Why Spreading Disquiet is not OK


What does a Buddhist view of dukkha have to say about an area of ethical life that, albeit nearly everywhere evident, goes largely unremarked upon? Let me turn to the first two Noble Truths in order to set up what I wish to argue.

The First Noble Truth is that life as we know it is dukkha (unsatisfactoriness, disquiet). Life as we know it, life before setting and without ever having set a foot onto a Buddhist path, is full of pain, suffering, unrest, ill-at-easedness. This metaphysical premise is, I take it, based on very keen and insightful empirical observations.

It is not true, of course, that at any instant someone is feeling disquieted, but it is true that someone will continue throughout his life to face disquiet. This is guaranteed since ilness, injury, aging, and death assure us that it shall be so. Another major metaphysical premise concerning impermanence is tragically posed against the Second Noble Truth, which is that the cause of dukkha is tanha (clinging, attachment and aversion, “thirsting”). We cling to what shall pass on, and we hold aversions to those some phenomena that come into existence. We are in big trouble, it seems.


This is enough to set up the following discussion, which is what is of most concern for me. I notice how often someone’s afflictions, being voiced, thereby harm others, and this somehow passes below our concern about ethical life. We pay close attention to wrong action and its connection with guilt; to feeling shame due to the way in which we fall short in the eyes of others; even, in the Christian tradition, to the sorts of unsavory thoughts we have, about which a Christian can be quite torn up. Yet we seem to think nothing of how our presences can inflict harm on others. We don’t seem to think it matters that not taking care of ourselves, we can make for foul company and, in turn, can ooze foulness onto others. We take matters much too lightly in not having a rich and subtle enough ethical vocabulary to say that this, actually, isn’t OK.

The philosopher Graham Priest, in “Compassion and the Net of Indra,” a chapter in the collected volume Moonpaths: Ethics and Emptiness (Oxford University Press, 2015, 221-39), makes this plain, reiterating the Buddhist argument that (a) I am implicated in others’ dukkha and (b) I can implicate others in my dukkha. So:

[D]isquiet in others occasions disquiet in other sentient creatures of sufficient awareness, such as me. In one way, we are all very familiar with this phenomenon. Negative emotions of others, even of those we simply pass in the street, tend to be communicated to us. We naturally respond to fear, hostility, anger, in a like manner. Fear in others can trigger a wave of fear in us; the hostility of another triggers a hostile response; and so on.

And even further: “I take it,” Priest concludes, “that disquiet in others does affect us, even if we are not conscious of this” (my italics). If Priest is right, then others’ disquiet can adversely affect us knowingly or, indeed, unconsciously because such disquiet can leave us feeling fearful, hostile, angry, and unnerved.


“So what is so troubling about all this anyway? It happens all the time.” You answered your own question. What is so troubling about this just is that it happens all the time. And, as I have already suggested, even more pernicious is that our ethical lives remain impoverished to the extent that we don’t believe that it’s an intelligible ethical claim to say: “Quit your careless bitching. Stop your inconsiderate complaining. Enough with the spewing. Next time check yourself before you enter the room.”

What now strikes me as being even more disturbing is that we have built a modern culture on the presumption of self-importance, on the idea that it’s a good idea to spew your shit, to get it out there, to unload, to vent your spleen. What you’re going through matters. well, sure, up to a point. But how you’re going through it is what really matters.

Now, if Buddhists are right and I’m inclined to think they are, then all of this in modern culture is pretty much backwards. One should take care of one’s thoughts, one’s actions, and one’s speech. Vigilantly, very vigilantly. One should blush, to say the least, whenever one discovers that one is thinking, speaking, or acting based on a high degree of self-importance. One should be very, very observant and mindful when it comes to the sorts of things one thinks, says, and does, not to mention the way in which one’s presence is felt. And it should be entirely apt for others to make a potent, intelligible ethical claim that you’re not keeping your shit together and it’s spoiling things for everyone else.

If you wish to investigate why you are disquieted in a disinterested, inquisitive manner, then–marvelous!–all to the good. If you wish to ease yourself of your attachments and aversions, then so much the better. Otherwise, best to keep your dukkha to yourself for fear of spreading this noxious odor, this dangerous toxin….

