In my previous, Good Enough Is (p.356), I suggested that we have an innate need to pursue an important goal… something to hold in mind, to hunger after, and fill our mind space. I also put forward the view that this was an emergent property (p.121) of the basic hunter-gather instinct that drives life to survive.
Our need to hold onto belief creates a problem for us to the extent we end up clinging on 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 can hold on. 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 exceptionally cognitively cautious to avoid this insidious 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. Presumably, that avoids blindly following other people’s “truth”. However, you’re still susceptible to trusting your own well-reasoned deliberate 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 dose of skepticism. New evidence comes in over time, which necessitates keeping a constantly open mind.
Buddha’s Four Noble Truths (p.604) 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 continue to deepen over our 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 likely an emergent property of these two. Now, am I saying amoebas and bacteria feel need and fear? Not exactly, so let’s 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 the fear of entropy as the foundation of need, i.e., entropy is the intrinsic “cosmic” enemy of survival.
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 (pleasure, need) and aversion (pain, fear). Thought, however, elaborates on these in a neurologically cyclical process. In other words, thought and emotion feed back on one another and reinforce each other to a point that often blows those perceptions way 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 observation, tethering your background awareness to this can help you evade this entanglement to some extent.
You needn’t worry about lacking sufficient resolve or self-honesty! Frankly, being “sufficient” in either is impossible. Indeed, it increases over our lifetime until our last breath. Merely avoid scapegoating, or at least knowing when you do and admitting it, is a breakthrough. Naturally, that requires some self-honesty… that is the starting point. Actually, 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 are a good example of our need for something to hold in mind. Indeed, don’t many myths 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 myths that promise to improve life. To paraphrase Buddha’s 2nd Truth, ‘myths originate and manifest themselves in our desperate need for something to hold in mind’. Alas, the consequences become increasingly direr. Myths and ignorance (e.g., rhino horns, shark fin soups, bear bile, etc.) together with the powerful technologies of the modern era are increasing the extinction of species. Yet, 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.