Zen and the Art of Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
“We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is fully known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.” –Joseph Campbell
If, as Isaac Newton wrote, “I have seen further than others by standing on the shoulders of giants” then, if we want to be the kind of person who sees further than others, it behooves us to discover giants whose shoulders we can stand upon. The more shoulders of giants we stand upon, the further we will see. The more we learn from all sacred texts, not just one, the more spiritually plastic we will become. The more masks of ancient heroes we don, the more sacred things will appear. The world becomes a giant playground of interdependent knowledge, and it’s all ours for the seizing. It’s all ours to play with. The world is a playground, but it’s up to us individually if we’re on recess or not.
With a mind full of questions and a teacher in my soul, I submit to you, you who are proactive and willing to take up the arduously Hurculean task of being the change you wish to see in the world, that there is a deep reservoir of human intelligence that precedes us literally burning in the brambles of The Age of Information. Such knowledge is a gauntlet thrown to the ground by intellectual giants past, challenging you to pick it up, daring you to use it in order to add your own unique melody to the collective harmony of the human leitmotif. I double-dog dare you to pick up that gauntlet, to don it and then rock out on the guitar of your own unique contribution to human creativity.
Understand: I do not stand on the shoulders of giants in order to revere them. I stand on their shoulders in order to question them and to see further than they did. My intent is to collect what they have collected, along with what others have collected; indeed, to gather their gauntlets and dare to melt them down into something with more universality, more ubiquity, and more elegance (Self-inflicted Philosophy). To use it all as a foundation –albeit it a constantly shifting, ever-changing foundation– upon which to build something, to create something, to paint something, to produce something, and/or to write something new, but with the humble understanding that there is no certainty. That certainty is in fact the destroyer of creative and intellectual pursuits.
“Humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it; they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have attained it. But the history of science- by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans- teaches that the most we can hope for is successive improvement in our understanding, learning from our mistakes, an asymptotic approach to the universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude us.” –Carl Sagan
I beseech you, creative intellectuals the world over, look at the pursuit of knowledge like a Buddhist monk looks at the pursuit of enlightenment: the journey is the thing, the pursuit is the thing. There is no such thing as enlightenment. There is no such thing as Absolute Truth. There is no such thing as Perfection. As the Zen Koan states, “If you should meet Buddha on the path, kill him.” Meaning: “kill” that part of yourself that mistakenly believes it has achieved enlightenment. Put even more succinctly: kill belief itself. Everything is questionable. Certainty is an illusion. Like Alan Watts said, “For what one needs in this universe is not certainty but the courage and nerve of the gambler; not fixed conviction but adaptability; not firm ground whereupon to stand but skill in swimming.”
So kick out from beneath yourself any and all pedestals, high-horses, or thrones that are preventing you from furthering your pursuit. Diagnose your own Master Complex, that part of you that convinces you that your pursuit of knowledge is complete and you can now rest upon your laurels. Screw your laurels! Rise up from your too-fat ego. Become a force of intellectual creation once again. The world needs you. Most important of all: learn how to unlearn. It is your responsibility to synchronize with your inner entropies so that you can achieve a place, an inner Locus of Control, where your surefooted super-serendipitous spontaneity is free to erupt into the world. Synthesize your knowledge. Transform it into muscle memory, and then shock us all with your chiseled intellectual form.
On the other side of the coin is the Layman Complex (or inner-cynic), that part of you that convinces you that your pursuit of knowledge is in vain and you might as well not begin. Screw the inner-cynic! Rise up from your whiney, woe-is-me ego. Become a force of intellectual creation. The world needs you. Kick out from beneath yourself any and all culturally conditioned platforms, propagandized podiums, and parochial sounding boards that are preventing you from beginning your pursuit of knowledge. Like Eliezer Yudkowsky said, “You are personally responsible for becoming more ethical than the society you grew up in.” Resolve these issues, these pitiful codependent demons, and the ability to stand on the shoulders of giants will not elude you. The giants are out there just waiting for you to use their shoulders as a platform for higher learning.
Take the following giants that Alexander Velazquez so succinctly defined, for example: “Buddha mapped enlightenment as the nautical ley lines to inner peace. Jesus walked on waves of self-sacrifice and plotted love as a way to helm the soul to salvation. Nietzsche rode against currents of religious piety—and in the face of that behemoth, sailed the breakers of nihilism to eternal joy. King sailed through channels of racial inequality and anchored western culture to paths of desegregation. Malcom challenged legions of racist warships and conquered waters of racial identity and power. Sartre showed us clouds of self-creation and tactical action as the guide to horizons of happiness. Gödel built compasses of mathematical rebellion to defy currents and streams, enabling circumnavigation through new straits. Wittgenstein stripped ships of their excess cargo of intangible and irrelevant philosophy in pursuit of truth. And Jung, by covering the entire ocean of the spirit, drew our first maps of the person. It is in studying carefully these great maps and utilizing their initiatives that we can invent new means and passages to distant frontiers.”
There is a treasure trove of intellectual ballast, philosopher flotsam, and logical counterweights out there to capitalize upon, to stamp with your unique fingerprint and brandish with your own flavor of creativity. God’s debris is literally floating around out there in the ether just waiting for someone who is spiritually audacious enough, with just the right amount of Promethean courage, to take advantage of it for the benefit of us all. The next frontiers of human knowledge await those who are courageous enough to pursue it. Stop worrying about the afterlife. Focus on your now-life. Rationalizing the here-and-now is profoundly more important than worrying about that which cannot even be rationalized. Vivisect the animality of your heart’s presence. Dissect the creaturliness of your minds prescience. Play Doctor Who on your soul’s need to remain pigeonholed. Interrupt. Then erupt. Burst forth from the brambles of your preconditioning. Climb the ladder onto the giant’s shoulder. Then use audacious fallibilism and courageous self-interrogation to catapult yourself into a whole new arena of intellectual play. The world will thank you for it. And with enduring Namaste, the genius within me will bow humbly to the genius within you.
Read more articles from Gary ‘Z’ McGee.
About the Author
Gary ‘Z’ McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide awake view of the modern world.
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