Part 2: Just a ride
by Geoff Olson
• Some years back, I hopped on a bus on the Vancouver west side and took a peculiar ride. “There may be some turbulence during the flight,” the driver announced as he pulled into traffic. “You’ll find an oxygen mask above you and a flotation device under your seat.” The half-dozen passengers on board went from exchanged looks of confusion to shared laughter. The driver went on for several minutes about emergency exits and in-flight meal options. He then repeated the whole routine in French to his small audience.
“This is the real secret of life, to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now,” said Zen philosopher Alan Watts back in the sixties. “And instead of calling it work, realize that it is play.”
That approach may not seem an option for most wageslaves. It’s probably not easy or advisable to experiment with work-as-play on an Alaskan crab trawler or in an air traffic control tower. But if you’re pruning hedges, giving a Powerpoint presentation, or BSing around a water cooler, Watts’ advice seems worthwhile.
The 8,000-10,000-year-old Vedic tradition interprets all of creation as Vishnu Lila, the “Play of Vishnu.” The Sanskrit word Lila translates as dance or play. The same tradition refers to the phenomenal world as illusion. In Latin, the root of the word illusion is ludere, to play.
Ceylonese philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy connected the word lila to the root lelay, “to flame,” “to sparkle,” “to shine.” Lelay carries connotations of Fire, Light and Spirit. Cosmic creation was conceived not just as a divine game, but as a play of flames, the dancing of a well-tended fire.
The only reason the notion of cosmic creation got tied to words for dancing flames is because Sanskrit speakers already considered fire as the elementary manifestation of divinity, given its radiance and playful movement. “Flame and light, then, symbolize in India the cosmic creation and the very essence of the Cosmos, on account of the fact that the Universe is conceived as a free manifestation of the divine or, in the last analysis, its “play,”” noted anthropologist Mircea Eliade in his 1961 book, The Two and the One.
The Indian concept of Maya, or the veil of illusion, takes on a subtler meaning in this context. The play of cosmic creation is a divine game, but if so, to tear the veil of Maya and reveal the cosmic illusion amounts to understanding its core nature as “play” – the “free, spontaneous activity of the divine” in Eliade’s words. That suggests understanding this alone is a big step towards liberation, the anthropologist observed.
This might seem an idle, scholarly game of connect-the-dots with archaic terms, but the 10,000-year-old Sanskrit language may be weirdly closer to the Jetsons than the Flintstones. In his 2014 book, Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software, author Vikram Chandra notes the existence of a 2,500-year-old text that gives the rules for generating Sanskrit words. He calls it “the first known instance of the application of algorithmic thinking to a domain outside of logic and mathematics.” This document influenced 19th century linguists, and ”modern linguistic theory, in its turn, became the seedbed for high-level computer languages.” Chandra adds, “Programmers who know Sanskrit sometimes claim that it would make the perfect programming language.”
This isn’t saying the core structure of reality is written in Sanskrit or anything equally ridiculous. Rather, the deep structure of Indo-European languages offers us a semantic web of surprising associations. If we are open to the multigenerational wisdom contained therein – and language is nothing less than the archived, consensual thinking of a great many people over time – we may even have a bit of fun by playing with it.
The words ludere, lunettes, illusion, lucidicity, luminescence, and illumination are cross-referenced semantically in Latin, French and English. When British author G.K. Chesterton said, “Angels fly because they take themselves lightly,” he put another accent on the many meanings of light – as in the antonym for heavy, burdensome and serious.
To conceive of the phenomenal world as some form of misleading illusion (Maya) is not mutually exclusively with conceiving it as a fantastically complicated game of play (Lila) conducted in four or more dimensions. And considering the alternative – no one gets out of this game alive – we might as well play the damn thing in high spirits when we can, given the many occasions when it seems the very opposite of fun and games.
