Pascal, Beauty, And Covid-19

Pascal once wrote, “All of man’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I’ve appreciated this quote for a while, but now I absolutely love it.

Or rather what I love is how wonderful it is to sit quietly in a room. Alone. Many times daily. Sometimes throughout the entire day. It’s beautiful.

Many have remarked upon how much uncertainty Covid has created and upon how much suffering people are experiencing. To be sure. Some, in my circles, continue to “geek out” about the meta-crisis we’re in. Also to b sure. What goes unmentioned, however, is the possibility of finding immense inner peace during this time and really during any time. And in no time at all because in no time at all.

I love sitting alone in a room. I do so for 3 or 3 1/2 or 7 hours a day or longer. While I philosophize, I sit alone in a crosslegged position and while I meditate I do the same. Over the years, in fact, my Rinzai Zen practice has become more and more concentrated, yet only recently have I gotten the pith and point of Rinzai. It’s starting to make intuitive sense, the koan beginning to grab a hold of me.

And there is an immense stillness, a groundedness I feel these days; I feel that way as I write to you now. It’s nice just to sit and contemplate the nature of reality and the self. It’s especially nice not to feel any pressure to fulfill social obligations or to have to go anywhere. What’s nicest is to dwell in and on the ultimate.

I told a conversation partner and friend this morning something, owing to practice and to the Buddha, that I finally got. I told him: “I realized that I’m never going to find ultimate answers to ultimate questions via email.” Email is fine as is social media, but in some more basic sense I don’t care; I do what’s needed and that’s it. Both, being temporal concerns, can never get the inquiry into ultimate concerns underway. Which is what really matters.

It’s hard to convey here what I’ve taken to calling “salience urgency.” While I feel great peace, I also find the great matter of life and death–more Zen language–more salient than ever. Great, or full, enlightenment has become at once salient and urgent. Worldly affairs, by contrast, are now very “low resolution” (as technologist conversation partners would say).

The strange–you might say paradoxical–thing is that the intenser this salience urgency in connection with ultimate things becomes, the more expansive and peaceful it becomes. It is, therefore, not like an obsession or like a fixed idea. It’s like just starting to be engulfed by, enveloped in, or encompassed by what there really is.

Simple beauty, like aspen leaves shimmering in the breeze, shines forth. What Pascal could also have said is that all of man’s simple, beautiful joys stem from man’s acquired ability to sit quietly in a room alone or with others but especially, initially, alone.

Confronting This Impossible Situation With Blood On Your Hands

Sometimes you’re faced with an impossible situation and you don’t know what to think and there’s really no right thing to do.

Wait, let’s back up.

Because well before there’s the metacognitive awareness, “I see that this is an impossible situation,” you have to do your best to remember what it was like before. Back in the nebulosity. Already “how it was before” has begun to fade in light of the clear understanding that “here is an impossible situation.”

How, roughly, was it then before? From what you can remember, it was like a fog. This something was at the edge of your consciousness, sometimes coming into it and at other times going out of it. Occasionally, you wrangled with it or came–too quickly–to years’ long detente. Maybe the hope was that it would “just simply go away,” but you doubt that you ever voiced that thought or even had that feeling.

Evidently, you now see, for quite a while you had no idea how to really be with this, yet you also didn’t know that each way of relating to it was inadequate, incomplete, ill-conceived, or somehow else.

We are trying, right now, to remember how it was now that the fog has lifted. You don’t know in what ways you were blind or why exactly you were blind, but needless to say you were. Nor were you able to register how much what you now call “the impossible situation” irked, niggled, nibbled away at the edge of your consciousness. It hurt.

Now the ache, coming with the understanding, is here and clear: you’re in an impossible situation. If you consider it deeply and if you feel your way into the felt sense too, then soon you also come to see: “It’s just wanting too much from me: I can’t bear it any longer, but I’ll never be free of it.”

The more you think of what to do, the more you recognize that there is nothing you can do that won’t leave blood on your hands. No peace to be found and no way to disentangle the whole thing without its blowing up.

This realization too is unsettling and, for a time, may make you feel powerless, as if your hands are really tied. But then as the pressure from this unbearable something mounts (realization has a tendency to fast track what had been sorta fine, sorta not for sorta a while), you come to know that you must act. You can’t not.

The situation is impossible. It is unbearable. You’ll never be free of it. And you have to do something about it.

You now see that you’re left only with the least wrong option as the thing that you must do. And you know that when you act to effectuate the least wrong option, the impossible situation, as it dissolves, will be temporarily worse because visibly and feelingly explosive. The detente has ended, the long winter somehow experiencing, right now, the damned hottest days of summer.

So? So, forget about drumming up consolation for yourself (self-mollification will do you no good), and simply do your very best to accept that you’re confronting the tragic dimension of human life. Accept that blood is on your hands, no matter what. Embrace the least wrong option. And see that sometimes life falls into tragedy, and we, unknowingly until too late, are its pained protagonists. This happened to be that time for you.


