In a recent post, Good Enough Is, I said, “Obviously, we have a deep need for something to hold in mind: some goal to reach for—something to hunger for and feed our mind space. I really see this as an emergent property of the basic hunter-gather instinct that drives life to live.
The need for something to hold in mind confers a special problem for humans. Without a doubt, we hold most firmly to that which we think we know. Trusting what we think plays the major role here. The more we trust what we think, the more we’ll hold on. Alas, as chapter 71 points out, our thinking we know causes our disease. This feels like a true conundrum. How can we resolve it?
If you buy into this Taoist view, you will no doubt agree that we must be very careful with thought to avoid its pitfalls. It is possibly the most dangerous element in our lives, and yet we are normally quite oblivious to that prospect. They say ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’; what they don’t say is how often we end up hurting ourselves with the thinking behind the pen.
Proof is Everywhere
Buddha saw that experience was necessary to prove to ourselves the validity of what we think we know. At least that ostensibly avoids trusting blind faith.
When you put your hands on a hot stove, you know it burns and then hurts. It only takes once to verify that. Science (esp. biology) while not as foolproof as touching a hot stove, is the next best thing. However, because it is mostly second hand proof, it is wiser to maintain a large slice of healthy skepticism. New evidence comes in over time, which just means keep an open mind—always.
Buddha’s Four Truths gives us empirical truths of human nature that we can personally and methodically test out over our lifetime. Sure, this doesn’t offer as immediate a proof as the hot stove learning experience. However, the evidence comes in over time—your lifetime. All you need to do is observe your own life carefully and honestly.
Instinctive Forces of Attraction and Aversion
Instinct drives all animals. The most fundamental drivers are need and fear, as I see it. Every other instinct is an emergent property of those two. In fact, I see fear as the source spring of need. Now, do amoebas or bacteria feel need and fear? Not exactly, but all we need do here is to reduce need and fear to something more fundamental like attraction and aversion. Amoeba, bacteria, and even virus display attraction and aversion in their behavior.
Pleasure and pain are also emergent properties of attraction and aversion. In other words, while both bacteria and humans experience attraction and aversion, we can assume that only more biologically complex animals, like humans, experience complex neurological sensations like pleasure (which attracts) and pain (which averts).
Feelings of free will, fairness, guilt, anger, love, hate, and so on are also emergent properties of attraction and aversion (pleasure & pain, need & fear). Thought, however, blows these out of proportion in a feedback process: thought and emotion feed back on one another and reinforce each other in the process.
The Seed of Virtue
Buddha’s Second Noble Truth hits the nail on the head. If you take it seriously, you can anchor your mind and emotion there to help break at least some of the feedback loop. All it takes is courage of conviction and honesty. Although, don’t sweat having insufficient self-honesty or conviction! No one actually does! This increases step-by-step as we mature. Merely avoiding blaming scapegoats, or at least knowing when you do and admitting it, can optimize life’s flow. Sure, that will take some self-honesty; I suppose that is the first step—some self-honesty. Self-honesty is the true source of one’s sense of self worth. I’d call self-honesty the seed of virtue.
Health fact vs. health fad offer good examples
Matters of health and vitality offer some of the best examples of our deep need for something to hold in mind. Indeed, don’t most of our fondest superstitions encompass matters of health and vitality? This is not surprising given how the survival imperative tugs on all living creatures. In humans however, this gives rise to superstitions that promise to improve life. Like the illusion of self, superstitions originate and manifest themselves in our desperate need for something to hold in mind. As with everything else we do now, the consequences are profound. Superstition together with powerful technology (tools) of the modern era is currently leading to the possible extinction of endangered species: rhino horns, shark fin soups, bear bile, etc. While regrettable, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Most problematic is the ignorance rather than the action, i.e., when all those species are extinct, the ignorance remains and turns its blind sights elsewhere.
Well, enough said. The bottom line: The root cause of ignorance is not a lack of knowledge, but a lack of self-honesty and patience. In the rush to get what we want, we leave self-honesty behind and with it, any chance for holding the knowable. If you’re interested in some specifics that delve into diet fact and fad, see this piece I wrote, Omega-3 and Vitamin D, a few years ago.