“Its like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”
In everyday life we name, label and create abstractions for just about everything we encounter. Yet applying just a little but of scrutiny will reveal that none of this is accurate at all. What happens if we realize that the pot we create is not a pot, the tree we see is not a tree, and even you do not exist at all?
It is a beautiful, fantastic day. The bright sun is casting radiant, warm rays on your skin and you are laying on a spread out picnic blanket on a emerald meadow in the local park. On your side lies a love interest you have been seeing for the past couple of days. Your heart is fluttering slightly, and your head is hazed with a concoction of hormones you have not experienced in a long time. Excitedly, you remark to each other on the multitude of shapes and figures the white, puffy clouds above your heads make.
“I see a pug eating a snail!”
“No! That’s an elephant scratching his tail!”
The other blurts out.
“These are Cumulus type clouds, their name is derived from the Latin Cumulo-, meaning heap or pile. They are often low-level clouds, generally less than 2,000 m (or 6,600 ft) in altitude..Unless, of-course. They are of the more vertical cumulus Congestus form..”
“Way to ruin the mood..”
Your date murmurs..
When the sky is clear and the night is dark – look at the stars. Across history, intellectuals have been tracking the stars and making sense out of their structure. Just like we see animal shapes in puffy clouds we have conceptualized countless constellations. We give them names; the lion, the lobster, the elephant, the bear. We all understand instinctively that these are just abstractions. Of course they are not real animals! These are stars! Anyone who says otherwise would be labelled a moron!
The Okidoki of Theseus
Imagine now you own a ship. It’s a beautiful, custom made, well adorned ship. It has been passed down across generations in your family for decades. Like any worthy ship it deserves an identity and a name. Because your family is a particularly happy one, this ship – yours – is named the ‘Okidoki’.
As time goes by the ship gets weathered by the elements. One day, you notice a leak and have to replace a piece of the floorboard with a new wooden plank. Another day, the anchor has rusted away and needs replacement. Another day, the rudder.
Eventually, all the original materials that made the Okidoki the Okidoki have been replaced with new materials. At this point, is it still the Okidoki? If so, then what makes the Okidoki the Okidoki? If not, at what point did the Okidoki stop being the original ship?
Also, what if someone stored all the original materials, and put them back together exactly like the original, wouldn’t that ship be more of an Okidoki then the one you now own?
What’s in a name?
We name all kinds of things and whenever we subsequently encounter such entities it makes sense to us. We encounter a yellow car and recognize it as a yellow car. But how exactly is it a yellow car? What happens if we remove a tire, is it still a car?
Yes, we say. It’s just a car without a tire and the tire is just a tire. What if we remove the doors? All the tires? The exhaust? The engine? What if we change the yellow hue to a different yellow hue, is it now more or less a yellow car? At what point does it stop being a car?
When does a lump of clay on the wheel become a pot? When do the ingredients you are cooking stop being separated pieces of meat, seasoning and vegetables and become a meal? And while we are eating it, at what point does the meal stop being a meal but part of us?
Go out in the park (take your date with you, if he/she hasn’t run away after the Cumulus disaster!) and look at the natural environment. Try to define the patch of grass or the tree in front of you. Where – exactly – are the lines and boundaries? You will find that this is essentially impossible to describe.
We recognize named entities as if they are self-evident and obviously distinct from one-another, but apply just a tiny bit of scrutiny and you notice the whole thing falls apart. The lines separating one and another become blurred because these lines are only drawn in our minds. Nature has none of these lines. It is all-encompassing.
The Map is not the Territory
And yet to make sense of the world rationally, we label, abstract and name everything we encounter. It is, as we have seen, not possible to truly and accurately describe reality. The very nature of language does not allow for such granularity. When we describe something, we have to work around it.
We effectively create a map of the territory. With lines (words) and shapes (names) we do our best to create a single definition for whatever object we are trying to express. But a map, by definition, always abstracts away a lot of information. In fact, that is the very purpose of a map!
This works decently well for a while on simpler entities such as physical objects. But whenever we go deeper, we struggle to find the right words because they don’t exist. Ask a hundred people to describe true love and you will get a hundred differently worded answers which all sound wrong. Everyone has their own definition what love means for them.
Deep down, we understand that it is not enough. We again work around the problem, and attempt to express what we mean using poetry, dance, music and religious beliefs. We try to make people understand with emotion, hyperbole and analogies.
And yet however close we get, it is still not real. Reality in its entirety is simply too complex, too unique and too interconnected in various dimensions to describe fully and accurately in any way possible.
We give up. Close enough, we say. Enough useless philosophy talk, time to get back to work. And yet there is great power in accepting this inaccuracy.
For, like the constellations, the ship and the yellow car, we also have been given a name. Think about yourself by your name and you likely have an image in your head of what “I” means. In your mind, you have given yourself an identity. This is a prime breeding ground for confusion.
You might struggle with your dual nationality and which of the two you really are. You might describe yourself as crazy, emotional, chaotic, weak or unable to feel love. Maybe you struggle with your sexuality. We collectively spent an extraordinary amount of time and effort in ‘finding ourselves’ and fixing the issues that we feel are incompatible with a healthy individual.
And yet there is no map for your way. Your situation is as unique as it is ever-changing. You can read all the self-help and philosophy blogs you want – but the truth is that your way cannot be described. In fact, if a way can be shown – it is by definition someone else’s, and likely not the path you need to take. There is nothing to agree or disagree with in these ideas, they can only be used as a jolt of creativity towards a potential way-point in your own destiny.
It becomes even worse and confusing. As “You” do not exist. The lines separating you from the rest of the world are just imaginary illusions in your mind. You are, as so many things, ever-changing without boundaries.
So stop trying to find ‘yourself’. In fact, stop trying to find the perfect job, the perfect amount of money to be happy and the right configuration of your life so you can finally be whole. And for the love of reality, stop trying to find “The One”.
These things do not exist except in your mind. The best you can find in this world are approximations. The less specific your abstractions are, the more likely you are to find something like it in your lifetime. Purposefully blur the imaginary lines between failure and success, between right and wrong and between happy and unhappy and you will be far less confused and free from infinitely chasing delusional shadows. Also, there is nothing stopping you from completely changing your identity.
Don’t focus on the illusionary abstractions in your mind. Renounce your false identity and flawed name.