I was looking out the window this bright sunny morning watching all the birds dining at our bird feeder. They were busy going about doing their thing, which at the moment was eating sunflower seeds. Next, I thought of the role they serve in nature by eating seeds. Presumably, they deposit some of those seeds elsewhere and some eventually sprout. Of course, they are not aware of the vital propagation role they play in nature. They simply follow their needs or fears of the moment.
This pondering instilled in me a sense of awesome underlying unity throughout nature, or as chapter 56 puts it, This is called profound sameness. To be sure, I’ve always regarded our place in nature as being essentially no different from other animals. We simply follow our needs or fears of the moment, unaware of our fundamental role in nature. The trick is to maintain a deep sense of this connection, this “profound sameness”, as much as possible. It is all too easy to become blinded by moments of need or fear—effectively no different from the birds I was watching. The only slight difference is the human imagination’s ability to perceive outside the subjective box of need and fear. Alas, life constantly pulls me back into the ‘game’, and emotionally skews imagination in the process.
The New Science of Practical Wisdom
My pondering this morning leads me to add this postscript to the book, to round out the story. Pushing 80, I’ve said most of what I had to say. Wrapping things up actually began with The Tradeoff (p.549), which concisely summarized my views of how our species got to where we are, and where we may be headed.
Briefly, humanity is truly in the early days of civilization. It’s only been some 10,000 years, which evolutionarily speaking, is only the end of the beginning, if that. Much of civilization’s processes are at odds with humanity’s innate emotional needs. Indeed, most of the problems in the world we see are a result of this mismatch. Naturally, civilization will evolve over the coming millennia to a point where it is less problematic. In part, that will happen due to extending the human lifespan. You know, “Older and wiser”. Of course, as Oscar Wilde noted, ‘With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.’ Certainly, we all have known some unwise older adults, but overall aging does bring wisdom. Consider these few excerpts from The New Science of Practical Wisdom.
When reviewing the relationship between aging and wisdom, it is worth considering how the biological machinery of wisdom changes over the life course. From a peek under the neural hood, does the aging process result in a tuning of the engine, or a rusting of the gears?
In this respect, neurodevelopmental trajectories may be pertinent both in youth and in older age. Reward motivation and emotional circuits develop faster than pre-frontal control circuits, resulting in greater emotional reactivity, reward-seeking behaviors, impulsivity, and risk-taking in youth, with subsequent reductions in such activities with enhancement of prefrontal inhibitory control, leading to a higher level of practical wisdom.
This indicates that although deficits in sensory processing increase with aging, the brain may be bringing online regions highlighted above as being associated with wisdom. Essentially, cognitive and sensory deficits associated with aging may be accompanied by an uptick in the use of the wiser parts of the brain.
Finally, as the brain ages it also changes in how it responds to emotions. Central to the processing of emotions is the amygdala, and recent research has shown that its sensitivity to emotional stimuli changes across the lifetime. The amygdala in younger people shows heightened activity in response to both positive and negative visual images in comparison with neutral images. In older adults, negative images no longer trigger heightened amygdala activity, but positive images continue to do so. This age-related ‘Positivity Effect’ may underlie the calmer and more positive behaviour in older age.
Wisdom is associated with greater subjective well-being in older adults. This suggests that, while the aging process may well help facilitate the development of wisdom, the resulting wisdom may, in turn, help in navigating the inevitable challenges that all humans face – those of aging and dying well.
We humans are not the only animals that face the “inevitable challenges that all humans face – those of aging and dying well”. The work of living is a reality all animals endure. In addition, we also deal with an existential stress resulting in part from our cognitive “disease”, as chapter 71 calls it, i.e., Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. All the same, each generation of a species must learn through living how to balance the instinctive forces within. This is why I feel much of Buddha’s Four Truths apply to all animals (see Buddha’s Truths Pertain To All Life, p.545). It is essentially on-the-job training for us all. As animals, we try, we stumble, we adjust, and we get a little better at the skill of living as we age—increasing wisdom is an inextricable result of aging. This postscript is my brief summary of how I view and deal with this existential aspect of life. I’ll begin…
Nature’s Bell Curve
A bell curve is a type of normal probability distribution for a variable in nature. The top of the curve shows the mean and median of the data. Its standard deviation depicts the bell curve’s relative width around the mean.
Undoubtedly, I’m using the bell curve distribution less rigorously than a professional would. But hey, this is taoist thought after all. 🙂
Nature plays out on a bell curve of possibility. You could see this loosely as the extreme ‘yin’ on one end and the extreme ‘yang’ on the other. We innately have both poles within us, a bell curve spanning the whole of human (a.k.a. animal) nature. Ponder this listing of a few of these poles:
Cooperative vs. competitive; tranquil vs. active; moderate vs. greedy; kindness vs. cruelty; friendly vs. angry; love vs. hate; wisely deliberate vs. foolishly impulsive; and so on down the line of temperament responses .
The chart shows the probability of some temperament extremes. Some people will be extremely kind, others extremely cruel, and most of us a blend of both but not usually to the extreme. However, this chart can also represent the range of extremes within each person that can sometimes play out, even if rarely, depending on circumstance and such.
We are biologically social animals and this means we are innately predisposed toward kindness and cooperation. The Biblical sentiment, “on earth peace, good will toward men”, speaks to our social instinct for cooperation, kindness, love. This instinctive selfless sentiment is like the glue that binds us together as a social species.
