A Centertao member asked me if I had any advice for a 30 year old. Right away, too much came to my mind for that question! I had to sleep on it awhile. Interestingly, not thinking about a tricky issue is often the best way to resolve it. Not thinking doesn’t mean disregarding it, but instead tucking it away in the intuitive deep mind. This helps the mind circumvent belief, its own weakest feature.
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 is not 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?, p.70). Intuitive 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 our culture conditions us from birth onward, albeit usually in gentle ways. As a result, much of what we think, and ostensibly know, originates from preconceptions that our culture induces us to believe are true and real. Now, if our life experience plays out along the lines of this cultural indoctrination, life usually goes smoothly enough. However, faced to understand anything outside our cultural conditioning is another matter. Venturing into this murkiness is challenging, and thus few willingly look closely into their “dark” unknown. Chapter 5’s suggestion, Much speech leads inevitably to silence. Better to hold fast to the void, doesn’t alleviate the matter either.
Actually, we all know anyway!
Nevertheless, we can’t help but sense the emptiness beneath us. Chapter 56’s, One who knows does not speak; one who speaks does not know and This is known as mysterious sameness suggests this. While all life experiences the mystery, only humans have names with 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 and in the end one arrives back at the beginning as chapter 10 observes, 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 pursue the paths for which we feel some affinity… religion, art, sports, business, science, and so on. Our trouble always begins when we feel sure we know. As chapter 71 warns, To think that one knows will lead to difficulty. I regard our need for certainty as a symptom of our deep innate sense of insecurity. The answers, which our beliefs offer, feed this anxious need. (See Belief: Are We Just Fooling Ourselves?, p.591)
Honestly though, a search for answers is what drives me to ponder life, death, and everything in between, and write about it. Nevertheless, having some certainty relieve my innate insecurity won’t mess me up as long as I know and remember the difficulty that any need for certainty entails. 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, which creates a blindness akin to the Dunning–Kruger effect (see p.144). This puts what we might otherwise realize beyond our mind’s eye. Put another way, thinking enables us to focus on the trees and this blinds us to the forest. This is not to say thinking is bad; it is just more dangerous than we imagine. It is analogous to placing a loaded gun without a safety switch in the hands of a monkey. 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 are 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 own good
Finding enough humility to acknowledge that thinking we know leads to difficulty helps avoid thinking ourselves into a corner. This is an important step toward 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 passionate grip we have on our beliefs is a major give away.
Buddha had it right in his Eight Fold Path. (See Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, p.604.) While each fold affects the other, notice which fold comes first — Right Comprehension! As this deepens over time, our actions follow naturally—inexorably. What else can we do? Plainly, action arises out of knowing. The notion of free willingly doing anything puts the cart before the horse. (See Free Will: Fact or Wishful Thinking?, p.587) 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 is reflective, i.e., 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 suggests the approach to life 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 telltale signs 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 good 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 importance 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. Distinguishing the difference in the heat of the moment requires some presence of mind to be sure, which is only possible if you genuinely want it. If you do, Buddha’s Four Noble Truths (p.604) offers a most coherent path to well-being.