We all of us need guidelines to negotiate our lives, and most of us know it. If we’re not to be swept away by calamity or confusion, we need a map.
And, although not as obvious, we need guidance to deal with abundance and joy as well. We need something to help us cope with eating chocolate cake just as much as we do with losing our self confidence.
There seems to me four basic approaches people take on this job of navigation. I’ve tried them all myself and I think everybody does. It’s not that one is better than the other; it’s just some are not as reliable.
This means, because we’re economic beings, consumerism, and all the paraphernalia of advertising, manipulation and competition. There are two sides to this map for living, one positive, one negative.
Like Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, the positive approach sees that morality only breeds guilt. It’s only holding you back: “Greed is good!” This is also the approach of many “personal development” training programs. Lose your morality and you can be as successful as you like (“success” is defined always in terms of income and assets).
Others (not as ’successful’) are mere consumers, and strive to consume more, and more conspicuously, than others. This means accepting the role as a temporary expedient, in the hope that something will happen to bring you success.
These are both blinkered existences. The focus is on, and must be on, your self and your survival. Even your marriage and children are expendable in the rat race. Eighty percent of the population of the planet might be going without, but it’s their own fault. And there’s the one bit of morality allowed in this view of things. If you fail, it’s because you’re weak. It’s your own fault.
As these are materialistic values, then nothing can protect you if the system itself fails, as in an economic depression or recession. Consumerism is little more than an addiction: you will always need more; so if suddenly there’s less, you lose your map. And the job of transferring other people’s money into your own account through exploiting their consumerism becomes easier and easier as the economy weakens, and so more and more meaningless.
Many gain a map by joining an existing group and adopting a prefabricated value system. Joining the right club, political party, going to the right tailor, becoming a ‘connoisseur’ of almost anything, or a collector of almost anything, or joining a university, a ‘cult’ or a religion, are ways of gaining structure, though not always the most appropriate structure for each individual. Mass solutions don’t always work. That’s what I’ve found.
Faith requires purity of purpose; asking the right questions, and not merely seeking salvation. The moral codes and commandments of faiths are firm and exalted, but out of date. We give allegiance to the religious beliefs of those with a world view of 2000 years ago (or 1300 years ago), when devils took possession of unhealthy individuals and tormented them, the dead were expected to rise again on the day (any day soon) of the last judgment, and adulterous wives had to be stoned to death by the community. All good dogma, all written in the book, the word of god. Right for then: but for now?
And faiths tends to be smug. We’re all right, we’re the saved. All the rest of creation, all the people in the Andromeda galaxy, all the microorganisms, beasts and plant forms, god doesn’t care about them. Nor the human beings belonging to another faith with another god. Just do the right thing, and heaven will be yours, Christians praising god and thankful they’re not being tortured in hell, and Moslems enjoying all the sensual delights of the body.
These commitments do give guidance. But I’m troubled by what they exclude, and by the intolerance the faithful show to the excluded. How accurate is this map?
Another cinema character comes to mind at this point: Rocky Balboa. We admire people who don’t easily give up, who can take the worst that life can serve up and go another round. That inner strength is related to the philosophy of Stoicism. Stoicism was a noble faith of the Roman Empire, the best known exponent of which was emperor Marcus Aurelius. It proposed that the best aim in life was an accordance with nature, and the development of self knowledge and self control which bought calmness and made one impervious to destructive emotions of elation and despondency, and both good and ill fortune. The aim was to become aware of right action, (as was also taught by Buddha and Lao Tse). This alone bought if not happiness, then contentment.
This map suggests that we are easily led astray from our path in life, but that the enduring things can be sensed and known by cultivating calmness and disregarding distractions. Stoicism so regarded has similarities with the philosophy of Epicurus, who also sought ways to find tranquillity and freedom from unhappiness. Epicurus thought that the key to this tranquillity was pleasure, in the sense that our pain leads to the seeking of pleasure: so pleasure in turn can cancel out pain and lead to a calmness beyond both pleasure and pain.
Both Stoicism and Epicureanism tell us that we know what is right for us; that we naturally have a balance that prevents indulging in excess; and that emotions and illusions often hide this knowledge from ourselves, to our harm. Both philosophies offer ways of recovering our balance, and of finding happiness. These hugely influential philosophies were both repressed by the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Which doesn’t prohibit their reexamination. They provide a map which we must study carefully.
“Living in the matrix we experience the illusion of reality” (https://au.pinterest.com/bicycle0157/quantum-physics/), but which reality?
Science can be a faith (belief in the value of deductive reasoning based on experiment); a mere methodology in the service of technology; or a form of mysticism (an acknowledgement of the unknown). We should remember that most standpoints can be interpreted so ambiguously. Religion for example can be a form of politics, a routine, or a communion with god (usually not all at the same time). The scale of the universe as revealed by quantum physics has a remarkable similarity to some forms of faith, as expressed in the Upanishads for instance, as pointed out by Fritjof Capra (The Tao of Physics).
Most of our preferred guidelines put human beings to the forefront, centrestage. Whether good or evil, it’s usually all about us. But now there is emerging a viewpoint which sees objectivity as impossible, partly because of the limitations of our senses, partly because in the revealed scale of things human beings are very much on the periphery. Centre of stage is an illusion, what we can know is an awesomely small part of what there is to know, and even the ways of thought we habitually use are insufficient to draw valid conclusions.
That’s science leaving the experimental camp and joining in the mystic experience. In the quantum world it isn’t about man the measure of all things, but whether we can be part of something perhaps important, in procedures we as yet don’t understand.
We find ourselves unable to know or understand fully, and that our existential problems are tangental to a mysterious reality. Do we matter, and how can we matter? Perhaps we are the problems we experience, because of the false perspective we adopt. There’s a map there, but we can barely understand it, and for some, that may bring wisdom.
Here’s the four approaches as a Buddhist or Taoist might see them:
indulgence: the way of distraction
commitment: the way of deferral
endurance: the way of acceptance
humility: the way of transcendence
Here’s a primal scenario in which the four approaches might work in practice.
Eve in the Garden found fruit of the tree and gave some to her husband Adam:
EVE: “Try some of this Adam, it’s delicious”.
1 ADAM: “Yeah I know, it’s called an apple. I’ve got something better over here, called a pear. I put a fence around it to keep others away”.
2 ADAM: “We must not touch the fruit because god has forbidden us. He will give us something better to eat when it pleases him”.
3 ADAM: “The fruit looks good but I have some gardening to finish. I might eat some later, but you can eat it all if you wish”.
4 ADAM: “Whether we eat it or not doesn’t matter. Do you realise god has made not just this garden and the animals and us, but the entire universe. What does he intend to do? How do we fit into his scheme?”
These four approaches to navigating the events of our life, or maps as I’ve called them, are not the only ones. They are just what I’ve noticed in my limited experience.
In some parts of the world the way of the warrior is still possible, or the way of the ascetic, but these ways are becoming more difficult to follow. In the main human beings don’t follow any philosophy or any guidelines consistently. They muddle on, blowing hot or cold, and the results are predictably makeshift.
©2017 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.