The other side of this curve, the innate impulsive, competitive, active, greedy, cruel, angry, and hateful characteristics are the self-protective responses that help glue the individual ‘selfish’ self together, so to speak. These ‘yang’ emotions can overtake us when circumstances threaten our expectations, whether imagined or biologically innate. This threat triggers fear, including innate fear of loss, pain, failure, and death. Fear then fires up pressing needs that demand urgent satisfaction.
Survival is the primary aim of life, with pleasure and pain pulling or pushing our selfless and selfish emotions in ways that we intuitively feel will fulfill that innate goal. Which pole emerges to express itself, which emotion plays out at any given moment, is a function of circumstances and temperament—never one of ‘free’ choice, despite our belief to the contrary. We are but spectators in this game of life. Oh, but how we believe otherwise, wishing and struggling to control our moment. The final line of chapter 3 gives a most helpful hint on how to deal with this, Doing without doing, following without exception rules.
At it happens, we usually maintain a happy middle point on this bell curve of reaction, but circumstances can change that instantly. Clearly, we wish we had the ability to manage our reactions better, and wish even more that others would. In fact, our wish for free will is so deep, even instinctive, that it is natural to believe we truly have free will. Granted, we do have a moderate ability to make choices, to guide our actions, and to moderate our reactions, even to sit still and meditate. However, our innate temperament, over which we have zero control, determines our ability to do even this. In fact, chemistry (alcohol, drugs, food) is our only easy way to briefly influence temperament and the rest.
Nature is a package deal
The observations I make on how we are emotion driven animals is an abstract scientific reality that is intellectually comfortable enough for me. However, I find that emotionally facing the ruthless reality of that to be extremely heart sinking at times. The real-world facts can be very uncomfortable for anyone who is not sociopathic. I feel a visceral deep-seated need for us to get along, be kind, honest, fair… but reality simply crushes this wish. To be sure, we humans have our moments of kindness and the like, but the bottom line is how easily we can turn on a dime and revert to our innate selfish instincts, which are merely the complementary side of our selfless ones. The fact is, nature is a package deal. Yet, I innately feel a continuous urge to increase the ‘good’ and decrease the ‘bad’. Surely, this urge must be one of the driving forces behind religion, e.g., “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men”.
I find the first step towards leaving some of this naive ‘good’ positive baggage behind and “nearly rising beyond oneself” is openly recognizing these poles within me. They are all there in one degree or another, depending upon personal temperament and circumstance. Naturally, I am more inclined to notice the ‘good’ aspects of my character and turn a blind eye toward the ‘bad’. Yet, the ‘bad’ always lurks in the background ‘Good’ and “bad’ are two sides of the profound sameness coin. In seeking or in avoiding one always creates the other. As the beginning of chapter 2 cautions,
It takes self-honesty to peek behind my curtains of self-rationalization. Yet, even here, I’m stuck with honesty (good) vs. prevarication (bad). Certainly, finding a pathway through my own limitations must count as life’s ultimate challenge.
Resolving the problem of injustice
The Tradeoff went a long way toward resolving my deep urge to ‘solve the world’s problems’, as they say. When I witness hurtful and unfair human behavior, I am able to diffuse much of my angst by chalking it up to being a natural consequence of hierarchical civilization. Humanity simply traded the egalitarian old way of the hunter-gatherer for the increased comfort and security of civilization, and we all must pay a price for that. Nature won’t allow us to have it both ways!
Yet, still, I feel the instinctive distress of witnessing injustice and the like. I may be civilized on the outside, but deep down, I’m still a hunter-gatherer hominid. We all are! We just do our hunting and gathering in different ways now, yet moved by the same instincts as our ancestors. Those ancient egalitarian social instincts still tug on my heart, your heart, our heart. What to do? Chapter 65 offers me a hint…
Always investigate the patterns.
That is called profound moral character.
Moral character, profound indeed, distant indeed!
To the outside world, contrary indeed.
Then, and only then, reaching great conformity.
Accordingly, the only solution I’ve found is to maintain a rather continuous awareness that this inner sorrow I feel is (1) natural and (2) impossible to escape. It is part of life. It is a cross we all bear, whether we know it or not. I have no choice but to conform to nature’s way. Chapter 63 suggests a way, with the last lines summing it up well, Accordingly, the wise man, still of difficulty, For this reason, in the end, without difficulty.
Do without doing,
Be involved without being involved.
Taste without tasting.
Make the great small and the many few,
Respond to resentment using kindness.
Plan difficulty out from its easy.
Do the great out from its small.
All difficulties under heaven must arise from the easy.
All that is great under heaven must arise from the small.
Accordingly, the wise man, in the end, doesn’t support greatness,
For this reason he is able to accomplish greatness.
The man that rashly promises, certainly few trust.
The excessively easy, certainly excessively difficult.
Accordingly, the wise man, still of difficulty,
For this reason, in the end, without difficulty.
Just allow myself to be, to strive on diligently. ‘Then, and only then, reaching great conformity’ as chapter 65 put it.
The bell curve in natural phenomena
While I’ve been discussing the bell curve vis-à-vis emotional temperament responses, the bell curve distribution can also offer insight on a wide range of natural phenomena. For example, the Trump presidency has baffled me for a while. How could so many people, half the country, support someone of such low noble character? Finally, the bell curve offers me a clue. Briefly, just as some folks innately prefer chocolate and some vanilla, so too do some innately prefer a dictatorship and some a more egalitarian form of government. That would explain the rise to power of many a tyrant—Stalin, Hitler, and Mao in particular; kings and warlords in general. It is a visceral choice, not a rational one, and certainly not a free one. Circumstances undoubtedly play a large role in this choice. In other words, current circumstances play a major role in the bell curve’s distribution of variables. In trying times, more will support the supposed strong man.
