So what is it like? (some experiences of bliss, calm, contentment )

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So what is it like?

                        It is like ….


 TABLE OF CONTENTS (Page 1 - So what is it like? - Page 2)

                                                Amidst Bustle Calm

                                                Busy Ants

                                                An Endorphin Rush

                                                Hearing What’s Not There

                                                God’s in His Heaven and All’s Well

                                                The Wisdom of Old Age

                                                A Silent Hum


                                                A Village Temple or a Personal Retreat

                                                Being Hard-wired

                                                Seeing History as a Metaphor

                                                Psychological Development

                                                A Guardian Angel

                                                The Difference Between Science and Technology







accepting the Good Life




How to evoke the magic of music to a deaf man?

How to explain our love to our beloved?

How to relate the explorer’s experiences to the stay-at-home?

Only by multiple metaphors of ‘what it is like’.



This section presents some more personal experiences and reflections. As the introductory poetic snippet suggests, this is only possible by allusion – allusions that derive from experiences and reflections. Some reflections are themselves allegories, allusions and parables.


Of course, one might say that it is never possible for a deaf man to know the exquisite sensations of music, or for a lover to put into words the overwhelming feeling of his love, or for an explorer to convey the fear and excitement of his adventures to arm-chair travelers. That is all probably true. But it does seem possible for a semblance of the personal experience to be transmitted. And when we recall that no human communication ever fully conveys the speaker’s meaning, we may see that the role of the hearer’s imagination is critical to the mental motivation that precedes understanding.


Sometimes the enthusiasm of the storyteller moves the listener. In other cases, the enthusiasm leads the storyteller to think of multiple ways of depicting the same sensation. As with telling a deaf man that the sensation of music is like that of the hairs on the back of one’s neck standing up – as from a lover’s caress, not from fear. Or we may think on the similes for love employed in the great love poem’s – shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?


But such comparisons are never perfect – thou art more lovely and more temperate. And because they are never perfect, more and more are sought in an ever futile attempt to convey the sensation that has overtaken the storyteller. It is in these multiple attempts more than a deep understanding of one story that the listener may eventually gain a feeling for the message.


So it is with the following stories. They are my own little revelations. They are not a sign of enlightenment or great understanding – but they are a testimony to the everyday experiences that show me the natural flow of all things. When I am conscious of that flow and go with it, all is well. When I seek something contrary to it, which is when I become too attached to my own ideas, the inevitable result is that I am surprised or disappointed. It sounds simple and it is at most levels.


With this introduction, I offer these musings for what they are: a collection of personal experiences and thoughts. Some will appeal while others may not. But they all relate to me the same thing – living with reality is the life of contentment of which the sages speak.


So, what is it like?


So what is it like?


                                    It is like ….


                                                            Amidst Bustle Calm


ABC. It is the most basic experience to describe – calmness. A feeling of contentment with things as they are, even if they are not conventionally ‘perfect’. Perhaps I have a cold, or am besieged by some matters from my past that seem unsavory, yet the underlying feeling of calmness provides the context – when I am calm that is. It allows me to see everything in my purview, including what I might otherwise see as undesirable, as normal because it has all arisen from past actions and conditions that at such times are clear.


The experience itself arises when certain conditions have been met. It is possible to cultivate the conditions to enhance the likelihood of calmness being experienced – for me it is sometimes meditation, and at other times it may simply require the creation of time and space by declining to be involved in the hectic life of today. Sometimes it seems to arise unbidden – but then I can see that I have placed myself in conditions that favour the experience. I recall in my undergraduate years finding myself walking in a native Australian garden reserve that somehow evoked a peace in me, yet not recalling any intention or decision to go to the gardens.


What is it like? There is a specific instance that serves as a metaphor. It occurred in an old Paris church that was a haven from the bustling tourist crowds outside. The church was but one of the hundreds omitted from guide books yet it boasted its own art works and engaging architecture. But it was not these that affected me – it was the instantaneous shutting out of the clamor of outdoors by the cool silence of the empty church.


The space of the church in a busy city evoked an experience of calmness from which extended clarity, and in that clarity I realized I was experiencing the metaphor itself. A calm inner space, a haven from fears and outside pressures is what church buildings long symbolized. So my experience was a mirror of the building’s own presence.


As the tourist hoards surged around the quarter ignoring the church in which their noise and that additional noise created in serving their desires was silenced, so my hoards of hang-ups were silenced in the moment. While one of the things that affects my equilibrium is the competing noise and visual stimulation that characterizes much entertainment, sometimes I am at peace with the ‘noise’, and it is at such times that I feel like the church. Perhaps this is a subsidiary meaning of such words as ‘the true church is within you’.


So this basic feeling of inner calm is like an unoccupied church amidst the clamorous pushing and shoving of the outside world. It is as if the church’s quietness is held inside me so that the pressures of normal existence do not disturb me. It has nothing to do with religion or God. It is an image that I recall often, when I feel oppressed by the ‘noise’ of the world in the form of competing demands, unrealistic expectations and my own stubborn will. In this way,


calmness is like a quiet church in the middle of chaos.




So what is it like?


                                    It is like ….


                                                            Busy Ants


Looking down on ants busy doing what ants do is entertaining for children and instructional for all. Knowing something about the purpose of life is like watching busy ants. Western culture uses the Hebrew scriptures in which encouragement to ‘consider the ant, you sluggard’ is used to argue against laziness. But of course, its original meaning was not intended to be about everyday business but about disciplined spiritual action.


