Before he became Roman Emperor, the young Marcus Aurelius famously stopped off at Esztergom (left) on the bend of the Danube, set up camp with his army and scribbled down what was to become the immortal Meditations, his great work of Stoical philosophy. He was the great Existential Vacationer of his time. Although he had a retinue of slaves instead of a backpack and a kind of leather kilt instead of Quiksilver beach shorts and spoke Latin, the principle was effectively the same.
The Meditations can be summed up thus: “Life is tough. So stop whingeing and just get on with it.” Of course Marcus Aurelius didn’t have my gift for snappily encapsulating entire philosophies in a brilliantly-turned sound bite. If he had, who knows what kind of success he might have gone on to? Perhaps his stint as Caesar might have merely served as a platform for greater things. And imagine if the internet had existed then. His blog might have been almost as deep as mine!
In the mystical traditions of the great religions, contradiction is crucial. By meditating on the inherent paradoxes which underlie our existence, we become closer to the essential unity which lies beneath, just beyond the grasp of mere minds, that ineffable essence which rationality and logic forever fail to grasp. A bit like that annoying itchy bit in the small of your back which you just can’t scratch, no matter how you twist your arms*.
As my old Zen teacher at the Kwan Um school in Singapore once said, “When you breathe in, think Wo shi se ma? (What am I)? When You breath out, think Wo bu zhi dao (I don’t know). Eventually you will be filled with a great doubt. And with great doubt comes great enlightenment.”**
Wittgenstein said in his immortal Tractatus that “About which we cannot speak, we must remain silent.” However, if we seek out the contradictory, the paradoxical, the stuff that simply does not make sense, perhaps – just perhaps – out of the corner of our mind’s third eye, we may catch a fleeting glimpse of The Truth.
That is why I am in Hungary.
Hungary is riddled with contradictions. It is a veritable epistemological swiss-cheese of paradox, wrapped in the Vine Leaves of Enigma, lightly sprinkled with the Salt of Doubt and baked in the Oven of Mystery at gas mark four for an hour and a half, turning halfway through to ensure even cooking. Even writing that sentence made me feel “Hungary” – which just goes to show how accurate a description it must be***.
Consider the language, for example. It is, famously, the weirdest in Europe. English has more in common with Urdu than it does with Hungarian.
And what about the “Mosque Church” in the town of Pécs?**** Is it a mosque or a church? (Actually is used to be a church then it was destroyed by Turks and a mosque was built from the pieces and then after 150 years it was captured by Christians and used as a church again.)
Then there is the nightlife. Why would anyone form a Billy Idol Tribute band? Only in Hungary (in a bar called The Old Man’s Music Pub). The most famous club in Budapest is called Zöld Pardon. But is it a disco or a swimming pool? The mystery deepens. All I know is that I had very wet legs by the end of the evening.
And then there was the mystery of the Chicken that Looks Like a Yeti. While visiting the bird park on Margit Island, my charming tour guide, Eszter from Esztergom, promised to show me an “animal that looks like a Yeti.” And there it was. Scarily similar, despite its superficial poultry-esque appearance. It really did look almost exactly like a Yeti. And yet we are nowhere near the Himalayas. Something is deeply strange here.
And don’t even get me started on the shopping malls. I almost got into serious trouble in one shop…
So this, it seems, is the latest place to find some form of insight into our true underlying natures. By embracing confusion, we may find clarity. By diving headfirst into chaos, we may see a new kind of sense. By drinking enough beer, we may finally lose our pernicious sense of “identity” and become one with the Cosmos. I definitely lost mine for a while. Was I me? Perhaps I was Elton John? Who knows…?
* This, as any school child knows, is why the Yogis of India first practiced their contortions. They had no idea that their innovation would ultimately lead to an entire industry catering to spoiled yuppies wired on latté and brain dead from watching too many episodes of Sex and the City. Ironic, no?
** I prefer to combine this technique with multiple glasses of beer – I find the doubt, and therefore the subsequent insight, much greater.
*** It’s amazing how much mileage I get out of various versions of this joke.
**** Small city in southern Hungary. Not a gym.