Additionally, our very social nature as a species exacerbates these matters. Our tribal instinct easily overrides any evidence that threatens group solidarity. The resulting social groupthink means we are more ‘monkey see, monkey do’ animals than we’d like to admit. The self-image we have of ourselves, our species, is very out of sync with the reality. The only mitigation factor is the slight increase in wisdom that comes with a long life, as the science on wisdom is now revealing. Individuals simply have to live long enough to outgrow some of their childlike groupthink inclinations. Indeed, the younger we are, the more certain we feel that our beliefs (whatever they are) are true. We feel that our take on the world is accurate. It is we, in our beliefs, not ostriches who stick their heads in the sand. The odds of doing that can only decrease as life experience pushes back on the ‘disease’ to which chapter 71 refers. Viewed as a bell curve, youthful characteristics are on one end, old-age characteristics are on the opposite end. As the median age of the population increases, the median characteristics of old age become the new normal.
Homo sapian asapian?
I must say though, that this Trump era has been a truly sobering experience. It bears out much of what I write about. We are animals, through and through. Yet we have a story that paints us in a higher light, a wiser light. Take how we name ourselves, Homo sapian sapian . Sapian comes from a Latin word meaning “one who knows” (Latin: sapere = to know). Thus, Homo sapian sapian = the human who knows that he knows. But as chapter 71 observes, this is our ‘disease’. The true game changer will occur when our species finally realizes this and changes its name. Perhaps to Homo sapian asapian, or something to reflect our realization that we don’t know. (‘a’ is the Latin prefix for not, as in asocial, amoral, asexual, and so on.)
Still, it is always heart sinking for me to see how far from being sapient we are, which in itself is odd. Honestly, that must be just part of my ‘disease’… i.e., chapter 71’s Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. Even while I do realize I don’t know, I still think; the dipolar nature of that alone is an act of thinking that I know, as Correlations (p.565) demonstrate. There is no escaping being human, eh?
A dipole is a term in physics that refers to a pair of separated electric charges or magnetic poles, of equal magnitude but of opposite polarity, i.e., negative (–) vs. positive (+) or N. vs. S. Life has adopted this natural dynamic to perceive its surroundings in a way that promotes survival in a competitive environment. In life forms with a nervous system, neurons communicate through an electrochemical process… (–) vs. (+). Given this, it is not surprising we see reality in a (–) vs. (+) mode. This (–) vs. (+) dynamic influences how humans label their perceptions: yes vs. no, good vs. bad, yin vs. yang, life vs. death, active vs. passive, go vs. stop, hot vs. cold, before vs. after, hard vs. soft, heaven vs. hell, male vs. female, white vs. black, and so on. Thus, I see language is the emergent property of a fundamental negative (–) vs. positive (+). See Tao As Emergent Property, p.121.
Naturally, such dipolar-like perception is essential for survival in the wild. It boils choices down to the simplest level — yes (+) vs. no (–). However, the human ability to think and remember makes this both a blessing and a curse. Chapter 1’s, These two are the same coming out, yet differ in name hints at the curse. Not only do we see life through simplistic dipolar names; this dipolar thought locks the illusion into memory. For us, dipolar-like perception hinders recognizing that all this is simply, albeit profoundly, two sides of the same coin. Chapter 56 is forthright about this…
It fascinates me how disappointing it all feels for me, given my deep realization that humans are not different from other animals. It is as if a species-centric ‘we are better than that’ story lingers in my deep subconscious. It must lie at an innate visceral level. My emotions can’t accept what my mind’s eye clearly observes. I imagine all this results from how my brain’s empathy inducing mirror neurons naturally pull me into expecting better behavior from us all. Still, the mystery lingers.
Speaking of Mirror Neurons
The extraordinary human capacity for empathy is a result of mirror neurons. Empathy, like any other emotion, greatly influences thought. This creates an interesting, perhaps unique, quandary for humans. On one hand, this empathy (+) thought imparts an ability in humans to feel a profound sense of connection to nature and the universe beyond the narrower instinctive self-interests that usually drive life. Indeed, it bestows on us a sense and idea of spirituality, of god. Conversely, thought (–) empathy might only magnify narrow instinctive self-interests which profoundly disconnects us from what is naturally so—from nature itself. For every benefit comes a cost.
I suspect that empathy, not intelligence, makes us unique. Empathy is humanity’s most powerful instinct. Not that other animals lack empathy by any means. It is just that we may have evolved an extra helping. What’s more, I presume this abundance of empathy was a major factor in the evolution of human intelligence, although, both might have evolved together. Language has a divide and conquer effect on nature. That disconnect is offset by empathy, i.e., empathy is a connective instinct. (See Alone with Thought, p. 459)
Pondering my ‘intelligence’ I notice that the ability to connect my mind with any aspect of the external world that catches my interest is the foundation of my ‘intelligence’. Without that connection, I’d be much more limited in the scope of my awareness, and thought would be much more isolating and self-centered… not good for a social species! I imagine all this plausibly evolved like this: empathy for social hominid, empathetic connection enables intelligence, intelligence enables language, language disconnects, and disconnection stimulates evolution of greater empathy to compensate for disconnection caused by language.
