Are you in high spirits? This email will be long and fun. I hope you have had a good week, for you will never get it back...
This week I launched my first major update to the website in a while, you should have all received an announcement email about that. The biggest changes are that comments are on every article, recommended book, quote and letter on the website... and that now all of these letters are available for viewing online.
Speaking of letters, I have sent one to Hunter Jay from the Effective Altruism community in Sydney. He specialises in Artificial Intelligence and the risks associated with it. Over the next few weeks (or maybe months) we will be discussing this topic in public on Letter Wiki in a conversation called On Artifical Intelligence and Existential Risk.
I will keep everyone here up-to-date with the exchange, expect to see updates in future emails.
Four times three
In Buddhism, there are three sets of four, that I believe everyone should know. The four noble truths, the four thoughts that turn the mind and the four seals of the Dharma.
While I don't refer to myself as a Buddhist, I find its ideas incredibly useful.
All philosophy was ultimately written by people like ourselves, people trying their best to go about their lives and putting their thoughts onto paper to help others do the same.
What I am about to write about can be separated from its origins and read in the same vein as a text like Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. I hope that it brings benefit to you.
We spend much of our lives worrying about petty concerns. A lot of our time and energy is invested in that which is mundane and that which could not possibly lead to any lasting happiness.
Vajrayana Buddhists have devised these contemplations to help people break free from the cycles that perpetuate these patterns. They are designed to shift our attention from the profane to the profound.
The four thoughts to be contemplated are:
- Our precious human life
- Impermanence and Death
- The law of cause and effect
- The unsatisfactoriness of worldly life
Our precious human life
"We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they never will be born."
It is profoundly unlikely that we would exist in the first place. As Dawkins has put it:
"The number of people that could be here in my place, outnumber the sand-grains of Sahara."
As Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche has framed it, there are more sentient beings in a single lake than how many humans in the whole world. This is truly a rare circumstance we are in.
Most other creatures on this planet are helpless by circumstance and psychology to only concern themselves with survival. With the avoiding of predators and the gathering of food. Perpetually living on edge until they are eaten, fall sick or starve.
We don't have to live in the same cycles as our animal brethren, we can actually solve problems. We can devote our lives to more than merely delaying our passing. As we are free from perpetual worry about our survival we can discover more to life, learn about the mysterious reality we find ourselves in and help our fellow beings.
How tragic would it be to find ourselves in this circumstance but waste it living our lives chasing after trivial things?
To be fortunate enough to be born a human is already incredible, but in this time and place with the leisure to read this email, how amazing? We don't have to worry too much about starving to death, being hunted down is the least of our concerns — we are truly free to flourish!
To let this precious chance go to waste — is there anything sadder?
The sage Shantideva has compared it to happening upon an island of jewels only to leave empty-handed.
Do not miss out on this rare opportunity to live a meaningful life.
Impermanence and Death
As a candle burns, it also melts.
After aeons of darkness you have found this flicker of light known as life, but alas soon you will return to darkness once more.
The precious human life which you have been so fortunate to have come across even now slips through your fingers like sand.
You might have many items on your bucket list. You might have dreams, plans and anxieties about how your life will play out. How much will it matter in the end?
Spoiler warning: You are going to die.
Does what you are doing make sense in light of impermanence and death? A myriad of possibilities lie before you, the peaks and valleys of human experience are open for exploration — you can do whatever you want. Is this the way you want to play this game?
All you attain you will lose in the end.
Can you think of a way of living that is worthwhile regardless of where it all leads?
Please contemplate this over and over again until you understand its significance. We're dying slowly even right now — what is the best way to do it?
The law of cause and effect
The Sanskrit word for cause and effect is Karma. All events in the universe are determined by a myriad of causes and conditions, and all our thoughts and behaviours condition future events.
I remember when I was a kid I was watching the television show Everyone loves Raymond. Debra surprises her husband Raymond with the gift of a DVD player. Raymond's response:
"I don't understand, you always complain that I am watching the TV too much and you buy me a device designed to enhance the experience watching it."
What do you really want out of life? What are you doing in life? Can you see how the latter will lead to the former?
Given the fruit you want from life are you planting the right seeds?
Many are willing to cause themselves and even others tedium and anxiety in pursuit of their goals. But is this the best way?
In my mind what we want most is well-being both for ourselves and others. When we cultivate any mental state we condition the future states of mind. To be joyful is to practice being joyful. To be angry is to practice being angry. All that we do constructs and deconstructs habit patterns of the mind and sets up future happiness and suffering.
To spend our lives on a pendulum which swings between anxiety and tedium is to set ourselves up for failure from the start.
And to put effort into making others suffering is ridiculous. Imagine this at scale, if everyone thought like this. We would all waste our mental energies thwarting one another rather than being able to achieve any real happiness — all because we imagined a zero-sum game where there wasn't one.
All those millions of years of evolution just for this?!
The unsatisfactoriness of worldly life
"One man dreams he lives a hundred years of happiness, but then he wakes. Another dreams an instant's joy, But then he likewise wakes."
The pleasures that most of us seek prove to be empty.
It is possible to be happy in the here and now. It is possible to let go of one's worries and relax completely.
You may think "but first I have to sort these worries out".
This is a lie. The mind will keep on spinning reasons to justify its suffering ad infinitum. Worldly desire is infinite, stability is not around the corner.
All worldly seeking is perpetuated by these thoughts. At the bottom of all is the belief that this moment is not enough.
True spiritual seeking is simply a way out of this misconception.
"Even in heavenly pleasures, one finds no satisfaction."
No matter what experience you attain, it will pass. Have confidence in that. All your experiences will fade away like last night's dream. Given that all you have sought has faded away, how much sense does it make to strain and suffer in the present in search for more? Is this a fun loop to be running in?
The way people view happiness is ridiculous.
Most of what we seek to be happy seems like a more elaborate version of a child yearning for a candy bar. They aren't actually that good.
Are you making a big deal of things that don't matter? Will chasing after your desires lead to anything truly satisfying? And if it won't anyway, is it worth suffering at all in chasing after them?
I hope what I have written here was beneficial to you. Contemplating these thoughts over and over is believed to bring one to the truth of this circumstance we call life.
As usual, please feel free to reply to this email with your thoughts and any questions — I would love to hear from you.