Forget about learning from the past and applying lessons to the future: reclaim and expand the present moment

ver since I was a child, I have been acutely sensitive to the idea – in the way that other people seem to feel only after bereavement or some shocking unexpected event – that the human intellect is unable, finally, to make sense of the world: everything is contradiction and paradox, and no one really knows much for sure, however loudly they profess to the contrary.

It is an uncomfortable mindset, and as a result I have always felt the need to build a conceptual box in my mind big enough to fit the world into. Most people seem to have a talent for denying or ignoring life’s contradictions, as the demands of work and life take them over. Or they fall for an ideology, perhaps religious or political, that appears to render the world a comprehensible place.

I have never been able to support either strategy. A sense of encroaching mental chaos was always skulking at the edges of my life. Which is perhaps why I fell into an acute depression at the age of 27, and didn’t recover for several years.

The consequence of this was my first book, a memoir called The Scent of Dried Roses. While I was researching it, I read the work of psychologist Dorothy Rowe, a quiet, almost secret, follower of Buddhist philosophy.

Through Rowe’s writing I first came across Alan Watts, and he sounded like an unlikely philosopher. His name evoked the image of a paper goods sales rep on a small regional industrial estate. But through Watts and his writing, I was exposed directly to the ideas of Zen Buddhism. I was suspicious at first, perceiving Zen Buddhism to be a religion rather than a philosophy. I wasn’t interested in the Four Noble Truths, or the Eightfold Path, and I certainly didn’t believe in karma or reincarnation.

All the same, I read a couple of Watts’s books. They made a significant impact on me. The Meaning of Happiness (published in 1940) and The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951) are striking primers to his work, and they underlined what Rowe was already teaching me: that life had no intrinsic meaning, any more than a piece of music had an intrinsic point. Life was, in zen parlance, yugen – a kind of elevated purposelessness.

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