Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Differences in Similarities, and Similarities in Differences

I was thinking of a very important question last night before sleep: will I keep repeating my mistakes, and tire myself to death without being effective, or will I rise from the repetition (輪迴) and start having a life that's incrementally accumulating (that is, I will learn to do new things, in new ways, even if still making mistakes, they will be new ones).

I came to think about these questions after spending a lot of frustrating time, doing repetitive and extra work, in order to get over another milestone of my life.

At the end of the thinking, it came to me that I wanted to become a Realized One (覺者), and for whom I can now understand why this may be important and a worthwhile goal to pursue (in the Buddhism tradition :). Because, regardless of whether reincarnation exists and whether we have a soul that's passable to the next life. Reincarnations and repetitions occur in many different forms in our daily life: we keep eating, sleeping, working, and may repeat certain cycles of working / spending / working / spending. People might even spend an entire life, without having any ideas why they're doing certain things, or how they have gone through life. I do not want to pass moral judgments on whether such ignorance is good or bad, because it's simply a personal choice to make. But if you can see past the repetition, you may find it more meaningful, and perhaps enlightened, if one could live on a path of growth and new experiences, instead of repetitive living, perhaps becoming more fulfilled, happy, and satisfied in the process.

What I realized waking up this morning was: for many people, four things are what they care about the most: How to live? (so to have enough food, shelter, etc. to survive) How to reproduce? (so to find a mate and form a family suitable to bear children) How to find happiness? (so to entertain one's self and keep one from boredom) and How to face Death? (so to have peace of mind and ease, when getting sick and old, and have a Nice End). (In Chinese, they would be: 如何生? 如何繁衍? 如何快樂? 如何死亡?) For some, they might even ask the question: Where did I come from? And where should I go? (and we call these people the philosophers :) Most people are only concerned with the first four questions in daily life.

In answering these four, what I've found is that we have intentionally created a lot of repetitions in order to answer the four questions (for example, mass productions, broadcasting media, and restaurant franchise, which all allow lots of similar products / services be copied and made quickly, so to satisfy people's needs in a scalable way). Yet, once everything becomes common, people become bored and uneasy, and yarn for new and different experiences, or value things that are rare and never-before-seen. I thus came to suspect, that there's something inherently human, or perhaps even living, that tries to Seek Differences in Similarities, and Seek Similarities from Differences (同中求異, 異中求). To find differences, because that will ensure new skills to carry us through different environments; to find similarities, because the essence of life is to make more copies, and sustain the existence of those copies. Abstracting similarities from differences allow us to copy more easily (this is the essence of mass production and franchises :).

It's actually an old Chinese saying, but what it essentially say in this context, is that the essence of life, may be to continue one's existence. This is how the copying and repetition comes. Single cell organisms basically reproduce by self-replications. However, life later evolved (at least on this Earth) to allow slight differences to occur in the offspring (via mutations and sexual reproductions). This has the advantages that as the environments are constantly changing, you are better off if your tools for living do not stay the same. Thus, if the environment suddenly favors or requires a different set of skills or abilities, some offspring of yours may still survive. So while copying is essentially what life tries to do (our DNA is 99.9%+ similar with our parents or other human beings), variations becomes an important tool too for life to evolve and thrive. I'm thus suspecting that this is why both aspects are important and dominant for human life even at the higher level: for many, most of the time we seek security, certainty, predictability, conformity, and we take comfort and ease from knowing them. This is all important and even programmed, and why repetitions, franchises, mass media or productions, are thriving so well in today's society. We simply make this simple and fundamental Life's Requirement, more profound and omnipresent at the higher level of our living. However, at the same time, endless repetitions may also be dangerous in the long run, because if we only always do things in a certain, similar way and never learn new abilities, when environments change or become hostile to the previous lifestyle, one may not survive or live well. And that's the value of new experiences or explorations.

We need both of course, too volatile and uncertain, life may become dangerous and end early. But if too uniform and repetitive, one may also lose the ability to adapt or adjust, when things change. So what is the right path? This is something that cannot be answered universally, but a decision each person can only make individually. Because each strategy to life has its merits and pitfalls, and only time and environment will tell which ones are 'currently' more successful than others, and of course, that changes too. As for me, I believe I would enjoy from less repetitions, and more new experiences. Even if I do make mistakes, I hope the mistakes are new and bigger ones, than those I've already had :)