When I look upon busy ants it is the same remembrance that I have as I write now, sitting in a tall building looking down on a huge Asian city bustling with activity. The view is that of seeing patterns of actions from a distance – patterns that might not be evident if I was caught up in those actions. It is rather like the old men in Yeat’s poem in the mountain story:

“There, on the mountain and the sky,

On all the tragic scene they stare”


Yeat’s old men are wise. They have lived life and understood its lessons. They have seen the folly of everyday occupation and how it is the little things that preoccupy life and distract us from being content. They also know that it is pointless to tell this to people when they are as busy as ants – better to enjoy being alive and being willing to talk about life when people are eventually ready. And so the old men reach for their musical instruments, and they smile.


Looking down is also like a ‘helicopter view’, a term given to me by a colleague in a senior university post. She used it to gain a perspective on the particularly demanding politics at which universities excel. As I then was in a similar position myself, we would sometimes support each other through the simple advice – ‘remember the helicopter view’.


This larger picture or stepping back from the fray is like understanding something of the purpose of life. When in such a balanced state of understanding the actions of life, both my own and others, can be seen as fitting into patterns. Often I see my desired actions as pointless, and this leads to a feeling of great relief and space, for it is clear that each new action initiates a new chain of events that inevitably involves me in some way. When the action and its reactions are seen in advance perspective, a decision to not act or to act in a different manner becomes clear. And being released from the obligations that would have accrued from the initially desired ignorant action makes me feel free.


Whether it is looking down on an ant farm, from a tall building or from a helicopter, the metaphor is essentially the same. It provides a glimpse of the ways that we distract ourselves from the contented life. But the ants we view are busy surviving. The Biblical reference to their industriousness is not describing humans in a survival mode; it is advising us to be diligent in understanding life –the opposite of demanding new diversion. The modern busy ant is actually busy for the sake of busyness, out of habit. So it seems to me that:


busy ants are like our usual quest for more that distracts us from reality.


 So what is it like?


                                    It is like ….


                                                            An Endorphin Rush


The feeling induced by endorphins has become part of our lexicon. We talk of an ‘endorphin rush’ using the language of powerful drugs, which is often appropriate in the way we approach their manipulation. The feeling that accompanies moments of insight is like the effect of endorphins. In fact, it may well be that we produce more endorphins when we are in such a state of oneness with things.


As the hormone that is best known for its effect in masking pain in exercise and sport, endorphins are a natural means of affecting our mood and well-being. They may well be part of the biochemical state that overtakes me when I feel at one with the world, but this is not important to the analogy that I seek to make here.


I can be walking along the street and in the silence of being alone, somehow shift into another frame of mind or state, and feel a rising warmth and comfort. It is not due to the physical exercise for the same experience can occur when sitting still at times. The feeling includes that of being connected with everyone and everything else, and a clarity of knowledge that all is well, that I am a functioning part of the universe, that I am just one part like every other part of everything ‘seen and unseen’, that my functioning depends of that of the other parts and that they depend on me. It is not a ‘work hard for the benefit of mankind’ sort of feeling – for it usually leads me to do less, to see that many of the things I might want to do, say or change are futile and could lead to outcomes I do not intend. And it is not related only to mankind, but to all things. At such times, I take great joy in avoiding stepping on tiny ants and the like that may be underfoot.


So I liken the feeling to that of endorphins. But of course, while it seems both can be induced by practicing the appropriate conditions, there are differences. The ‘endorphins cutting in’ allows the addicted exerciser to continue in his work-out. It probably leaves a warm glow that enhances productivity and possibly empathy for some hours. It is for this reason that I am not surprised to see what may be the beginning of evidence that endorphins are one of the mechanisms induced by meditation, calmness and practiced goodwill, and that they may be secreted at higher levels when one is deep in a state of kindness to all things. But there is more to the experience.


While exercise may induce a similar feeling, it seems to lead to higher ‘productivity’, to more action, to a self-confidence of purpose. On the other hand, the experience that I am trying to communicate through this analogy, while producing a certainty of mind, does not induce more action.


It is the difference between knowing that ‘all is as it must be’ and ‘I feel as if I can do anything’. It is the difference between acting quickly and knowing when to take no action. It is the difference between ‘I feel great, on top of the world, performing at my best’ and feeling that there is no ‘I’ at all just a continuity of interconnections.


And from this realization, one also understands the point of practices to calm the mind in order to see more clearly. It is just like exercise conducted to produce the conditions for endorphin release. And that is also why I find it unthoughtful when some of my fellow-travelers adhere too religiously to the letter of practices such as meditation and prostration. For if we are not thoughtful, we just copy others and miss the development of that critical element of discernment, of discrimination. As Marsilio Ficino said, everything is an obstacle and nothing of use to a man who cannot discriminate.


This is why I liken the feeling of the purpose of life being clear to the release of endorphins in an athlete. So it is that:


peace of mind is like an endorphin rush.


So what is it like?


                                    It is like ….


                                                            Hearing What’s Not There


In the Bourke Street Mall in the heart of Melbourne there was an old busker. He played the saxophone even though age had pilfered much of his puff, which at the end an exhalation was insufficient to sound the final notes of a bar. So the last notes of an exhalation, through his slow inhalation and until the next laborious exhalation produced silent gaps in his performance. Yet the tune went on.


I think he played for the sense of company from the passing crowds rather than for the few coins flung into his saxophone case. He seemed oblivious to other noise and the lack of an attentive audience for his repertoire of old favorites. And it was this focus on favorite that allowed one to follow the tune even with the missing notes. I enjoyed the experience of the missing notes which I feel sure sounded in the old man’s mind as they did in mine through an arresting sense of the tune being played by my mind rather than by the saxophone.


