Home' Nova West : January 2009 Contents FEATURE LABYRINTH
As we start a new year, don't be afraid of making mistakes,
says Eric Harrison. Just like a baby learning to walk, it's the
only way to get better!
Does life have any meaning or
purpose? Our gut feeling tells us
that it does. We certainly act as
if each small thing we do is worth doing.
We get up in the morning, set our eyes
for ward and walk towards the next task,
and we do that all day long. We orient our
behaviour towards an endless sequence
of activities in a way that must seem
deliberately purposeful to an outsider. We
at least act as if our lives are meaningful.
Yet it can be very hard to say what
that meaning actually consists of. Our
thoughts on the matter are likely to be
quite feeble compared to the robustness
of our actual behaviour. Seen from a
more hard-nosed perspective, life can
easily appear to be "just one damn thing
after another", as the American writer
Elbert Hubbard said. We assume that
our life has an underlying purpose or
plan but, if we are honest with ourselves,
our experience tends to be far more
episodic and fragmentary.
We go shopping, get married, pay
bills, buy a house, get sick, have an
argument, change jobs, watch TV, get
divorced, get lucky, answer the phone,
go on holiday, sell the house, do the
shopping and so on, year after year.
Hubbard was an inspirational writer of
a stoic bent who died when a German
U-boat sank the Lusitania off the coast of
Ireland in 1915. The ship went down in
only eight minutes. Did Hubbard review
his life and come to some grand conclusion
about it in that time? I doubt it.
Biographers tackle the question of
ultimate meaning by trying to make sense
of an individual life. Biographers tend to
be storytellers rather than truth sayers,
despite their often impressive skills as
scholars. Many are reluctant to let the
facts get in the way of a good story, and
you can't blame them. We, their devoted
readers, would be disappointed with any
biographer who just gave us the sequence
of events, however detailed and accurate.
We want biographers to shape their stories
into a meaningful A-Z narrative, and to
make sense of the "one damn thing after
another" confusion that characterises
We long to see how the accidents of
birth and fortune, the tragedies, mistakes
and triumphs of a life, play out according
to a masterplan which is usually only
obvious in authorial hindsight. If a
biographer can show that Schubert or
Churchill or Kurt Cobain lived well despite
their miserable ends, it encourages us
to feel that our confusing lives can be
meaningful as well.
We typically feel that we are on an
individual path through our individual
lives. Assuming that this is not just a
mental fiction, we still need to ask, "What
kind of path is it?" Does it run straight and
true, guided infallibly by angels or firm
beliefs or our inner vision? Or is it more
like a path through a labyrinth? Are we
constantly confronted with forking paths,
many of which we know will be dead
As it turns out, a path that seems to
run straight and true is more likely to
be a dead end than a labyrinthine one.
Any path that we can see clearly from
beginning to end must also be rather
short and narrow, and incapable of
development. While spiritual traditions
often map out clear, straight paths for
lost souls to follow, these are typically
far too simple to be real. In fact, I get
unreasonably irritated by the sunny self
confidence and the childish formulas of
people who feel they have found The Way.
They obviously don't live on the same
planet as me. I feel they are selling candy
f lavoured lies and discouraging people
from doing what will actually help.
Paths need to cur ve and twist
abundantly to fit the shape of a life.
The fact that we can't see around the
next cor ner in no way invalidates our
sense of being on a path. Our brains are
extremely myopic with regards to
the future. Human consciousness is a
resource of strictly limited capacity. We
can only hold two or three things clearly
in our minds at the same time, and it
takes effort to retain them for more than a
minute or so against competing thoughts.
This greatly limits our capacity for long
term planning and foresight. We can do it,
but it doesn't come naturally. For most of
us, our picture of the future is more like a
child's sketch than an architect's plan.
Our minds operate like a torch in
a dark landscape. We can light up the
ground at our feet in extraordinary detail,
but the distance will always remain a
blur. Furthermore, we see any one thing
clearly only by casting everything else
into deeper shadow. To see and respond
to all the salient features of our minds
and lives, we need to constantly switch
the torch beam of our attention. We can
pay high quality attention to one thing
after another, but we can't see it all at
once. Only a serpentine path that turns
and cur ves, that climbs and falls and plays
hide-and-seek on itself, can eventually
deal with everything that is important.
This pattern of shifting attention
occurs all day long, but it is equally
obvious over a lifetime. What is profoundly
important at one time -- a new baby or
career, for example -- can soon become
routine and eventually irrelevant with
the passage of years. If these transitions
happen smoothly, we feel more or less
in control, and that our life has followed
a clear narrative path of the type that
But what happens if catastrophes
inter vene and we lose our sense of
control? After a divorce or illness
or business failure, we generally don't
despair and feel that life has lost all
meaning. We may feel that we've lost the
path, or been on the wrong path, or that
our plan has been interrupted, but we
usually take responsibility for our choices
and get going again.
If we continue to fail, we may doubt
our ability to steer our lives at all and
so turn to spiritual answers. Many
authorities claim that God in his infinite
wisdom has a plan for each of us, but that
it is beyond our understanding or control.
Alternatively, we can see our unexpected
suffering as the payback for evil karma
committed in our past lives.
Some traditions even argue that we
suffer because we believe in a path at all.
Their solution is to give up all striving for
the future, and to live as if the present is
all there is. This is the classical path of
peace through inactivity and emotional
'As it turns out, a path
that seems to run straight
and true is more likely to
14 © NOVA JANUARY 2010
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