The End of History Illusion And Some Implications

“Life is a process of growing and changing, and what our results suggest is that growth and change really never stops,” says [Daniel] Gilbert, “despite the fact that at every age from 18 to 68, we think it’s pretty much come to a close.”

That’s Gilbert on new research that you can read more about here: “You Can’t See It But You’ll Be A Different Person In Ten Years.”

This is a personal version of the “end of history illusion.” I was just reading about the societal version in Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed by Jared Diamond.

In Buddhism we call the end of history illusion a “fixed idea of a self” and sometimes try to address it by looking back over the course of our life and how we’ve changed, starting with our baby pictures. The research here suggests that this dharma strategy is not likely to be effective.

You see, we’re good at looking at the past and appreciating we’ve changed. We’re bad at looking at the future and appreciating that “we” will be somebody else and our choices now will create our future self. What can we do today that our future self would want? This is a hard question because we somehow fool ourselves into thinking we’re at the end of change now.

The awesome face of emptiness may be just too hard to be – if we think there’s another choice.

Fortunately, there are other dharma strategies, like shutting up and paying attention. It takes a calm mind to see that this very sense of non-changing is an object of consciousness. Both the consciousness and the object have also changed. Indeed, they are change.

And now for why this matters for the US, for Soto Zen, and for me.

First, the US’s got the end of history illusion in a bad way, at least as bad as the people who cut down the last giant trees on Easter Island, the trees their culture depended upon, cutting off their nose to spite their face, and somehow apparently thought that everything would magically turn out okay.

We’re just like that. Now maybe we will be saved by the 3D Printer – “Do not think printer. Think magic box that creates any object you can imagine.”

Damn, just like Star Trek, “Computer: Earl Grey. Hot.” And there it is. Click the link to imagine the world as it might be. If we could get these 3D suckers to make food and water, now that’d bend the trend lines.

Anyway, short of a miracle like a food-and-water-creating magic box in every home, it’s looking like we’re screwed, largely due to the end of history illusion.

Take our massive debt, for example. Here’s David Brooks:

“We blame politics, always say Washington is all dysfunctional. They’re responding reasonably efficiently to what the American people want, which is to take the future’s money and spend it on ourselves. And so what we are looking at, the next generation, according to the IMF, is going to have one-third fewer benefits and one-third higher taxes if we act now. If we wait five years, it will be 50 percent more taxes, 50 percent fewer benefits. It is just terrible for the future generations.”

I doubt that everybody will be fine with a 30% or 50% increase in taxes and commensurate decline in benefits. Hold on to the edges of your gowns ladies….

And then there’s Soto Zen. Most teachers in the denomination are old as shit and yet when we get together, most of the conversation is about the issues for us aging and not so much about the effect on others, like those in the future who might benefit from Soto Zen practice. Granted, I haven’t been to the meetings in a few years so it may have changed but my earlier efforts to start a conversation about this largely fell on deaf ears and the conversation turned to our prostates, lack of retirement funds and succession plans.

See my post “Zen Is Going To Hell And It’s The Boomer’s Fault,” for an example of me going on and on about this issue.

And finally what about the end of history illusion issue for me personally?

Briefly put, I’m really committed to working with this illusion as I look forward to my last adventure – starting a training center, getting sick, old, and dropping dead. Not necessarily in that order.

Nothing is Concealed
On Receiving Inka Shomei from James Myoun Ford Roshi
Dogen Did Not Practice Shikantaza and Even Had a Gaining Idea
Practicing Through Snow and Cold (or Whatever Afflictions May Visit)
  • Dave Laser

    Interesting post. “Our choices now will create our future self.’ How about this: Our future self creates our choices now; as in, the future we are living into gives us the context for the present. If the future I’m creating is based in the past ( past fears & concerns, past commitments,what worked in the past, etc.), then that’s what I get– more of the past- and the choices thereof. Committing to a future created freely, given by values, by what’s possible, by what’s worth my life- gives me a much different present, and a different take on what the past looks like. So- being committed ( for example) to this world being at peace, has me be a different person standing in line at the grocery store. Society-wise, I think it’s necessary ( and possible) for us to cause that contextual shift– from trying to recreate an idealized, imaginary past to creating a workable future; our next evolutionary leap, if there is one. We can choose to look at ‘we’re screwed’ as the future, or as a bankrupt past, and an opportunity to create something new. Way more fun at a personal level, too ( from a guy looking at 60 in the rear-view mirror)!

    • doshoport

      Thank you for beautifully going beyond my post.
      Much obliged,

      • Dave Laser

        Ok, I will shut up and pay attention now.
        Thank you,

  • Neal

    Dosho, have you announced more details about the when/where/how of your training center?

    • doshoport

      Hi Neal,
      No announcement yet. We’re exploring options at this point, maybe for 2015. I suppose the “how” is getting sketched out here in bits – a post-modern training center focused on awaking up with lots of zazen, koan work and Dogen study for inspiration.
      Thanks for your interest,

  • Robert

    The broader point is well taken, but I would be cautious in taking David Brooks and his deficit hawk partners at the IMF at face value. No matter what the economic problem, they recommend the same solutions accompanied by the same dire warnings.

    It’s important to remember that, even with its deficit, the US still has historically low inflation and interest rates for its debt, and excess capacity in its economy. Short run spending cuts and tax increases could actually increase deficits under those circumstances, as the UK is discovering right now. Our long run deficit problem stems from our aging population and rising healthcare costs. No tax increases or spending cuts today will make those problems go away.

    • doshoport

      Brooks and the IMF not reliable!? Gads, what’s next? No where to stand, nothing to rely upon.

  • http://JustThis( Alan

    All I know is that the “South” sure could use some dharma teaching…Center for training?…Kornbread Karma!


    • doshoport


    • Neal

      Hi Alan,

      Where are you in the South?

      I live in the Raleigh-Durham area of NC and we are fortunate to have two Japanese Zen centers (1 Soto and 1 Rinzai), a Fo Guang Shan temple, a Won temple, and I believe a Son teacher in Chapel Hill.

      • http://JustThis( Alan

        I’m in Evans, Georgia. Bedroom community of Augusta, Georgia. Two hours from Atlanta.

  • Harry

    Dosho et al,

    I love the talk here (what Dave said) about time ‘flowing from future to present’ as in Shobogenzo Uji. The gist of that chapter made no sense to me whatsoever until I started to explore the notion that Master Dogen was maybe talking about Real experiential time (as opposed just a conceptual assumption/progression based on memories set against thoughts about the future/projections), or time as we can actually only ever really know it more directly than this i.e. through our own practice-experience of it in zazen… from that point of view an ‘end of time’ narrative may certainly be a matter of some concern!

    I take some comfort however from the fact that reports of recent Armageddons have been greatly exaggerated (to misquote Groucho).



  • Stephen Slottow

    Well, you could drop dead, start a training center, get old, and then get sick. That’d be interesting.