Beyond Belief

The Good Life 

Beyond Belief is … The Good Life

 

 

mistrals murmur truth and fiction

creeds of crystals, crucifixion?

guiding us to good life garner

neither nihilism nor nirvana

 

 

Life is to be enjoyed. This is the way that many see it, and for much of the time, I am at one with this sentiment – putting joy into life seems the highest of virtues. In my life it has become encapsulated in the phrase apprendre à vivre heureux. To others, life is to be endured. And to yet others, it is pointless, meaningless, purposeless. Is there a correct view on the matter? Well, strictly speaking there is, for there is correct view of everything; this is one definition of wisdom, the correct view. But most of us, probably all of us if we are honest, experience wisdom only in glimpses and even then, we have difficulty separating such flashes of insight from other thoughts.

 

Depressing as it might sound, this seems to be the basis for understanding and pursuing the good life – an expression that lingered with me after hearing it used in various circumstances for a range of diverting lifestyles. I think the expression stuck in my mind because these approaches to the good life demonstrably do not work. Whether it is a new luxury 4X4, a holiday house, a high status job, successful children or an ideal spouse, early retirement, freedom to travel, financial security or religious convention – it makes no difference. Such a version of the good life evaporates in the face of both boredom and unforeseen change. Perhaps it is only attainable by constantly seeking new things, as our society now teaches us! But that too seems to present an even higher level of anxiety and insecurity. Maybe this is why we seem to hear one question more and more frequently, is there a purpose to life?

 

At least I seem to hear it more and more. Especially since I spent some time reflecting on matters I had set aside for decades. Some of those thoughts found their way into a little book entitled The Buddha’s Gospel. That book explained some fundamental matters about religion that made many things in life clear to me – including the difficulties created by the institutions of religions. And from these, came at least some understanding of the purpose of life – enough to encourage me to let other parts reveal themselves. This is not some touchy-feely cop-out, it is simply a clearer understanding of life. Writing that book also created another series of new and important experiences for me, one of which is other people’s concerns about whether there is a purpose to life.

 

There is a commonality among the dozens of queries stimulated by The Buddha’s Gospel. All concerned specific aspects of life, its purpose, religion or the burdens of modern life. These people worry that something is wrong with the teachings of church, of society, of friends and colleagues. It became clear to me that I had no specific answers. Yet at the same time, my own questions were answering themselves. And it was clear that the book had struck a chord that prompted questions about how life should be lived, its purpose or meaning or lack of it, and the multiple other ways that the same question can be put.

 

I have no answer. But there has been a theme that emerges from the ongoing discussions that are now a part of my life, and these few pages are my attempt to present something that is a simple truth for me. If this was a scientific paper, I would have been able to state the point and discuss the methodology by now – but it is not. It is not just a scientific fact, though it is rational. And as rationality is the basis of modern society, it seems that this ‘truth’ may well be able to be assimilated by modern persons. But just as it is difficult for a novel scientific explanation that contradicts convention to be accepted, so it would be naïve to expect that mere rational argument could convey the intent and importance of this ‘truth’. Better to consider it as a proposition – a proposition that can be examined from many perspectives.

 

In saying this, I am conscious of the old English prayer, Lord help me in my search for truth, and protect me from those who believe they have found it. I have not found the truth; I have simply understood one or two things in the sense of the Thai word for understanding – khaojai – which means literally, entered the heart and mind. Things that are critically important. Some may say that such metaphysical interest is a product of aging, it may be, but this would not explain the fact that many of the persons of whom I speak are in their 20s and 30s.

 

All of the above has prompted this attempt to communicate some common themes of my thoughts of the past decade. This is not another religious text or apology, or a self-help book – there are already too many such books around. Nevertheless, it uses such terms as spirituality, with reverence. In this way it embraces the breadth the subjects that cause shelves to grow in the bookstores, from ‘crystals to crucifixion, from nihilism to nirvana’.

 

To convey the propositions, we cannot rely on rational discussion alone, as we have noted already. For that reason, I have used metaphors, old and new, to present a simple insight. At its simplest, that insight is: that by seeking differences we overlook commonalities, and that within commonalities there is a unity of experience and explanation of life that shows us what life is.

 

When Aldous Huxley concluded that all great truths are obvious truths, but not all obvious truths are great truths, he encouraged us to seek the obvious with great discrimination. And such discrimination is an attribute of wisdom. Combining Huxley’s approach with that of seeking commonality across human experience, we find amazing congruence across cultures and time. A congruence that provides a basic proposition that can be, as a wise man said 2,500 years ago, tested in our own experience – and if it then seems true, it is part of the truth. Let us now discuss matters further to develop that proposition and to test it intellectually. This is half the task, the rest is up to each one of us individually, and that is to test it in our own experience.

