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We all want to live in favorable conditions. Your definition of favorable may differ from mine, and what I think is good for me may indeed be favorable – but how can an unenlightened man know? The answer is – ‘gradually’. And this answer shows recognition of the overriding importance of choosing wisely, for in many ways we choose the conditions that surround us.
How do we choose the conditions that surround us? We know we cannot affect the big things such as climate change, our own physical and mental limitations or even some family relations. But in the West, many of us can choose our employment, or even choose not to work conventionally. Of course such choices affect our incomes and lifestyles, but this simply indicates that these too are choices. These are hard matters for us to accept and are not relevant or essential to an understanding of reality, which is dependent on our attitudes to these things, and to other conditions.
Other conditions that affect our peace of mind and ability to understand life are said by the wise to be things like meditation, friends, habits and so on. This is true in the sense that we adapt to and are often trapped by the world around us, as described by Roger Shepherd’s simple yet arresting statement … adaptions to universal features of our world are apt to escape our notice simply because we do not observe anything with which such adaptions stand in contrast. But even a little trial of ethical action or meditation is sufficient to show validity of our entrapment by our ‘adaptation’ or ‘conditions’, and this is enough to also show that we are capable of change. This is what Socrates had in mind when he concluded that … the unexamined life is not worth living. And once we examine life, it is never the same again.
So how can we live in favorable conditions? Some examples proven across the centuries include practicing to increase the frequency of moments when we are at one with all things. It is not a once-and-for-all realization, but a series of events, the frequency of which we may cultivate – and ‘to cultivate’ means to ensure favorable conditions. Just as a farmer ensures favorable conditions for a productive crop, so may we for our own development. This is what Buddhism calls, ‘conditionality’ and to deeply recognize its action and live in accord with it is to live in heaven.
Conditionality is said to work both positively and negatively. If its ‘positive’ operation is to assist us to live naturally, its ‘negative’ operation is to hamper such understanding. But in fact, conditionality itself is neutral; it is simply a description of the operation of the universe, from cosmic levels to everything that occurs in our minds. And it is recognizing the action of conditionality in and on our minds that explains such mundane things as the benefit of mixing with and emulating the wise, meditative prayer and cultivating altruistic actions. By such conditions, one might say that that we are affected as if by an addictive drug, once tasted more is needed. That drug metaphor is very limited insofar as the internal demand for more is not felt in an addictive sense – but the effect within us may be similar insofar as it changes our internal makeup. It may even be that similar biochemical and neurological changes occur in our minds, brains and bodies – but that is not the point, for even if we can explain such a mechanism one day, the insights of ages long past have already defined the practical actions of conditionality sufficiently for us to know reality.
If we are defined by the conditions that pervade us, why is it that we so often define ourselves as … what we understand ourselves to be, because we are composed entirely of beliefs about ourselves and about the world we inhabit, to paraphrase Michael Oakeshott? The reason is, as we saw before, that we ignore conditionality – we reason, for example, that we can just undertake one unethical act in order to gain sufficient resources to do good, and in so doing ignore the effect of the unethical act on our make-up. Once done, such acts are ever easier on subsequent occasions – we only have to look at the way over-consumption becomes expected among our peers, or how soldiers are conditioned to inflict tortures that would have revolted them a few months before their ‘conditioning’.
In fact, in the modern West and its acolyte cities of emerging economies, we are conditioned to consume more, even to add ‘spirituality’ to our list of consumables, usually under the category of ‘health’. One would think that such a blatant operation of conditionality should open our eyes to its pervasive operation – yet somehow, a blind spot becomes ever more opaque and we miss the point that such actions as prayer, meditation, ethical action, balanced reflection and the cultivation of wisdom are also conditioning. We also seem blind to the other forces that drive us, forces originating in our less comfortable past. Of course we seek to be comfortable – we can see no error in seeking to live in favorable conditions because, it seems that this indeed is natural – all animals do the same.
The only difference between animals and humans, as sages have ever shown us, is which favorable conditions are sought – if it is for more consumption of unnecessary things and experiences, then that is what we will find ourselves doing. This is the objective of commercial advertising; it has no other purpose. The sages, ancient and modern, are telling us that ethical behaviour is that which places us in conditions that are conducive to our understanding of reality, which just as for hedonism and compulsive shopping, is self-reinforcing. In this way, really understanding life is encouraged by, and also is itself like …
living in favorable conditions.
The peace that accompanies understanding of the purpose of life arrives with a realization that all things are linked together – linked as if stitched by an invisible thread. We may see this in everything, although in our usual deluded state we seldom see it.
