According to Buddhist teachings, life is Dukkha, which is commonly translated as suffering or unsatisfactoriness. The source of this underlying dissatisfaction is our attachment to particular things, concepts, or even our own identity (self). Find a way to let go of the attachments and the suffering will disappear as well.
Creation is often paired with the act of destruction. The economist Joseph Schumpeter described destruction as an essential component of capitalism’s creative process. In Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy he wrote, “Displacement of existing managements is an important, perhaps the most important, part of the show.” Indeed it is.
But it is more accurate to describe creation as transformational rather than the destruction of the preexisting order. Destruction, in truth, is an illusion that arises from our attachment to the status quo, and that attachment, the Buddha would point out, is the source of much personal and social woe.
Seeing life as a series of losses — one destruction after another — requires us to narrow our focus to the object, person, or concept in question. In other words, seeing the world as fundamentally destructive rather than creative and transformative necessitates a refusal to see things in context.
If we imagine a tree falling in a forest, we can see the tree’s plunge to the earth as its death or destruction only if we concentrate our attention on the tree alone. However, if we see the tree in context we realize its fall created an opening in the forest, a new habitat for creatures, fungi, and bacteria that will make the dead wood their home and consume it over time. Ultimately these will turn the wood to mulch that will foster renewal and new growth. In other words, the death of a tree is merely transformative. It is only destructive if one had an attachment to the tree itself without any regard for the system it belongs to.
This type of contextual thinking not only allows us to see the world as transformational but empowers us to become better participants in the process of creation itself. “Creativity does not happen when we withdraw from the material world,” says the travel writer Eric Weiner in The Geography of Genius, “but, rather, when we engage with that world, and all its messiness, more authentically and more deeply than we are accustomed.”
Openness and engagement nourish the creative process by liberating us from the clinging the Buddha warned against as well as judgments which ultimately skew our perspective. “For creative people,” Weiner continues, “it matters not whether their surroundings are good or bad. They derive inspiration from both, taste the salt in all things. Everything is a potential spark.”
Ideology and attachment serve as blinders that narrow our vision. Through them, we become linear one-dimensional thinkers who too often default to what seems intuitively true from our limited point of view. By seeing things in their larger context rather than individually we begin to approach others, objects, and ideas obliquely.
Obliquity is the opposite of the direct linear approaches that we often take in the interest of speed and efficiency. It is the recognition that inspiration doesn’t just come from one direction. It can come from anywhere, including sources that have no obvious connection to the problem we are considering. There is a greater tolerance for error when we see things obliquely because experimentation is part of the process. The economist John Kay put it this way:
In general, oblique approaches recognise that complex objectives tend to be imprecisely defined and contain many elements that are not necessarily or obviously compatible with one another, and that we learn about the nature of the objectives and the means of achieving them during a process of experiment and discovery. Oblique approaches often step backward to move forward.
Destruction is an illusion not because things don’t really change, or even disappear entirely from our lives. It’s an illusion because we believed them to be immutable in the first place. We refused to see change rather than permanence as the process that underlies everything, including ourselves. It’s just a continual process of creation all the way down.
The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn said, “It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent, when they are not.” From this perspective, even death is just another turning of the wheel. Sooner or later every tree in the forest falls, creating a new opening for fresh light to shine in.