Life: Is the answer 42?

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the number 42

Buddhists have four main concepts:

  1. Suffering (we all do)
  2. Impermanence (we all disappear – both before birth and after death)
  3. Detachment (don’t get too involved or concerned with the injustices, absurdities and pain of life)
  4. Self (there is none)

The lack of self is the hardest concept to appreciate, since our very existence depends vitally on staying alive, thriving and reproducing. It is counter-intuitive to disregard the existence of “me, my soul, my personality, my individuality” and any other “my” you can think of.

Yet, the great mystics such as William Blake knew that “infinity is in a grain of sand” and this is the real truth.

There can never be such a thing as a completely separate self – we are all complex interactions with all the forces and materials of the universe. Some of the interactions are strong and intense, as with people we love, but they taper off into infinity. These interactions include all the life forms (and non-life forms) we have been in contact with in some way for our entire lives, all our thoughts, feelings, pleasures and pains,  the air we breathe, the food we eat, the atmosphere of radiations – sun, moon, planets, stars, cosmic rays – in which we are bathed from birth. A person’s five senses are in constant interaction with the rest of the universe.

These are the interactions that last for a person’s lifetime, so that between birth and death, a complete life history of person/universe is forged. Of course, this doesn’t just apply to human life and other life forms. The distinction between life and non-life is blurry (like everything when scientifically investigated to absurd degrees), so a granite rock that has existed for 1 million years has a million years of interaction with soil, air, radiation, hot, cold, etc., that also defines it (more accurately than just being considered a lonely rock).

But, then again, I may be wrong and Douglas Adams right – the answer really is “42”

Robert Gosstray

Robert Gosstray is a retired pharmacist and the resident health writer for Midlifexpress. He is the author of The Pharmacist's Secrets: Drugs, lies and money.

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