Mirror Neurons, Profound Sameness, Ghosts and Gods
This morning after daily tai chi at the beach, I looked at the seagulls next to me, then out over the ocean and realized how together it all felt. Emergent properties came to mind as the inevitable link between every facet of existence… “I” am the universe emergent, and it is “me”. Life is the natural and inevitable consequence of favorable conditions. Life must emerge and evolve if the conditions are suitable. This means the universe is conscious, and all the parts serve as the whole… profound sameness as chapter 56 would say.
Then, looking out over the horizon, my mind’s eye felt the photons streaming from the Sun to Earth that were producing the sky’s morning glow. Actually, my mirror neurons where allowing me to feel empathy for the photons, and in that spiritual union, I felt the strong sense of connection to something beyond my self. Then I thought, “How is that any different from a person whose mind’s eye feels the presence of ghosts, spirits, God, or any other intangible?” Of course, it’s the same. Both impart feeling a sense of connection—even to the point of profound sameness.
The trouble, the schism, begins when we get obsessed with naming this feeling in an attempt to possess it. Chapter 14 suitably describes what we are trying to hold on to.
The naming then becomes the answer to some aspect of our life. This makes mountains of spiritual unity into molehills of belief which easily blind us to the without of shape form, the without of matter shape all around us. We put all our spiritual eggs in one basket. From there it is just a short step into institutionalizing ‘a God’, rallying around ‘Him or Her’, and going to war on ‘His or Her’ behalf… or if not war, at least claiming we have a corner on the ‘Truth’. (See Do you believe in angels?, p.25)
Hunger and our ‘disease’
Our need for the answer plays a core role in our disease. And the connection between food and this need for answers reveals why. For a hungry empty stomach, food is the ‘answer’. For a questioning empty mind, answers are the food it seeks. The promise of food, and by extension answers, attracts us like moths to light. Biology biases us to favor answers over questions, food over hunger. Indeed, questions are the unknown that can quickly terrify us and push us to grasp for any answer that fulfills. This naturally produces the disease that chapter 71 reveals.
We grasp for any answer to fill our mind’s space, especially if we lack a sufficient sense of intuitive connection. Much of our intuitive sense of connection in the world deepens as we mature, (i.e., We only understand what we intuitively know, p.254). This is one reason why children soak up experience and why it’s harder to teach old dogs new tricks. In addition, the deep intimate social connection common in ancestral times is not sufficient in civilized circumstances, making us all the hungrier for answers—for knowing we know.
Where does desire fit into all this? Desire is the hungry urge to fill up the emptiness, whether food to satiate hunger, or answers to satiate uncertainty. Desire drives the journey from empty to full, question to answer, problem to solution. Fasting and meditation are two spiritual practices that help push back on the incessant urge to fill the space. As chapter 16 begins, Devote effort to emptiness, sincerely watch stillness. Done with some consistency, chapter 16 ends with this desired result: The way therefore long enduring, nearly rising beyond oneself. In a sense, we learn to sit with the unknown… even embrace it.
Hunger and the ‘more is better’ instinct
I’ve long felt that our inclination of feeling ‘more is better’ was instinctive. Google [People systematically overlook subtractive changes] for recent research that proves this is the case. This ties up a few loose ends when you think about it. What is desire, for example, but the urge for more? In the wild, hunger drives us to get food, and the urge to get more of it would be a beneficial instinct. Only in civilization can we get to accumulate more and more without apparent end. Thus, only in civilization is the idea ‘less is more’ or devote effort to emptiness make any sense. In a way, the main thrust of the Tao Te Ching is a push back on this ‘more is better’ instinct now run amuck.
A final word on fear
Need stood out this morning as the driving force behind those birds, us, and every creature in between. If you’ve read this book, you know fear and need are the fundamental principles for many of my observations. In the case of Homo sapiens, need + thought = desire and fear + thought = worry. Those two, need and fear, are the driving forces directing the actions of all living things. Thus, this morning’s ‘insight’ is not very surprising. While need and fear are the common denominators between all life, fear is fundamental. Fear is the primary life force within all living creatures. Fear drives survival. Accordingly, need itself is only a manifestation of underlying fear.
Fear spans the full spectrum of experience, from ‘yin’ to ‘yang’, so to speak. For example, one can be fearful of being noticed by people, and one can be fearful of not being noticed by people. Many of the manifestations of primal fear are subtle and too difficult to discern. Thus, fear is really an inadequate word to pin on this fundamental force of nature. For one thing, “fear” has a lot of cultural baggage tied to the word and so it easily misleads. Unfortunately, no other word encapsulates this force quite so well. As you’d expect, chapter 40 puts forward the deeper meaning I’m attempting to convey by the word “fear”.
Having is born in nothing suggests how need arises out of fear. So it helps to think of this as need ≅ something, born, having and fear ≅ nothing, death, loss. Entropy (i.e., the natural tendency of things to lose order) also helps encapsulate fear. You could say fear is the innate sense of entropy within all creatures, i.e., entropy threatens life’s survival.
On the surface, it appears that need and fear are two discrete entities—need attracts; fear repels. And they are, yet one is also the mother of the other, just as nothing is the source of something. Think: Nothingness gave birth to the Big Bang. Such repurposing exemplifies how nature is profoundly efficient and wastes nothing, not even nothing.