The poignancy of these saxophonic experiences pointed out again to me the way life really is. Life has a completeness and harmony to it that goes on, often relegated to the background where we fail to notice it. In those moments when we recognize small parts of that harmony it seems the most natural thing in the world, as if the whole melody has always been in our own head. In many ways it is – for we now know that our senses are only in touch with the analogue signals that enter our consciousness, and we have always known that our senses can be tricked. But when we accord with the natural rhythm of life we feel the harmony – the missing notes become audible. To act against the natural rhythm always makes us feel that there is something missing.


In another way, the missing saxophone notes are defined by those that are audible. So, in life, the missing notes are defined when we recognize the real notes of the natural harmony. Yet so often, our rigid mindsets limit us to sensing one thing when that very thing only exists in relation with other things. This latter thought found its way into a poem composed during a confusing period in my life using the language of that period.

 Changing Space

To focus on the object,               makes us see it false

for that thing we think we know,             is defined by its own space;

and yet we name the object,        and speak of only it,

thus entruths the lie that space,    is inactive and void.

Emptiness of space writ large,     on all our inner strife,

it drowns the joy, it sucks the salt,           from understanding life.

Every act denies a role,   to ever-present space,

except as a virgin land,    with objects new to find.

If we fix our eyes on form,         and label each new thing,

more myopic we become,           the less aware, less free.

Like breathless saxophonist’s                   missed notes define the tune,

so we neglect the spaces,                        when minds just grasp a ‘thing’;

and when ‘things’ are all we know,          we’re just one with the norm,

categorizing space as void,          unworthy of our time.

It’s as if we’ve all agreed,           to use an artifact,

and when its served its purpose, accept it, and not the fact.

Space – negative? inactive?          how could it be less so?

for the object it defines, is gone without it there.

To make a different object,          just modify its space –

active agent of the form,             a ‘thing’ in its own self.

We also, are not exempt,             from this natural law,

for we’re defined as objects,       as if mere sep’rate forms.

My form as defined by you,        and your’s defined by me,

Makes space active in and out,     makes nonsense of ‘the me’.


 So in becoming one with the harmony of reality, of which we only see part at best, we are opening ourselves to change according to the natural conditions that we accept, and gradually we become more and more one with reality, which is the purpose of life. So it is that,


living within reality is like hearing the harmony of all the tune.


So what is it like?


                                    It is like ….


                                                            God’s in His Heaven and All’s Well


When we grow up in a Christian environment, even if is not in a church-going family, there is a tendency to relate spiritual things to God. This is understandable, but most of us forget that God is only a symbol – a powerful symbol and one that can also be a grave hindrance to understanding ourselves and reality.


At one level, the benign attitude of a caring father-God on high bestowing blessings on the faithful can seem socially constructive – rules are assigned to God and good social behaviour equates with pleasing God who expresses himself through making one’s life easy. But it is the same naïve belief that leads to feelings of ‘our’ God being the only true God, and that those who practice alternative spiritual traditions are evil or at least antisocial. Today’s unthinking vilification of Islamic and Middle-Eastern beliefs is apposite. It is as if the explication of the ancient Hebrew tradition that includes the invention of Christ’s life has been omitted from this modern social version of Christianity.


It is within this narrow interpretation of Christianity that one can feel, as we often hear that ‘God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world’ as an expression of contentment. It is a fine metaphor for feeling at one with the life. But it is only a metaphor like most of the other attempts to describe states of equanimity.


I have introduced what I know as the erroneous Christian theology of a God dispensing favours and so on in order to emphasize that the metaphor used in this page could equally well have originated with an understanding of the metaphorical concept of God and all of the things that flow from that. For, what I call ‘the genius of Christianity’ is that it unites the allegories, parables, metaphors and worldviews of its contemporary religions into a new and more powerful tradition. It is so much more than a mere extension of the impoverished Judaism of that time. But these are uncomfortable facts for many Christians and Jews.


If we read the Jewish scriptures as a progressive revelation of humans understanding their consciousness, as seems clear from the records of mystics of both Judaism and Christianity, the metaphor of God becomes one that is transcended by those who practice to understand themselves and the universe. But if we lock ourselves into a belief structure that requires God to be one or a trinity, or to be rational, for example, we find Christianity hard to accept, just as in the words of its main creator that the simple message of Truth is a stumbling block to the Jews and a folly to the Greeks. We must understand the deeper intent of the metaphor or allegory, even when it also has a superficial and beneficial meaning. In this way, the parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, is much more than a neighbourly tale or even a social comment – it is an expression of interconnectedness that accords with the same truth expressed in other religions.


However, as my Buddhist friend Jivata points out, ‘using God as a metaphor has clearly failed and only continues to cause confusion’ as the all-powerful image of God will be preferred by those who seek external comfort in place of looking into themselves. Perhaps my metaphorical description is, as he suggests ‘drawing a long bow and causing more confusion than elucidation’. Be that as it may, these pages are presentations of my own experiences and they may not apply to anyone else at all.


So, while God may be a stumbling-block to some and folly to others, understanding the metaphorical intent of the concept of God – as something above the mundane animalistic lifestyle we reduce ourselves to – allows us to pursue that higher state. The higher state is achieved within us and is how someone who has experienced such contentment and understanding might seek to describe it within a simple Christian society as …


God’s in His Heaven and All’s Well.


So what is it like?


                                    It is like ….


                                                            The Wisdom of Old Age


There are always a few people who seem to ‘have it all together’, at least most of the time. Variation between we humans means that, just as we have different shades of hair and skin colour, we have gradations of everything else, from intelligence to hormone levels. This is why it is as much nonsense to expect everyone to act the same way as it is to expect all to same behaviour from the same skin colour or gender, for example. It also provides a clear perspective on the way some people discern the best way to live.


