The Antidote to “Civilization Dis-ease”

This time I want to write about two different mythologies. Probably the two fundamental mythologies of mankind. Which one of them is dominant influences our collective values and behavior. I call the first mythology “Original Sin” and the second “Innate Goodness “.

“Original sin” is a mythology of fundamental suspiciousness of (mother) nature. It therefore posits that the innermost nature of mankind is ruthless and egoistic. To control the “inner”, a system of imposed morality and law & order is established and enforced. Rationality and self-restraint are highly valued character traits. The heavens are ruled by a masculine, omniscient, monarchical, supreme judge who has the power of ultimate punishment. Because humans are natural born sinners, they are in constant need to (im)prove themselves. Thus, work ethic is high, “doing”, efficiency and functionality is emphasized and there is a fetish of progress. This explicit orientation towards purpose and the future fuels desires and anxieties which motivate humans to create highly complex and sophisticated civilizations. Because always living for the future excludes the possibility of ever arriving “there”, civilization dis-eases like ongoing dissatisfaction and cynicism become prevalent. And because constantly doing something for a specific purpose prevents relaxation, a feeling of being caught in a rat race makes humans seek for meaning.

The anti-thesis to efficient but meaningless “Original Sin” is the mythology of “Innate Goodness”. Once we change the assumption of nature being untrustworthy, the whole mythology reverses itself. If there is reverence for (mother) nature, there will be the belief that the innermost core of a human being is gentle. Intuition and spontaneity are therefore the best ways to “control” behavior, not imposed morals, laws or a strict, fatherly God. Yielding and letting go are highly valued character traits and there is no need to (im)prove anything because the universe (including all humans) is already “perfect” (in its imperfection). Pain is completely unnecessary for gain. Thus, as opposed to a work ethic humans will have a strong life ethic. Efficiency, functionality and progress are not emphasized but “being” in accord with nature is. This explicit orientation to purposelessness and the present moment leads to deep rest and relaxation. There is a sense of “never not there” which brings natural joy and, thus, meaning to life.

I see these two mythologies as expressions of the primordial principle of Yin and Yang. It is therefore not surprising that Yin mythologies usually come out of Yang dominated societies and civilizations (think of Taoism as the anti-thesis to Confucianism, Buddhism as a movement of discontent with Vedic Brahmanism or the Hippie/ Human Potential movement as a dissociation from Consumerism). Whenever Yin and Yang get out of balance, even on the largest scales, there will be a natural corrective movement.

From that follows that neither of these mythologies constitute the Truth. Both comprise half the Truth. There is as much benevolence as cruelty in the universe. While the Yang mythology deals with our lower three Chakras (which are important for survival), the Yin mythology addresses the upper three (providing meaning). When they are in balance, the middle Chakra, the heart that embraces it all, opens. As this happens, we become a “whole” human being, transcending “good” and “evil” to settle into equanimity, compassion and sympathetic joy.

The very fact that so much of us are interested in spirituality shows that we have understood that a lack thereof makes us unbalanced, lopsided human beings. All societies need spirituality, but not of the “doing”, goal-oriented, self-improvement kind. That will only reinforce our Yang tendency. What we really need now is more love and respect for ourselves, and I think we are about to wake up to that.

“The truth of Zen, just a little bit of it, is what turns one’s humdrum life, a life of monotonous, uninspiring commonplaceness, into one of art, full of genuine inner creativity.”
~D.T. Suzuki



The Trick Of The Trade

I have written on this blog much about (self-)acceptance, letting go and surrender to “what is” as the key tenets of spirituality. At the same time I have tried to convey the point that acceptance, letting go and surrender is not something we can do, force or bring about. There is no way we can help ourselves on the path to enlightenment. In fact, the very trying is what makes it completely unfeasible. We have to trick ourselves into it somehow.

Because that is so, any spiritual method, in one way or another, tries to undermine the “ego”, that is, our reflex to control and manipulate our experiencing of “what is”. Therefore, I have tried to show you either that there is no separate “you” (wisdom about life) or that the world exactly as it “is”, the full catastrophe, is perfect (love for life).