The Great Muddle: Sorting Out and Cluelessness (III)

Argument Revisited

In these posts intended to make plain to me and to others what the Great Muddle is, I have been arguing that we are living in Unsettled Time, a period during which our collective way of life is slowly receding while a new way of life has yet to come into being. To live between “the was” and the “not yet” is unsettling. Next, I have suggested that unsettledness gives rise to an enigma, namely, how shall we (third-person plural) live? Finally, I have urged that the Great Muddle is our woefully inadequate response to the enigma. We don’t know how to live (call this cluelessness), and we have a sense that we’re just doing what it takes to get by (call this, rather cheeringly, sorting out).

 Trying to Get Behind the Question

Before I go any further in trying to describe this cluelessness and this penchant for just coping, I want to make sure that I’m clear about what I’m talking about. It was through personal experience–notably, years of having philosophical conversations with conversation partners and philosophical friends as well as years spent trying to lead a philosophical life–that I’ve bumped again and again into a coalescing in vocabulary. I’ve noticed, again and again, the preponderance of “sorting out,” “figuring out,” “coping,” “dealing with,” “finding out” language. I could also add talk of things “being tricky,” of things “being difficult,” of things being “overwhelming,” of things being “especially challenging,” and so on.

I need to be very clear about my desire to step behind that language. If I ask another, “When don’t you think in terms of ‘dealing with’ things?,” I don’t mean: when are you failing to deal with things properly? I’m asking rather, “When do you feel exempt from ‘dealing’ and ‘not dealing’ with things talk? When do you think in other terms?” My proposal is that rarely do we step out of sorting out language, and I surely want to know (a) when sorting out language came into being, (b) when sorting out language become preponderant or hegemonic, and (c) what begins to explain the rise of sorting out language. These are questions, though, for another occasion, and now I return to the main argument.

Argument Resumed

Undeniably, we in Europe and in North America are just muddling by. We need to start with this as a social fact. In calmer moments, we say that we’re sorting things out while in intenser moments we say that we’re just trying to cope (or keep from drowning or keep our heads above water, etc.). During more reflective times, we have some intimation of cluelessness. Let’s start here.

Perhaps I could make a distinction between theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge, though I wouldn’t want that distinction to be taken as a hard break. I just need some way of making perspicuous their difference. If the soft distinction be granted, then cluelessness would be a statement about our lack of theoretical knowledge (we just don’t know what it is to live a good life together today), and our language associated with sorting out would be a sign of our intention to keep doing what we’re doing.

For my purposes, cluelessness is an apt term because it suggests that we don’t even have a clue about how we collectively could best live. It’s not that I don’t have the foggiest about how I could live (though I may not), but it is rather that we (third-person plural) don’t have any discernible tracks showing how we could best live together. Rather than coming to a cultural florescence as occurred with the birth of direct democracy in Ancient Greece around the 6th and 5th BC, we are in the midst of cultural and political cluelessness, “way-lessness.” We don’t have a way. We just don’t know and most of us don’t know that we don’t know. If I had to make an early point (which loops back to the first post about the Great Muddle), it would be that we need to come closer to the “Socratic Moment,” the moment when we realize that we know that we don’t know.

Which brings me, as I turn to sorting out, to the sense of waiting that many feel, the sense of things being “in the meantime” or of preparing. Over and over, I have heard some say that it feels as if they were waiting for something to happen while from others I have heard that it feels as if they’re preparing themselves for something. Waiting for what? Preparing for what? Again, we don’t know. More importantly, what is it that is giving rise to waiting and preparing talk?

What we do while we wait or prepare is sort or cope. For many, life has become something to be sorted out, coped with, handled, managed, dealt with. Just as one burden is removed, so arrives another. Just as one assignment is finished or task fulfilled, so, like a hydra head, emerge two more. Implicit in this muddling is the idea that there is no end in sight, no time of fulfillment, no eschatology (so to speak). It is just more of the same, endlessly so. On the one hand, life becomes mechanical, routine, a real grind, routinized in its repetitiveness. On the other hand, only a postulate–namely, that there could come a time when things are not like this–makes it possible for people to continue to sort, figure, handle, manage, and cope. Without the postulate of there being such a time, muddling would slide into nihilism, pure and simple.

