Place and Liberation

Buddhism is famous in the West for the tenet that “life is suffering.” That’s too simplistic, of course, and its simplicity is due in part to translating the word dukkha, which is more complex than just suffering. Nonetheless, the idea of suffering cannot be dismissed. The first of the Four Noble Truths is that suffering exists. Number two pinpoints its cause, and that cause is craving. The third says, however, that there is way out of suffering and toward liberation, and the fourth provides a guide to the path. Liberation, in the Buddhist sense, is the elimination of suffering through the elimination of craving.

Craving is more than desire for material goods or sensual desires. It’s a wish, a grasping or clutching for that which would make life other than what it is, a craving for the end of suffering. It’s impossible, of course, to crave your way out of craving, but we crave on.

People are apt to use temporary fixes for this inherent, but curable, human condition. These fixes come in the form of attachments, attachments to (among other things) people, possessions, situations, a false and static sense of who one is or should be.

Any creative endeavor should aid in the elimination of suffering. This could be done, for example, either by illuminating its causes or demonstrating and giving cause for joy.

The built environment is one such creative endeavor. The places that surround us contribute to or harm our health and well-being. The design of a place, whether it is as small as a room or as large as a town or city, should do as much as it can to reduce stress and provide healthy stimulation for its inhabitants. A design should provide a place of refuge and calm, restfulness and security, balanced with stimulation and a chance for exploration and discovery.

Place physically affects our brains; healthy environmental stimulation actually generates new brain cells, even in adult brains. This was shown about ten years ago when a Princeton scientist named Elizabeth Gould raised monkeys in cages called “enriched environments.”

The cages were 64 times larger than required by law and contained living vegetation simulating natural habitat. Insects and fruit were placed inside trees, allowing the monkeys to discover their food every day, but without the stress of possible deprivation. The stimulation provided by this environment alone was enough for the primate brain to generate new brain cells.

Environmentalist David Orr considers the built environment a teaching tool, especially for young, still-growing minds. But he sees buildings most often as “poorly built,” “made of materials that are toxic,” and “often oversized” and inefficient in their use of energy and materials.

What do these buildings teach? “They teach us in exquisite detail that we are alone and powerless in the world, that energy and materials are cheap and can be consumed with impunity, that the highest purpose of life is consumption, and that the world is chaotic and dangerous.”

Orr paraphrases biochemist Rene Dubos in writing that the “worst thing we could do to our children would be to convince them that ugliness is normal.” This sense of ugliness goes beyond aesthetics, it is “the surest sign of disease, or what is now being called ‘unsustainability.’

“We must love our children enough to design a world which instructs them towards community, ecology, responsibility, and joy.”

Orr connects ecology and sustainability to the word “joy,” the opposite of suffering. Joy doesn’t merely eliminate suffering. It hits suffering at its root cause. It causes craving, that desire for life to be other than it is, to simply fall away.

Look at the space, the world around you; how does it make you feel? Does it require the protection of a car, window blinds, or a graphic user interface to safely engage it? Is it a landscape, a space, made for people and their growing brains? The specific type or form of the place that feed each of us are as different as we are, but each has something in common. Does it foster the cycle of craving and suffering? Or does it foster joy, allowing those cravings and desires to shed like an old skin, a covering, a guard or shield that we simply don’t need any more?

6 Responses to “Place and Liberation”
  1. This was very interesting. I want to live in that building at the bottom of your post. 🙂

    • thanks, I hope it was coherent:)
      The bottom building is a picture I took a few years ago at Green Gulch Farm near Muir Beach, CA. There had been a man living there for more than 30 years, but he passed away not very long before I was there. I kept wanting to look inside but decided not to out of respect for him. Apparently this was his home *and* painting studio. It was pretty cool and really peaceful.

      • Wow, thank you for sharing this. I have to say I am so inspired and proud of you for not looking. It’s like he was still there in some way and his soul should not be disturbed.

        Peaceful, indeed. I wanted to crawl inside that photo.

        Yes, it was coherent.

        I have never been to CA. One of just a few states left. Someday… 🙂

  2. rdopping says:

    Interesting point of view. I understand where you are going here and it is admirable to think that humanity can direct itself toward placemaking that addresses social issues in this light. Orr’s work sounds interesting to me and i will certainly check it out. Without cause nothing will change so bravo for taking this philosophy. I hope that you can approach your work in this manner. Paying the bills seems to be the catalyst for most to compromise what they will do, however, if disciplined a shift can certainly be realized. I am not there…..yet.

    The other side of this point of view is that brain function grows through learning. Physical environment is important but desire for learning and application is a huge factor in our development toward a positive life. Carol Dweck has an interesting philosophy that aligns this type of thinking.

    Great ideas. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for your comments and reading so closely! Another person to check out might be Allan Carlson, who also writes on environmental aesthetics. I’ve read a bit of his work but haven’t gotten into it enough to understand everything, and there were some things I wasn’t totally on board with, at least at first, so I’ve kept him out of this for now.

      I totally agree with what you said about learning and the desire to learn. I’m trying to narrow my focus a bit just so I can wrestle with my own ideas and get them to gel. I’ll look into Carol Dweck’s work too, so thanks for the recommendation.

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