Among those who seem to be at ease with themselves and the world, there are a noticeable proportion of older people. Is this just a function of age as is often interpreted from such clichés as ‘the wisdom of old age’? Or is it something that is specific to some people? Or is it learned by some and not by others? It seems to me that it is not just one but all of these. Some old people are unhappy and sour, resentful of their declining abilities – so it cannot be a function of age alone. And there are some younger people who ‘exhibit wisdom far beyond their years’ as another cliché goes. I have seen this countless times, I have appointed persons to positions of responsibility on the basis of their inherent wisdom in dealing with crises, and I have also learned from my elder son’s natural approach to complex tasks that would otherwise have been difficult. And I have seen how such people are sometimes plagued by criticism that ‘things come easy to them’. Such is the variation of human beings.


Living in reality, wisdom, or any other simile that describes our subject is not just like the lives and actions of the calm and insightful persons of the previous paragraph, it may well be their lives. For us, when we are not experiencing one of our own moments of insight, such persons provide an example of how we can be – and this is the reason that most great religions have idealized a central wise figure’s life is used as a basis for emulation. We have such figures among us, although they may not always exhibit their highest traits.


If these wise persons are inconsistent, then how can they be a model for our quest? It seems to me that the many persons who have developed some wisdom, that is who act wisely in a particular circumstance, have avoided conditions that do not assist their wisdom. And this is a major point, for it is the way we conduct ourselves and the situations that we allow ourselves to enter that determine the range of actions we may make. We are creatures of the conditions that form us. So it makes sense to select conditions that suit our development of wisdom, which is what such wise people do and have ever done.


All of this refers to the not-so-old, but what about ‘the wisdom of age’? Two factors of many may be considered; experience and chemicals. With longer experience, an aged person has learned from mistakes and successes to, if he so chooses, live in a manner that minimizes situations where he acts out of accord with reality. By chemicals, I mean the internal regime that governs so much of animal actions among which are the critically important hormones that ensure perpetuation of the species, honing of skills and avoidance of danger. With age, hormone regimes change and their control weakens leaving us more choice of action and thought – this is indeed a function of age. Accepting this is a sign of wisdom or at least of maturity. Denying it by seeking fountains of youth or simply whinging about it is the opposite and works against the natural flow of things, which always causes pain. Now with the privilege of observing my mother in old age, I marvel at the changes from the young mother I knew and am reminded of this aspect of wisdom.


While this is just one more description of living in reality, it is also more – for it offers us a ready demonstration of wisdom. So, when we seek to live in harmony with all things, all we need do is recall that it is daily lived in front of us – not necessarily by one person in every moment, but at some moments by some people and this has long been known from the changes observed in people as they age. This is why I also feel that if we seek an example of the living well, we may say that it is like …


the wisdom of old age.



So what is it like?


                                    It is like ….


                                                            A Silent Hum


There are moments when all seems to make sense, when I feel the purpose of life is linked by a continuous thread. To give it a name reduces it to something less than it is. Perhaps that is why, sitting at an empty hotel breakfast table in a Thai university one morning with this feeling about me, a poem took form and allegorized the feeling.


I had been involved the previous day in the superficial matters of book publishers, university politics and loud ‘music’ associated with an agricultural fair that consumed the extensive campus. The crass conversation, the noise of the fair, the demands of the computer screen had not disturbed my mood – it was as if I was protected from such mundane matters. And that feeling had pervaded a quiet night and a morning meditation session before coming to breakfast.


The previous evening I had taken myself to a small concert of harp music, running the gauntlet of noisy pop music in the streets, and crawling through crowded traffic while immersed in the bedlam that is Bangkok. The realization of something deeper in me had begun that previous evening amidst this mess and had led me to an awareness that I had felt this way regularly if not frequently. Perhaps a little more frequently since I began my idiosyncratic approach to meditation, to studying wisdom books and to excluding some negative influences from my life. And I had come to think that there was a link between these events that turned the raw raucous row of the city into a comforting ‘cat’s purr’ or ‘contented snore’. It sounds so unlikely when put into this prose, but I still recall the feeling of excitement of this discovery that accompanied the peace of such moments.


So in the hope that the poem is not spoiled by this introduction, I now include it here:

There’s a warm hum imbued

by all that we do,

from crass conversation

to sole meditation.


In tense traffic - round fussing fairs,

at the screen - in the chair,

it’s always been there,

though I’m oft unaware.


For when seeking reasons

down the days and seasons,

it’s the uniting hum

in the harpist’s strum,

amongst angst-ridden crowds

and pop played too loud,

that makes sense of all acts

when I relax and accept.


That hum, silent and slow,

non-human, and low,

not traffic or town’s tone,

nor electrical drones.


This harmony of soul,

mocks all my mean goals,

that to hum closed my ears,

for several years,

until of Truth, glimpses,

opened my senses,

bidding spirit to move

toward forgotten truths.


This hum I feel, not hear;

atonal yet clear,

neither music nor charm,

only felt when calm.

It’s a comfort, constant,

here, yet too distant,

like a warm cat’s purr

or a contented snore.


A low hum from the dead,

unites life like a thread,

says ‘forget about “me”,

all’s as it should be’.


Just hear each heart’s hum;

so, the mystery goes on.

So to know life is to see that ‘all is as it should be’ or even better that ‘all is as it is’ and that is understanding reality. Things could never be different from the way they are for they have resulted from previous and ongoing conditions. The warm hum that unites as an inaudible and warm surrounding sound in these rare moments is just a metaphor for the realization. In another way, cultivating wisdom is also to experience such moments more frequently, for it is in these moments that all is clearer and, for me at least, I feel at ease with all things. That is how the living well is like …


a silent hum.