If we come to Socratic awareness concerning not just our deep theoretical ignorance but also our practical incapacity (a refusal to go on waiting or preparing), what effects would such “awakening” have on us? It’s an early question, the answer which now escapes me, a question that I put to myself as much as to everyone else.


The Great Muddle: Four Demotivating Replies (II)

In these posts, I explore what I’m calling the Great Muddle with the aim of making more sense of what it is and of what it means for us.

Setting the Stage for the Great Muddle

In the last post, I argued that we’re living in Unsettled Time, which can be understood as a moment in history when our current way of life is (or ways of life are) passing out of existence and when no viable, new way of life is yet on the scene. When it is seen for what it is, Unsettled Time thereby gives rise to an enigma. Our enigma then is: how shall we live?

Understanding the Great Muddle

The Great Muddle represents our woefully inadequate response to the enormity of the enigma. I think that woefully inadequate response can be outlined in terms of four claims:

1.) There is the arising of a certain collective historical consciousness: little by little, individual persons are able to see that the enigma is not a first-personal question only (“how shall live?”) but a third-person question (“how shall we live?”)

2.) No reasonable, compelling answer concerning how we shall live has yet come forth.

3.) The common answers come almost as shocks in terms of their underwhelmingness.

4.) There’s a sense of “in the meantime” just muddling through as best (or inaptly, that is) as one can. People are just getting by, scraping by, treading water, keeping their heads above water, etc.

Four Common, Demotivating Replies

I want to look a bit further at the third claim above, especially as it concerns the underwhelming way that these replies demotivate people. With each and all, one is inclined to ask, “Is this the best we’ve got? Are these the only (or best) games in town?”

1.) Secularism. The most compelling and perhaps succinctest way of putting secularism’s answer to the question concerning how we shall all live is to say that we should seek, as best we can, to improve ordinary human lives while making the world a better place. What could be said to be demotivating is the flatness puzzle: is there anything more than, other than, or beyond the perpetual search to improve, say, the housing conditions of individuals living in a particular neighborhood? That secular project may prove, as it has sometimes proven, futile or even its success may sound a deeply unfulfilling existential note. As the author if Ecclesiastes asks, Is there anything above the sun?

2.) Theism. If the question is, “How shall we all live during Unsettled Time?,” the answer could be, “We shall live in such a way that our wills accord with divine will.” What is demotivating is, at least in one respect, the sense in which the institutions in which such answers are given are rarely in step with the actual lives of human beings today. For many in the West living in secularity, the Abrahamic faiths have not learned how to meet people where they are. Part of this speaks to (e.g.) Christianity’s inability to cultivate in its lay practitioners a daily practice that connects them with the rest of their lives. For them, it’s hard to fathom how, as created beings, they can have, and live out, a coherent vision of well-led lives.

3.) Bourgeois Life. Meanwhile, always meanwhile, the bourgeoisie goes on with business as usual, affirming the affections of family life and the supreme, excessive value of work. Strikingly, the bourgeois person remains blind either to the unsettled nature of our time or to the enigma that has been almost “coercively” pressed upon us. Remaining pre-reflective, he doesn’t grasp the way in which the enigma is also addressed to him. He goes on with working long hours, believing that “You’ve just got to work” or “You should love working” while fetishizing family life as the only place where our affections and higher pleasures dwell.

4.) Spirituality. Spirituality (in the stipulative sense I will use the term here) involves rejecting secularism for its flatness, theism due to its failure to speak to their hearts, and the bourgeois life on account of its blindness. Yet soon the well runneth dry. Regarding the question of how we shall live, spirituality says, “Don’t live conventionally, as the bourgeoisie do, while connecting to some higher, all-pervasive source of energy, life, and vitality.” While the intuition that secularism, theism, and the bourgeois life may be inadequate is correct, the answer is about as muddy as could be.

As we recognize the inadequacy of these four replies, we feel that, as we go along with our daily lives, how much we are in a muddle, a great one, and how “lethargy” (accumulative demotivation) settles in. Fighting that sense of lethargy, resisting it, refusing to give in to its comforting futility, we must again ask without knowing the answer: “How can the enigma of Unsettled Time be vitally, energetically answered?”