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. Oddly, I find not thinking about a tricky issue is the best way to resolve it. Not thinking doesn’t mean disregarding it, but instead tucking it away in the intuitive ‘subconscious’ mind. This helps the mind circumvent its blind spot.
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 conditioned from birth onward, albeit usually in the nicest possible way. 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 this ‘cultural brainwashing’, life usually goes smoothly enough. On the other hand, faced to understand anything outside our cultural box is another matter. That can be a fearsome experience; it is why so few willingly peer into the emptiness. How can we ever follow chapter 5’s advice?… Much speech leads inevitably to silence. Better to hold fast to the void. (See Free Will: Fact or Wishful Thinking?)
Actually, we all know anyway!
Nevertheless, we can’t help but sense the emptiness behind it all. 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 experiences the mystery, only humans have names by which to think about it. We can’t help but try to explain, describe, or interpret the emptiness residing at the heart of mysterious sameness. 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 our need for certainty as merely a symptom of our deep sense of insecurity. The ‘true’ answers that belief offers serve this anxious need. (See Belief: Are We Just Fooling Ourselves?)
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 need for 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 insecure — fearful. Fear guides survival. Dulling 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 instances of what chapter 16 warns, Woe to him who willfully innovates while ignorant of the constant. Both come 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’. 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 — Right Comprehension! As this deepens over time, our actions follow naturally. What else can we do? Truly, doing arises out of knowing. The notion of ‘free willingly’ doing anything is putting the cart before the horse. This may partly explain the Taoist 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?
Any need or fear (desire or worry) we currently feel drives our thoughts and actions. Thus, our awareness big-picture is reflective, i.e., full understanding trails behind emotion and the reactions it triggers. We react to events first and ask questions later, so to speak. 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 humble approach nurtures balance. Mind you, it’s okay to lose balance. That’s only human! However, it is important to recognize when one does. 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.
- Any impatience that drives me to resolve a situation immediately is probably rash. Get it done now, fix it ‘yesterday’ are excellent indications of this. Going with my impetuous flow frequently signals a looming disaster. Count to ten, take a deep breath, take a nap, and sleep on it
In summary: which path shall it be?
The precious value of Right Comprehension lies in how it helps us with the choices we face with each day and even each moment throughout life. “Do I want to feel happy or a sense of well being?” A first glance these appear synonymous. They aren’t 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. In other words, we chase after happiness; we come home to well-being.
In some ways, Buddha’s view of life comes down to 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 highlighting the path to well-being.