One difficulty we have in comprehending this is because our brain evolved to perceive reality in a mostly linear, black and white way. There is no survival advantage in perceiving the deeper entangled nature of reality. Chapter 1 suggests this unity of opposites—need and fear, These two are the same coming out, yet differ in name. The same, meaning dark and mysterious.
Fight or flight
Fear fuels life’s actions and results in either fight or flight. Think: Nature abhors a vacuum. Less clear is exactly what determines in which direction fear pushes—fight or flight. An innate sense of survival must play a role. Perhaps the promise of imminent and beneficial gain pushes me to fight. Here, a fear of missing the gain sways me. Conversely, the promise of imminent and serious loss pulls me to flight. Here, a fear of loosing what I have sways me. Pleasure and pain also support this analysis. Generally, imminent gain is pleasurable and pleasures attract me (fight). On the other hand, imminent loss is painful and pain repels me (flight).
When an impending pleasure for something, for having, is strongest, the underlying fear pulls me into fight. Fight also fuels a will to live, grit and anger. You could say these are offshoots of need. On the other hand, when impending pain, loss, and death is strongest, fear pushes me into flight, and I naturally try to escape.
Now, if in flight, I’m cornered, there’s a good chance flight will turn into fight—need often tinged with anger. On the other hand, when escape is impossible and all hope is lost, submission overtakes me and I retreat into total nothingness. Is this a factor in suicide? And, doesn’t a flip flopping back and forth between fight and flight sound like a manic-depressive syndrome?
At this point, you may wonder if I’m saying we are continually either in a fight or a flight mode. Yes we are, but in very roundabout ways. For example, on the surface, cooperation and traits such as kindness that support cooperation don’t appear to be either one. However, scratch the surface and I see this: Entropy is the foremost threat to survival of life. The sense of fear is biology’s way of fighting entropy. Grouping together—cooperating—is a social species tactic for fighting entropy. Thus, in this case, cooperation and kindness are part of the fight mode, not between members of the group, but between the group and possible external threats.
As you see, this fear based fight vs. flight dynamic is subtler and more involved than the basic outline I offer here. Various factors feed back and forth at different levels. Suffice it to say; merely being mindful of these life forces at work below the surface deepens perspective significantly. It helps see life from 40,000 feet, as they say.
Sustaining a ‘proper sense of awe’
Fear embraces us all… ALL life. Therefore, a deep awareness of the universality of fear is the thread that deepens my sense of connection to all life. There is also a practical benefit when I heed chapter 72’s warning: When the people don’t fear power, normally great power arrives. D.C. Lau put this a little more poetically, When the people lack a proper sense of awe, then some awful visitation will descend upon them.
One impediment to sustaining a ‘proper sense of awe’ is my innate ignorance of life’s bottom line (see How the Hoodwink Hooks, p.100). In addition, fear induces thinking apes like us to compound this blindness by seeking scapegoats, rationalizations, validations, and solutions. All are dead ends eventually, and rob me of a deeper sense of nature’s sober reality.
Buddha offers a bottom line
There are a few things I hold dear in my attempt to sustain a ‘proper sense of awe’. Especially helpful are Buddha’s Four Truths, particularly the fourth one, “There is salvation for him whose self disappears before truth, whose will is bent on what he ought to do, whose sole desire is the performance of his duty”.
Duty is what in my heart of hearts feels to be my life purpose, what gives life meaning, and what action facilitates that meaning and purpose.
Desire is primarily the fusion of need + thought. Innate fear drives the need side of desire which puts need outside my control. Thought is the only feasible gateway I have to influence desire, albeit just barely. Only when emotion is calm, can thought focus on how I truly want my life to play out, long-term. This shapes my duty and helps me launch practical ways for carrying it out. Now, all that remains is remembering what I truly want.
A practical breakthrough occurred when I realized that I truly never regretted doing my duty, and conversely, that I often regretted not doing it. Then it became only a simple matter of remembering that fact. Now, my near constant awareness of that alone is usually enough for me to follow without exception.
Note here how closely Buddha’s Fourth Truth aligns with chapter 3’s, Doing without doing, following without exception rules. ‘Doing without doing’ is innate action, the kind of ‘duty’ all animals perform. Only humans imagine clever desirous scenarios that promise a favorable future free of charge, so to speak. Following without exception occurs when my sole desire is the performance of my duty. When my will is bent on what I ought to do, I am most in accord with my innate nature. (See Buddha’s Truths Pertain To All Life, p.545).
Diligence is the secret sauce of life
If doing my duty feels more pleasurable than not doing it, I can’t help but fight to do it. Conversely, when doing my duty feels to be more of a loss than a gain, I can’t bring myself to do it. Flight from my duty is inevitable.
Deprived of the pleasure of doing my duty, my need of sensory pleasures begins filling the nothingness. Here, the pleasures I pursue are merely fleeting sensory experiences. Naturally, this is fine, but a little goes a long way. Without the duty-derived pleasures in life, life becomes less meaningful, less enjoyable, less balanced.
Buddha’s final words are enlightening, “All things are impermanent. Work out your own salvation with diligence”. Diligence is a key word here. To me, diligence feels like a balanced form of will, grit, and anger. In contrast, pursuing sensory pleasures feels like fleeing from languor (a.k.a., a need for stimuli) that requires no diligence, and so impart little, if any, life meaning… let alone salvation.
