If we know anything it is that, increasingly in both the West and the East, we are living in a world without limits. Everything is multiplying:
Food is “mass produced.” In regard to gender, some time ago Facebook began offering users 58 gender options, but has since increased it to over 70. In popular “culture,” we’ve gone from game shows offering tens of thousands of dollars in prizes, to lotteries and even Pepsi offering billions of dollars. Elections, too, are now a billion dollar industry.
With a total lack of understanding of what it is to be human, scientists tell us that soon, “Our human genomes will be modified” so that people will be able to achieve immortality. If you don’t want to live forever in a physical, human body, however, you will be able to upload your consciousness instead, achieving “digital immortality.”
Like a teenage carjacker, we seem to be moving at breakneck speed, hooked on the rush of highways leading nowhere, but always away from nature. Yet, a small if growing number of people are beginning to recognize that there has to be a way of resisting the mesmerizing excesses of modernity.
How, then, can we live in such a world?
Many years ago, I studied painting at one of the better colleges in London. Although my ability (especially in drawing) far outstripped the vast majority of my fellow students, I began to feel disillusioned with fine art. The problem was the opposite that artists had faced a century or so earlier, when there were strict rules (and when even Impressionism shocked the art world). Although radical when Duchamp exhibited a urinal (“Fountain”) in 1917, by the 1990s, at the latest, art had become — in the words of artist Tracy Emin — whatever “I say it is.”
Although I occasionally create art for myself, as you might suspect, I prefer writing. Anything can be high art (a urinal, an unmade bed — both boring, all of it, though totally mundane, described as “controversial”), but not everything can be good writing, or writing that actually says something, or that challenges convention, or helps to improve our lives or thinking. It’s not an article or a book because “I say it is.” It doesn’t have meaning because I say it does.
When there are no limits, when something can be anything we say it is — ironically perhaps — we make it absolutely nothing — at least nothing of value.
“The difference between stupidity and genius,” said Einstein, “is that genius has its limits.” If we want to discover our own “genius” or daemon, in a world without limits, then, we must begin to think the unthinkable and begin to impose them on ourselves, on our own behavior, diet, etc.
Let’s take food. We can eat anything. We can eat junk all day long. But we want to be healthy. And as we know, that means restricting our diet to foods that are healthy, e.g., vegetables, fruit, pulses, perhaps eggs and some fish, and perhaps some meat, if you are not a vegetarian. (This doesn’t mean that we can never eat our favorite and perhaps somewhat unhealthy food again. It means that, if it is unhealthy, it just can’t be part of our basic diet; we cannot eat it regularly.)
No less, important, it also means cooking or preparing our own food as much as possible (which, happily, is also more cost effective). If you can eat a communal meal with your family, comrades, or friends and peers, even better.
In regard to art or creativity, we can try to learn our craft as thoroughly as possible, and be thoughtful about style, details, and what we want to express through it. Instead of throwing something together and claiming it represents how we “feel,” we can use our skills — whether in music, painting, graphic design, architecture, clothing, and so on — to create work that needs no explanation.
Indeed, to create movements that will challenge today’s dreary conventions, it is essential that we form creative groups and movements, and that we express our aspirations and visions of the future through the arts, as well as through the intellect, etc.
We can also avoid many of the intellectual and emotional traps of modernity by limiting our judgments to our behavior. People may do all kinds of things that offend us. They may even insult or denounce us for our views, or what they think our views are, since these may appear to threaten to demolish their carefully constructed illusions about the world.
But, we don’t know what they have gone through in their life, or if we ourselves would act any differently or any better if we had lived it. Instead of becoming enraged by the actions of others, we can focus on our own, concerning ourselves with whether we are behaving rightly, or uprightly, and whether our actions are dragging others down or lifting us up.
Limits may seem undesirable. We don’t want to live a life that is limited, or have a mind, or skills that are limited. And, of course, we are not talking of limits in that sense, but, instead, of focusing ourselves.
We can acknowledge that different genres of music or art may appeal to us, but we need to ask which one most closely represents who I am, what I aspire to be, what I want to express, and what I want the future to be like.
Likewise, we can acknowledge that different spiritual or martial arts traditions may have appealing and very positive aspects, but, in most cases, it will be better to persist with one, or a limited number of martial arts, rather than trying out lots for short periods of time.
We should, of course, have a broad knowledge. But, persistence is key. By focusing on and sticking with certain practices — mental, physical, and spiritual — and certain paths (such as a particular art or martial art), we can create a type of positive tension that will propel us beyond our limits to new depths of experience and understanding.