So what is it like?


                                    It is like ….




Love is a widely used metaphor for transcending experiences. It is commonly used in such phrases as ‘the love of God’, but such words are often taken only literally without any cognizance of their metaphoric intent. In fact, our societies have so mixed up the intention of such teachings that somehow physical ‘love’ between two persons has been elevated to a status that rivals spiritual practice.


To illustrate this point by an extreme example, the marginal and profound teachings about tantric sex that derive from some Tibetan sects seem to attract interest in the West much more than other similarly marginal and profound teachings. Why? Because our society has not only mistaken physical love for the elevated human state, it has glorified the sex act as part of that sensuality. This is not to deny the practice and its teachings, but tantric practices cannot be separated from their teachings, which are not only culturally specific and foreign to our societies, but are in fact associated with detachment – the very opposite to the sensual attachment of our society to sex, and in general.


So how is love a metaphor for the perfect life? If we look objectively at the meaning of scriptural references to love, we see its use in such ways as ‘as a mother loves her child’ to describe the awareness, attitude and actions of a person who has ‘seen the light’. Such persons see all others and all other things as if they are extension of themselves or vice versa, just as a mother sees her offspring. When a prophet says such things as ‘love one another as I have loved you’, he is describing a level of awareness of the complete interdependency of all things – it has little to do with physical love or even warm feelings. Such ‘love’ extends to all sentient beings according to the great mystics, and even to inert forms of life such as rocks, soil and air.


This may be the message that Charles Wesley intended in his great hymn Love Divine all loves Excelling – expressing the limits of all human loves with their ‘needing’, ‘depending’ and self-serving’ faces. Of course the hymn assumes a Christian setting and God, but that is simply the metaphor for self-transcendence that has expanded with the Western world’s main religion.


To understand love as a means of explaining the interrelations of all things, as an approach to life, as the basis of all other precepts, as the description of the worldview of those who understand the purpose of life, is to be at one with life. In Buddhist practice, a major form of meditation is based on the cultivation of loving-kindness. It seems particularly important in our individualistic society where we easily become selfish and alienated from others and other aspects of life and reality. Such practicality in Buddhism makes it useful in today’s West, for it offers ‘tools’ to help us orient ourselves to a more complete way of life – often to a truly Christian way of life, though perhaps not a church-approved life.


To cultivate such an awareness and feeling in ourselves in this way explains why becoming one with the flow of life can be described simply as …




So what is it like?


                                    It is like ….


                                                            A Village Temple or a Personal Retreat


In traditional Thai villages, the temple stands as a key part of the community. It is used ceremonially and is usually home to a few monks who maintain its rhythm. The pattern may still be discerned in the cities of that nation, although it takes a quiet eye to appreciate how temples in Bangkok relate to their immediate community. But it is the rural village that provides the ready metaphor for our purposes.


Just as the rural temple stands empty and quiet most of the time while the busyness of everyday life goes on without, so it is as if an inner quiet place exists within each of us. The designs of these buildings suggest that the metaphor is no accident – that the tall temple of calm amidst the activity outside symbolizes a possible larger calmness within our noisy lives. Just as the temple is always open, so is our internal space.


Whether it is a Thai temple, a Muslim mosque or a Christian church, the metaphor is the same, though the locks on some churches confuse the symbolism. In addition to such spatial metaphors, a temporal one is also offered by personal retreats.


When we participate in a spiritual retreat, which necessarily takes us away from everyday life for sufficient time for our mind to calm down to a state that facilitates meditation and reflection, it is similar to taking time to enter the quiet temple in the village. As with the spatial example of the temple, the opportunity to enter is always there – if we choose to accept it.


Entering a quiet central place with such a powerful metaphorical purpose, or of taking time to participate in a retreat in a quiet location among similar-minded people, or alone, is not only conducive to understanding the purpose of life, but is a symbol of knowledge of that purpose.


When we orient our thinking this way, the very sight of a temple in a busy marketplace is enough to remind us of our inner calmness, which is a first step toward developing wisdom. With wisdom, we realize that living well is to fit into the flow that is reality – as distinct from fighting against the flow in the ways that society has elevated to such ‘virtues’ as unnecessary competition and attachment to personal property.


Just as the temple in the village is perceived by many pragmatic modernists as a superstitious aberration, so will the person who takes time out to discover more of himself and the world be seen as aberrant. Even those who seek to retain the temple as a part of cultural heritage may understand neither the metaphor or the person who lives to understand life. And when we see the futility of so many human endeavours that are based on contravening natural flows, we are easily ostracized by those who do not want any reminders of the nagging thought that their lives may be a quest for a mirage. The futility of everyday life includes, for example, the accumulation of possessions in excess of needs or the enforcement of ‘individual rights’ when a wise person knows that no person or entity actually exists in such ‘individual’ isolation from other parts of nature. In this way, the purpose of life, and indeed those who know something of it, may be likened to a …


a village temple or a personal retreat.



So what is it like?


                                    It is like ….


                                                            Being Hard-wired


One can easily be fascinated by today’s neurological research and its related sciences, and their popular journalistic translations. They help us explain ourselves to ourselves, and also offer a basis for communication about our reactions to circumstances and others. Of course, it can be misrepresented and often popular reporting seems to limit itself to what is likely to attract the reader’s eye. When such studies of our brains and minds touch on religious matters, we find that science must restrict its extrapolations. But of course, this does not stop others from claiming certain conclusions that suit their unchallenged beliefs. And in the expression of such events we may see something of reality.


