A few months ago, a Centertao member asked me if I had any life advice for a man approaching 30. Immediately, too much came to my mind for that question! All I could do was turn the question over to my subconscious. Mysteriously, I find not thinking about tricky issues is the best way to resolve them. Of course, ‘not thinking about it’ doesn’t mean disregarding it. I suppose the ‘not thinking about’ phase helps the mind circumvent its blind spot. (photo: which path leads where?)
Finally, something bubbled up worthy of the question. Overall, nothing feels more important to me than understanding, or as Buddha put it, Right Comprehension. 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 intuitively know (See I understand, but do I know?). Knowing comes with maturity and not from any external particulars, per se. As chapter 51 notes, Circumstances bring them to maturity. Knowing flows 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.
Consider how methodically we are culturally and linguistically brainwashed, albeit in the nicest possible way, from birth onward. As a result, much of what we think and ostensibly know originates from preconceptions that our culture trains us to believe are true and real. Now, if our life experience plays out along the lines of our cultural brainwashing, life usually goes smoothly enough. On the other hand, faced to understand anything outside our cultural and linguistic box is another matter. That can be a fearsome experience; it is why so few willingly choose to peer into the darkness. (See Free Will: Fact or Wishful Thinking?)
Actually, we all know anyway!
Even so, we can’t help but sense that darkness. Chapter 56’s, One who knows does not speak; one who speaks does not know along with its This is known as mysterious sameness speaks to this. While all life feels the mystery, only humans have names by which to think about it. We can’t help but try to shine cognitive light (explain, describe, interpret) on this sense — the dark side. Yet, the mystery remains. In the end, we arrive back at the beginning as chapter 10 notes, When your discernment penetrates the four quarters, Are you capable of not knowing anything?
Along the way, we cultivate 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, and so on ad infinitum. Our difficulties begin when we get overly certain in what we think. As chapter 71 warns, To think that one knows will lead to difficulty. I regard certainty as merely a symptom of a desperate need for the sense of security that believable answers promise us.
Honestly though, a search for answers is what drives me to ponder life, death, and everything in between, and write about it. Even so, having cognitive certainty 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. As chapter 71 goes on to say, It is by being alive to difficulty that one can avoid it.
If we’re not “alive to 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 realize 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 placing a loaded gun without a safety switch in the hands of monkeys. Much of our problem stems from not realizing that we, like all animals, are supposed to feel somewhat insecure. Life on the razor edge of fear aids survival. Dulling the fear by persistently thinking that we know is not different in principle from refining foods to enhance our eating pleasure at the expense of nutritional value. Both quickly become cases of what chapter 16 warns, Woe to him who willfully innovates while ignorant of the constant. Both comes back to bite us.
We’re too clever for our britches
Finding enough humility to acknowledge that thinking we know leads to difficulty helps avoid ‘thinking ourselves into a corner’, so to speak. This is an important step in understanding what chapter 43 says is beyond the understanding of all but a very few in the world. This is difficult and rare because we cling so firmly to whatever we believe in order to maintain our self-identity. As Buddha put it, “The illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things”. Naturally, “things” here are both material and mental objects. The fervency of belief, regardless of what it holds true, is a major give away.
Buddha had it right in his Eight Fold Path. (See Buddha’s Four Noble Truths). While each fold affects the other, notice which fold comes first — understanding, or more specifically, Right Comprehension! As this deepens and broadens over time, our actions follow naturally. I can’t 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 is hope, isn’t there?
The needs or fears we feel right now drive our thoughts and actions. Any sense we have of a long-term, big-picture, balanced understanding normally follows our action. We react to events first and ask question later. So what hope is there? Chapter 15 hints at what is required to slow reaction time,
Tentative, as if fording a river in winter, Hesitant, as if in fear of his neighbors;
Formal like a guest; Falling apart like thawing ice;
Thick like the uncarved block; Vacant like a valley;
Murky like muddy water.
This approach to life 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 emotion, sense of attraction or aversion, like or dislike, need or fear tells me that whatever I think I am seeing is actually a reflection of that emotion. It’s not that ‘out there’; it’s this ‘in here’!
- Any perception that makes differences appear significant is probably making mountains out of what are at least probable molehills. Remaining alive to the relative nature of judgment helps me avoid taking a cognitive wrong turn and ending up in the ditch.
- Impatient, are we? Feeling the impulse to resolve a situation immediately, get it done now, fix it ‘yesterday’ are excellent indications of imbalance. Going with my impetuous flow frequently signals a 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 the choices we face with each day, even each moment, throughout life. “Do I want to feel happy or to feel a sense of well being?” A first glance these appear synonymous. They aren’t necessarily, at least as I define those words. Happiness is more up beat, stimulating, fun, pleasurable, being ‘high on life’. Somewhat conversely, well-being is even, cool and calm, down-to-earth, impartial, balanced. You might say we chase after happiness; we return to well-being. (photo: they both look the same, but…)
In some ways, Buddha’s prescription of life comes down a choice between happiness and well-being. Recognizing the difference requires Right Comprehension, as Buddha calls it. Without a doubt, Buddha’s Four Noble Truths are the best road map I’ve come across for choosing the path of well-being over happiness.