Friday, November 20, 2009

Part II

Okay, so if you're more or less on board with the premise of the previous post——that our species' angst arises because of the dissonance between what we want (permanence and stability) and the shifting, squirming impermanence that circumstances really offer——where does that leave us?

Assuming that a happy state is what we all seek, there are two conceivable solutions. One, we can attempt to create permanence and stability in our circumstances and in our identities. We can try to make the world fit our desires. Generally speaking, I think this is human solution of choice. We try to make become permanently healthy, to solidify our level of comfort in the world. Through career, or family, or good deeds, we try to give our name and reputation some permanence, even eternity. Hence, a wealthy man builds a law school and names it after himself; an artist seeks glory; an actor, a star on the hollywood walk of fame. Nations try to establish themselves as cultures for the ages. We try to convince ourselves that we are real, in other words.

These efforts can work for a little while--at least long enough for us momentarily convince ourselves that we're succeeding. We actually can change the world to our liking, at least for a little while. We can extend the average length of a healthy life. We can send men to the moon. We convince ourselves these are momentous, fabulous victories, signifying everything. We ignore the fact that to die at 90 rather than 70 is, at the end of the day, still to die. Most every human triumph, in the final measure, is slightly hollow, as the truth is never really escaped. I'm exaggerating this for effect, but you get the idea.

Eventually, the rug gets pulled away, and illness visits, poverty descends, or reputation becomes sullied. Waistline sags, the memory grows feeble, friends forget us. And through it all, we're constantly trying rebuilding the sand castle, trying to defend the illusion against the evidence.

This is the point where disillusionment can be an important gift. To become disillusioned, after all, means to be relieved of your illusions——to forfeit your false beliefs, in others words. It's not a terrible thing to wake up and see that a lot of our ambition is rather meaningless.

The danger, though, is that we'll swing to the opposite pole. If I can't make life constantly to my liking, we think, then it automatically means that life is shit. Nihilism can set it. There are people who travel in this direction, but never come to the point where there realize that nihilism is its own form of illusion.

Rather than seeking to remake the world to match our wishes, the second option, the one much less traveled, would be to work with the wishing itself, the illusion, and see if we can't bring it more into alignment with the ways things really are.

This, I would suggest, is the more revolutionary approach, and the one that perhaps has more real potential for creating a happy life. It is a life of letting to to things as they are, and it is quite alien to us. We really can't believe such a thing is possible, and dismiss the mere idea as lazy hogwash. We defend our right to hold on to delusion.

A bit of experiment, though, can begin to convince you that there's something to different approach. Perhaps our ability to truly and wholly "let go" can only happen for a sporadic few moments at a time before the need to control things again reasserts itself. Pay attention, though, and you may realize that those few moments of utter surrender to the world is as peaceful as anything you've known.

Some people with whom I talk to about such ideas will mutter that such a life would be nothing more than laziness. A life without the attempt to control the world is no life at all, they'd say.
In point of fact, though, a life of surrender very often will mean abandoning our inaction, and allowing oneself to act with unusual strength and power in accordance with the natural flow of things.

A tiny little glimpse of this approach can be experienced through a very simple meditation exercise once taught to me.

"As you pay attention to your breath, abandon the illusion that "you" are breathing. Instead, consider the possibility that the universe is breathing you."

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