This is another demonstration of conditionality as previously discussed. It is as if we seek to create our ‘own reality’, and in fact we hear this term used in everyday circumstances. But what is ‘a’ reality – how can there be more than one? Such descriptions often serve to delude us and to comfort us in our delusion. ‘What’s real (valid) for you isn’t necessarily real (valid) for me’ is an exemplar of both the individualization that our society reinforces, and of the limitations of our perceptive abilities. It is logically related to such obviously fallacious yet common statements as ‘seeing is believing’. David Bolm has described it like this … Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we perceive depends on what we look for. What we look for depends on what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality. But of course, it is not really reality!
The limitations of our perceptive capacity are clear. If we mis-perceive something, then our ‘reality’ is erroneous. In such a deluded state, we marvel at coincidences, seek distractions when ‘our reality’ is challenged and arrogantly approach life as if we are in control of it. But as we have seen above, clear understanding of reality sheds light on the interrelationships that are coincidences, on the delusion of dark distractions, and our arbitrary and ignorant interpretation of events that we arrogantly assume we have controlled.
With insight, we see distractions for what they are – attempts to suppress the symptoms of emptiness that pervade a life lived out of kilter with reality. When we see things thus, we also see what is linked to what and notice patterns – and importantly, we note that many of our actions, habits and desires diverge from the thin thread that stitches all things together. And when we pull against that thread, the fabric of ‘our’ life must surely tear. This explains why those who have seen something of reality usually simplify their lives, even if they are busy and involved people – for they notice and shed whatever is unnecessary and distracting.
Yet in our usual diverted state, we arrogantly seek to direct the universe or at least that part we think affects us – as captured in Leon Lederman’s prayer of the theoretician: Dear Lord, forgive me the sin of arrogance, and Lord, by arrogance I mean the following … . In terms of our stitching metaphor, it is as if we ignore the line of the thread and jump to other imagined threads and then try to force them to intertwine.
The cohesiveness of the thread may also be seen, at least metaphorically but perhaps with an underlying measure of fact, in the practice of mindfulness through meditation on one’s breath as is common across Buddhist and Hindu practices. In our modern scientific parlance our brains are viewed as three evolutionary units – the primitive reptilian brain, the limbic brain and the sophisticated conscious brain. Thus a scientific metaphor, if you like, arises whereby concentrating on one’s breath links to our reptilian brain. While our breathing is automated by our reptilian brain and made to accord with the external environment by our limbic brain, it is observed and can be intentionally modified by our conscious brain. Thus the meditation practice unites the three brains on a theme – ‘stitching’ them, if you like, into one continuum. More than metaphorically, I like to think that this explains the feeling of calmness and contentment that meditation on the breath induces.
Whether the brain metaphor has a basis in science or not, it serves to illustrate the links that we are describing. We may go further and note that the stitching that forms a suture is the same word as the Eastern religious word ‘sutra’, which is usually taken to mean scriptures, but which originally was simply a thread – a thread running through a long discourse to reveal a common theme and lesson. Thus the Eastern rambling approach to sermons and texts differs from the West’s hierarchical approach by using the mind’s ability to discern the thread to receive messages from a form that can be revisited and reread to gain ever more depth of meaning.
This early recognition of the processes of our minds has informed teaching methods long before modern hierarchical logic was assumed to be a superior means to impart the facts needed to operate in a technologically-oriented society. It remains an interesting and useful observation that Eastern modes of teaching and reasoning often provide a thread that can lead us around the obstacles of logic created by digitized thinking.
So in these and many other ways we may see reality as like a religious teaching, where there is …
a suture stitching all together – a sutra.
We all experience some moments as seemingly longer than others. It emphasizes me that ‘time’ as we measure is nothing more than a convention. Of course it gets dark in the evening, and light in the morning – but the very variations in daylength further suggest the artificiality of our clock time. To standardize or ‘control’ our time, we of the middle latitudes accept that it is dark at 6pm in winter yet bright sunlight at the same time in summer. Such petty observations are themselves insights into reality. For how can clock time be more important to our lives than diurnal, seasonal and other variations that have formed our species over hundreds of millennia!
Yet clock time allows us to coordinate with other people and, for better or worse, to make a continuum out of our lives. This is useful to an extent for the continuous search for understanding ourselves, but when such time and ‘selves’ become accepted as ‘real’ and important above our basic natures, we act out of accord with reality. This is one explanation for the association between stresses and physical sickness, and their rising incidence in modern urban societies, where the moments that slip away when we are engaged in a task that unites our hearts and minds are viewed as ‘time-wasting’.
For me, such ‘time-wasting’ activities include musing over half-formed lines of poetry to capture a flow, a feeling, a metaphor, a moment, a rhyme, a rhythm. In such moments, it is almost as if the poem is writing itself, or even that the poem is writing me – and hours can slip away unnoticed. My whole being seems part of the act and the product is not the poem but the moment itself.
