The social qualities integral to our ancestral hunter-gatherer old way (1) just happen to mirror the core “spiritual” qualities that the world’s religions promote. That’s no coincidence. Indeed, those innate qualities of harmony we now seek are the very ones we lost when we left the old way for the alluring material benefits and security civilization affords. Everything has a price. Isn’t it ironic how religion’s professionals struggled to bring spiritual salvation to all the primitive hunter-gatherers ‘savages’ they encountered?
Why do religion and civilization exist?
If pollsters asked people why religion exists, many would probably say it arose to guide and save us. Personally, I never bought the literal biblical rationale for man’s downfall and subsequent need for salvation. Interestingly though, the Genesis account of the fruit of knowledge (of good and evil) speaks to the cognitive problems our species has faced for at least 100,000 years. To me, that suggests we actually need salvation from our overly polarizing cognition.
Next, if pollsters asked people why civilization exists, many would probably say humanity needs civilization’s progressive model to lift us out of ignorance and bestial behavior. This rationale for civilization goes hand in hand with religion’s reason for existence. This applies to pseudo religions as well, such as Marxism, which all aim to improve the human condition.
Knowing why paves the way to how.
Over the years, I’ve spoken to the problematic side of cognition and the hypocritical side of civilization. Even so, I never clearly saw a direct link between these aspects and the old way. Now, I have no doubt. Losses suffered in the transition from the old way to civilization clearly account for the increase in humanity’s social and psychological problems, and the solutions that religion and civilization promise. We can’t do anything about that in particular. We’re not going to return to the old way — we couldn’t even if we wanted to.
However, knowing the true origin of our ills — the why — helps immensely by neutralizing the blame-game and its inadequate solutions. Conversely, when we don’t know the natural underlying causes, we tend to flail around in circles, targeting the ‘scapegoat of the day’, and grasping the ‘fix of the day’. I don’t know if knowing the deeper dynamics can change anything per se. I’m not counting on it, but at least knowing why may help pave the way to how. In any case, knowing why calms much of the emotional conflict that arises when we don’t know. Alas, we are often too impatient to look deeper, and so settle for any answer that feels good, especially if it offers a culprit to blame and promises a quick fix.
Ignorance is bliss, or is it?
Consider the parable of The blind man and the elephant from a symptoms point of view. Why are the blind men so adamant in what they perceive and believe to be true? The survival instinct, need and fear, puts this adamant edge on emotion and perception. In our species, this drives belief, which serves our anxious emotional need for solid answers that pin down the mysterious ‘elephant in the room’. Buddha’s four truths don’t say anything about Right Emotion (2). Why is that? Perhaps it’s because we have little control over emotion. We feel what we feel, which colors perception and fuels belief. Next, as Buddha puts it, “The illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things [beliefs]”. What is more blinding than belief? What is more comforting than belief? Is that why they say, “Ignorance is bliss”?
Presence of mind
Without presence of mind, there’s nothing to do but suffer the result of unbridled emotion driving thought. Merely knowing that we are succumbing to the bio hoodwink weakens the connection between emotion, thought, and belief to an extent. That leaves us with some degree of what Buddha called a right state of peaceful mind.
Buddha’s Fourth Truth conveys a sense of necessity… and indeed urgency. The more certain I know the true danger of something, the greater is my urge to do Right. I don’t need to burn my hand more than once to know to keep my hand out of the flames. Our expectations ‘burn’ indirectly, so we have trouble connecting the dots.
The emotional drive behind expectations hinders presence of mind and blinds us to unintended consequences. In fact, research has shown that expectations are the barrier to happiness. See Science Proves Buddha Right for the research on this. Having research support what some have long realized intuitively helps “self disappear before truth” as Buddha put it in his Fourth Truth. Once we ‘connect the dots’, modifying behavior becomes much easier… thankfully! Alas, we also seem to have a great resistance to science when it points out anything that challenges fondly held beliefs and biases, and the expectations they encompass. An impartial presence of mind can’t coexist well with biases and belief!
