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Travels with Duncan

Book 1 – Duncan in the Forest

Chapter 8 - On direction
Duncan and Pico stop dead in their tracks when they spot a leopard on an outcrop and
don’t know what to do. An owl addresses them and says there is no danger for now. They
quiz the owl and it responds seemingly with words of wisdom. This seems to explain
something of the mandala but remains naturally ambiguous too.

Duncan and Pico had climbed the cliff in the early morning and were now facing the mountains,
the first of which was gently slopping upwards in front of them. They walked on, Duncan huffing
a bit while Pico simply held on tight as the angle got steeper.

Duncan suddenly stopped dead in his tracks and froze. Pico, not knowing why, followed suit,
sensing that something was up.

Duncan was focused straight ahead of him, his gaze on a leopard sitting quietly on a boulder set
aside the path. Surely the leopard had spotted them, but he seemed totally unfazed by these new
arrivals. He simply sat there calmly gazing out in space, with no interest or intent showing at all in
his posture or in his gaze.

Duncan was undecided as to what to do. Just then, an owl in a nearby tree spoke up and Pico
once again dug himself deeper into Duncan’s lush fur.
- Don’t worry, said the owl, Old Spotty won’t hurt you... nor will I, my young mouse. You see,
we both spend most of our time in meditation, interacting with the world around us in a quiet,
natural way, letting the day flow its course as it may.

And indeed, the owl did have a reassuring manner about himself, speaking calmly and slowly,
unhurried by events and generally unconcerned with what might come about. The arrival of
Duncan and Pico was simply a small event in his day, even though he presumably didn’t see new
animals come along all that often.

The owl continued on...

- Most beings continually strive to better their situation by fiddling with the environment, not
realizing that their doing so is the very thing that transgresses nature. The ones who realize that
the way to happiness and contentment is to flow with nature are the lucky ones, for they escape
from the false hopes built up in their minds.

Duncan and Pico relaxed and listened in awe as the owl kept speaking...
- The only quest of value is the quest for contentment, for the peace that comes with
understanding and acceptance of one’s place in nature, of the inevitability of nature and its course,
of one’s eventual demise through death and of the highs and lows of everyday living in the
present. The cosmos may have its secret meaning that we are too simple to understand, even at
our wittiest and most perceptive, but that should not prevent us from seeking to understand what
we can, and from accepting the natural unfolding of the universe as it occurs.
- Can we do nothing, then? asked Duncan.
- We can only live happily without forcing things into paths that we think is best for them. Just
flowing with the universe is passive, yes, but at the same time paradoxically, it is the strongest,
most fruitful action we can take. Non-doing is doing - that is the secret of life.

And as the owl spoke, Duncan could envision the mandala’s flowing lines merging into one
another and into the circular whole, effortlessly tracking their course, but in full sympathy with the
context surrounding them. A vision was beginning to form. The owl kept talking...
- We animals are greatly handicapped by our drives and by the desires that we forge in response to
them. Our seeming superiority comes at a great price. Our fun is inevitably followed by grief at its
cessation and by our inability to make it last forever.
- Yes, said Pico, but we wouldn’t want to give it up, would we? We wouldn’t want to become
trees or stones.
- Oh, you are quite right, we are not trees and we are not stones, we are animals, and we must
assume our mantle of animalness. There is just no need to stubbornly strive beyond that, to seek
to change the status of nature, nor to believe that we can somehow improve upon nature. Ha,
what a fallacious idea! But then, we encounter much folly in this respect. Simply being is what we
should seek, organically interacting with the world, with no fuss and no inordinate ambition. Such
is the secret of the way.

At that, the owl flew off through the trees, leaving Duncan and Pico to their musings. Soon after,
they realized the leopard had gotten up and was now strolling towards them. They naturally
tensed, but relaxed once again as he approached and they could see the serenity with which he
was walking.

He stopped a little distance short of them, looked them calmly in the eye and wished them good
luck on their paths to understanding. Duncan and Pico were too overcome to respond. They just
stood still, waiting for him to continue on. But Old Spotty turned around slowly and headed on
up the path into the woods.

Duncan felt in a tranquil mood and could feel it in Pico as well. They moved off to an area down
the slope where a pool of water had formed from a clear book rolling down from the mountains.
They sat down languidly and rested, their minds at ease and in wonder.

- Duncan, where are we headed?