Such moments are recognized in the so-called creative fields, but they potentially occur everywhere. The wood-turner who spends hours at his lathe that he experiences as minutes, the farmer who becomes lost in his observations of his paddocks and cattle and forgets lunch, the seamstress who becomes one with her sewing, the laboratory researcher who fails to notice the arrival of evening when absorbed in his experiments – all are the same as the artist. It happens as I write these lines.
One moment I recall took place on a perfect southern Australian day with a spring sun and light breeze in my forest retreat. I was walking slowly down the road singing aloud to myself while checking noxious weeds when a beautiful black snake glided out of the grass as if to listen to me – and the beauty of the moment transcended time. It was an experience of wholeness, of unity and it affected me so much that I reflected on it immediately afterwards and jotted down a few lines that spontaneously came to me. They emerged as Black Beauty.
Euphoric stroll inspecting weed,
hymning loudly to no-one and me,
I stop to savour the high – I’m freed,
by the song, the air, the sky – the trees.
Then you take form, to me appear,
like a spectre from out the tall grass,
and your mantle shining black me nears,
reflecting sun’s warmth as you pass.
Your body curves sensually,
as that moment we silently share,
your hazel eyes undress me slowly,
inviting my soul to you bare.
Across wide lips your tongue quick flicks,
as you meander around with grace,
as if the taste of the air you lick,
confirms us both part of this place.
We share eternity, then the ’phone,
invokes time, and you nervously glance,
and slip to the field leaving the koan –
what world can replace heaven’s dance?
This is part of the meaning of eternity as mentioned in all sacred literatures. Blake knew this when he wrote,
He who binds himself to a joy, doth a winged life destroy
he who kisses joy as it flies, lives in eternity’s sunrise
At the same time he explained why we usually miss this experience – we cling to desirable things and experiences and hence their absence seems so drawn-out. Those who can accept things as they occur are not weak or meek fatalists who do not seek to improve their lot, as is so often leveled in criticism of their explanations of bliss and equanimity. No, these are usually wise persons who understand the flow of nature and hence live within reality and consequently are at ease with the world. This is how the ‘meek inherit the earth’, as a great sage adopted by Western culture apparently said.
But such sayings from our ‘old’ religion are known by but a few in the current generations, and among that few who have accepted the gift of such words, most have at the same time been deprived of independent thought to know their meaning. To move to a religious state that suits our modern psyche remains the challenge of tomorrow, as it has long been recognized by some of our great minds, such as Einstein who, according to Norbu said … The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It will have to transcend a personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Encompassing both the natural and the spiritual, it will have to be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, considered as a meaningful unity. ... If there is any religion that could respond to the needs of modern science, it would be Buddhism.
We are not here concerned with either Buddhism or Christianity or any other institutionalized religion, but rather with the essence of spirituality and the teachings of sages from all cultures that help us understand life. And we find in all of them such common elements as eternity rather than clock-time, experience rather than blind belief, and creativity rather than materiality. This is a means of understanding how time passes at different rates. And that is how living in reality can be seen as like …
not experiencing time passing.
The ideal of the ‘enlightened’ person or ‘one who walks in the Lord’ or whatever religious metaphor one chooses, has been misused, causing unnecessary confusion and suffering. Those who have an overview of human nature argue that most people just want to be told what to believe, while others seek to belong to a group so much that they are willing to blindly accept its ideas. Thus, it is argued – if this is what people want, this is what religions provide. Even if this is true, it is a misuse of the teachings of the great persons of history from Hebrew prophets, to the Buddha, to Jesus and Mohamed, to modern day sages.
In fact, such great persons of history seem to be conglomerates constructed from the teachings of sages that preceded them, and the stories of their lives have clearly been constructed as teachings of the ideal life. Such a statement, heretical as it may sound to those who ‘believe’ something uniquely holy about their idol, is in fact a liberation from the strictures of unthinking belief. And when we examine the teachings and the teachers in this way we learn that the experience of insight is open to all and comes periodically – and that insight is wisdom, which is knowing reality. The teachers described this experience and ways to cultivate its increasing frequency, for to experience such moments of wisdom is what some religions call ‘heaven’.
The cultivation of that experience is the purpose of prayer for Christianity and meditation in Eastern religions. And the wisdom that is its cultivation is both ancient and new. Ancient, as it is described in texts of more than two millennia ago, and new in the discoveries of science that are beginning to show biochemical support for such experiences. The Buddhist meditation known as ‘metabhavana’ or ‘cultivation of loving-kindness’ is an example. The meditation follows a procedure to develop the feeling of love and kindness focusing first on ourselves, then on those close to us, then on those we hardly know, then on those with whom we are in conflict and finally on all persons and all beings.
