To briefly compare the two, each involved a certain labor, study and distillation of knowledge harvested over centuries. For the sake of the argument, it will be assumed that the destruction of Alexandria was deliberate, though this is debated among historians. Other examples such as the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, or the extinction of Native American tribes might suffice as more extreme considerations alternatively.
The Library of Alexandria was dedicated to the goddess of art and housed tens of thousands works, assimilated from cultures around the ancient world. Its contents documented the fruits of an unimaginable wealth of experience and discovery including much of the scientific works of the time. Yet, the tradition of the Roman emperors and army was to leave no trace of the conquered as,* we are all Romans now*.
As seen in the creation of the mandala, it is constructed by Tibetan monks to express the natural harmony of earth, employing millions of intricately placed particles over the course of many days in its intricate pattern. The twist of course is that the primary message of the ceremony is delivered in its destruction: this is only temporary.
For me the comparison is intuitively weak — in one instance a group of conquerors (be they the Romans, Spanish, or Americans) eradicate a civilization including many of its people while in the other an ostensibly benevolent group of monks destroy their own replaceable creation to impart a profound lesson of existence. Yet the thought still haunted me as a matter of thresholds.
Taken to an extreme, the idea that nothing, an idea, a book, a person, a species or even a planet, is permanent can lead to dissonant conclusions. Nietzsche for example writes: “The goal of mankind cannot lie in its end, but in its highest specimens.” Fight Club proclaims “On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero” (though this ultimately formed as an argument for carpe diem or claiming one’s own humanity). Newtonian physics describes a universe comprised solely of cause and effect, with humans caught in an unending series of events. Even evolution itself, where lions and chimps eradicate the gene pools of conquered males in prides and tribes testifies to the merit of wiping the slate clean, no matter how arduous and beautiful the evolutionary milestone was to produce. An appeal to the human sensibilities of the present experience should temper the most extremist view of meaningless nonetheless.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is an idea espoused by some Feng Shui consultants and KonMari adherents that people should rid their own lives of relics and objects holding negative energy. A gift given by a prior employer or former romantic partner might be triggering emotional reactions, disrupting the quality of energy flow required for clarity of thought and simplicity of purpose. To rid one’s environment of negative or distracting energy, reminders of another presence and potential triggers for unproductive thought is to liberate the consciousness and empower positive action in the present. To Heraclitus is attributed the aphorism: “You could not step twice into the same river” and, as such, thought patterns from days gone by can never be fully or appropriately applied to the unique events of today.
Even on the micro-scale of significance however, there is something Denmark about sentimental eradication. To paraphrase the description of the KonMari method by a blogger named Elisa
The ‘KonMari’ method consists of gathering together all of one’s belongings, one category at a time, and then keeping only those things that “spark joy” (tokimeku, the word in Japanese, means “flutter, throb, palpitate”, and choosing a place for everything from then on.
Throw away anything that you don’t love anymore. The KonMari method is groundbreaking because it has nothing to do with the idea of “needing” something. Do not keep the things you need, you have to keep the things you love.
Similarly there is a “common wisdom” espoused from time to time that it is “bad Feng Shui” to keep emotionally charged possessions in your material collection, though I cannot find an authentic source for this derived from the actual school of thought.
It should probably be no surprise to me that this tabula rasa train of thought arrived soon after I moved out of my last apartment. At the time, I embraced the idea of KonMari, popular minimalism, and the general discharge of spiritual relics. For nearly two decades I had been tromping around with little emotional relics from days and people gone by. From a subconscious perspective, how is the human mind supposed to be ‘free in the moment’ when it knows there is wedding party gift of your long estranged friend in the trunk reminding you of irreconcilable differences, or the Dear John letter from your first breakup folded in your high school yearbook? So I sold nearly everything on ebay and craigslist, gave the rest to charity. At the time, it felt amazingly powerful to literally throw out items that you didn’t even know you resented. I hated that jacket, I bought it because it was on sale, but its too nice and expensive to throw away… and on and on.
However, later on, thinking of that piece of African art given to you by a former co-worker that you carried with you to five different apartments and lifetimes sitting on somebody else’s bookshelf or dresser somehow seems like some other energy conundrum altogether. It feels as though I should have performed a traditional hunting ritual to pacify the soul of the dispatched before releasing it into the wild. Likely, in KonMari, it would be recommended that you do not buy second hand and procure only items yielded fresh from the bounty of Nature.
But that notwithstanding, — what is it about our material possessions that magically can relieve the soul of its non-material burden? It seems that rather than performing the hunting death ritual on our goods, it is more important to perform the rituals that release our own souls and those intertwined of the mental burden of friction. While the conscious mind may well benefit from a philosophy of out of sight out of mind, the subconscious may very well be playing along with ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.
There is another common wisdom conception that the purifying practice of meditation works by ridding the mind all thought, leaving a blank slate, the “infant consciousness”, untainted by illusionary experiences, gifted with natural wisdom. Perhaps from the instruction from Dogen of the zen school this notion might be derived:
Think of neither good nor evil and judge not right or wrong. Stop the operation of the mind, and consciousness; bring to an end all desires, all concepts and judgments.
That is to say, from this, meditation could be construed as an act of relaxation. In one scientific study, the hypothesis was tested: that the habitual practice of being heedful to distraction from spontaneous thoughts during meditation renders regular meditators, as compared to control subjects, more able to voluntarily contain the automatic cascade of conceptual associations triggered by semantic stimuli.
Again, this may reinforce the idea that, in the absence of distraction, perhaps even of the emotional trinkets on the bookshelf, or through “proper” meditation, that the mind is provided a clarity needed to block out sentimental triggers. In reality however, the study went on to observe: the monks produced gamma waves that were extremely high in amplitude and had long-range gamma synchrony — the waves from disparate brain regions were in near lockstep, like numerous jump ropes turning precisely together. Furthermore, higher-order associative areas such as the angular gyrus and regions of the prefrontal cortex, which are optimally suited to maintain an organized pattern of activity for extended durations
One might suspect then, that when Dogen says “Stop the operation of the mind”, he speaks of the faculty given to distraction, leaving alone the essential awareness to focus on clear understanding.
Returning to the larger scale of sand mandalas, destruction of civilization and the prospect of meaning in a sometimes all too Nietzsche world, it is undeniable that earthquakes, floods and fires have destroyed mandala-like treasures of civilization and that our male chimpanzee ancestors performed genocide on rival primates, leaving humanity not without some thirst for eradication and propagation of cultural and biological traits. That being said, what uniquely comprises humanity is the very same quality which allowed for transcension of the material: memory. Our culture carries forward the ideas written on the scrolls in the Alexandria and the knowledge required to recreate the mandala. Unfortunately, as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind went some way to demonstrate, there is no simple KonMari for the soul.