 

So how can we understand this proposition that an obvious and simple truth is constantly staring us in the face? There is no one way to explain it. It is the same as the way some of us understand mathematics intuitively but miss the point of a painting while others feel they communicate through art but fail to even see the beauty of calculus. And just as there are today wonderful books to explain complex art and mathematics to the uninitiated, so such pages as Reaching the Top? and What is it like? on this site take different perspectives to illustrate the point we seek. The different perspectives provide two specific benefits – first, they allow us each to approach the subject through a familiar door, and second and after gaining some illumination of the treasures beyond our door, we may see more clearly the meaning of what other people find to be ‘their’ door, path, idea or whatever words they might choose.

 

Sound a little too much like religion? Well it need not. Let’s examine what religion is and then decide if it is useful to living the good life.

 

Beyond Belief

 

We don’t need to get too religious here but we should first dismiss any concern the word raises. A good way to do this is to look directly at what religion is. Of course it is a political force in some contexts and a means of social manipulation in others. But it also a comfort to many persons, and to a few it is and has always been a means of understanding life deeply. So what makes it such a confusing term? One major reason is the fact that religion in its common meaning cannot be separated from culture, and its apparent need for expression. We can usefully relegate religion into two realms; on the one hand it is cultural and belief-based, and on the other teachings stripped of their expressions of culture and power that speak to individuals about their own spiritual nature. First let’s take culture as a means of looking at religion.

 

Culture, with a capital ‘C’ if you like, might be defined as the attitudes and behavior that are characteristic of a particular social group. In another form closer to its agricultural origins, it can also mean something like to nurture and to educate. Together we might see that the attitudes of a society reflect their beliefs, the central ones of which form their religion. And from that belief base come certain actions for the benefit and perpetuation of the society, such as education and nurture of the young and enculturation of immigrants into the same beliefs.

 

In this way, religion is integral to culture – and culture in this sense defines the religion. This is why the Islam of Indonesia differs from the Islam of Iraq as much as the Christianity of Crete differs from the Christianity of China. Each has been defined by its respective culture. While we can see such expressions of religion as essentially cultural, the original intent of each religion may yet shine through in the original sense of the word religion, which in fact means to re-link us to our own spiritual natures.

 

Our spiritual natures are not the focus of culturally-based institutions that have other competing objectives of power, wealth, defense of a culture or even its expansion. Yet buried beneath such other foci and their accumulations over the centuries lies the same essential quest. Spiritual aspects of religion then are not the primary focus of the great institutions of religion. But the link may be seen in such forms as folk ritualizing of ancient spiritual insights as a means of passing on something known to be special yet understood by only a few. The message can be hidden when the ritual becomes the focus and the insights of a sage are translated into inflexible beliefs, yet in each generation some persons see the original intent of the rituals, and in the reflective and meditative practices of each religion.

 

We are all affected by our culture, and by that part of it called religion. This applies to even those who claim to be irreligious, secular, humanistic, unchurched or any other of a list of names we use to escape the things we dislike about religion. This doesn’t mean atheism, for we can see atheism as just another religion when we observe the tenacity by which atheists cling to their belief – for as we have seen, belief is the essence of religion in the cultural sense. No, we are talking more about those who simply say that religion is irrelevant and outdated and who use similar dismissive comments.

 

In fact, it seems naïve to most of us to consider religion relevant to modern society and our sense of self. But when we look a little deeper, we see that religion is part of our culture, our language, our pattern of recreation and vacations, our mental concepts, and even the science and technology on which our lives are based. For example, in Western Christian cultures it is now almost impossible to escape such beliefs as individual freedom and self-advancement, and both are outgrowths of the culture’s religion. As a priest might once have observed, you can take the child out of church but you can’t take the church out of the man. The same applies to Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Taoism and all others.

 

Returning to the West for a minute, it is also instructive to look at modern anti-establishment religion. With Buddhism and Hinduism as the fastest growing religions in some parts of the West, we learn two things. First, these religions can be stripped of their cultures when they enter a new culture and in so doing offer a mirror in which a different perspective can be gained of that new culture’s religion. Second, the very popularity of a foreign religion reflects a society in the process of rejecting the direction in which its own culture has developed – if this was not the case, we would expect some successful reformist actions in the traditional religion rather than adoption of a foreign form, or a regression to fundamentalism. It is indeed useful for those of us in the West to look into a Buddhist mirror to see ourselves stripped bare of the strange bedfellows our culture and religion have accepted. But there is also a negative side to this enchantment with the exotic. It can be a reinvention of the wheel, for the objective of these other religions is the same as any other – the same as what we are here seeking in the pages of this part of this site, whether there is a purpose to life.

