Saturday, November 28, 2009


There’s a great deal of talk about relationships and sex as if it's this fixed concept that can be applied across the board. As if it has rules. But being a relativist as always I think a better analogy for a relationship is a book. Though every book has two covers and letters on a page, the similarities end there. The content of each and every one is different, so is its mood, its depiction of the world, its view of reality.

There are endless possibilities and varieties. Maybe that's why some people are addicted to new relationships. How can you ever read enough books? There is always more to learn.

Similarly sex is not a thing in itself. It can be as complex, and varied and take on as many forms as the individual person who engages in it. It is a mirror held up to the soul. Anything ugly or beautiful in a person, will be reflected and intensified in sex. When people talk about what sex is, I think they're missing the point. Rather I want to ask them, who are you? What can or can't you express?

We are owners of souls like a big house with floors and stairwells and rooms we don't even know exist. The public sitting rooms and master bedroom are for the official spouse (someone who can help you pay the rent), but what about exploring the whole house?

I've always found this duality between appropriate partner material – financially or personality wise – and the inappropriates. But connection has nothing to do with that distinction. It's much wider, more flexible, more capricious than that.

The inappropriates slip in easily by the back door. They take me by the hand down unused corridors and unlocks secret rooms. And inside I look out of a whole new window with a completely different angle on that house, revealing endless facets of myself.

Monogamy is neither natural nor unnatural, it is simply one of many possibilities.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Two Lessons

Recently Iveve taken up two hobbies: running and investing in stocks. They teach me surprising and contrasting lessons about life.

Running is about determination, planning and controlling your life. The stock market is all about unpredictability and not being able to control the wider world.

There's a saying that life's a marathon – I can definitely see how this is true. Running is like a simplified version of life where you can see your self doubt, self sabotage and sheer laziness at work. It's not the running that's hard, it's self management.

At the heart of self management is planning and persistence. Planning gives you a picture of the light at the end of the tunnel so that you don't lose hope. Persistence is simply tolerating immediate frustration to get to the end of the tunnel. Doing something well repeatedly is the key as it forms habit.

Without all the above, which makes up discipline, I realised I wouldn't be able to keep something good in life even if it came along and slapped me.

Actually it's not hard to understand, or even do. But most people trip up at the ‘repeatedly’ part – which is also the most important. I found it almost magical that profound changes in life are made through mundane habits like these.

I guess running is a lesson in how to order our own lives and the space within our control. By contrast the stock market is about complexity and chance.

It's unpredictable because there are so many inputs of information, forming so many combinations of outcomes – just like life itself.

Yet bafflingly it's also highly rational. Every number is based on certain criteria. In the long term there are even patterns, prompting money managers to think they can outperform the market. Of course they consistently fail.

This is also true of life. There seem to be patterns, and yet we can't predict much about the future. Chaos theory and determinists battle it out over whether things happen for a reason, and whether we can control or change fate.

The way to deal with the market is to go with the flow. Obviously it's futile to insist on it doing what I expect it to do. Yet this is what many people expect from life. You can only try to time the market and ride the waves up and down, hoping the millions of other conditions will come together fortuitously to a high. Then you sell your stock and get out quickly before those conditions dissolve again, which it will inevitably.

In life we also need to learn how to shift gears – between hard headed determination, and learning to let go, waiting for the time to be ripe.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Between this world and the next

The lifelong business of self creation involves two things: looking for new possibilities and bringing them into reality.

We are driven to create something new, and uniquely ours – this is evolution by design. We are innately creative.

In imagination we can consciously find new versions of ourselves. But there's a much greater, deeper pool of possibilities contained in the unconscious. To be the most that we can be, we search in these pools of potential and realise them through action. We move constantly between that murky world and the cold light of reality.

Self creation is difficult because it is balancing between two worlds: the imminent and the transcendent. It's all too easy to get lost in one or the other, and madness is the result.


Artists for example live most of the time in potential, with neglected material lives. They explore the realms of possibility until they are lost. Madness in artists is no longer even a surprise.

There's an ingrained romantic myth that living in dreams is somehow more noble than being a materialist. The most famous Chinese novel, "Dream of the Red Chamber," is about the struggle between Taoism and Buddhism (on the side of transcendence), and Confucianism (realism). Like many dreamers the hero gives up the world to become a monk in the end.

But potential is only ever an empty promise until it is realised. It is a ‘nothing’ because nothing exists except in reality. It is a dead end.

Plato dealt in ideal forms – some greater truth out there we can neither see nor touch. Aristotle in contrast collected evidence of what he saw in the real world – and gave birth to science which changed our world beyond our wildest dreams.

There is a complex interplay between imagination and reality – they change each other.


The other example is interesting. Relentlessly materialistic people who spend their lives pursuing wealth and success are just as likely to be unhappy when they get there. This is a different kind of madness – that of never exploring alternatives.

Buddhists say this is the fault of endless desire, even when we get everything, we want more. Therefore they say desire is bad. But I think this is missing the point. Endless desire comes from our endless potential – which is simply a part of human nature.

Desire is the driving force of life and meeting its challenges with grace is the stuff of adulthood.

It's like a tug of war. We can get lost in either world, but for the pull of the other one pulling you back. It's strange how opposites melt into each other. Try to escape from reality through art or religion and you get lost in endless, empty potential. But try to cling to reality and you find it is itself a manifestation of endless potential.

The only real solution is to face endlessness directly.

This requires coming to terms with freedom and choice (more later), which is the only remedy to being lost.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Who am I?

Say there was a god that made the world in seven days, including all the animals, and then he made human beings. Each species gets to choose a gift. The cow chooses many stomachs to digest grass, and the big cats want physical strength and agility.

But man chooses something strange and abstract. He chooses adaptability and potential. He is a blank slate on which anything can be written, and from which anything can be formed.

Human nature is like Pandora's Box containing infinite potential, and its slow unpacking is the unfolding of human progress.

But how do these big ideas about human nature help with everyday life?

That's my roommate's complaint when I talk to her about philosophy. "Life is just about two things: finding a good career, and a nice family," she says, being a practical girl who works in finance.

It's simple according to her - but I despise simplicity, and here's why.

When you look at any self evident truth closely they slither and multiply, becoming impossible to pin down.

Finding the right career and the right partner, or even knowing what 'right' means, leads directly to the big, existential questions of who you are and what you're doing with life.

Our adaptability creates many solutions to any problem. If that Pandora's Box is full of mysterious creatures, our various potentials, life involves picking the things you want to unpack from the box.

If we are a blank slate then life is writing a narrative, bringing ideas into black and white from an infinite sea. It's creation of a story and of a person. We are self-creators
and it's our longest, biggest, most complex project.

'Who am I?' is our challenge, and our handiwork. We are all project managers.

Of course complex projects are never easy. It requires discipline, delayed gratification, big picture thinking, and persistence. Many try to escape from the task (more on neurotics later).

This project is also unavoidable because life must have meaning (more on why later).

The idea that human life is inherently suffering has been knocking about in religions since forever. Maybe it's related to this difficult, long, and unavoidable task hanging over our heads, and which comes with the package of human existence.

Imagine how traumatic birth is, but we are constantly being born. Existential self creation is one of the roots of suffering.

A related suffering is how we pick potentials to realise, and which potentials to forgo.