I wish I could tell you that there is something you can “learn from all this,” but I’m afraid that even the wisest among us are subject, now and again, to blindnesses that sneak up on us until, much, much later, they’re bold enough to announce their presence as this impossible situation. And this announcement, remember, always comes long after you’ve been playing the part in a play that began some unspeakably long time ago…

Going Downstream From Materialism

In philosophy of mind, materialism (also known as physicalism) is the view that certain neural processes are consciousness or generate consciousness. The basic idea is that everything (i.e., everything that exists) is physical or material, so consciousness must also be physical. Rather than advancing a critique of this view, I’d like, in this post, to look at the downstream consequences in mainstream culture. They are not good.

Limited Consciousness

We’ve come to believe, erroneously yet persistently, that when the brain is dead the light of consciousness is snuffed out. And we’ve come, further, to presume that brain death spells the end of our identities.


If, as I’ve defined it before, meaning just is being in touch with some greater reality, then meaning is impossible for whatever creature is necessarily circumscribed by the limits of its own consciousness. The brain may, it’s alleged, be afforded “peak experiences” or “altered states,” but these are just that: temporarily altered states and not the delocalization and expansion of being into what there ultimately is.

It’s not for nothing that, owing partly to materialism, nihilism abounds.

Fear of Death

Materialism suggests that the death of the physical body entails the end of consciousness. And there is nothing more or else than this.

Given the ways in which materialism has flowed downstream, it’s not surprising that many people are deathly afraid of dying and of death. Moreover, many try, hubristically and impossibly, to “leave a dent in the universe” (Steve Jobs), so that they may feel as if their lives were not lived in vain. Existential anxiety is inevitable for any self-reflective person who has succumbed to the materialist worldview.

An Indifferent Universe

Neither classical physics nor quantum mechanics, unlike alchemy, makes any claims about an animated cosmos (anima mundi) wherein we might find ourselves. Instead, our lived experience is that the universe is indifferent, aloof, and mechanistically-mathematically understood. We feel it is, feel it as nothing to us, and this, I assure you, is a radical departure from understandings of the cosmos that predate modernity.


If I am just a limited consciousness, then I’m already primed to care about my life rather than a life shared in common. Whereas other religious traditions find ways of describing how one person may be “cut from the same cloth” as all other persons (for instance, Christianity invites us to see ourselves as “children of God” while Buddhism argues that there is nothing but Buddha nature all the way down), materialism can do no more than gesture toward homo sapiens‘s capacity to cooperate. Yet Covid-19 has exposed just how tenuous such an evolutionary argument is, at least in the United States. While materialism does not entail social atomism, it certainly prepares the way for its reception.


In the final analysis, materialism offers us no grounds for seeking because there is nothing to seek and nowhere to seek it. While the Axial Age helped to disclose the possibility of individual salvation through transcendence, our materialist paradigm can countenance no such possibility. Under materialism, there is no depth, no height, and no width; there is no way to seek, nothing worth seeking, and no reason to start seeking.

The only pallid options are forms of amelioration: habit changing, life hacking, wellness enhancement, and self-development.

We are in deep trouble and have been for quite a while.

Covid And Educational Bankruptcy

I’m sure you’ve seen headlines like this from Business Insider: “One of the big three rating agencies sees college enrollment down as much as 20% for colleges this fall.” Behind the headlines can be discerned conflicts and uncertainties as well as opportunities.

Will some students elect to take a gap year? Will college adjuncts, the wage slave backbones of many colleges and universities, return to classroom teaching this fall? Will aged, fully tenured Boomers refuse to step into classrooms? Will colleges without large endowments, those dependent on tuition dollars, be forced to file for bankruptcy? Will Covid, in brief, thin out the number of American universities?

I can’t imagine that a number of eager entrepreneurs haven’t already begun dreaming and scheming up alternatives to higher education. Consider some very obvious truths: much of higher education leans on a bloated loan industry; few students really learn that much at college; the party experience, for those unfortunately committed to hedonism (which is to say, most college students), can be decoupled from the college campus; most courses could be offered in different forms (MOOCs being one already existing example); the class of administrators has grown appreciably since the 1980s and is largely unnecessary; and so on. In short, just as Napster unbundled music, so Covid could help to unbundle education.

Covid, after all, is simply what exposes, to students and families, the raw deal we call “the college experience.” Surely, entrepreneurs see an opportunity to rethink education.

Could there be more, say, one-off online AI courses that provide successful students with certificates that they can show to tech startups that are hiring? Could there be more homesteader programs that teach students how to live off the land? How about deep-dive apprenticeships in certain scientific investigations? What about the “folk high school” tradition that has been so popular in Scandinavia? Or could we see former academics turn to Teachable where students can learn about philosophy or religion in a more intimate, more engaging manner? Will there be small-scale guilds and academies?

I don’t know why people continue to hope that life will get back to normal. Normal sucked. I mean really sucked a lot and for a lot of people, and institutional education in particular has largely been miseducation. Oh, and life after formal education–namely, gainful employment–not only sucks but also fails to promise what it used to more readily deliver: success, money, and status.

Since our current institutions are unraveling all around us, we should take this time to think seriously about how terrible they were and about how much better we can do.