Buddha’s first truth sets the stage as it describes the sorrowful results of the self not getting what it wants. The second truth tells us the origin of this illusion of self that can give us so much grief. The third truth tells us that conquering self ends the grief. The fourth truth tells us there is salvation for him whose self disappears before truth. This suggests to me that facing truth honestly helps one conquers self. The trick lies in knowing the difference between the true truth and fondly held beliefs and biases.
Buddha’s Four Truths together convey a singular meta-truth. Here, thought is the common denominator, especially when we realize that the major “thing” we cleave to, vis-à-vis “cleaving to things“, is our story… and all the ideals, beliefs, thoughts and expectations this entails.
In summary: We left the old way for the security of agriculture; that eliminated many socially connective benefits of our ancestral way of life; that fostered a range of cultural beliefs to fill this void. True, beliefs held in common helps connect people, yet fails to do so as naturally and utterly as the old way of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Even so, turning the clock back and unwinding this ‘karma’ is impossible for humanity overall. That’s not to say individuals can’t approach life more simply and intuitively. As I said, “I don’t need to burn my hand more than once to know to keep my hand out of the flames.” Once you know you are burning yourself, it is easier to begin returning to the root cause, as chapter 16 so eloquently puts it…
Devote effort to emptiness, sincerely watch stillness.
Everything ‘out there’ rises up together, and I watch again.
Everything ‘out there’, one and all, return again to their root cause.
Returning to the root cause is called stillness;
. . . . . this means answering to one’s destiny.
Answering to one’s destiny is called the constant;
. . . . . knowing the constant is called honest.
Not knowing the constant, rash actions lead to ominous results.
Knowing the constant allows, allowing therefore impartial,
Impartial therefore whole, whole therefore natural,
Natural therefore the way.
The way therefore long enduring, nearly rising beyond oneself.
This is impossible when one is chasing expectations and the desires they embody. Having less energy to chase is the one great advantage of reaching the later years of life, at least if you yearn to nearly rise beyond oneself!
Desire = Need + Thought
Buddha wraps up his Noble Truths saying, “….whose sole desire is the performance of his duty“. The simple fact is, desire = need + thought (and of course, worry=fear + thought.) Knowing the inner workings of desire and worry helps untangle the cognitive feedback loop that drives and amplifies desire and worry, i.e., initial stimuli -> emotion -> thought -> emotion -> thought, etc.
It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than being lost in the mist of ignorance. At least now, my survival instincts have a better chance at aiming me at what is in my best interests, which as Buddha said in his last step is Right State of Peaceful Mind. Or to put it in the words of chapter 16 above, avoid rash actions [that] lead to ominous results and perhaps even nearly rise beyond oneself.
When I know what is happening, I find that I have little choice other than to act accordingly — not burn myself! I suppose that is just Do-It-Yourself cognitive therapy. Chapter 1 speaks to the finer points of such cognitive juggling…
Cup Half Empty — Cup Half Full — Cup Runneth Over
The bio-hoodwink, in concert with the stories to which we cleave, link directly to hunter-gatherer instincts. One example of the hoodwink effect is the perception of “cup half empty” versus “cup half full”. Setting aside our glorious ‘cup runneth over’ moments, we naturally feel the cup half empty more often than not. Feeling this negative bias drives us to get out there to ‘hunt and gather’.
We no longer need to hunt and gather food, so we intuitively substitute other things that we feel will make us full-filled, i.e., ‘happy’. Just fill in the objective that makes you feel fulfilled: buying _?_, learning _?_, fixing _?_, helping _?_, seeing _?_, winning _?_, etc. It is simply a matter of desiring something (cup half empty) and then hunt and gather until you’re satiated. Frankly, this is what drives me; I see ‘effects’ that stir my curiosity, hunt and gather up ‘causes’, and then post my observations.
Towards Right State of Peaceful Mind
If you feel you’re lacking a right state of peaceful mind, regard that as a symptom of the bio-hoodwink. Trace your feeling back down the chain of causation to ease the pressures of your expectation… the cognitive side of hunting and gathering. The catch 22 here is that this requires some presence of mind.