Described this way, the metabhavana sounds naïve. But it works. And it works because it is based on detailed experiential research conducted millennia ago, which revealed the workings of human minds. In a way it is trusting in the natural flows of life – for the teachings of those ancient sages did not concentrate on how the mechanisms of the mind worked but on practical ways of encouraging the mind to fit in with reality.
Today, we explain things to ourselves through science, and current research seems to indicate a linkage between trust and the hormone regime, primarily oxytocin, associated with feelings of love and kindness. Superficial approaches to love promoted in our society have love and trust together, but to limit the import of the current research to such a conclusion is facile and self-serving. Its more important revelation may well be in explaining that, when we create a mood of loving-kindness, through meditation for example, we produce this positive hormone regime within ourselves. This leads us to trust the interrelated processes of nature, which is living within reality.
Such an abiding in trust is an expression of wisdom. It is not blindly following what others say or sitting still in the face of danger – no, it is a discerning capacity to act within the natural way of things. And with this wisdom comes a confidence in the judgments of sages who have suggested the conditions that are conducive to developing further wisdom, and the conditions that work against the development of wisdom. It enables, for example, an understanding of the futility of much of the world’s daily pursuits, not because the things pursued are flawed, but because the motivation behind their pursuit is deluded.
In this way, the Hebrew king’s realization that ‘all is vanity’ takes on a clear and simple everyday meaning, applying to such things as mortgages, work, freedoms and even romance. Trust in life in this way is more akin to the wisdom demonstrated, for example, by a skilled and caring doctor in an affluent Western city who chooses to live simply in a rented house and to cultivate wisdom rather than accumulate assets. All cultures have long known that the world works mainly in delusion – and that to criticize it is to be ostracized. In our own culture, we use the character of Macbeth as an example when he describes life as a ‘tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.
Yet we continually strive to understand the world and indeed the universe. Weinberg appears to have linked the Shakespearian statement to this yearning for understanding, when he says that ‘the effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce and gives it some of the grace of tragedy’. Such explanations sound heavy and pessimistic to some, but in fact are liberating compared to the prison of such everyday illogicalities as needing a new car to drive to work to earn enough money to pay interest on the car and a house in a location distant from that work, family and old friends. For to see the ‘grace of tragedy’ is to realize that we usually are acting out of accord with reality and when as a consequence, our hopes are shattered in tragedy, we catch a glimpse of reality – and that is grace.
It may not be what some religions call grace but this is what it is meant to mean – catching a glimpse of reality and feeling that one can have complete trust in life. When we say someone has ‘fallen from grace’, we should mean that their success was related to their understanding of reality and working within it, and that when they ceased to act in accord with reality, they became less successful. But we usually forget the meaning of words and sayings when we are deluded by our everyday distractions.
To be aware of the distracting character of so much of man-made life and to understand the real matter of being human, is like …
an abiding trust in life.
To know reality is to experience heaven. This is not only a metaphor like many of the other entries in this book, it is also literal – except that heaven does not literally exist as a place. This is the same heaven that, if we take just one tradition, is referred to in the Bible when it is understood spiritually. We could equally well have chosen ‘nirvana’ or other descriptions of the highest state from other traditions. But in English language it is easier to source references to ‘heaven’ for they are plentiful.
When Jesus is said to have referred to ‘the kingdom of heaven’, I see it to mean the state of existing in accord with reality – an experience on earth in everyday circumstances. We often delude ourselves that it referred to a post-death state and place. Ironically, we seem to do this to in order to separate ourselves from the conditions recommended for achieving that heavenly state, and to comfort ourselves when faced with death. These are just examples of the unhealthy attachments that dominate our everyday life – in the same way that the rich man in the parable was too unhealthily attached to his riches to cultivate the state of heaven.
We may find further clues to heaven in the Bible, but we must be careful. One can find parts of the texts to support the strangest conclusions, as has been the wont of the groups through history, such as to support slavery, to kill non-Christians and to ban science. As Polkinghorne has noted, ‘the Bible is not a convenient divinely dictated handbook in which to look up the answers, but it is the record of the persons and events that have been particularly open to the presence of the divine reality and through which the divine nature may most transparently be discerned.’ It is that divine nature, which is part of us and us of it, that we may discern in those scriptures and with this realization, we see that we are being offered means of living in heaven in everyday life.