Note here that I’m just referring to circumstances of civilization. In the wild, nature forces balance on animals by always requiring them to earn their benefits through diligent effort. On the other hand, the underlying, albeit natural, aim of civilization is to maximize benefit and minimize cost. Any animal, given such ability would do the same. We can and we do, and so unwittingly upsets our natural balance, which leads to the troubles we witness throughout society.
There is no conquering fear
When I remember that fear (sense of entropy, loss, failure, death) is at play in everything I do, I know that fear is at play in every living creature as well. Then I know there is no ‘conquering fear’. Fear works both sides of life’s equation… fear spawns both courage and cowardice.
It’s worth noting that all belief—from ‘crazy’ conspiracy and flat-earth stories to mainstream religious and political stories—arises from fear born mostly from a sense of disconnection. We’re all just trying to return ‘home’, to belong, and belief promises that. In addition, our disease often makes matters worse. You could say that humanity is stumbling—evolving—through life coping with a disease that it doesn’t even know it has… yet anyway.
The benefit of knowing all this helps greatly in dealing with others (or myself) when the offshoots of fear—need, anger, worry—override reason. By recognizing the source of intense emotion, any resulting drama has a harder time drawing me into its game… as long as I remember to keep at least one eye on reality.
Additionally, knowing there is no escape, futile quests to gain fleeting advantages begin to fade away. This helps liberate me from most of life’s second-guessing, hypocrisies, and double standards. Without such baggage, life becomes simpler and more universal (see You are Immortal! p.391), with all its pleasure and pain going along for the ride, so to speak. Surrendering to reality allows me to feel natural and nearly return to my original self. Then, Doing without doing, following without exception rules.
When all is said and done
At this point, I feel I’ve said it all; only the doing—or the doing without doing— remains. In other words, this isn’t a matter of just understanding and moving on. As always, “Action speaks louder than words”. That is a challenge when it comes to Taoist thought. No specific physical action applies here. For this, a constant motion of knowing is the action chapter 52 suggests…
All under heaven had a beginning; consider the origin of all under heaven.
Already having this origin, use this to know its offspring.
Already knowing its offspring, return to observe the origin.
Nearly rising beyond oneself.
Squeeze exchange, shut the gates; to the end, oneself diligent.
Open the exchange, help its affairs; to the end, oneself no relief.
Seeing the small is called clarity, abide yielding is called powerful.
Use the light, and again return to clarity, not offer oneself misfortune.
This serves as practicing of the constant.
I find diligently recalling the role fear plays in every aspect of life is a way of returning to observe the origin. This is especially helpful when I open the exchange, help its affairs. The ensuing emotions always tilt me off balance. The more fear’s primal role stays on the ‘tip of my
tongue mind’, the more likely I can use the light, and again return to clarity. I’ve found nothing better serves as practicing the constant. Chapter 63 points out an indispensable step in practicing this …
The easy and small here are a mind that is alive to itself. Obviously, this is only true before emotion overwhelms awareness, which causes great difficulty as a result. Clearly, preventative maintenance—constant vigilance—is essential. If I diligently keep the barn door closed, the horses stay put. However, perfect vigilance isn’t the point, even if it were possible. Just being alive to this as much as feasible usually enables me to extinguish the emotional flames before they become an inferno.
Of course, the word fear quickly becomes a useless abstraction. I actually look out for the numerous offspring of fear, i.e., desire apropos gain, comfort, pleasure, hope, triumph, life, and other positive ‘stuff’, and worry apropos loss, discomfort, pain, despair, failure, death, and other negative ‘stuff’. Each side tips me off balance. Chapter 13 puts this more broadly…
Bestowing favor and disgrace seems to startle;
Treasure and trouble seem like the body.
Why say bestowing favor and disgrace seems to startle?
Bestowing favor supports the low.
Gain seems to startle; Loss seems to startle.
This says bestowing favor and disgrace seems to startle.
Why say treasure and trouble seem like a body?
I, as a result, have great suffering; this means I have a body,
Come the time I have no body, I have what trouble?
Hence, regarding the body as precious supports all under heaven,
Seems worthy of trust for all under heaven.
Taking care in use of the body supports all under heaven
Seems worthy of holding in the palm of the hand, all under heaven.
Noticing any of the numerous offspring occur and then linking them back to fear helps me put space between thought and the emotion that drive thought and action. This is similar to the saying, “Count to 10 before reacting”. Putting distance between these helps avoid being drawn into any emotion driven narrative—the disease, i.e., Realizing I don’t know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease.
One last hitch that plagues us all is procrastination. “I’ll start later”, we say. Saying that is actually saying, “I don’t need it enough to start now”. Not much can be done about that, other than wait… until it’s too late? I solve this somewhat by seriously asking myself, “If not now, when?” Happily, when I reliably and concurrently sense that fear drives all biology, nearly rising beyond oneself comes within reach.
A final word on need
I can’t end without a final word on need, the offspring of fear. Fear is the mover and shaker behind all life’s doings. A solid understanding of this primal emotion will help make sense of the rest. If the previous A final word on fear section didn’t suffice, a few of these observations on fear may help: Even a little progress is freedom from fear, p.30; Fear is the Bottom Line, p.139; Reward, Fear & Need, p.181; Fear Rules, p.186; Fear & Need Born in Nothing, p.486.
I now see that Newton’s third law of motion, For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, effectively applies to fear and need as well. I skirted around this in my post, Science, Religion, Truth, p.136. Now, in reviewing this connection to Newton’s third law, although impossible to prove, I’m convinced that need is the equal and opposite reaction to fear.