It is, apparently, easily demonstrated that our brains seek something to ‘believe’ in. While hailed by some as a ‘breakthrough’ and ‘proof’ of our basic religious nature, this is an unsurprising discovery, for it is the very way we operate for everything. We accept information via our senses, which provide an indication of some external matter to our brain for interpretation. As that interpretation relies on prior information, we need these mental short cuts to be able to function. Yet, it is the same short cuts that lead us to mistake ropes for snakes, clouds shapes for figures, shadows for ghosts. Indeed the scientific method itself recognizes this limitation to our objectivity which makes us ‘believe’ that something is what our brain says it is, by taking the approach of denying an apparent truth and having to prove that the denial is wrong. The scientific method is an attempt to help us be intellectually honest.


To be honest about neurological findings of our brains’ requirements to find a Truth to believe in, we would have to argue that there is no such requirement. But to me, this seems to be but another circular albeit entertaining exercise, and one fraught with dishonesty for all ‘believers’ – of course in such contexts, atheists, materialists and others with fixed views are also believers. Perhaps a better means is simply what the neurological scientists seem to have done, which is to conduct clever experiments that reveal an apparent tendency for our brains to seek out a basic truth. This is the origin of popular description of ‘being hard-wired’ for religion.


However, good science is not conducted in isolation from other branches of human enquiry, which in this case has produced several theories – that is, ideas that are open to experimental and intellectual challenge for the purposes of advancing knowledge. They are not ‘facts’ and so it seems rather naïve to ‘believe’ in them, yet that is what we often find in people who are unwilling to challenge what the believe. Of the several theories, two are of passing interest in our present context: the first is derived from the evolutionary advantage that religion provided a means in binding humans together to withstand stronger animals, to share limited food in difficult times and to enhance the genetic survival of the group. This theory suggests that belief systems were originally tribally based and expanded to admit similar tribes when this was beneficial and so on until quite different ethnic groups were ‘converted’ into the dominant tribes’ beliefs – and so arose formal religions in prehistory. This may be so, for we are indeed social animals, and not just for fun, but as a requirement for healthy living, even today – the rising health complaints in the rich and individualistic societies indeed suggests an unmet need for integration with other people.


The second theory of interest suggests that our predilection to religion is simply an aberrant evolutionary trait that confers no disadvantage, and is maintained by a quirk of other essential brain functions operating together. Rather like the complex electronic fields created when two large electric motors operate side by side – the motors are required for their specific purposes while the complex electromagnetic field around the two motors is an unnecessary though usually benign by-product. Where a use for the by-product is found, perhaps this theory can be seen to link to the first one.


So far, all of this is part of an ongoing and popular debate. And the debate has little to do with understanding reality as yet. But it is possible to see that the reason we seek is that this is a simple extension of the way our brains work. They also work by screening out painful memories, complexities beyond comprehension. And the conditioning to which we subject ourselves is effectively the erection of more mental screens. To understand reality is to remove these screens. This does not take place as one event, although removal of some major screens is known in religious circles as ‘being born again’, ‘seeing anew’, ‘enlightenment’ and so on.


Without such screening, we see reality clearly. Maybe not all the time, but at times – and in those times, a calm certainty is felt. It is not expressed in fervent action, proselytizing or assumption of monasticism, although actions and situations that are not conducive to living in accord with reality may lead to lifestyle and occupational changes. Seen from this perspective, the ‘hard wiring’ is nothing more than our minds inherent seeking to understand ourselves, which is screened from our consciousness under normal worldly conditioning. In this way, understanding the purpose of life is the same as following our internal feeling to search for the truth – or if you like,


being hard wired.


So what is it like?


                                    It is like ….


                                                            Seeing History as a Metaphor


It once was held that an understanding of history was the sign of a cultivated man. It was also said that to ignore history was to condemn oneself to repeat the same mistakes. As with most popular sayings, there is truth in both. In this page, we explore a deeper and uniting truth to which such sayings may allude.


To see history as fact is to misunderstand it. To fail to see the history we receive within our formal education as biased to support social conformity and stability is likewise to misunderstand history. So if it is not fact or social construct, what is history? Skirting around the perimeter of the ongoing and doomed debate of the future of history that occupies many intelligent persons, we may understand history simply as the creation of a myth to unite a group. When united under a monarch history had a dynastic orientation to defense and conquest, when united under a secular state a history of struggles for equitable systems for all citizens became popular, and now in a period of confronting value and trade groups we may expect to see further revisions. Each is a myth to consolidate views of the ‘citizens’ of an ideology around a common past.


Such an understanding of history is far from original and far from heretical, and has been elaborated eloquently by others. Our concern here is not with the content of history itself, or its transitions, but its importance to understand life. The relationship between history and reality is difficult for some religious persons to accept, especially when, as we have seen above, almost by definition all history misrepresents reality.


History as represented in religious writings partly attempts to record facts important at the time of writing, which was often quite different from the time of the events themselves. But we must ask why these events were ‘recorded’ when others were not – and the obvious answer is that they contain an important message to the group for whom they were written. In this way, they are a form of metaphor if you like. And this is not restricted to official religious writings, for today it enters the supporting genre of history for the religiously environmental. I have discussed this in environmental and agricultural terms elsewhere in more conventional writings – but now musing on those writings, I discover this beautiful metaphorical role of history at a deeper level.