- Nowhere just now.
- No, I mean, what follows from all we’ve been discussing?
- Well, I think we are getting closer to our goal. Don’t you feel you have a better understanding of
the world and of how you fit in it?
- Yes, I guess... But remember, weren’t you saying the other day that there is no world, that it’s all
in our mind, a fabrication.
-Ah, my little friend, careful about those all encompassing words like ‘all’. They’re very tricky and
will easily lead astray. We both perceive the world and build it, mixing up the two. That’s how it
- But what about all those who keep debating the validity of the world. About it being real or just
a mental construct?
- Ah, the poor souls! They’re caught in a grand confusion between the world and our knowledge
of the world. That ‘the world is’ is quite beyond question. But how we know the world is
something else again.
- Yes, OK, and?
- Well, those who doubt the world overgeneralize their conclusion about doubting their
knowledge of the world. It is one thing to question whether we can ever truly know the world as
it really is, since our knowledge of it is always relative. But then jumping from that into
questioning the very existence of the world is improper generalization.
- So all those who think that the world is but an idea are wrong?
- Yes, of course. Just like those who think the world exists like we see it. Both groups confuse
knowing with being. This is an easy error to make and I am afraid it will continue to plague
thinking about the world for a long time to come.
- So we’ve got to keep the issues of being separate from the issues of describing that being, right?
- Yes, exactly right, my little friend. Even though they are of course related. Everything is related,
isn’t it? Partaking of the same grand Unfolding.
- Yes, even though it is hard to see how they are related.
- Sure. Because they are so intertwined and we are so used to it. Think of it this way: we do not
create the world, but we form it. The world existed long before we came along. It created us, not
the other way around. But then, our perception of the world comes through our conscious
understanding, and this is partly passive but also very active - our mind fabricates (both
individually and socially) the rich world of things and processes around us. It gives them form.
- So the clay is there, given to us, but we shape it as we interact with it.
- Yes, oh, you are very perceptive, Pico! It is not full-blown fabrication (like what happens in a
dream), but fabrication out of something that is there. Now, we can never know the original stuff
in its pure form because every view, every perception is filtered through our cognitive make-up.
An unfiltered view is impossible - what would we perceive it with?
- Yes, I guess... So let’s see... the world is there, real for sure, although its shape is not. Its shape
is molded by ourselves, by our active minds.
- Yes, that’s it Pico. It’s quite real, but yet we put our ideal spin on it. Reality and ideality merge
into what becomes our everyday, ever changing experience.
- OK. Either one alone will not do - we don’t see the world as it is, but we don’t dream it up
either. That sounds fine. What now, Duncan?

