Source: Desultory Heroics
‘And the Old Ones say:
look outward seriously
look inward intently
look outward carefully
look inward diligently
look outward respectfully
look inward humbly’
As human beings we seek the beautiful, and this gives us joy. But our lives have made everything complicated. We make ourselves complicated – life is being played around us like a game. This may not sound comfortable, or even correct, to some people. If it’s a game, then why is there so much sorrow and pain? This is the perennial question. Yet like a game, we have choices, and we make our moves. And there are players and gameplays going on all around us. And it seems that the game is rigged. One person who knew this well was Alan Watts. He often spoke about how life should not be lived as a fast journey and that existence in the universe should be recognized as being basically playful. Life is more like music, Watts used to say. And we play music – we don’t ‘work’ music. And in music, the end of the composition is not the point of the composition; otherwise, all conductors would play fast; or some composers would choose only to write the finales. We don’t go to concerts just to hear the final chord being played. We don’t engage in a dance in order to end it (unless we got tricked into it!). And yet, as Alan Watts was so keen in observing, our social systems condition us into grading our lives. Our schooling compels us into chasing grades and making our quotas and then paying our bills. And we keep believing, hoping, wishing, for the ‘great thing’ in life to come whilst we are rushing through our lives with hardly a notice of what we’re leaving behind in our rear-view mirrors. We end up living to retire. And when we retire, we imagine we have ‘finally arrived.’ And yet to where? Do we feel any different? We have a small pot of savings and almost no energy. And then we are told to wait it out. Until what? When? The final curtain? Perhaps only when it is too late do we realize that we were cheated down the whole line. And yet we followed it. We kept racing along in order to keep up or to hold onto what we were told was success. And yet – was it ever ‘our’ success? Did we miss the whole point?
Being human is about trying to create meaning for ourselves – and to enjoy it as much as possible along the way. The life we have is where we have arrived by ourselves and the steps and choices we made. We should not let ‘another mind’ make those choices for us. And most of all, we should not allow ourselves to be played for victims. We may be under the sway of other forces, yet only to the point that we are ignorant of them. Our power comes through recognizing and identifying those other forces that seek to influence and control our thoughts and actions. We need to optimize our lives by optimizing our perspective and understanding. Ignorance may seem to be a social requirement yet knowledge, understanding, creativity, and wisdom are the truer imperatives. Despite what may appear to the contrary at times, there is incredible capacity for goodness within the human race.
The majority of people in the world are good people. They wish for peace and to not do harm to others. There are many sympathetic, caring, and courageous people in the world. Unfortunately, our systems are run by the minority, and these systems are largely corrupt; and the decent people within these systems become corrupted by association or exposure. The main issue is that most of us do not look after our minds. We don’t think it is necessary. We are not aware of the malicious impacts that infiltrate and influence us on an almost daily basis. This unawareness – or ignorance – leaves people open and vulnerable. Many people have become alienated from their own minds. This is where manipulations creep in, such as mob mentality and crowd behavior. Only a large body of people with ‘alienated minds’ can become so influenced by political propaganda, consumerist advertising, and social management. Mass psychosis is only possible through a collective mindset that has become alienated from a transcendental source. In this state, we are prisoners to the impulses that steer our unconscious. We are susceptible to neuroses and psychic illness. We may believe we have freedom when we do not. The forces of bondage are subtle and often insidious. It is a necessity that human civilization returns to the fundamental recognition of the person as a human being.
Being human is about being simple. Or rather, it is about recognizing the essential things. Yet this is no simple thing to do. We are needing to get back to ourselves in so many ways. To begin, we must learn not to take things personally. There are so many ways that life attempts to get us to engage with external strife. It tries to pull us out of ourselves. When, for example, we are criticized or insulted we tend to lash out. We are conditioned to attack in order to defend. Is not a well-known aphorism, ‘Attack is the best line of defense?’ Sometimes this is phrased as – the best defense is a good offense. Yet long before these catchy phrases got circulated through our systems there was a better truism: turn the other cheek. Retaliation feeds the psychosis within the individual and the collective. If we give away our emotional and psychic energy, then we also give away our freedom. The ego must be reined in, yet not abolished. It is through the form of the ego that we can find the realm of the essential self. The ego exists as a signpost that the essential inner self is also there. As Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says – ‘If love exists, there are other things that exist also. There is ignorance, there is violence, there is craving.’ These external ‘other things’ – the violence and the suffering – can be, and are, manipulated and exacerbated. Yet the essential inner self remains as a pure, undiluted and uncorrupted form. We should allow it to speak to us and manifest in our lives. This is the human question.
Morality and meaning only have significance when they come from a genuine source. Otherwise it is a ‘projected’ form, created from social mores and cultural biases. We are the ultimate touchstone for our sense of reality. We need to have a clean lens and clear vision. And we should begin from the basics – the simple human things. There is a story which tells of a spiritual seeker who after some time comes upon a spiritual master that she feels is genuine and whom she wishes to learn from. The seeker asks the master if he will accept her as a pupil.
‘Why do you seek a spiritual path?’ asks the teacher.
‘Because I wish to be a generous and virtuous person; I wish to be balanced, mindful, caring, and to be in service for humanity. This is my goal’ said the seeker.
‘Well,’ replied the teacher, ‘these are not goals on the spiritual path; these are the very basics of being human which we need before we even begin to learn.’
What people may consider to be ‘spiritual’ is often none other than necessary human nutrition – a daily requirement for living. Yet like our other nutrition, eating, it has to be correctly integrated into our lives without making a song and dance about it. And, of course, not forgetting the saying that goes – ‘If you insist on buying poor food, you must be prepared to dislike it at the serving.’
It often feels like we spend our days trying to grasp at life, trying to understand it, with ways that are not adequate. It is like trying to capture the ocean with a bucket. The ocean stands magnificently before us, and yet our modern societies teach us to run through our lives anxiously as if with empty buckets in our hands. Personal fulfilment is not only about accomplishment; it is also a question of what we can give through each of our individual imperfections.
Here is a story that helps to illustrate this:
A man had two large pots, each hung on an end of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to his house, the cracked pot arrived only half full.
For a full two years this went on daily, with the man delivering only one and a half pots full of water to his house. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, feeling accepted and appreciated. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do. After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, it spoke to the man one day by the stream.
“I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you.”
“Why?” asked the man. “What are you ashamed of?”
“I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work, and you don’t get full value from your efforts,” the pot said.
The man felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and in his compassion, he said, “As we return to my house, I want you to look at the beautiful flowers along the path. It will make you feel better.”
Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this made it feel a little happier. But at the end of the path, it still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and so again the Pot apologized to the man for its failure.
The man said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of your path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve been watering them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to take home to my wife. With you being just the way you are, you have given beauty and meaning to me every day.”