Susan Sontag among others described illness as a metaphor for what culture does to the individual, as much as what germs and cells do to us. Why do we speak of social maladies as plagues and cancers, much like “bad” weather and “evil” regimes? Our very language and imagination is permeated with illness, illness induced by culture, as R. D. Laing used to say.
I am not prepared to assume, as do some New Age advocates, that one brings about one’s illness, but when we consider the foods we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink — plus the stress of modern existence and an admixture of genetics and personality — we might well concede that we do indeed bring illness upon ourselves. Not as directly as a scientific equation or as obviuosly as a one-to-one cause and effect, of course. Not even individually, perhaps, but collectively. We plead that we have less control over these cultural products than we think, but we are obliged to exercise the control that we can.
One of Gotama Buddha’s first insights was the inexorability of illness as a form of suffering to which all humans are susceptible. Here, however, the insight was of an absolulte regarding the frailty of the body, not the predominance of culture over what we consume or is in our atmosphere. Every culture has had its equivalent of Paradise or a Golden Age which it has now forgotten, a time or place where sickness does not invade us, where happiness does not falter. To recover that sensibility — even as an exercise of imagination — is a useful element in determining for ourselves what Buddhism calls “right livelihood.”
Wilderness hikers with an appropriate sense of nature follow the practicel of leaving no trace of their presence in the wild. There is a skill in learning not to destroy, break, or tred heavily around trees, underbrush, or paths, or leaving campsite use invisible to others. A satisfaction results from the notion that a sucessor-hiker will not have realized that someone else recently passed this way, just as the original hiker will appreciate the same ennobling experience. To be the first or to be the last — it would have made no difference.
Shouldn’t it be the same in life, especially for the solitary?
The thin line between simplicity and eccentricity is easily crossed. Doubtless we have all discovered secrets of simplicity that others might deem eccentric. For example, I have discovered that certain brands of green tea will yield two cups per bag versus one. Composting kitchen scraps may seem a pointless fetish to some, while in Europe such small household efforts have yielded beneficial social, environmental, and economic results.
One writer I came across, who had grown up in the 1930’s U.S. economic depression, basked in her thriftiness — or miserliness — in getting a bargain at one store, driving to another for another sale, and so forth throughout her day, never totaling fuel and time into life’s equation.
For simplicity to succeed in one’s life there must be an ethical component. We must see consumption in relation to production. We must relate everything we do to everything others do for us or to us. And acknowledge the role of nature in this cycle, of which we are an inextricable part. By being conscious of the contrived human cycle of desire and consumption, we become aware of so many other aspects of society and culture. And in that process, we become better prepared to understand the deepest aspects of why we do what we do.
One of the characteristics of science is to reduce phenomena to a set of simple explanations. The medieval Occam’s razor was the inspiration for this process: shaving away extraneous causes and reducing processes to what is taken to be the most obvious explanation. This may seem wrong or inadequate or simplistic, but humanity conspires to prove this approach true. For despite the lofty and complex justifications from this or that temple of power, the unprecedented war and violence of human beings over the centuries points to nothing more simple than a primitive brain stem or amygdala.
It seems no longer possible for humanity as a whole to reach a point of peaceful equilibrium. Can humanity evolve to some point where mature brain functions of the cortex can overtake primitive instincts? We can call these instincts sin or ignorance. We can call our efforts ethics or philosophy or reason. Still, Occam’s razor wants to do away with the ideologies and the cultural superiorities and point to our collective incapacity.
Only enlightened individuals can at least begin the breakthrough in their own lives. This is what sages, regardless of what science they knew, have been telling us all aong.
Sound has the capacity to conjure sensibilities in us, or rather, we interpret sounds in certain ways. Perhaps the highest refinements of this giving of meaning to sound is in Japanese haiku poetry, where the cry of a bird or the rasp of cicadas in autumn take on a universe of meaning. Such an exercise reflects a self-conscious culture and a sensitivity to nature and emotion.
Music ought to be this high point of creativity as well, and music is often evoked for its ability to express or anticipate meaning. But music is always a cultural contrivance. Music reflects a collective culture, or subculture, from the primitive to the complex. It depends almost entirely on the technology of the moment as much as the composer’s affinities to the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. Music imitates and overrides natural sounds, and in this there lies a caution: music can override the flow of responsiveness to natural sounds themselves, to nature itself. Of course, in an urban civilization, music is white noise.