Simplicity and Complexity

This post has to do with the essay in the last one. It’s not necessary to have read it, but that’s the context.

There can be a tension between simplicity and complexity in our living and thinking. On the one hand a lot of people will give you the message “not to make things too complex,” because they assume it’s not necessary, or that it’ll be overly confusing. There’s wisdom in this.

On the other hand, anyone who has studied a field that tries to model reality (e.g. philosophy, physics, economics) can tell you that life is complex. It’s unbelievably, mind-bogglingly complex. It’s so complex that language can seem extremely inadequate to describe the simultaneity of all events and “multi-dimensionality” of phenomena.

Yet that complexity only appears when we take the point of view of the analytical, logical, rational, intellectual mind. And, if there’s any way of finding a harmony between simplicity and complexity, it’s knowing this: simplicity and complexity appear from different points of view.

Knowing that, we can see why it may be wise to “not make things too complex,” even though, from one point of view, they actually are. The reason is that, first, we see the complexity from the point of view of the intellectual mind, and second, we take basically the same point of view in trying to apply that knowledge to our lives–to make our body, mind and emotions conform to an ideal.

What’s the problem with this? Well, it wouldn’t be a problem if the mind were actually in control of the rest of our being (body, heart, emotions, consciousness, etc). Perhaps it wouldn’t be a problem if the mind were the only center of intelligence or even the only energetic center within us.

If the mind were actually in total control of our being then everything going on internally could be directed just the way we want. Imagine if stopping a behavior you don’t like was as easy as telling yourself once ‘not to do it anymore.’ Of course, this isn’t how it goes. We’re saying “no” in our minds, and struggling with our will, and still can’t stop certain things from happening. The problem may well be that we are beginning from a limited point of view.

What’s more, while the mind creates a model of our being that puts itself in charge, and gives disproportionate attention to itself, the funny thing is just that: the mind created a model where it is the most important. Is it possible that, in reality, there are many energetic or intelligent “centers” within us? I won’t argue for this here, but some would say “absolutely, yes.”

It’s easy to understand why we wind up frustrated, trying to make life into what we want it to be, not seeing that we are, as Ross Hudson phrased well, “identifying with a very limited part of ourselves.”

People can have a kind of success that way. According to Pierre Hadot, many ancient Western philosophers were going about life like this. They would formulate and memorize “life rules” that could guide their life conduct in every situation. This is beginning from the mind’s point of view–and it seems to have worked out all right for some of them. Hey, Epicurus was pretty happy. (There are a lot of variables here, though, and we are isolating just one.)

Many people are “living from the mind” and getting along all right. A lot of them aren’t truly happy, though. That’s why it’s good to know that there are other points of view available.

To take just one example, Zen offers a different way to be. It’s about being really simple. There’s a Zen saying, “When walking, walk; when eating, eat.” Zen practitioners just focus on what they’re doing, what they’re aware of–whatever is arising. In Zen, there’s a different point of view at play: the point of view of simple, direct awareness.

The point of view of direct awareness isn’t exclusive to Zen or any one tradition–not at all. It’s available to everyone (right now!) beyond concepts and mental filters.

What’s more, it’s not like Zen isn’t familiar with complexity. Buddhist texts can be very abstruse in their descriptions of reality and in their parables and koans. At the same time there’s this return, this circling back to utter simplicity. The bell chime.

Zen teachings point back to a simplicity of being. In the same way, we could ask of all complex theories, systems, and philosophies: do they allow us to live simply? (Otherwise, the mind tries, again, to be the manager and controller of the entirety of our life and being, which exceed far beyond its limits.) In one of his essays, Emerson said that an accurate philosophy returns us to simplicity:

The Bacon, the Spinoza, the Hume, Schelling, Kant, or whosoever propounds to you a philosophy of the mind, is only a more or less awkward translator of things in your consciousness, which you have also your way of seeing, perhaps of denominating. Say, then, instead of too timidly poring into his obscure sense, that he has not succeeded in rendering back to you your consciousness. He has not succeeded; now let another try. If Plato cannot, perhaps Spinoza will. If Spinoza cannot, then perhaps Kant. Anyhow, when at last it is done, you will find it is no recondite, but a simple, natural, common state, which the writer restores to you.

Alan Watts, too, suggested that leaving all our aspects of being to their natural functioning–i.e., not trying to interfere and control them with the mind, but just being present and aware–enabled relaxation and well-being to flow forth easily.

With two points of view, we can have our complex descriptions on the one hand, and apply them when useful. On the other hand, we can be simple and go with the flow of life, since we possess a point of view outside the intellectual mind. Not caught up in the mind, we don’t make the mistake of trying to over-manage and control things.

Life just as it is doesn’t need to be controlled. A deeper part of us knows that. It’s already sweet and beautiful. We’re reminded by something as simple as a bell chime.


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