And then there was need: A close scrutiny of need, or really needs must, helps reveal how life works, i.e., the process that accounts for how life plays out for us, and all of life really. Briefly, it goes like this:
A need (desire, expectation, urge, wish, want, etc.) for something—anything—creates life meaning when an animal is moving to achieve it. This process unfolds like this: need -> movement -> meaning. Although, from the beginning, it actually evolves from fear, i.e., fear -> need -> movement -> meaning. This sequence reveals the framework biology uses to get its job of survival done. Considered at the most basic animal level, this is how it plays out:
The body ‘fears’ starvation and dehydration. This anxiety evokes primary needs, hunger and thirst. These needs push animals (including us) to movement aimed at resolving the fear. The playing out of this dynamic instills in the animal’s awareness as sense of meaning and indeed, happiness. In humans, our desires and expectations are simply an emergent property of these primary needs (see Tao As Emergent Property, p.121). Note: These and offshoot secondary needs (e.g., sex and social connection) receive a boost by the sensory pleasure that satiating them delivers. No wonder pleasure is often mistaken for meaning and happiness.
Happiness? When you think about it, happiness really amounts to living a meaningful life. Lacking a sense of meaning, life feels pointless and depressing, which may make life’s pleasures even more enticing. Thus, we could rewrite the complete progression this way: fear -> need -> movement -> happiness. This shows why ideas, pleasures, objects, or money alone never bring happiness. They only are meaningful when they are an integral part of the flow. For example, if a fear of poverty drives your need to work hard (movement) you will feel life meaningful, and probably end up with money as well. But, it is the need driving the movement that instills meaningful happiness, not any resulting wealth. The more focused the need, the more likely it results in concerted movement toward satiating this need, all of which instills added life meaning.
There is science that supports the link between a meaningful life and genuine happiness. Namely, psychological research shows that gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. What could feel more gratifying than feeling life meaningful? Interestingly, the two create a type of virtuous circle: Gratitude helps people feel positive emotions, relish life experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships. All of which make for meaningful life experiences. (See Natural Happiness, p.404)
And sorrow? The problem for humans occurs when desire (i.e., need + thought) lacks focus and is conflicted, with some needs at odds with others. It is quite easy to see why our species can experience some difficulty achieving life meaning (happiness). This is why we, unlike other animals, need spiritual guidance. The Tao Te Ching offers the finest and undoubtedly the most inscrutable guidance humanity has thought up, such as here in chapter 48, Doing knowledge, day by day increase. Doing the way, day by day decrease. Decreasing and decreasing, Use until without doing. Without doing, yet not undone.
This is where any wealth achieved through the life process described above (i.e., fear -> need -> movement -> happiness) easily becomes too much of a good thing. Wealth frees individuals from primary survival fears and needs. This freedom from primary survival necessity allows fear and need to scatter off in numerous divergent and multiplying tangents, diverting movement and meaning out of the present moment and into future wishes or past regrets. This leaves us Doing knowledge, day by day increase rather than simply Doing the way (i.e., primary fear -> need -> movement -> meaning). (For more, see Core Issue of Human Nature, p.587.)
At some point, the easier life gets, the harder life becomes. Ironic at first glance, yet not when considering evolution’s underlying principle: Life evolves with an innate incentive (need) to act (movement) to solve life problems and survive (meaning). The instinct remains, even as we eliminate life’s primary need related movements, like hunting & gathering. This allows the instincts driving us to pursue and dwell on more intangible and diverse matters. While often stimulating, this is also emotionally destabilizing.
Civilization disrupts life’s equation: All living creatures have a universal fear (entropy) creating and driving their needs. Physical survival and social survival are the fundamental factors that most influence fear and need in social animals. While universal, this fear and the resultant needs can vary greatly between individuals. Whatever the fear and need are, they drive movement, and that dynamic of movement bestows a sense of life meaning, which essentially imparts genuine happiness.
When circumstances don’t evoke these strong survival emotions at a basic practical level, fear and need ‘find’ other ways to manifest themselves, taking on myriad forms. Every aspect of civilized behavior exemplifies this. Again, wealth, a core feature of civilization, allows one to circumvent many of the down to earth ways of channeling practical survival fears and any ensuing needs. You might say this is the hidden high cost of wealth. Note, wealth in a fundamental sense is the condition that allows an individual to avoid the harsher realities of living in the wild. In that sense, all humans are wealthy to a degree.
People are inherently pulled to place their eggs in either the physical or social survival basket. In ancestral times, that would function well, as circumstances would offer many opportunities for both physical and social needs to express themselves fully in balanced ways. Yet, these are no longer ancestral times, which makes feeling life truly meaningful problematic for everyone to one degree or another. Where do we put our eggs now?
Each of us is now ‘responsible’ for finding a meaningful way to move through life… to find happiness. Deeply realizing the equation for happiness may make it more likely to do what is necessary. Following desire and pleasure do result in movement, at least short term. The more enduring path is the one laid out in Buddha’s Fourth Truth, There is salvation for him whose self disappears before truth, whose will is bent on what he ought to do, whose sole desire is the performance of his duty.
When one truly knows (Right Comprehension) what is at stake, meaningful movement (Right Action) becomes unavoidable. For example, if you truly realize driving in the rain is dangerous, you can’t help but slow down. Lacking that realization, you drive fast and risk having an accident. Frankly, it all hinges on the knowing that cannot be taught, but only realized through personal experience.