The beatitudes, loved by non-Christians and Christians alike as the heart of Jesus’ message, tell us that those who are unattached to possessions and those who are unattached to social acceptance know the kingdom of heaven and God. The child’s simple understanding, as distinct from the projections, inventions, protections and other delusions of adult minds, is similarly likened to the mental state of one who is experiencing heaven. Other references abound, including insightful predictions about some persons who are close to the state of heaven and who will experience it by continuation of their practice.
But heaven is not a continuous state. It is experienced in some moments and not others, and the objective of the ethical and mind-training actions recommended in the scriptures is to increase the frequency of the experience – as we have seen so many times earlier in these pages. Such states may well be brought on by anguish, such as in tales of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane or on his cross, which culminated in his moving into a heavenly state. Of course, the nature of religion easily blinds the literalists to the intention of the stories and so we might expect that some of these explanations are ‘rejected and despised’, as the Truth usually is.
The best life is to experience heaven. It is as simple as that. The means to do this have been detailed by every culture. The obvious question is – why are these approaches so similar across cultures that have developed largely independently? And the obvious answer is that the search for a higher state, the experience of that higher state and the means to attain that higher state are fundamental aspects of being human. Those who prefer the alternative explanation of a divine presence sending down a revelationary message, even to the ‘savages’, grasp part of the point and may well later transcend the role of God in our understanding of ourselves.
For once a person is in the state of heaven, he understands reality and moves within it, only seeking to influence things when it is possible and useful. This also explains why wise persons can act with real compassion, sometimes by letting self-induced suffering go on so that the sufferer may eventually realize the source of his suffering. In our ignorant states, we more usually take the path of pity more than compassion and we comfort the sufferer and may thereby reinforce his self-punishing actions. There is no rule that can cover each circumstance and action – the essence is acting out of wisdom, including being unattached to an outcome, discriminating between actions and genuinely feeling with the other person and life forms.
So it is that to be wise is to live in …
Suffering is what we spend our lives seeking to avoid. Even masochists do this, though their inverted preferences for pain can make it seem as if they like to suffer – a useful analogy for us to return to later. Suffering includes experiencing what we do not like and not having what we do like, and thus it can apply to most things in life. We might like a better selection of television programs, a more attentive lover or some understanding of why life seems so inconsistent and random. To not have these is one form of suffering, just as suffering is also experiencing things we do not want, such as having to work in the hot sun, visit boring relatives or just living in an imperfect world.
But we do live in the world and there is no choice. To really live life is to live in the very best way possible, the way that is most free of suffering. And the reason suffering is ubiquitous is clear. When we crave or just ‘want’ things to be or not be a certain way, we establish mental conditions in ourselves that ensure that we will be disappointed when things do not turn out the way we wanted. Even if we get what we want, the cost, the related effects or the transience of the desired object may well produce disappointment after momentary satisfaction. Disappointment is perhaps the most common form of suffering. It is not enough to say with Longfellow that into each life some rain must fall in order to value the sunny times, for that is a very basic type of life. No, such things are best accepted as they are, that which is being experienced at that time – the now. The only answer to this problem of suffering is to recognize the source of our suffering
We cause our own suffering – by creating mental states that can only lead to disappointment, or even by creating the conditions that lead to physical suffering. The trick is to recognize this happening in ourselves and to prevent the establishment of those conditions. This is not to say we should remove ourselves from the world – as if we could anyway! But it is to be aware of all we think and do, so that we might avoid unhealthy attachments. And unhealthy attachments are just a form of obsession. We talk of obsessions in psychology – why do we not relate this more deeply to our modern lifestyles, for then we would see how caught up we are in ‘needing’ new things, on relying on advertising to create new ‘needs’ for us and in acting out an unconsidered role as the basis for our lives? Perhaps the answer is that much of what we think is essential to life would be seen for what it is – unnecessary and counter to our real happiness.
To live a life free of suffering is an ideal. It requires wisdom and whenever a sage lapses in his awareness, he is as likely to suffer as anyone else. Perhaps the only difference is that the sage will see immediately that he has caused the suffering, for suffering itself becomes his means of renewing his awareness. How do we live wisely? By ensuring that the conditions that impact on us are as conducive to our development as possible – for some of us this means changing associates and occupations, for others it means concentrated meditation, for others it means modifying what we say, and so on – it has all be listed 2,000 years ago and countless times ever since.
