Still(a)Life#29: Conditional Arising

“Life is the sum of all our choices” said Camus. Today I spoke to a man about to make the biggest decision of his life. Rather, it is perhaps true to say that he feels that the decision is making him. Lockdown is not an easy time to make life changing decisions. But, at the same time, it is perhaps the best time to be making those kinds of decisions – while life is dramatically changing in any case. Dramatic decisions are the bedfellows of dramatic events, even if secretly.

Buddhists call the way our contexts (internally and externally) give rise to our thoughts, feelings and actions – “conditional arising”. In other words, there are certain conditions that precede any thought, feeling or intention. This falls in line with what neuroscientist Sam Harris argues – there is no such thing as free will. You don’t pick your parents or the society you are born into. But, these are the things that shape who and how you become. Resistance to this fact can lead to a kind of self-righteousness, one that negates our capacity for compassion; our ability to identify with other people and the causes of their own actions.
Thoughts, intentions and choices are the “proximate cause of your actions” (Harris) and yet these arise out of conditions outside of our own control. It helps, to some extent to mitigate this with reason and ethics. But, as the world runs out of ICU beds, we learn that there are limits to the usefulness of reason and ethics. Sometimes decisions simply have to be made, actions have to be taken and the only immorality is not making a decision at all. We will only understand the true consequences of lockdown in retrospect.
“I should have bought more wine.” “I should have saved more money.” “I should have never left that job.” Should have’s have us looking backwards at times when we most need to be looking forwards. The choices we make over the next few months will feel definitive but there may not be right or wrong choices to be made, as long as you are making them.

Stephen Batchelor encourages that “Instead of asking “What is the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ thing to do?” the practitioner asks, “What is the wisest and most compassionate thing to do?” For now, I’m making Mampoer. That is probably the wrong decision.


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