THERE'S a famous story in the Chinese classical work of philosophy, The Book of Chuang Tzu, where the author tells us he has just awoken from a dream in which he was a butterfly. But then he ponders this happening and reflects that he can’t say for sure whether that was indeed the reality, or whether he was in fact a butterfly dreaming he was now Chuang Tzu.

This story had played out in science fiction films like The Matrix and it can ultimately be headache-inducing because there’s actually no way of knowing for certain which alternate version is the real one. Of course we all have real fanatical friends who would be quick to tell us that in fact there might be a trillion alternate universes, in one of which Chuang Tzu would in fact be the butterfly.

Pondering such unknowables can be fun. The problem is that we often get totally wound up by more serious unknowables or uncertainties in life. Take Brexit for example. Try to leave aside your political view of it just now.

Loading article content

OK, I realise that’s impossible for you so just pretend for a moment. There is in fact no way of knowing for certain what the impact of Brexit will be. Before you rush in to disagree, consider these points. Impact on whom? Britain? Scotland? South Lanarkshire, where I live, Hamilton, the town in South Lanarkshire where I live? Me personally? With or without my family?

And for how long are we talking about this measured impact? The first three years? Thirty years? Till 2100? Till the next millennium?

Even if we agree on the who and the how long, doesn’t it depend on the precise details of the negotiations, of which we don’t yet know the outcome? Also the overall global economic growth figures over the next few years? Or the specific deals Britain might be able to do with other countries? Not to mention the possibility of a second independence referendum, which if the result was Yes, would presumably affect Scotland’s impact, the rest of the UK’s impact, and the impact on the EU, which would also depend on whether Scotland stayed in, was out, or was out but negotiating to rejoin the EU?

Now, this is just basic stuff. Truly complex stuff is how your mind works. How you respond to different situations. How you cope with illness, deaths, job issues, ageing, family and friendship ups and downs, and so on. These are all unknowables until they hit you.

And yet we fret over them endlessly just like we do with Brexit, and just as poor old Chuang Tzu was doing about whether he was a human or a highly sophisticated butterfly capable of dreaming he was an ancient Taoist philosopher.

Another ancient philosopher, Gautama Siddhartha, better known to us as the Buddha, had very clear views on how we waste so much time and energy on continually ruminating and debating what is not knowable. “The Buddha” means the awakened one, and I think he was exceptionally awake when he made the following observation.

Continuing to debate something you can’t actually find a definite answer to leads to “a wilderness of opinions”. This is such a noble truth. While we’re interminably debating, with others or just inside to ourselves, the full potential of this wonderful life just slips away moment by moment by moment. Over a lifetime we can throw away literally decades on pointless ponderings and ruminations.

Take an extreme example. Suppose you have terminal cancer. What is better use of your time, to literally wake up and smell the roses, or to wake up and wonder if today will be the day you die? We all do little versions of this every day, by getting disproportionately upset over trivial things. Meanwhile the smell of the roses wafts by unnoticed, and 100 moments of your life is lost forever.

Be mindful. Learn to pay attention to your thoughts, moods, reactions and your five senses. Learn to let go, gently, without fuss or rancour, of the rubbish and the poison. It doesn’t matter if you never know whether you were in fact a human or a butterfly. What matters is you have awareness of being alive. Use it fully because it doesn’t last forever.