Modern environmental religiosity has produced a theory of expressions of human spirituality. It assumes, with the support of some archaeological evidence, that pre-historical matriarchal religious structures were supplanted by patriarchal religions; the matriarchal religions were associated with agriculture, fertility and reproduction, while the patriarchal religions were those of hunters and semi-nomadic animal herders. These two lifestyles clashed for centuries and are recorded in such stories as Cain and Abel. The revisionists’ history also finds support in the Orphic tradition of the early Neolithic period with its fertility and related rites being seen as diffusion from the Indian Dravidians into Sumer, Egypt and Crete to appear as Dionysism prior to the 1400 BCE Aryan influence in India. Mythically this was relayed in personal terms by the Greeks as the passionless Orpheus being killed and co-opted by the maidens of Dionysius. And vestiges remain today in such forms as the parallels between Orpheus and Christ as shepherds, saviours of souls, and feeding the multitudes on bread and fish. We are attracted to such enduring and powerful metaphors as shepherds of lost souls and saviours that reunite us with the divine and feed our inner feeling of loss.


Is such a version of history true? That is not our concern, as it is unknowable. But the metaphor is clear – not that of one worldview dominating another, but that of history being a record of what a society sees as its way to salvation. At the societal level today, such multiple objectives as defence, cultural preservation, allowing strong leaders to dominate and a desire for a quiet life, conflict with the essential metaphor of the personal search for wholeness. This conflict may not have been as evident when individuals only saw themselves as part a group, not as independent selfs as we moderns do.


In any case, in the modern environmental version of pre-history, we may see a continuation of the essential yearning to reunite with something, to accord with a natural flow. It is this essential yearning for something ‘higher’ that shines through various revisionist histories, be they of Marxists, Nazis or democratic capitalists.


Wisdom includes acknowledgement of this yearning within ourselves. Today, for some, it leads to expressions of environmental care, to others it leads to an appreciation of other cultures, while to yet others it leads to revolutionary ideologies. Whatever the gate, we all display tendencies to seek a developmental path and to follow it. In this way, the purpose of life, and indeed all fields of human creative endeavour, may be understood as ...

 seeing history as a metaphor.



So what is it like?


                                    It is like ….


                                                            Psychological Development


In an age when we middle-class westerners are encouraged to attend to our own psychological development, it is easy to assume that it is the same thing as spiritual development. In fact, it can be in part – but is not the same. If our daily functioning is limited by psychological impediments, then our spiritual development is also impeded – for it requires a balance between psychological, physical and material matters that supports a spiritual life. With the rising popularity in the West of Eastern religions, it is also easy to bend those foreign teachings to serve our modern desires. In this way, the interaction between psychological and spiritual development becomes accepted by many as part of Buddhism. And it is – to the extent that the third of the three ‘baskets’ of the basic Buddhist scriptures deals with many aspects of psychology and the functioning of the mind.


Psychological development assists us to remove the falsity of our views of reality by allowing us to see our biased viewpoints and their causes. Taken to its conclusion, this seems to many people to be the same as complete understanding and adjustment to life. It may well be an improved adjustment to everyday life, but that everyday life is based on the premise of modern society that all persons invest in a strong self and should seek their own happiness. Beneficial as this may appear, it is only a preliminary step towards living in reality.


So here we are considering psychological development as a metaphor for describing the purpose of life – not as an alternative means of achieving that understanding. In psychological development, we come to understand the barriers to our smooth functioning that have been put into our minds by previous conditions, some of which we may even call our ‘character’. This is indeed one insight of an enlightened mind, but is not the only or perhaps the major insight. Yet in metaphorical terms, such psychological development is like the process of understanding the purpose of life for it is based on progressive understanding and action.


To understand reality, we must remove the barriers in our minds and see the interdependent nature of all things including ourselves – not just with other people, but with everything. To know this is to live in a different manner and to understand the naivety of considering ourselves as separate individuals with our own specific rights. Of course, to function in everyday life, we are responsible as individuals, but it almost seems that we are told by today’s society and by the psychological development industry that we should assert our individual rights even at the cost of offending others and other life and non-life forms. What a contrast to the insights that accompany pursuit of contentment with life and all it involves!


But let us return to the metaphor. Just as the step-by-step process of psychological development progressively removes barriers from our psyche, so we become more wise and see more of reality when we know our own mental functioning in order to remove other biases and false views. And just as psychological exercises may be employed to change behaviour, so such wisdom is progressively developed by practicing the virtues exhibited by sages. The metaphor once again slips into parallels when we realize that our false views and counterproductive behaviours are a product of past conditioning and that their correction is effected by the same action – conditioning to correct views and behaviour – which is the way the sages live and lived life.


So while not offering a complete understanding of reality, its processes and general approach suggest that we can see that in some ways, understanding our spiritual selves is like,


psychological development.



So what is it like?


                                    It is like ….


                                                            A Guardian Angel


It is comforting to think of guardian angels protecting us from ill. Even if we do not believe in their existence, they seem to force themselves into consciousness through conversations and in our dependence on the entertainment industry. Even though they are far from the essential teachings of most ‘great’ religions, these invisible beings have withstood all attempts at banishment – to the extent that they seem to reside with the more acceptable divine beings in the minds of many.


We may attribute this persistence to superstition. Or we may see it as a cultural transmission of a deep experience of the mind. In this second sense, we can see that the guardian angel is attributed a retrospective role in having kept us out of harms way. Or when something unpleasant befalls us, we might claim that the guardian angel prevented worse things befalling us. Is this just a ‘look on the bright side’ approach, or is it a representation of a deeper feeling? I think it is useful to consider it as a deeper feeling.


