep us as safe as possible. The ultimate prediction would be ‘knowing what life is’. Therefore, there is an inbuilt wish to understand reason’s ending, to understand everything. But if we try to understand everything, we suffer. We ruminate; we become anxious because we overthink things.
What can we do with these reflections?
In terms of reason, there is a sense that we may benefit from trying to not over think things, trying not to over intellectualise things in our ruminating mind. We should seek to carry out our thoughts and reflections in conscious processing, when we are either talking or writing about ideas. If we do think about things, we should be aware that the process is occurring. Our ruminating mind has such creative potential; it helps us plan and make decisions but if it runs free without our awareness of engaging it then we can find ourselves in all sorts of worry.
Perhaps this indicates that truth, knowledge, learning, whatever it is called, it exists beyond our current faculties of reason. It exists in a different space and entity to what we can comprehend. Perhaps reason’s ending, the idea of one final truth is a concept designed by human minds in order to achieve the immortality of our thinking faculties.
In terms of immortality, is it dangerous to tamper with something like this? I wonder if the primary thing we can do is to simply become aware of how immortality drives us. If you think the idea is nonsense, then this can be a good thing. The next time you are upset or worried about what somebody will think, ask yourself “why am I becoming so worked up. Why do I care what this person thinks? Why am I so concerned with achieving money, enhanced reputation, or recognition”? If we acknowledge that we do not live forever, then we may be able to worry less when we perceive things going wrong. This may help create a further sense of peace within us.
We do not know what is beyond the present moment. Therefore, is achieving peace within the present moment not all that we can do?
What are the limitations of this work?
Despite my wish to keep this book fairly casual and to reduce the academic nature, I will borrow from the structure of such writing and discuss limitations to this work. I shall restrict this to one primary limitation, though I acknowledge there are many more.
The primary limitation is that my perspective is limited. As discussed in the introduction, I am a white, British male. I think I may be middle class but I am never sure on class titles. Whichever it is, I discuss views on love, religion, and life from my own experiences. In other countries and religions, there are a range of cultural and societal practices different from those I have experienced. But to expand my reflections to every other culture, religion, nation, political ideology and so forth would be too much to keep this book from becoming overly dry. I have attempted to keep things concise to try and keep my main reflections as clear as possible. As discussed throughout, my aim was two-fold. I wanted to present my reflections for current philosophical thinkers to muse and I wanted to engage readers who are new to philosophical reflections, in hope that increasing collective reflections across society will lead to continual reconfiguration and development of ideas about the question, what is life?
I hope you have enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Thank you for bringing your time to my words
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