If there is a number one question for zen meditation practitioners, it’s probably:
How do I integrate my meditation practice in my daily life?
I’ve witnessed many Q and A sessions with a zen master and somebody always asks this question. I’ll look around me and see other people nodding in agreement. I know in advance they’ll never get a satisfying answer. A zen master cannot give them an answer that would make them happy: it’s not what she’s there for!I want to explore the fact that I never really understood this question. What exactly is the (daily) life that is separate from what you’re doing here at the zen centre? Are you trying to tell me that you’re a different person at home, or at work? What is this confusion between what we do or say and who we really are?
If I may quote Karen Armstrong in present company, I would like to tell you about a memory she describes in “The spiral staircase”. Here, Armstrong is reading English Literature at Oxford after being a nun for seven years and finds she’s late for dinner. Upon entering the dining hall, to the astonishment of about 400 other students, she:
“kneels down and kisses the floor”
It’s what she’s been trained to do. Perfectly normal behaviour for a Sister of the Holy Child Jesus who wants to apologise for being late. So she does it automatically. Later she describes how she and her fellow students at St Anne’s expected her to be a different person from the moment she closed the door of the convent behind her. She soon finds out that she can’t be.Apparently, the sum total of our opinions and behaviour is not the same as our identity. In Armstong’s case, you could say that her character was both responsible for her becoming a nun and for trying to cease being one later. Our character, (I have not found a satisfactory psychological definition of character yet. Please observe that there is also an ongoing philosophical debate on what character is and whether it exists at all.) seems more persistent than our behaviour.
However, if we move on from our character to our identity we have only our brains and our bodies to focus on. Derek Parfit has written about identity in “Reasons and Persons” and for starters he describes the Reductionist view of identity as:
“A person’s existence just consists in the existence of a brain and body, and the occurrence of a series of interrelated physical events.”
Many philosophers would argue there is an entity that is distinct from a brain and body that makes a person. A soul, maybe. I don’t want to look at that question here.
To explore identity, Parfit imagines a perfect replica of his brain and body and sends it to Mars. The original Parfit is destroyed. Meanwhile, on Mars:
“My Replica thinks he is me, and he seems to remember living my life (…)”
Apparently, having access to my memories is crucial for my experience of identity. I remember meeting a Korsakoff-patient who could not retain any memory for more than five minutes. I would say he still had an identity, but he definitely could not have anything that we would consider to be a normal life. Memories are very important.
In another example, Parfit replaces bits of his brain by Napoleon’s and when all of his brain has been replaced, he states:
“This would cause there to be no psychological connections between me and the resulting person. This person would be wholly like Napoleon.”
This leads to the problem that if you do replace the brain bit-by-bit, it would be hard to discern at what precise moment Derek becomes Napoleon. But on a deeper level, it also means that my identity consists of my not being Napoleon, or Derek. And that doesn’t say very much about who I am at all.
If you’re not dizzy yet, I would like to mention the next problem: what happens to our identity over time? All that needs to be done to suddenly make this a compelling problem is to ask Irving Copi’s logical questions:
1. If a changing thing really changes, there can’t literally be one and the same thing before and after the change.
2. However, if there isn’t literally one and the same thing before and after the change, then no thing has ever undergone any change.
Are you still there? If so, who are you?