Viewing every thing as a symptom of some deeper phenomenon cultivates a meta-perspective. The upside: This opens the doorway to deeper understanding. The downside: This deafens us to the ‘stories’ that inspire and satisfy. Naturally, this works the other way around as well; when ‘stories’ that inspire and satisfy begin failing to do so, we are more receptive to looking deeper.
Buddha’s eighth step, Right State of Peaceful Mind, hinges on depth of understanding. For example, let’s say I feel I lack an optimal Right state of peaceful mind; that suggests an issue with Right thought; this links to issues around Right comprehension. What do I not comprehend Right? Thoughts make up a large part of what I comprehend, and I know that emotions drive much of thinking. That means need + thought = desire; fear + thought = worries; knowing that, I feel I can’t really trust thought. While not the perfect answer, it does ease the vicious circle of thought and emotion feeding off each other.
Note, four of Buddha’s eight steps encompass cognitive dynamics directly. This underscores the urgency of chapter 71’s admonition, Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease.
Peeking into the Future
The Tao Te Ching starts winding up its narrative with the futuristic vision of chapter 80… Small country, few people. Enable the existence of various tools, yet never need them… and so on. It’s a nice ideal maybe, but that’s it. No animal naturally embraces a more survival-threatening material environment. The only exceptions are a few people driven more by their ideals than instinct. We’re not going back to the Stone Age, and so chapter 80’s Enable the people to again use the knotted rope isn’t going to occur.
Only circumstances of necessity can pull people together into a new old way, just as ancestral circumstances pulled our ancestors into their old way. Perhaps going forward, the necessity of emotional-survival will replace the necessity of material-survival that brought us this far. Only when all else fails are we able to see things anew; until then ideals will drive perception. (See Necessity is the Mother)
How do you know you know?
Knowing whether or not you know amounts to a bit of the chicken and the egg conundrum. Emotion drives thought, so it is a challenge to stand apart and catch an impartial glimpse of this process. Chapter 16 (earlier) spoke to this. In particular, Knowing the constant allows, allowing therefore impartial.
For me, the Taoist “Knowing the constant” parallels Buddha’s “whose sole desire is the performance of his duty“. One definite constant throughout my life has been that I’ve never feel regret after doing my duty, as I knew it to be at the time. The challenge and opportunity is remembering this truth whenever I feel the siren call of desire. Regret only occurs when desire overrides memory. That experience, more than anything, helps bend my will toward what I ought to do.
(2) If you feel you lack a Right State of Peaceful Mind, look to Right Thought and its wellspring Right Comprehension. Of course, these hinge on ‘right emotion’. Do you can see the problem? Emotion drives our thought and gives context to our perceptions. This is where the bio-hoodwink enters the picture. This is the need and fear side of the desire and worry equation, i.e., need + thought = desire; fear + thought = worry.
As far as I know, humanity has never truly (i.e., impartially) recognized how emotions drive thought. We emotionally want to feel control, which causes us to believe we have free will. Believing we have free will easily allows us to think hate and lust are bad and unacceptable emotions, while passion and love are good and acceptable emotions. Down with the negative; up with the positive, we think. We believe we can choose the one and reject the other. The word “should” is a key symptom of this belief.
It’s very difficult to accept a truth that is impossible to change; specifically, that emotions drive thought, and we have virtually no control over emotion. Emotion lies at the core of biology. However, acknowledging such a truth helps settle emotion. Bravely accepting ‘what naturally is‘ settles quandary. As chapter 2 says,
All under heaven realizing beauty as beauty, wickedness already.
All realizing goodness as goodness, no goodness already.
Hence existence and nothing give birth to one another,
Difficult and easy become one another,
Long and short form one another,
High and low incline to one another,
Sound and tone blend with one another,
Front and back follow one another.
Considering this, the wise person manages without doing anything,
Carries out the indescribable teaching.
Don’t all things on earth work and not shirk.
Give birth to and yet not have,
Do and yet not depend on,
Achieves success and yet not dwell.
The simple man alone does not dwell,
Because of this he never leaves.