A few months ago a new member Dan asked me, “So, I’d like to ask, do you have any life advice for a man approaching 30”?
One problem with that question was too many things came to mind. So I turned the question over to my subconscious. Oddly, I find not thinking about tricky issues is the best way to resolve them. Of course “not thinking about” doesn’t mean disregarding. I suppose the ‘not thinking about’ phase helps the mind get through its blind spot.
Finally, up bubbled something worthy of the question. Overall, nothing feels more important to me than understanding. While stressing the importance of understanding seems obvious, it may not be as simple as it sounds.
As I’ve said before, true understanding may only be possible for that which you already know intuitively. Knowing comes with maturity (time and circumstances) and not from any external particulars, per se. Knowing moves from inside out, not from the outside in. If I’m correct, how can we ever teach or learn from each other? Naturally, there’s more to this.
Just consider how methodically we are culturally and linguistically ‘brain washed’ (albeit in the nicest possible way) from birth onward. As a result, much of what we think and ‘know’, is derived from preconceptions that we’ve been trained to believe to be true and real. Now, if what we teach and learn are along the lines of our ‘brain washing’, things usually go smoothly enough. On the other hand, understanding anything outside our cultural and linguistic ‘box’ is another matter. That can be a fearsome experience which is why few people peer into the darkness willingly.
Actually, we all know anyway!
Even so, we can’t help but sense that darkness. ‘To know yet to think that one does not know‘ actually speaks to this silent, universal knowing. While all life feels the mystery, only we have names and words for which to think about it. We can’t help but try to cognitively shine light on (explain, describe, interpret) the mysterious mirror feeling—including right now as I write and you read this. Truth to tell, all our thinking never unravels the mystery. Instead, we end up cultivating a sense of self and pseudo security as we follow the paths for which we feel an innate affinity (e.g., religion, art, sports, business, science, etc.).
Our difficulties begin when we get overly certain in what we think (i.e., to think that one knows will lead to difficulty). I regard certainty as merely a symptom of a desperate need for the security believable answers promise us. Honestly, this is the dynamic that drives me to ponder life (and death) and write about it. Still, using cognitive certainty to shore up my innate insecurity doesn’t overly impair me, as long as I know and understand what is driving my certainty in the first place. In other words, it is by being alive to difficulty that one can avoid it.
If we’re not alive to this difficulty, we end up putting all our eggs in one cognitive basket and hang on for dear life. The resulting blind spot puts what we might otherwise ‘know’ just beyond our mind’s eye. Put another way, thinking enables us to focus on the trees; this blinds us to the forest. This is not to say thinking is bad; it is just more dangerous than we imagine. It is like a loaded gun with no safety in the hands of monkeys. Much of our problem stems from not realizing that we, like all animals, are supposed to feel somewhat insecure. Being on fear’s razor edge aids survival. Dulling this by relentlessly thinking that we know is no different than refining foods to enhance our eating pleasure at the expense of nutritional value. Both quickly become cases of willfully innovating while ignorant of the constant, and it comes back to bite us.
We’re too clever for our britches
Finding enough humility to acknowledge that thinking that that one knows will lead to difficulty can help avoid ‘thinking ourselves into a corner’. This is an important step in understanding what is beyond the understanding of all but a very few in the world. This is difficult because our self identity is created and maintained by the beliefs and paths to which we cling and follow. As Buddha put it, “The illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things”. “Things” is often considered to be material objects. I find that our mental “things” play at least as large a role in this illusion.
Buddha had it right in his Eight Fold Path. While each ‘fold’ affect the other, notice which fold comes first—understanding! As understanding deepens and broadens over time, our actions follow naturally. I can’t really see what else can be ‘done’. The doing arises out of the knowing. Willfully doing anything would be like putting the cart before the horse. This may partly explain the Taoist frequent call to ‘action-less action’. Chapter 43 sums it up well:
That is why I know the benefit of resorting to no action. The teaching that uses no words, the benefit of resorting to no action, these are beyond the understanding of all but a very few in the world.
There’s a silver lining though
Our thoughts and actions are driven by the needs or fears we feel right now, without much sense of the long term, big picture, balanced understanding. So what hope is there? I’ve found being hesitant and tentative in what I think helps me keep balance. Mind you, it’s okay to lose balance. That’s only human. However, it is invaluable to recognize when I do. Here are some ‘tells’ I use to warn me when I’m losing balance:
- Any strong sense of attraction or aversion, likes or dislikes, needs or fears (emotion) tells me that whatever I think I am seeing is actually simply a reflection of that emotion. It’s not that; it’s this.
- Any perception that make differences appear significant (makes mountains out of presumable mole hills). Remaining alive to the relative nature of judgment helps avoid taking a cognitive ‘wrong turn’ and ending up in the ditch.
- Impatient are we? Feeling the impulse to resolve it now, get it done, fix it ‘yesterday’ are excellent indications of imbalance. Going with my impetuous flow is usually looming disaster. Count to ten, take a deep breath, go take a nap, sleep on it.
In summary: which path shall it be?
The ultimate value of understanding lies in how it helps us with a central choice we are faced with each day, even each moment, throughout life. “Do I want to feel happy or to feel a sense of well being?” I expect many folks regard these synonymous. Not necessarily, at least as I define those words. Happiness is more up beat, stimulating, fun, pleasurable, ‘high’ on life. Somewhat conversely, well-being is even, cool and calm, down-to-earth, impartial, balanced. Simply put: We chase after happiness; we return to well-being.
Buddha’s prescription of life comes down to this choice, happiness or well-being. Recognizing the difference requires Right Understanding, as Buddha calls it. All in all, Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is the best road map I’ve come across for choosing the path of well-being over happiness. Use it from the bottom of your heart is my advice.