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Unfounded

The word ‘fundament’ means base or foundation, so you’d expect religious fundamentalism to be rooted deep in history, but it’s not. It started in the Southern United States after the First World War, a reaction to modernity’s brazen questioning of Christian authority. The Bible, ambiguous, contradictory, sometimes just plain indecipherable, was abruptly declared to be ‘literally true.’

Since then, insecure Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists have followed suit and established their own varieties of fundamentalism, all to the general detriment of civilization. Around the globe, people threatened by life’s inexplicability cluster together to share fictitious certainties.

We don’t all react that way, and yet we do all feel that insecurity from time to time. Yesterday I was walking to the post office under unremarkable skies when the fact of existence seemed momentarily bizarre. ‘Why am I conscious,’ I thought. ‘Why does anything exist? Couldn’t the universe simply not be?’ It was visceral.

These are childish thoughts. I don’t mean to scorn them but to remember that they come from early days: before schooling, perhaps even before upbringing, training or culture of any sort. We humans are thinking machines, compelled to consider what we experience. The trouble with these particular thoughts is that they make us uneasy. They provoke a powerful sense of wonder, or fear, but don’t lead anywhere. They undermine every edifice of thought. Even when we dismiss them as foolish, they come back to haunt us; particularly when death lurks.

Such feelings are fundamental in the literal sense; they never really go away.

But neither do they linger. My mood shifted to irritable as I waited in line for my mail. We get on with our appetites and creativity, such as they are. Satisfaction demands attention and we forget those existential thoughts; then, expectation breeds disappointment and we’re back on the wheel of life. It’s dizzying at the rim; the hub is more manageable. At the precise mathematical centre it’s motionless, surely.

Imagine.

Do we really want that perfect serenity, or are we putting on a brave face when we pray for peace? Do we fear silence? Or, in the still of the night, tortured by whirling thoughts, is that what we really long for, that terrifying thing?

How do we let go of meaning and yet pursue life with gusto?

 

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14 responses to “Unfounded”

  1. Suzanne Goldman

    I was moved by your becoming a naked monk and by Unfounded above…..the first I’ve read of your work….I will be reading more.

  2. Robert Schenck

    I always enjoy and appreciate your posts, Stephen. What is this? Why is there something instead of nothing? Ancient questions, yes, childish perhaps, that can evoke the mystery, wonder, and awe of consciousness. As Kurt Vonnegut’s son explained to his despairing father, “Whatever this is, Dad, we just have to help each other through it.”
    Robert

  3. jayarava

    Fundamentalism has a much longer history in Buddhism. It’s been the norm for most of Buddhist history.

    Is motionlessness a realistic possibility in this universe? Is the precise mathematical centre a meaningful concept in terms of living a life? Surely the answer is no in both cases. Abstractions aren’t necessarily helpful in deciding how to life or appreciate the present.

    The universe only bothers me when I feel separate from it.

  4. Carly

    Your last line changes everything. There is no life without meaning. We need purpose. That’s a good thing. If only we shared the ‘meaning’ of good, and pursued that with gusto.

  5. Ralph Chidiac

    Why is there something instead of nothing?
    Simple…. because humans have IMAGINATION.
    And if you genuinely think about it
    imagination is at the base of everything Human… EVERYTHING.
    Yet the problem with imagination is that it
    always seems to be one step ahead of reality.
    You do the math.
    The need for purpose in life does not necessitate purpose in death.
    Purpose comes due to death yet death has no purpose
    what a conundrum.
    as for religiosity dogma and fundamentalism,
    I leave them all in the hands of my 2 guardian angels Pouf & Patapouf.

  6. Mark Knickelbine

    Do we have to let go of meaning? How about if we just learn to hold it lightly, and to observe it as it morphs?

  7. Rob Stolzy

    I’m not buying this post. Or maybe not understanding it.

    Intro stuff about perceived fundamentalism is fine, far as it goes. (It mentions the varieties of religious fundamentalism but omits mention of scientism and materialist fundamentalism which is just as prevalent an issue these days.)

    But labeling your poignant question moment as childish, and also claiming that such moments are especially present around death (the implication being that fear is somehow distorting one’s balance) does not sound right to me; and doesn’t jibe with my own experience. It is just the poignancy which reveals the error.

    And whether or not ideas we experience which are accompanied by wonder (let those who have fear about it speak only for themselves) ‘lead anywhere’ or not — is entirely up to us and our approach about them. It is not at all necessary for a mindful reflection practice to dispense with these matters, in fact, it can be inauthentic to do so.

    Finally, the last sentence is problematic, because the meaning of ‘letting go of meaning’ is so ambiguous. I guess another commenter went into this a bit. Perhaps you mean to say ‘inherited meaning’, or unconsidered meaning.

    My question in this case would more be along the lines of: hmm, I have been doing lots of inner work for a long time… so, in that context, what are these poignant ideas of nothing vs. something coming upon me all about?

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