Western religious tradition put a different inflection on the idea of cosmic play and illusion. In the biblical Book of Job, the title character is a pious man who lives accordingly to the Word. Satan tells God that, sure, the guy is faithful now, but get rid of his earthly belongings and his children and Job will abandon Jehovah like a week-old falafel (I am paraphrasing here). The two make a pact and Satan gives Job boils, kills all of his family except his wife, polishes off his servants and reduces his homes to rubble.
In this game of super-beings, Job might as well be a character in a first-person shooter game and his two tormentors a pair of 12-year-old boys. He is both prize and pawn in a program he can’t comprehend, but he remains faithful to the end.
Two thousand years later, filmmaker Harold Ramis offered a comic angle on cosmic testing in his 1993 film, Groundhog Day. Bill Murray plays the cynical Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors, who finds himself reliving the same day over and over in the town of Punxsutawney. Reality fails to reboot properly in the mornings and Murray’s character is the only one who notices. As the days turn into weeks and the weeks into months, he follows the secular stations of the cross: denial, anger, grief, etc. Only when the brokenhearted antihero ceases to try and force things and accepts the tragicomic nature of existence – essentially, “play along” – does he discover love and a mended reality.
The idea of the cosmos-as-game has gained greater currency over the past few years among academics. Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom theorizes we are more likely to be living in a giant simulation than not. According to this line of thought, when we make a discovery in mathematics or physics, we are looking into the command line architecture of the universe.
If that concept sounds reminiscent of The Matrix, The Truman Show or any other novel by Philip K. Dick, perhaps that’s why these fantasy worlds strike such a chord in fans. There is something within us that resonates with the idea of consensus reality being something of a confidence trick – on the social level, at the least.
Alan Watts once asked an interesting question, riffing on the Vedic idea of the sleeping god Brahma, who dreamed the world into existence. What would you do if you were a universal consciousness, with nothing you couldn’t do and nothing coming as a surprise? Well, you might go to sleep and have a dream where you don’t know who you are for a stretch and fall into all sorts of adventures. You would go to sleep for longer and longer stretches and get really lost.
You would construct for yourself a play (and note the alternative meaning of play in this context) in which you were not just the observer, but the observed; not just the stage, but all the actors on it, from centipedes to CEOs. You would be Universal Consciousness in disguise from yourself, in endless forms, looking through trillions of sensory apertures into a world of your own evolutionary emergence.
You might even make the performance as exciting, terrifying, joyous, heartbreaking, pleasurable, and painful as possible to heighten believability – although this does not seem to offer a particularly satisfactory ‘explanation’ for suffering. (In his short book of philosophical speculation, God’s Debris, Dilbert creator Scott Adams toys with the idea of the Big Bang as an act of suicide by an omniscient computational intelligence, for the satisfaction of reassembling itself by natural selection over billions of years.)
These aren’t the kind of ideas that are normally kicked around in the university faculty lounge. In any case, scientists agree we’re on a small, rocky planet hurtling at 108,000 km/hr around an average star in a solar system gravitationally bound to the spiral arm of the Milky Way – a ferris wheel of billions of stars that itself is just one among billions of galaxies in an expanding universe. If programmers could simulate such a thing, they certainly would. Bostrom argues someone or something has been there and done that – and we’re soaking in it.
A life lived on a twirling, whirling planet near the edge of a spinning galaxy makes for a hell of a ride. The late comic Bill Hicks offered a fairgrounds metaphor for existence in his 1991 Revelations tour:
“The world is like a ride at an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it, you think it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds are. And the ride goes up and down and round and round; it has thrills and chills and it’s very brightly coloured and it’s very loud and it’s fun…for a while. Some people have been on the ride for a long time, and they begin to question: ‘Is this real, or is this just a ride?’ And other people have remembered, and they come back to us, and they say, ‘Hey – don’t worry, don’t be afraid – EVER – because, this is just a ride.’”
If we’re lucky, it’s sometimes like a ride on a bus with a wisecracking bus driver. But from crib to coffin, it’s mostly a trip into the Unknown.
photo © Danielc1998