28 Dec 2006

Culture and Identity: an introduction to a discussion

Map and Territory.
The map is not the territory; the word is not the thing. Here is a fundamental distinction, which can be expressed in many ways: map/territory, idea/reality, thought/existence, representation/represented. In thought and logic, division and distinction is all. “A” is not “not A”, and never the twain shall meet. Whatever is said, here or elsewhere, is going to be part of a map, a representation of “what is”. If what we say is honest, faithful and true, then we will be producing an accurate, meaningful map, but it is important to bear in mind that it is only ever a map and it takes its meaning from the territory. Everything that is said is indicating, pointing to something else, something beyond the words. We are talking about the meaning of life, but we should not expect to find it in the words we use, or the thoughts we have.
Many a good town map has a label on it saying “You are here”. Of course it’s only true when you’re looking at the map. What is always “here” is the map itself. There are two things to be noticed: (1) the map and the territory are both represented on the map; (2) the map is a genuine part of the territory. In the end, the distinction breaks down; “A” is a part of “not A” and “not A” is in turn a part of “A”. This may all seem rather abstract and confusing, and this is because what I am trying to indicate here is a limitation of thought, and that is something that thought cannot grasp.
All our thoughts and ideas, all the activity of our busy minds, is a map of “what is”. If the map is an accurate representation of the territory, it is meaningful, but if it is distorted, untruthful or imaginary, then it loses meaning. Suppose the bus company published the timetable they would like to run if they had more resources instead of the one that they could actually achieve; it would be useless, meaningless. Now one of the most persistent, busiest ideas in my mind is the idea of myself. Everything seems to get connected to this idea because the idea of myself is the map of the map, the “You are here” label. At this point thought makes an almost inevitable mistake; seeing the map of the territory containing the map of the map, it mistakes itself for the map of the map, and not the whole map. So the map and the map of the map take on an enormous significance, myself becomes more important than anything else, thought becomes the world, and error and distortion result, which leads to a loss of meaning.

There are the facts of my life, where I was born, my upbringing, education, qualifications, occupation, habits, religion, nationality, skin colour, etc. and there is no problem with these - they are not a source of conflict. But then there is my and other’s interpretation of, and attitude to, the facts. I was born and brought up in England and now I live here in Wales – “No problem.” I say, but to some people there is a problem; “Wales for the Welsh, English go home.” The facts of my life have become an identity - I have been identified as English. I’ve lived here for 15 years, my children have been brought up here, I vote for the national assembly, but there is no point in argument pitting fact against fact. The question is, what is the importance of the facts, to me and to the other fellow. Ownership, entitlement, honour, this is where there is conflict; my country, right or wrong? my religion, right? my profession, under-paid? my people, sadly misunderstood?
Why do we adopt and impose these identities? Perhaps it is for security, not to be alone; perhaps for convenience, to take advantage of other people; perhaps we cannot bear the feeling of being nothing. Even the identity of “madman” has its uses as an excuse. There is such comfort in knowing who you are, and knowing that it is “good” to be that thing, that people will happily die to maintain it, indeed that is the very stuff of being a good Englishman or Christian or whatever.
If I am a teacher, you know not only who I am and how I’m likely to behave, but also how to respond - to listen and learn and ask polite questions. But if I am not the teacher, then you don’t know what to expect or what is expected of you. Then there is the encounter of two unknowns, and the past cannot help us.

In this world of instant, global interconnectedness, communication skills are seen to be very important, we put it on our CVs “good communication skills.” What is communication, is it a skill, is it important? If we mean the ability to persuade people of something, to move them, motivate them, manipulate them, then advertisers, politicians, charismatic religious leaders are good communicators. This is a skill that can be learned to a great extent through the study of psychology and the practice of acting. If you want to be one of the movers and shakers, this is what you need.
But I want to talk about something quite different, something that we might do together, not one do to another. The word “communication” has the same root as “common”, which means sharing. If we can share our questions, insights and confusion without trying to convert, persuade or control each other, perhaps there may be a meeting of minds - a meeting of equals as friends. This requires something quite other than psychological knowledge or acting skill; I cannot be “better” at meeting you than you are at meeting me – that’s not meeting at all! So this kind of communication requires some humility, not someone who thinks of himself or herself as a “good communicator”. If I’m trying to persuade you, or sell you something, to get you to think or do or be something, that’s not what I mean by communication.
The quality of listening is important here; we need to listen to ourselves and to each other, not accepting or rejecting what is said, but checking it out - does this make sense, does it agree with my own understanding, am I being honest? I’m not talking about counselling techniques or any method, learned or habitual; anything, which is set up in advance, can only act as a barrier to us meeting. In listening there needs to be freedom from duty, effort and technique, and a genuine interest in the other person, in what is being said, and in one’s own response. So if I notice that I am getting bored and my attention is wandering, I might ask myself why; is it because nothing interesting is being said, or is something being talked about that I am reluctant to go into, or is there something more important on my mind? Then I might or might not want to say something, or ask something. What I hope I won’t be doing is gritting my teeth and trying to concentrate, or letting the conversation pass by in a dream, and if I find myself doing that, again I will look to see why.
We come here each with our own burden of thought, belief, fear, hope, etc. Our minds are preoccupied with our own affairs, and this is the difficulty. If our minds are already full, there is no room for meeting; there is no room for you in my mind or for me in your mind. In asking ourselves how we can make some space, there is a danger that we will arrive at a method, of meditation or of self-expression, but these things only add to the clutter of our minds, when what we need is some empty space. Can we ask the question, but refuse to answer it?

