In my last post, Good Enough Is, I suggested that we have an innate need to pursue an ‘important’ goal… something to hold in mind, to hunger after, and feed our mind space. I also put forward the view that this was an emergent property of the basic hunter-gather instinct that drives life to live.
Our need for something to hold in mind presents a problem for us to the extent that we wind up clutching tightly to whatever we think we know. Trust plays the major role in this. The more we trust what we think, the more firmly we hold on. Oops! as chapter 71 cautions, Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. This is a truly knotty problem. How can we resolve it?
If the Taoist worldview resonates with you at all, you should agree that we must be very cautious with thinking to avoid this pitfall. It is possibly the most dangerous aspect in our lives, and yet we are normally quite oblivious to this risk. The adage, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, hints at how easily we end up hurting ourselves with thought. The blade of the sword is visibly dangerous; not so with thought.
The Proof is Everywhere
Buddha said don’t trust anything to be true until you’ve verified it through your own life’s experience. That certainly is a good first step. At least that presumably avoids blindly following other people’s ‘truth’. However, you’re still susceptible to trusting your own thought-out ‘verifications’.
When you put your hands on a hot stove, you ‘know’ it burns and hurts. It only takes once to verify that. Science, while not as foolproof as touching a hot stove, is the next best thing. However, because it is second hand proof, it is wise to maintain a healthy slice of skepticism. New evidence comes in over time, which just means always keep an open mind.
Buddha’s Four Noble Truths offers us empirical evidence of human nature that we can methodically corroborate over our lifetime. Admittedly, this doesn’t offer the immediate proof of a hot stove learning experience. Nonetheless, through careful and honest observation, proof can pile up very quickly and continues to deepen over your lifetime.
Instinctive Forces of Attraction and Aversion
Instinct drives all living creatures. The most fundamental of which are need and fear. Every other instinct is an emergent property of these two. Now, am I saying amoebas and bacteria feel need and fear? Not exactly, so we need to reduce need and fear to their core dynamic qualities… attraction (need) and aversion (fear). Amoeba, bacteria, and even virus display attraction and aversion in their behavior. Note: Even deeper, I see fear — specifically the fear of entropy — as the source spring of need, i.e., entropy is the innate enemy of survival. More on this next time.
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 rats and 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, elaborates on these in a neurologically cyclical process. Simply put, thought and emotion feed back on one another and reinforce each other to a point that often blows perception out of proportion to reality.
The Seed of Virtue
Buddha’s 2nd Noble Truth sums up the human dilemma, particularly at the end: The illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things. The desire to live for the enjoyment of self entangles us in the net of sorrows. Pleasures are the bait and the result is pain. If your experience corroborates this truth, tethering your background awareness to this helps unwind some of this cyclical dilemma.
You needn’t sweat having insufficient resolve or self-honesty! Frankly, no one is sufficient in either category! This increases slowly but surely as we mature. Merely avoid scapegoating, or at least knowing when you do and admitting it is a breakthrough. Naturally, that requires some self-honesty, yet that is a win-win. After all, self-honesty is the deepest source of self worth… self-honesty is the seed of virtue.
Health fact vs. health fad offer good examples
Matters of health and vitality are a good example of our need for something to hold in mind. Indeed, don’t many superstitions encompass matters of health and vitality? This is not surprising given how the survival imperative drives all living creatures. In humans however, this gives rise to superstitions that promise to improve life. To paraphrase Buddha’s 2nd Truth, ‘Superstitions originate and manifest themselves in our desperate need for something to hold in mind’. Alas, the consequences have become profound. Superstition and ignorance together with powerful technology (tools) of the modern era is bringing about 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.
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 deepening our sense of self worth and virtue. As chapter 70 notes, Knowing self is rare, following self is noble.
Because of this, the sage wears coarse cloth and yearns for noble character.