This time I will try to synthesize these two positions, the position of (non-dual) wisdom and (dual) devotion. I will do so by trying to prove that the “we” (the “ego”) has no control whatsoever over our experiences and that this is no problem at all. To me, this is the ultimate trick of the spiritual trade.

Let’s start with our five senses. Do we have control over the experience of seeing, touching, hearing, smelling or tasting? No, we don’t. Our senses can’t be shut down (only blocked). Even if we are not conscious of hearing, touching, seeing, smelling or tasting (because we may not pay particular attention), unconsciously the gates of perception are always wide open.

Let’s now consider thoughts. Can we not think of a pink elephant while we are reading this line? No, we can’t. Thoughts constantly arise from the depths of the unconscious. We have no control as to what thoughts arise at what time. Can we stop thoughts? No. Since the “we” is itself a thought, “we” trying not to think thoughts just creates more “we” thoughts (thickening the illusion of a solid “we”). Stopping thoughts is as impossible as licking our own tongue. Try and you’ll notice it will just create motion in your mouth. A thought (the “we”) can never control another thought (it can only replace it).

What about feelings? Feelings are regulated by thoughts which are the mental precursors to physical sensations: when we have “good” thoughts we feel good and when we have “bad” thoughts we feel bad. As stated above, thoughts arise from the unconscious and are uncontrollable. Hence, we have no control over our feelings either.

What all this proves is that just as we cannot be spontaneous on purpose, we cannot influence our sensory perceptions, thoughts and feelings. We cannot want to be spontaneous because both, spontaneous and unspontaneous acts always happen spontaneously, that is, without our implicit consent! Likewise, we cannot want to change our experiences, because they always happen no matter how we feel about them! Think about it.

And it gets even more interesting as we delve deeper into the subject. As we understand that thoughts determine how we feel and that we have no control over our thoughts, the “we” is naturally inclined to try to change how we were conditioned by our parents and society (our “judges”) to interpret our experiences. We know, that if we reject our experiences, we suffer. So, we may think: “Let’s accept it all, “good” or “bad”! Let’s surrender to everything! Let’s go with the flow!” Of course, though, not controlling is as much an “ego”-trip as controlling since any intent to do something about our experience is a total denial of “what is”. Trying to accept and surrender logically implies a stance of non-acceptance and non-surrender. No matter where we turn, there is no way out of this “double bind”. Whatever option we chose, controlling or not controlling, we can only go wrong. “We” are trapped.

At some point (for some after many, many years of struggling!) it will hopefully dawn on us that there is nothing “we” can do: no controlling thoughts and feelings, no “be here now”, no “going with the flow”, no letting go, no surrendering, no (self-)accepting, no (self-)improving, no spiritual method, no absolutely nothing at all that will work to “advance” on the spiritual path and find peace of mind! Of course, having truly realized this IS the ultimate disillusionment, the death of the (imaginary) “ego” that the spiritual path is all about!

To know that nothing can be done to change one’s experiences coupled with the wisdom that the universe, with its interplay of light and dark, is perfect in design leads one directly into the hands of (self-)acceptance and surrender. There is no more grounds for objecting to anything! All is, and has always been, as it was supposed to be! And even if we wanted, it couldn’t be changed anyhow because the “we” is (just another experience and therefore) absolutely powerless. There is no need and no capacity for change, ever.

In reality, all that “is” is this divine “No-thing” experiencing itself through itself. We are the container and the contained. We, the universe, move(s) through ourself. With this realization, the dis-ease with “what is” in this present moment ceases and we leave our futile struggles to find salvation in the future behind. And this is non other than the most natural human condition. Or nothing special, as they would say in Zen.

“Unless you make tremendous efforts, you will not be convinced that effort will take you nowhere. The self is so self-confident that unless it is totally discouraged it will not give up. Mere verbal conviction is not enough. Hard facts alone can show the absolute nothingness of the self-image.
~Nisargadatta Maharaj