Meaning, Value, Purpose.
Purpose relates a thing to something else, something beyond itself, to a before of someone who purposes or plans and to an after of some effect or result. So if life has a purpose, it has to have a purpose to someone who is beyond and behind life, and an end result beyond death in the hereafter. There are plenty of people who claim to know about God’s plan and the hereafter, and many others who say that there is no God, nothing beyond life, and therefore no purpose to life. My position is that everything that I can see or know or experience is part of life and not beyond it, if I have some revelation, true or false, it is part of my life, so I prefer to leave all that on one side. When we are dead, perhaps we can talk about these things.
Value also relates a thing to a person, something has value to someone, and it at least invites comparison - I value this more than that. This means that life is the necessary condition of value, without life I cannot value anything, so to talk of the value of life is to talk of the value of value. Life has infinite value or it has none. To ask whether it is worth laying down one’s life for another is a wrong question, to answer it requires one again to see beyond life, it takes us back to purpose.
Meaning is a word of many slippery uses, and my reason for talking about purpose and value first is to clear a space in our minds for the word to occupy. I do not want to talk about the meaning of the word “meaning”, I want to talk about the meaning of life. Our coming together, our discussions, may have more meaning than is contained in the things we say; there may be more meaning than we intend. I don’’ say that it is so, or that it is not, but I want to suggest that to look for meaning in the sense that I mean, is to look at the thing in question and not at something or someone else. So I have a purpose in mind in starting these discussions, which I hope we will all find valuable, and that purpose is to look for meaning in life.

We are always looking for something new, in art, science and the media. Creative writing courses abound; television especially, is hungry for new ideas. So it is natural to ask where new ideas come from and whether it is possible to learn or teach people to be more creative. Perhaps, indeed there is nothing new under the sun, and all we ever have is a rearrangement of the old. Certainly there is a great deal of that going on, but occasionally, with Einstein or Van Gogh say, there seems to be something genuinely new, something original and creative happening. Is this something peculiar to a few individuals, or is it potentially available to everyone? I am very interested, not because I want to be famous or rich, Van Gogh had neither in his lifetime, but because being creative seems to me to be essential for life to have some real worth or meaning.
There is a very old, mythical idea of a Cornucopia, or horn of plenty, an animal’s horn that is an inexhaustible source of food and drink and all good things. The open end is a wide mouth from which everything flows like water gushing from a pipe, but the other end, the source, tapers down to nothing. It is contrary to common sense, but creativity must be something like this, because to be original means precisely not to have come from anywhere else but to start here. So the source of creativity, of anything new, is nothing and nowhere; it has to be so, otherwise it would not be new but just a rearrangement of what is old.
Now when I think about myself, I am seeing myself with the eyes of memory, all my ideas about myself are old ideas, old knowledge, old habits (habits are always old aren’t they?). If there is anything new about me, it is not that, so it would be foolish of me to say “I am creative.” I might say, “I was creative”, but that too is old, so whatever is new is not “me” and is unknown. What is difficult, because it is frightening, is to let go of the known habitual me, to let go of my ideas about time and space, or the principles of art and painting, and without letting go of the old there is no room for the new. There needs to be some emptiness, some “nothing” in my mind from which new thoughts, new understanding can come; if I am “full of myself” full of my own ideas and knowledge which are all old, there can never be anything creative.

Life and Death.
We tend to think of life and death as opposites. It’s getting hard to draw the line with modern medicine, but in general the difference is clear. I know that I am alive now and I will be dead eventually, but I prefer not to think about that very much. In fact my mind seems to slide off somehow; “being dead” is almost a contradiction - “dead” is “not being”. Death comes to us all, and yet when it arrives we are not there. Many people say that there is life after death, the body dies but we continue somehow, somewhere. Perhaps they are right, I don’t know, but that is not what I mean by death. When I talk about my death, I mean the end of me; if there is never an end of me, then I am talking about nothing.
Some things are not alive. Talk to a rock, caress it, flatter it, mock it, it does not respond; leave it alone, it does not move; there is no life in it. I tend to think of myself as continuing through time; I stay more or less the same while the world changes around me. But life is always moving, changing, responding, so this image of a fixed “me” is the image of something dead like the rock that carries on the same no matter what. Life is always new, always renewing itself, and this means that it is always dying. Yesterday’s response will not do for today, things have changed. The old bob needs to die so that a new bob can come into being. If I keep saying the same thing each week, you will all get bored and stop listening, but if I am alive to the difference in you from week to week, from moment to moment, then my thought and my talk will change responsively - we will respond to each other. It seems that life and death are not separate, but one process which goes on in me all the time, from moment to moment. If I try to postpone my death until some distant tomorrow, I am trying to be a rock; I am trying to be already dead. And this rock of unchanging self becomes a terrible burden to me that I have to protect and carry with me, the source of all my fear. So when someone says “There is no death.” I reply, “Please, God, let it not be true!” because without death, there can be no birth; death has to come before birth.

Plato, Jesus, Shakespeare, Newton, Bill Gates; - two thousand years of culture influence what I say, and shapes the world I live in, not to mention the forgotten heroes who invented fire, metal- working, pottery, the wheel, etc. Culture is like the heartwood of a tree, the remains of previous years of growth, that no longer lives, but supports and shapes the new green twigs and leaves of our present lives.
The names I give are the ones I know, and you will know others that influence you, but we all live amongst the bones of the ancestors. Their influence is not always benign, and we do not owe them any favours. At least that is what my ancestors say; yours may have different ideas.
Indeed, the whole of this introduction is written from a particular culture which happens to have dominated and exploited half the world for the last few centuries, but which has no special claim to the authority of the truth, let alone any moral authority. It seems to me though, that culture and identity are in the end the same thing, they are history and knowledge and all that is the past, and we urgently need to be free of it all. It seems that we cannot be free by forgetting or ignoring it, because it is what we are, and what we seek to become or to escape from; perhaps we can be free by examining it together in the mirror of relationship.