So why is suffering not addressed in this way in our Western societies? To see the answer to this question is to begin to understand the structure of our society and the aspects of it that run counter to our spiritual interests. For much of our society relies on the creation of ‘needs’, which are supposedly met with ‘goods’ without any consideration of their associated ‘bads’. The ‘bads’ in this sense are the conditions that are not conducive to our understanding the purpose of life. The main religion of the West in fact studies suffering and produces often confused arguments to explain why a good God would allow suffering, and then mixes this with the supposed suffering of Jesus’ crucifixion. The message of the religion has been missed. It may be better understood from its spiritual intentions than from popular or church dogma – and the essential message is one of ‘first seeking the kingdom’, which is the highest human state and letting all other things come as they might or might not. It is the same teachings as Buddhism and other traditions if we will only take our eyes off the transient glamour of modern ‘needs’ and reactivate our minds rather than trust religious ‘belief’.
The ‘needs’ of modern life in fact are inverted in such a way that a wise man might see our usual life as masochistic. We think we need items such as fine houses, money in the bank, status and power – but what we really need in physical terms are basic food, basic shelter, basic clothes for warmth and basic health care when sick. After that, the rest is only useful if it serves to further improve our ability to achieve the full human potential. This personal quest comes before missionary activity or consuming charity work, for as the wise have always said, ‘you cannot help another unless you have the wisdom to see his real needs’ – when the four basics are met a person’s real needs may in fact be better met by them solving their own problems. If we could only see that …
Real life is logical and emotionally engaging. It is also easily diverted into unfulfilling alternative channels, which can range from recreational shopping to extreme adaventure sports to technological diversions. Yet what is distraction for one, can be a pathway to understanding life for another. Only a wise man could see which is which at the time. There are as many paths to understanding the purpose of life as there are people searching for it, and the ever-present goad of suffering is perhaps our best teacher. In this way the purpose of life is like …
‘Dying well’ is deliberately ambiguous. It means dying in good health. And it means performing the act of dying well. Good health means much more than physical health – in fact, you could say that everything we have discussed is real health. So is the act of ‘dying well’, not in some predetermined religious or socially-accepted manner, but as part of life. For to live well includes the final act of life.
On of the many burdens that our society has laden on us are counterproductive attitudes and processes to dying. Death is now so sanitized that it is quite possible to live one’s whole life without seeing a dead body, or even recognizing the death we require as part of our meat-eating lifestyles. And just as we might all learn more of life, and eat less meat, if the meat we ate was killed by our own hands, so it seems that we deprive ourselves of a critical part of life by separating ourselves from the dying and the dead.
Some may think this separation of death from life is a Western custom, but it seems to be more a modern sensitivity that has accompanied our deeper dive into delusion, supported by material comfort and unprecedented expectations of longevity and health. It seems almost universally accepted that a ‘good death’ is one that occurs suddenly because the person ‘did not suffer’ – but this is usually referring to physical pain, and when we peek beneath such unconsidered comments, we may see our own subconscious relief that we did not have to suffer the pain of seeing someone die.
Such a concern for a good death may have traditional roots in all societies; even gravesites of Neanderthals suggest some concern. But until quite recently, Western culture had a ‘concern with a good death and the dread of a sudden death’. Polkinghorne explains that a bad death is one that came ‘upon a person unprepared. For centuries, a staple of Christian spirituality was the production of a wealth of little treatises on Ars Moriendi (the art of dying). To die in a state of grace, shriven of the sins of this world, was the great completion to achieve in life, even if it were attained at the very last moment “between the stirrup and the ground” ’.
What a contrast, and what a confusion. The purpose of life is not greatly assisted by either our modern or our earlier approaches to dying, although our modern version does take delusion to new social heights. The purpose of life is to understand and live within reality, and as death is an obvious and essential part of life, hiding from its reality is truly delusory. Living and dying is part of the cycle of life, and in our wise moments we tend to notice the cyclical nature of all things – even of societal views. So it is that we have a cyclical re-emergence of a concern with dying as comfortably as possible, including psychological comfort. We see this in the admirable work of palliative care workers, and sometimes among the aged.
But in drawing lessons from modern palliative care, there is a perhaps necessary tendency to deal with dying separate from living – perhaps necessary because the dying person has not been known to the carer until he becomes a ‘palliative case’. From that growing pool of documentation, we have such conclusions as Ira Byock’s that the four most important exchanges between the dying and living loved ones are ‘please forgive me’, ‘I forgive you’, ‘thank you’, and ‘I love you’. It is ‘about cleaning up and “becoming current” in our relationships with the people in our lives who matter most’.
But Byock has only administered our current society’s Band-Aid to our psychic wound. For dying well is in fact just part of living well. Buddhists put some effort into this, but the very tolerance of Buddhism means that it includes a plethora of metaphors and interpretations the process of dying and death. So some Westerners prefer the literal interpretations of Tibetan dying and post-death experiences, while others work to develop an understanding of reality that includes death and do not concern themselves with what cannot be known. I mention this only to illustrate that there are no simple formulae for dying well, not even in the most rational religions. Many Christian approaches have yielded to literal interpretations of an afterlife mixed with earlier animistic beliefs, and such approaches today offer little hope beyond delusory comfort.
