Being versus Having
Well, we're into a New Year - 2008 to be precise. Here's wishing all my friends and any readers out there a happy and prosperous time during the coming year. Christmas holidays mark a time of excess and surfeit for us in the West. We eat too much; drink too much; travel too much; buy too much; see too much; hear too much; party too much; dance too much; play too many stupid mind games with each other; have too much sex (if that's possible?) - we simply cannot get enough of anything. I have met many people over this particular break who have admitted to excess in a good number of the items on the foregoing list. Some even admitted to vomiting a few times. This brings the wise words of Erich Fromm (1900-1980), the famous sociologist and psychoanalyst, to my mind, namely that we should make a clear distinction between "Being" and "Having." All the above examples of excess belong to the simple confusion about happiness, that is the Western preoccupation with "Having" over "Being." (Shall we call this error a category mistake? Would Gilbert Ryle agree? I think and feel he would!) I can get a new iPod, a new car, a new laptop, a new palm-top, a new gadget for this or that, a Karaoke machine, the latest computer game, a new suit, a new suite of furniture, a new bathroom, a new set of windows - the list is endless. Fromm is right - the Western mind with all its whims and desires is driven by "Having," or in a sharper and cruder phrase is driven by simple naked greed!
With Fromm, I argue here that "Being" should have priority over "Having." To really be means to be "at peace" or "at one" or "in harmony" with the real Self. I remember a former colleague of mine who is now retired saying that the most important thing in life was whether one could live with oneself or not. How true he was. His sentiments capture for me the priority of "Being" over "Having." "Being" for me means simply that - being at ease in my own skin, being able to live with myself! With all the rampant greed and desire to have, it would seem that humankind is still not happy with his/her lot. There is still a dark hole - perhaps a black hole - at the centre of his/her heart. There is an emptiness that simply cannot be filled by things or, perish the thought, even by people. The second part of this last sentence needs more expatiation indeed, but that must wait for another time as I have not quite thought that one through.
In keeping with my meditation practice I have being reading the Tao Te Ching. Here are a few lines form stanza 12 (in fact the whole stanza) that are pertinent to the theme of Being versus Having.
Colours blind the eye.
Sounds deafen the ear.
Flavours numb the taste.
Thoughts weaken the mind.
Desires wither the heart.
The Master observes the world
but trusts his inner vision.
He allows things to come and go.
His heart is open as the sky.
Too many colours, too many sounds, too many flavours, too much thinking, too much wanting sickens us - how true the Tao is. William Wordsworth had similar sentiments and intuitions in his great poem The World is too much with us (1807)
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
I find the same sentiments and Taoistic intuitions in the wonderful songwriter and poet Bob Dylan. The first two verses of his song "Up to Me" (1974) are profound and worth reflecting upon. Better still listen to the song a few times. I'll finish this post with these verses from our greatest contemporary balladeer:
Everything went from bad to worse, money never changed a thing,
Death kept followin', trackin' us down, at least I heard your bluebird sing.
Now somebody's got to show their hand, time is an enemy,
I know you're long gone,
I guess it must be up to me.
If I'd thought about it I never would've done it, I guess I would've let it slide,
If I'd lived my life by what others were thinkin', the heart inside me would've died.
I was just too stubborn to ever be governed by enforced insanity,
Someone had to reach for the risin' star,
I guess it was up to me.
Above I have uploaded a picture I took with my mobile phone at Laytown on 31st December 2007 - Last Day of the old year!