The deeper feeling that something good happened that we did not premeditate may be a recognition of the fundamental way that things are in the universe. The persistent illusion of free-will (of course most disagree that it is an illusion, but it is – as Einstein and others sages back through the ages tried to tell us) under which we live our modern lives easily leads us to think that we ‘plan’ the future, that we understand the complexities that cause events and actions, and that we are somehow independent of others. This is probably why guardian angels and their various divine cousins seem to have vacated the huge cities of the world. Nevertheless, many in society seem willing to at least consider the idea of a guardian angel guiding their life. These seem to be people who are more aware, whether they are just more naturally sensitive or have developed sensitivity through the cultivation of wisdom.


As I write this page overlooking the soupy skyscraper-filled sky of Bangkok, a city named for angels and full of their fanciful icons, I am gazed on by a French ange guardian formed from two scraps of Greek driftwood. I feel his two eyes, the only facial features added to this weathered wood. I do not feel I am being guarded – but then this is not my angel, it is Simone’s. What I do feel is a reminder of Simone and her stories – and the eyes. Perhaps it is the eyes that remind me of the futility of acting as if I can control all things. Is this a small appreciation of what others attribute to their invisible non-objets d’art?


The realization that control is an illusion is part of understanding reality. From that point, we come to realize that life itself is but a flow of various forces. What we label as life and death is simply a ready basis for everyday communication, but the differences are no more real than the conventions of black and white, infrared or ultraviolet, ideas or anything defined in terms of difference from another thing. The beginning of this realization is a feeling that there is a way things fit together, and a warmness towards being part of that fit. If we attribute this warmness to a guardian angel, it seems to me no more harmful than attributing protection to a god. In fact, it may be helpful if it leads us to the next step of seeing through such artificial divine beings to appreciate reality itself.


So, in this way, understanding reality is like seeing beyond …


a guardian angel.


So what is it like?


                                    It is like ….


                                                            The Difference Between Science and Technology


Science enters almost every modern person’s vocabulary as part of everyday life. Yet its meaning, like so many commonly used terms, varies greatly between users. To some, science is the means of understanding the processes of life, to others it is the means of producing new gadgets, to others it is what they ‘do’, while to yet others it is an approach to life. And the variations extend to ‘scientists’ – we only have to read newspapers’ Letters to Editors sections to see such opening words as (that presumably refer to some basic university degree) ‘as a scientist …’ followed by demonstrations of logical naivety and ignorance incompatible with science.


The economic expansionist model of our society contributes to the confusion by talking of science and technology as if they always relate to each other. This of course is supported by the employment of scientists being biased towards the development of technology at the same time that the public is enticed to expect more gadgets in return for governmental contributions to ‘science’. It is not my purpose to argue against our current system, or to suggest that it can be easily or even beneficially changed – for the system is simply a product of our desires, whether they are realistic or not.


Nevertheless, the distinction between science and technology serves as one more reminder of reality. In fact, science itself serves as a path for many persons to understand something of reality. For those whose minds understand life and the world in the way of science, it is only a short step to being overwhelmed by the inter-related complexity of life or the lack of real distinctions between two life forms, or the activity of ‘inert’ forms, to mention a few examples. And to understand this is a step towards wisdom. Sometimes even technology, the focused application of practical outcomes from scientific understanding combined with other practical knowledge, can offer the same path to others whose minds are more mechanically oriented.


But it seems more usual in modern society, with its calculated approaches accompanied with stress and rush, that technologists are engaged in using or modifying tools developed to serve modern life – and so engaged, they have little time or space to reflect on the beauty of the natural matters in which they may be engaged. The same may be said of the scientist whose research is oriented to generating knowledge to assist in improving a technology. For me the obvious example is agricultural science which today has become much more technology than the integrative science that it once was.


Where a pure scientist exists, it seems easier to imagine a reverence for the life being studied. Reverence too is a step toward wisdom. We need not invoke nostalgia for the 19th century English and French gentlemen scientists, or even the generous funding systems of the 1970s for discovery science for such unattached enquiry and reverence. We see it demonstrated in such statements as the Open Letter from Leading Scientists and Religious Leaders at the 2000 Global Forum Conference in Moscow, which includes the following words. As scientists, many of us have had profound experiences of awe and reverence before the universe. We understand that what is regarded as sacred is more likely to be treated with care and respect. Our planetary home should be so regarded. Efforts to safeguard and cherish the environment need to be infused with a vision of the sacred. At the same time, a much wider and deeper understanding of science and technology is needed. If we do not understand the problem, it is unlikely we will be able to fix it. Thus, there is a vital role for both religion and science.


But even this statement, so beloved of environmentalists and apparently acknowledging a spiritual dimension that would lead toward the purpose of life and wisdom, is cast into practical technological terms when it assumes an ability to control and to fix nature.


If we see this as a committee-generated statement including aspects of reverence from some scientists while others limit themselves to technological orientations, we may glean something of the difference between the two that incidentally mirrors the fine line between seeking to fill the void we feel in life with new ‘gadgets’ and recognizing an empty feeling as our erroneous understanding of reality.


We may even go further with the analogy by recalling that the word ‘science’ is derived from scientia, which was originally considered one form of knowledge that was balanced by combination with the other, sapientia. Our narrow use of the word science today indicates our orientation to technological utility, an observation that is reinforced by our almost total neglect of sapiential, that is experiential, knowledge. In the near absence of this word in our modern vocabulary, we may cultivate an awareness of the huge difference between seeking to understand nature including ourselves that is the objective of science, and the creation of new means of manipulating nature to suit unnecessary ends, as is often the objective of so much technology.


Some of us see purpose in striving to consciously live in accord with nature of which we are but one part, and that the remoteness of this ideal makes striving the main part of that purpose – a striving to understand how to live without any specific selfish goal. And so science, when it is allowed to exist without being yoked to practical technological products, may be seen as a metaphor for seeking to know reality. In this way reality is like …


the difference between science and technology.


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