- Oh yes. You were asking where we might be headed Pico. Well, there are two major thrusts we
need to explore. The first is that issue of knowledge. And the second the issue of the self, of how
each of us must relate to the world.
- Oh, very interesting, Duncan! I can’t wait.
- Ah, but I’m afraid you will have to. All in good time.
- Duncan, that issue of knowledge, do you mean the validity of knowledge? Whether we know
something is true for sure or not?
- No, that’s not really interesting - we both agree on relativity, don’t we?
- Sure...
- What we need to explore is that whole mental realm. How our imaginations let us not only
construe the workings of the world around us, but also enable us to build mental constructions
that go far beyond the tangible world. And we live in this complex world of our making, partly
hard and outside there, partly ethereal and in our minds.
- Oh yes, that sounds interesting.
- Indeed it is. As the world continues to evolve, I have a feeling that the mental will expand and
that we might even see the emergence of other realms. Just as the living grew out of the physical,
and the mental out of the living, a further realm will grow out of the mental.
-What further realm, Duncan?
- In good time, my young friend. We’ll get to it. But the mental is special in its own way - we
need to see exactly what it is made up of.
- You mean, the nature of ideas?
- Yes, ideas are representations, they represent something. But here is something to ponder. These
representations can be either hard and physical - like the cliff drawing we saw, remember? Or they
can be intangible in our minds, oh, grounded in our brains, for sure, but nevertheless intangible -
they represent by structuring, by relating things to one another.
- Yes, two rather different kinds of representation...
- But there is more... Ideas can represent something real - like that tree over there, or they can
represent something not so hard and real, like a unicorn or any other number of imaginative
- Another merging of real and ideal, right?
- Yep. You can see the complexity growing, can’t you?
- Yes, the limits of imagination are boundless, aren’t they?
- Not only that, I am beginning to believe that rationality itself is much more than what we think it
- More than a universal system of thinking?
- Yes. We tend to see reason as some imperative quite independent of us that guides our thinking
along coherent lines. And it does indeed do that. But is it truly independent of our view of the
world? Very doubtful, my little friend.
- What are you suggesting, Duncan?
- Quite simply that our reason, our logic, is fashioned by our cognitive makeup, just like our
perception and crafting of the world. Our ability to reason grew out of our interaction with the
world just like anything else. So why would it not have ‘our’ limits stamped onto it, just like our
perception does?
- Oh, oh... but that implies that other logics are possible, that thinking beings with other cognitive
makeups might have other ways of reasoning, doesn’t it?
- Yes, and one day, more intelligent beings might well develop a more encompassing, more
advanced logic that makes sense in its own, different way.
- So the mental realm is something evolving, something malleable, then.
- And if we think of what might follow on after the mental realm...
- Yikes. The world beyond the mental, life beyond the mental!
- Yes, Pico, my dear little friend, evolution is accelerating and it is only a question of time before
an even more ethereal realm emerges, one that might perhaps escape the bounds of the physical
altogether. There is a lot to think through in this area.
- Yes, I guess so, Duncan.
- But there is that second issue too - how to relate to the world? No matter how complex it is or
might become.
-You mean how to act properly?
- Yes, what is sometimes called the meaning of life. You see, Pico, we may be thrown into this
world of ours and bandied about like leaves rushing down river rapids, but yet, I have this sense
of ‘I’, I am this I, the center of my universe, of my known universe, and I need to respond. At
every moment, I need to decide how to act.
- Yes, we are part and parcel of this environment of ours and must adapt as best we can.
- Right. And in particular to other living beings. After all, each of them is an ‘I’ as well. So how
should we behave? What are the bases for action and interaction?
- Aha, big moral questions, right? I have never had much trouble with right and wrong, but it’s
always a challenge, I suppose.
- Yes, and according to the owl, the issues go beyond morality, beyond good and evil. That is the
road we need to explore. I am perplexed by what he said about gliding, about letting yourself
simply flow along with the world. There is something mighty attractive about that.
- Ha, it sounds a touch immoral to me. Opting out of one’s responsibilities to the world around
- Yes, precisely, it does seem a cop-out. We should be trying to better ourselves and the lives of
others around us - doing good in the world. And yet, when we look at the bad in the world, much
of it comes from just such interventions by individuals trying to better their lot and those of their
neighbors. As they see it, of course. We need to go there, Pico, to that deep place where good and
bad clash, where action and inaction play out their hands, where maybe we might find the meaning
of it all. It will be a difficult adventure.
- More travels. I can’t wait.
- In good time, Pico. In good time...
- But, Duncan, how does that fit in with what we’ve been discussing, with the nature of the world
we happen to find ourselves in?
- Well, that’s the big question, now, isn’t it? On the one hand, we are part and parcel of this great
unfolding cosmos, each of us just a speck of dust in the vast unfolding, bandied about here and
there according to the natural laws of the unfolding. And on the other hand, each of us as an I is
the center of the universe - our universe. I can only see the world from my vantage point - my
experience can only be mine. When that I dissipates, there is nothing left!
- But others will be left.
- Yes, but each of those others have that same feeling - when their I dies, everything blanks out.
The cosmos continues on its merry way, but so what?
- Hum...
- The subjective I is a strong private feeling, one nurtured by our biology - our deepest desires
revolve around it, even though many kid themselves about it. Just look at the animals who can’t
- Yes, the animal side of life.
- Ha, but then, our reasoning side extracts us somewhat from that direct feeling with the world -
we can see the working of the cosmos, we can be a little less subjective, we can make out
something of the larger picture. We can see we are just specks of dust.
- We can have one perspective or the other, eh?
- Both in fact. We keep going from one to the other and back all the time. The merging of these
two perspectives is the crux of the matter, the meaning of life.
- The meaning of life? Are we there, Duncan?
- Not yet. But maybe soon... We are an ever-curious bunch, aren’t we Pico? Always wondering,
always pushing forward, always venturing into new thought patterns.
- Oh, it’s very exciting, Duncan.
- Yes, for sure! But not without danger... the danger of thought. It can disrupt the moral fabric. It
can challenge rationality and current accepted traditions, leading to a new pattern of exploration,
with all the adventure and anguish that all explorations bring.
- Aw, Duncan, you’re not getting chicken, now, are you?
- Me, chicken? Of course not. There are too many chickens in the world. We need more dogs like
us, ...uhm, like me...
- And more mice like me!
- Right on, Pico!

And so, Duncan and Pico did not live on happily ever after. They both knew that life is not quite
what is found in the fairy tale stories that parents tell their children. They knew that reality
remained a puzzle and that knowledge and thought were mysteries still to explore.

But Duncan and Pico were not unhappy either. They were on an intellectual adventure that was
difficult but exhilarating too. They were searching for big answers and for the right way to be.
Perhaps one day, they would come upon them and then know what it means to fully be.