Yet there are those in Christianity and Buddhism, as there is everywhere else, who understand the concept of ‘dying well’ as part of life. We see these persons but often do not notice them – they can accept death and grief as normal and real, they contemplate their own dying and death without fear, and they make no judgement on us when we collapse with the shattering of our delusions. It is these delusions that we continually shore up as a wall to hide death, for if we faced it as part of life, we could not support the delusions by which we live most of the time, such as our belief in our control of situations, ourselves and the environment.
It is just about dying well but about living well. And to live well, we must be as healthy as possible, including mentally healthy. In this way we can progressively understand reality including the reality of death and its link with life, and we can see that life includes …
We have considered so many allegories, metaphors and descriptions of real life, of reality, of enlightenment, of heaven, of true wisdom – or whatever it is called in different cultures and by different people. The vagueness of the approach and our need to use such multiple names and means of saying ‘what it is like’ demonstrates that the language of our everyday communication is not oriented to this subject. Nevertheless, we read and hear of attempts over millennia to explain what the wise have learned, and the meagre attempts herein are simply a path towards those more insightful writings. However, ever since such things have been transmitted, there has always been a tendency for them to fall under the twin spells of competition for power and living to satisfy the senses, with the primary tool for both being literal interpretation of those wise metaphoric writings.
For example, when the wise man adopted by the Western culture is described as advising a rich young man who seeks contentment to give away his possessions to the poor, a common interpretation of the story seems to be one of social equity. But the intent of the story was and is to point out the barrier that attachment to our possessions can pose to our living within reality. Those who argue for the former definition unwittingly follow a self-serving argument that allows their unthinking involvement in what, through an effective redefinition of the word, is now called ‘charity’ – the condescending assistance offered to those who are ‘worse off than ourselves’, which without wisdom becomes is a far cry from the compassion and kindness once ascribed to the word.
Those who insist on Jesus’ words above having some fiscal meaning have taken the common partial and literal interpretation – and they have conveniently ignored another reference ascribed to him that ‘the poor will be with you always’. This again refers to the imperative of pursuing personal spiritual development that produces the wisdom to discern what is sufficient in our own lives and to know how to really help others – which often means doing nothing until a time when intervention will make a real difference.
This is not an argument in support of the hard-hearted attitude that underlies attitudes of those who live in rich countries and offer decreasing aid to poorer countries each year, which we sometimes hear expressed in terms of people ‘getting off their bum and doing something to help themselves’. It is an argument for wisdom. Neither does this mean ‘wisdom informing compassion’ in the colloquial sense because that usually treats wisdom as built from information when in fact that is only part of it. Rather it means as stated above, that wisdom only exists as an expression of knowing reality, knowing life, living in heaven and so on as the metaphors go.
With a literal orientation to scripture, it is easy to level a criticism of the wise discrimination advocated in this page in terms of ‘judge not and be not judged’ – and that would be so much nonsense! The literal interpretation assumes that somehow a guarantee exists that if one does not judge – usually defined as ‘criticize’ – then one can enjoy living free of being criticized by others. Attempts to live in this way exist in insulated and often wealthy communities who design their religion to support the lifestyle – but their weekday activities belie the reality of such ‘Stepford Paradises’. In any case, criticism is ever present in all but enlightened states – this page may be read as a criticism of that insularity and assumed superiority.
What the words are intended to mean is that it is impossible to define right and wrong, good and bad, or anything unless one has wisdom. ‘Vanity, vanity, all is vanities’ – all is only opinion, and to judge from the basis of opinion would be anathema to all of us if we only realized that our ignorance most often blinds us to reality. So by maturing from ignorance, we may see things ‘clearly in the mirror’. We do this in moments of insight, and the purpose of life is to cultivate the increasing frequency of such moments and to live one’s life to do this. The product of living in this way is that one’s actions conform to wise compassion without effort.
When we witness an example of wise compassion, unless we are so clouded by our ignorance, delusion and ill-will toward others, we cannot help but be encouraged in our path. The passerby who stopped to talk with a stinking beggar covered in sores has often given him more than those who have hastily discharged a coin. The father who eventually sees the repetitive nature of a son’s problems and stops trying to ‘solve’ them may well be acting with more compassion than when he simply gave money or ‘rectified’ the current problem, for the son may then look into his own actions. And so on.
Thus in so many ways, we have seen that the good life is based on pursuing spiritual development. It is obvious to those with eyes to see that this is the missing ingredient in the material paradise that the West enjoys, and which is spreading across the rest of the globe. And with spiritual development, wisdom and compassion come as natural behavioural expressions. This is how reality is like …
the wisdom of compassion.
