See more articles, reviews, fiction and poetry, including more of my writings, at group blog PLUTO'S REALM.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Fundamental Alchemy

That's Ed and Al and Scar, some of the main characters from Fullmetal Alchemist, one of my favorite anime series. I've often regretted the absence of an anime presence on this blog, because it's become important to me and is one of my main joys these days; if you were to examine my Netflix cue, a good two-thirds of it is anime. I haven't done any blogging on anime because it's very hard to talk about to people who've never really experienced it, kind of like zazen; people walk around talking about it with no real understanding at all. But if you want to watch some good intelligent anime, this series is a really excellent place to start.

In fact, I think for the most part this blog grossly understates the value in my life of really good fiction; I'm dying to talk about some of my favorite fiction writers, especially William Gibson and Kathe Koja. But those articles are going to take a little time, and I just wanted to spit out this thought that's been occurring to me through the wee hours of this morning while the rest of you are sleeping, and Fullmetal expresses it as well as anything: the Principle of Equivalent Exchange, the fundamental law of alchemy.

Alchemy has really gotten a bum rap. It is of course, a false science and a myth. But it was the primary obsession of Isaac Newton's life (there are some great history pieces on this, none of which I feel like digging up at the moment, but for a fascinating historical fiction treatment, read the best fiction epic series of the last ten years, read Neil Stephenson's Baroque Cycle) and the driving force behind the creation of chemistry and modern science. And compared to some of the other really stupid things people believe these days, alchemy is a real prince of a belief system. Most people think of alchemy as the attempt to turn base metals into gold, but it ultimately was a quest to turn the base metal of humanity into eternal life, in line with another familiar myth of the last two millenia. And it has some very basic and true premises, the most fundamental one being the law of equivalent exchange; the fact that for everything taken something must be given, and that for everything gained, something is lost. Ed and Al forget this when they try to bring back the dead. Most of us forget it every second of our lifes.

If you went to high school back when they used to teach science there, you should remember from first-year Chemistry the necessity of balancing chemical equations. In every chemical reaction, you must have the same amount of stuff (or stuff plus energy, when you get a little further in) on one side of the equation as the other, or before and after. This comes from alchemy and is a fundamental rule of existence. Isaac Newton knew it, Einstein knew it, why don't you know it?

You may think you do but you don't. It comes down to what Brad Warner (and every other decent Zen teacher, but I just like Brad's style) keeps saying; the fundamental delusion and cause of suffering in human life is the desire to end suffering, to get to that next stage where one little thing is fixed, so that everything will be better and you will live happily everafter. You probably know that with your mind, but you don't live that way; it's the not the fundamental color of your mind from second to second. You just think, if I could get that girl, if I could get that job, if I had that car, if I just didn't have cancer of heart disease or gout everything would be perfect. You know better? No, you don't.

It occurred to me many years ago, that no matter what my circumstances were, and by extrapolation your circumstances, I was going to be happy and unhappy about the same amounts of times. Live as a rock star has its ups and downs, as does life as a prisoner. Some of the best times I've had, subjectively, were in the best parts of some of the worst circumstances. It's got more to do with your brain chemistry than with your external circumstances. One of the most basic things I've come to realize in the last couple of years is that nothing is going to make things better on a personal subjective level, and nothing is going to make things worse. You just think they will.

"Nothing is better, nothing is best. Take care of yourself, get plenty of rest." - Bob Dylan and the Band, the Basement Tapes.

And that from my point of view on this Thursday morning has everything to do with living our lives as they are, not as they wish we were. It's all perfect because it's all there is, and it's the only way it could be. The fundamental cause of unhappiness is the quest for happiness. But you can make yourself happy in this moment. Go watch some good anime.

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