 

The individualism of our modern society has encouraged a personal choice approach to essential truth. It is difficult to see how this can be sustained even intellectually, and in terms of experience it seems that it is characterized by disappointment. Stephen Weinberg observed that many religious liberals today seem to think that different people can believe in different mutually exclusive things without any of them being wrong, as long as their beliefs ‘work for them’. This one believes in reincarnation, that one in heaven and hell; a third believes in the extinction of the soul at death, but no one can be said to be wrong as along as every one gets a satisfying spiritual rush.

 

Once again we are dealing with beliefs, and this seems to be the crux of the problem. This is why, when we hear a fundamentalist Christian or an evangelical Muslim (or for that matter, a missionary Buddhist) state what they believe, we think they are opting out of rational thought in favour of accepting someone else’s thoughts. It is the opposite of the suggestion to test all teachings in your own experience, which is an early Buddhist teaching. It is interesting to note that this advice also includes a warning not to believe what one’s guru, elders or society teaches. It does not mean that the guru, elders or society are wrong, or that one can be absolved of the consequences of not following their good advice. But it does mean that the only way we can be sure of the critical things of life is to know they work ourselves – a subtle variation from the attitude of ‘choosing’ beliefs – and a variation that makes the world of difference.

 

Why is it critical to know what works ‘in our own experience’ rather than to believe in something? The answer in fact tells us much about the original intention of the word, belief, in religion. The word seems to have originated from the concept of holding dear or loving, and in the case of religion may well have meant to develop a love for the teachings from one’s own experience that they are the correct method for understanding life. This is also probably the real meaning of faith – developing confidence in the guidance of a sage or a teaching from one’s personal experience in mental practice, or if you like, spiritual exercises. It is the opposite of blind belief, which is truly blind, offering the same comfort as closing one’s eyes to pretend the tiger that is about to pounce has disappeared – it only works for an instant! We must move beyond belief if we are to understand the good life.

 

Do we really want to do this, or can we just live life within the comfortable bubble of today’s West and hope for the best – a long life, good health, wealth for periodic trips, pain-free death, and meanwhile a complacent confidence that the world would be better in general if other people would just act more as we do? It is clear to me that we cannot just accept the physical comforts at the expense of spiritual awareness – we only have to look at the most pervasive Western disease – depression. Likewise, the rising demand for psychological assistance shows us that something is not right in the materialist heaven of the God of perpetual motion, or as he is usually worshiped, the God of eternal progress.

 

It seems that we all aspire for something better, something higher. If this was not true, perhaps we would not be so readily manipulated by the mass-media messages – advertising and propaganda. Advertising in its various incipient forms takes advantage of our innate longing, and it works because we do not rationally challenge its modes of operation. In fact, we have become so conditioned to it that we increasingly prefer it as an information source. Nor do we examine the source of our inner longings. It is analogous to overeating fatty and sweet foods – they taste good, we crave the taste, the texture. This is to be expected for we do not differ biologically from our hunting and scavenging forebears who relied on these tastes for survival in a food-scarce environment. If we examine our craving for a snack food in the midst of food-abundance today, we see that our appetite can be modified mentally to achieve a natural harmony between taste and health. The balance of our rational capabilities with our inner longings can steer us away from faddish diets in our nutritional lives. But if we are not conscious of what it is we long for – that nebulous something more than the essentials of survival – then we feed that longing with continual consumption, diversion or beliefs in miracle solutions.

 

In a well-fed, healthy and rich society, we can do better that live such unexamined lives. This is what Socrates meant when he said that the unexamined life is not worth living. How different this is from the lifestyle based on diversionary entertainment that aims to prevent us from ‘thinking too much’ – from examining life. Diversions, like beliefs appear to be fulfilling, but they never sustainably feed the longing. They are as demanding as an addictive drug requiring ever higher doses, in fact, they work the same way by stimulating pleasant biochemical responses to which we become jaded and need ever more stimulation to achieve the same transient high. Better to exist in a ‘high’ state more often and at less cost!

 

So there is a missing area between, on the one hand the feelings that we need something and on the other that all of our attempts to fill that need are ultimately unsatisfactory. It is to this gap that some of the pages in this part of this site are addressed. To explain such a basic part of life is not as simple as it may seem – especially when we recall that we have been conditioned into our comforts. But the message has been communicated countless times before, so all I am doing in these pages is offering one more version of the most important message in life. This is really ‘the good life’, and seeking it seems to be a rising vocation.

 

To continue the search, two general metaphorical approaches are presented in the related pages. One is a short story in which a mountain symbolizes our development to gradually know how life works. After that I share some personal reflections and experiences in the language of the world I happen to have lived in this far – from the banal to the perhaps profound. It is all about getting beyond belief – in religion, politics, technology and so on – and opening our eyes to what is in front of our nose.

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 Contact the author Lindsay Falvey