Enjoying life is accepting reality, and that is accepting the good life. This is not some ‘fatalistic’ resignation to being a victim, nor is it a license to withhold assistance from someone in need. Rather it is complete acceptance of reality such that we seek to live in accord with it all the time. These pages are attempts at describing reality in prose, allegory, parable and metaphor – but they do not differ from those of the past four millennia, or even earlier for all we know!
But we cannot just select convenient explanations for ‘successful’ societies as being enlightened, such as popular Western praise of the Confucian ethic of hard work, which is a simplistic presentation of a sophisticated society that in fact valued Confucian social guidelines balanced with following the spiritual Tao path for those so inclined, the comfortably-off and the aged. Most never rose above hard work, except by aging. Some today are trapped in just the hard work and riches ethic without the balancing Tao, which has been lost with the cultural impoverishment of emigration of those who were still in the hard work mode and who then lived in the absence of wise role models.
For we in the West, no clear balancing factor operates either. Retirement may be said to provide it, but it seems to be a time of hedonism for many. While early hard work may pave the way for consideration of life for some, I can see that my own spiritual evolution seems to have resulted from early conditioning and middle-age psychological blows. So when I say that the good life is ever available to all of us, I recognize that it will not be sought by all, ever – even under the most favorable circumstances – and it may not be considered by those who must struggle to feed, clothe, house and care for themselves and their families. Such was written by the sages of three millennia ago in India: after achieving security of basic food, warmth, housing and medical care, they knew that the only worthwhile human pursuit is that of spiritual development. This is the good life.
Our wise foreparents have shown us that the good life is good – good for us and good to us, and good for others and good for all other things. It relies not on luxuries or status or finances or even on conventional forms of religion. Simply stated, the good life is one lived in the understanding of the purpose of life – and as wisdom so often shows itself to be transparently logical, we can see also that if life has a goal it is to live the good life.
Can such a reversible logic be accepted in our sophisticated society with its reliance on, even veneration of, science? A scientific treatise would simply state a hypothesis and challenge it, and like science, what we are discussing is rational. Why, if it is rational, can we not follow what is seen to be the highest form of reasoning and understanding that we have so far developed? The answer has already been visited in our wanderings from Reaching the Top? to Beyond Belief in allegories and parables; that is, the good life is lived within the myriad interrelationships of all things while the scientific method focuses on a small number of relationships and specifically aims to exclude other variables.
Science explains so much to our interdependence with all animate and inanimate things, but it cannot describe the whole by reassembling the components it has isolated for study. Systems-modeling is often an attempt to do just that, to reassemble disaggregated knowledge. But in fact, systems-modeling works better as insights of wise scientists that provide a context for conventional controlled research. From this perspective, we would do better to attend to the insights of such wise scientists than to those who produce a new gadget or pill that makes money or cures a discomfort, for the wise scientist would see a wider picture of interrelationships that may produce unforeseen and undesired side-effects.
Of course, such wisdom or insight is not the prerogative of scientists any more than it is of ministers, monks or mullahs. In fact it seems that wisdom is our prerogative if only we would pursue it – seek first wisdom as the wise of more that two millennia ago wrote. We may seek it in books, in meditation and in charitable works – in fact in anything, as the poems says,
mistrals murmur truth and fiction
creeds of crystals, crucifixion?
guiding us to good life garner
neither nihilism nor nirvana.
But the best way is that laid out by wise men and women of all cultures across all times. The overwhelming consistency of the advice given by these wise people should be enough to convince any of us, if we could only see past the delusions that define our days.
What is this Way of the Wise? What is this consistent message that is our species’ highest achievement? Just this: as everything is interrelated, everything affects everything else; by avoiding delusion and other negative influences we can create an environment conducive to seeing this more clearly; certain practices have consistently been shown to support this process, in particular cultivation of mental awareness.
We don’t have to ‘believe’ in these practices as if they are a religion, even though they are at the core of all spiritual practices in all religions. All we need do is try the approach, and its early fruits will encourage us further – but it is difficult if we allow ourselves to be uncritically attached to something more strongly than to the seeking of wisdom, be it status, wealth, power, social acceptance or even social equity, welfare, military peace or democracy.
Elsewhere in these pages we recalled Socrates aphorism that the unexamined life is not worth living and observed how this contrasted with lifestyles based on diversionary entertainment that aims to prevent us from ‘thinking too much’ – from examining life. While the few thoughts and experiences presented in these pages finish here, their focus on life through metaphors ranging from mountains to muses is in fact an examination of our individual lives – at least it is of mine.