Karl Marx famously said, “Religion is the opium of the people”. He went on to identify “religious distress” as the symptom of a social “condition which needs illusions”.(1) Blaming cultural conditions for the dysfunction he saw is putting the cart before the horse. Doing this is as common as it is mistaken. Among other things, he must have had a deep-seated emotional problem with religion, or the oppression he thinks causes religion, to see it this way. Marx’s mistake was a failure to challenge or question the emotional biases — his agenda — that drove him to see his current world the way he did. Why?
We love our biases!
Marx directed his ‘symptoms point of view’ outward; he never used it to look more deeply within himself. That is understandable, for aiming a rigorous and comprehensive ‘symptoms point of view’ inward is liable to wean us of our own biased agenda, and that’s no fun. Our biases love us as much as we love them!
Where the symptoms point…
Interestingly, both core Taoist and monotheist (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) views roughly agree on the underlying causes of humanity’s distress, our ‘disease’ as chapter 71 calls it. The Book of Genesis 2:17 says, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die”. Chapter 71 says, Realizing I don’t know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease; and again in chapter 2 with, All under heaven realizing beauty as beauty, wickedness already. All realizing goodness as goodness, no goodness already.
While there is this core agreement between East and West, the West ended up ignoring this core tenet and politicizing the rest (i.e., the true God is on ‘our’ side). The West never followed the trail of symptoms down to its ultimate end… “Mind only” as Buddha once said. No wonder half of Buddha’s Eight Fold Path addresses the cognitive side of human nature.
Is Marx’s mistake mine as well?
To be honest, like Marx, I’m pushing a point of view. While different, I am still ‘pushing’. Therefore, it is fair and sensible to wonder what my agenda is. What drives me to see things the way I do? What are the similarities? To answer that, I must look back a few decades for context:
Deserts evoke questions…What? Why? How?
In the late 60’s, I was in the middle of the Sahara Desert where I reached my life’s lowest point. Out there in the middle of nowhere, I concluded that the world might as well have its nuclear World War III. The humanity that survived could then start over fresh, and perhaps get it right the next time around. I had come to see our species as a kind of cancer on the Earth since we use up everything nature has to offer and we give back nothing in return.
From this bottom of the barrel view, I slowly came to realize that my mistake was judging humanity by its own morality standards. That felt increasingly crazy and began driving me to find a more balanced way to see life. (See Fixation on same, same ) It seems that reaching our life’s lowest point can be the spiritual fulcrum that resurrects our life’s path… or drives our despair deep enough to just end it all.
Now the symptoms point beyond “mind only”.
In reading this blog, you’ll soon see that I place all the ‘blame’ now on Nature, and not on religion, humanity, technology, or the mind. In the end, the buck plainly stops with nature, and in particular, biology. Reconciling disturbing issues of life this way helps me avoid projecting my personal needs and fears onto the situation. It becomes impossible to see life in terms of what I want or worry about when I realize that biology determines what I want or worry about. You could say that nature has become the solvent for my emotional glue(2).
Isn’t ‘mind only’ just another way of saying the ego? Buddha spoke to this “illusion of self” in his 2nd Noble Truth: “The illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things”. Such “cleaving to things” was the source spring of both Marx’s problem with religion and mine with ‘cancerous humanity’. Nothing manifests ego as well as having an enemy on which to cleave. In other words, the ego’s survival hinges on how tenacious we identify and cling to our favorite enemy.
The ego’s survival also hinges on how tenacious we identify and cling to our favorite friend. This dynamic is a vicious circle that spins either positively or negatively, albeit, just as nature intends it. I repeat, just as Nature intends! In addition, the mind doesn’t really set the direction. The mind mostly reflects our emotions, i.e., how we currently feel. Mind is just the tip of the iceberg; emotion is the unseen bulk below the surface of awareness. As emotion tips so goes the mind. Therefore, Realizing I don’t know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease!
Life is learning life
Chapter 56’s This is called profound sameness and Buddha’s 2nd Noble Truth both point to the obvious. It is our fear and our need, the building blocks of the blind spot (The Dunning–Kruger effect), that obscures our view. This is why we can’t truly pass wisdom on to the next generation. We are all born with innate fears and needs, which means we all have our personal blind spot to ‘appreciate’, so to speak. Only after we appreciate it, can we actually begin managing it. Surely, such matters are beyond the realm of teaching.
If you ponder the blind spot effect, you may wonder if there is any way to perceive its effect upon you. I’ve found that seeing how blind others can be is the first step. Next comes looking within with ruthless self-honesty until I find that same blindness in my outlook. To date, I’ve never failed to find it! Finally, consider this simple analogy: the human mind and its cognitive powers are like a bird that has evolved gigantic wings that take a lifetime to acquire some skill at using. If nothing else, nature loves to experiment, and we are just one of her latest evolutionary experiments.
(1) Excerpt from Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.
(2) The idea of a bio-hoodwink serves as a constant reminder that what we want is based in biology, i.e., the instincts driving human nature. The notion that humans are somehow ‘above’ instinct, that we control them, or that instincts are just blind forces that only drive other animals is pathetic. I say pathetic because this elitist perspective is merely a symptom of our deep underlying sense of insecurity. Why is our species so insecure? I’m guessing this is a result of our mind’s ‘disease’.… or vice versa? However, the mind can be part of the cure as well, and ‘realizing I don’t know is better’ begins the treatment.
Blaming Mother Nature as I do is akin to blaming the constant. Chapter 16 says, Knowing the constant allows, allowing therefore impartial. Certainly, an all-encompassing degree of impartiality is difficult to feel at times. Obviously, I blame nature for that too. It feels unfair to let ‘wrong doers’ off the hook. This ‘fairness instinct’ is common to social animals, and especially strong in humans. This, in concert with cognition, accounts for our superior degree of biological fitness. The tradeoff for that fitness is our cognitive ‘disease’. Happily, impartiality treats this disease. Sure, this is no panacea, but merely knowing in which direction the cure lays helps greatly.