Do the way, practically speaking: A genuine sense of personal duty brings the deepest life meaning by focusing need in one direction, moment by moment. Such focused need naturally drives movement (action) which instills life meaning (happiness). Again, as Buddha put it, “There is salvation for him whose self disappears before truth, whose will is bent on what he ought to do, whose sole desire is the performance of his duty”. See Buddha’s Fourth Noble Truths, p.604.
Using this progression (fear, need, movement, meaning) as a kind of life mantra helps me manage daily life more smoothly… as long as I’m ‘touching’ it, of course. Awareness of this basic life dynamic helps nip conflicting desires in the bud. The hitch here is maintaining a ongoing awareness of this dynamic process, and especially, adapting as much desire (a.k.a., need / fear) to duty as possible. The beautiful thing here is how just knowing the underlying causes for any despair I feel can help. Like the previous ‘driving in the rain’ example, once I know what’s happening, nature compels me to conform. Chapter 3 hints at this, Doing without doing, following without exception rules. Chapter 27 and 70 also speak to this approach, “This says he follows the pattern honestly” and “Knowing self is rare, following self is noble”. It all comes down to knowing the pattern (a.k.a., life’s equation) and honestly knowing self.
A final word on free will
Temporal difference (TD) learning is a large part of what really goes on under the hood even as we think we are making ‘free choices’. Technically speaking, this is a way of learning by bootstrapping from the current estimate of the benefit-cost value of circumstances in progress. This process samples the environment and carries out updates based on current estimates. TD learning fine-tunes its predictions to match later and more correct predictions about the future before the ultimate outcome becomes known. Now, let me break this down a bit…
We instinctively feel that we deliberate issues and then make suitable decisions… free choice, so we believe. However, the biological evidence conclusively shows that these decisions actually originate in an ancient brain system called the basal ganglia. Notably, this area is inaccessible to conscious thought. As a result, we quite naturally conjure up reasonable explanations for the decisions we think we make.
More specifically, a small group of neurons deep in the brains of all vertebrates is responsible for making decisions by way of their release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine strongly influences our behavior—both current and future actions. Indeed, this deep brain process has an ability to predict reward for future actions, which makes it a central factor in TD learning.
TD learning is responsible for finding the shortest path to a goal. It learns by searching and finding the benefit–cost ratio of all the transitional choices made in reaching the goal. The brain can then use this to predict the outcome of current and future actions. The dopamine neurons assess the current situation and update the brain about the most favorable course of action from the current situation. This update is mostly a guess in many cases, but a guess that can be improved upon by further updates in the future. Over time, this constant update results in an increasing likelihood of the guess being optimal. This means, the longer we (or any vertebrate) lives, the wiser we naturally become, relatively speaking. TD learning relies on the totality of your life experiences, gleaning whatever is significant from these experiences long after the particulars of the experiences are forgotten.
When you ponder a range of choices, the brain evaluates each, and the transitory extent of dopamine assesses the benefit–cost ratio of each choice. The amount of dopamine is also determined by how motivated you are, which means that more dopamine will increase your level of motivation. This results in either a virtuous or a vicious cycle… addiction being an example of the vicious circle aspect. A healthier sustainable diet would be an example of a virtuous cycle.
TD learning is potent as it merges information on the benefit–cost ratio from diverse facets of life. This avoids the extreme difficulty of thinking through myriad variables and unknowns. This innate ability to quickly deliver better guesses often makes the difference between life and death in the wild. The circumstances of civilization probably make this innate ability problematic at times.
Postscript to this Postscript
I feel a major reason I write on these matters is to be helpful, first to myself and then to others, if possible. By observing life, pondering what I see, and writing about it as skillfully as I can, I get a better handle on it all. It’s my way of seeking Buddha’s Right Comprehension. The Tradeoff, in particular, really helps me to grasp the ‘big picture’. However, this will only hold true for a few. Frankly, all animals (including humans) instinctively feel the need to have it both ways; we wish to get the most benefit, for the least cost… even free if possible. The Tradeoff sums up why that’s futile. This is why that essay and the rest of my writing must naturally fall largely on deaf ears. “We only understand what we know” (p.254) explains why this may be true.
I consider “what we know” as being our intuitive visceral sense of life, and not the ‘monkey see, monkey do’ knowledge with which education stuffs our brain. What we intuitively know most deeply are the primal instincts that move us through life. One instinct is an innate urge to follow the path of least resistance. Thus, we yearn for simple solutions and straightforward answers that promise to fulfill our dreams. We’re not interested in knowing why we are where we are; we mostly want to know how to leave ‘here’ and go to our imagined much better ‘there’. By the way, my ‘monkey see, monkey do’ framing of education will feel utterly heretical to anyone embracing mainstream culture. All I can say is love is blind.
This “what we know” matter brings me back to chapter 56’s, Knowing doesn’t speak; speaking doesn’t know. The knowing that we can speak or think about is a dipolar categorization of the reality we perceive. Speech and thought require this naming for language itself. We divide the natural whole, the profound sameness to which chapter 56 refers, into bite size chunks that the brain can handle. The stories that ensue are reflections of our own fears and needs, not of reality. As a result, no one truly knows nor has ever known what they are doing now or in the future. We simply stumble into the future. Thus, the wisest advice is always, once again, Doing without doing, following without exception rules.