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



Accessing the ‘Now’

In this post I want to share with you a method to access the ‘Now’. But first let me explain what I exactly mean by that. The ‘Now’ is the sphere of intimacy with the mystery of life that is unfolding through our senses. It is being in a state of non-argumentative receptivity to what ‘is’. The ability to access the ‘Now’ is an important ‘skill’ as it puts our sometimes burdensome ‘stories’ in a broader context and endows us with a refreshing sense of awe, gratitude and lightness of being.

Being separated from the ‘Now’ often feels a bit like being trapped in a strange wasteland. Being one with the ‘Now’ feels like coming home to a sense of wholeness. While the ‘Now’ is crucial for mental well-being, it certainly is not a ‘secret weapon’ to eradicate pain and difficulty. It is an island of refuge within the changing weather of life: when the ‘going gets tough’ the ‘Now’ provides perspective, when the ‘going is smooth’ it provides inspiration and bliss.

What usually keeps us from accessing the ‘Now’ is a nagging sense of lack. Our minds are conditioned to tell us that the very moment as it presents itself, is somehow not ‘enough’ as it is. When there is fear or anxiety, for example, our mind wants us to fight or flight, when there is boredom it tells us to do something, when there is happiness it wants us to grasp. This seeking is what keeps us from truly appreciating what is happening ‘Now’. It is what encases us in a sticky bubble of insatisfactory separateness.

Whenever there is this sense of division or separateness between inner and outer, the ‘being-mind’ (the mind which can accept and rest in the ‘Now’) is clouded by the ‘becoming-mind’ (the mind which subtly rejects and seeks to improve the ‘Now’) and vice versa. Having said that, it becomes clear that there are two ways to break this cycle of dependent origination: we can realize either that separateness or that the story of lack is illusory. While I have written and will write more about the illusory nature of separateness some other time, I am going to present here a way of refuting the story of lack.

Inquiry into ‘what’s lacking’

There are three questions I ask myself whenever I feel separated and disconnected from life, that is, when I am caught in a story of lack that makes me feel lonely, anxious, frightened, stressed or simply bored.

1. What is my story telling me that is lacking for this very moment to be more fulfilling?
In my case the way my story makes itself know to me is through the “if I only had…then”-thought. This thought is the very root of seeking and dis-ease with the present moment as it posits an incompleteness, a gap that needs to be filled or a threshold to be passed for fulfillment to be reached. Obviously, once fulfillment is reached the mind will find another reason for lack and incompleteness. Trying to find lasting fulfillment is like trying to fill a bottomless pit; it’s just never going to happen no matter how much we try. In this context Bernard Shaw once said that “there are two great disappointments in life: not getting what one wants and getting it”. When people say they feel ’empty’ or ‘burnt-out’, what they actually mean is that they are completely exhausted because they are constantly haunted by their story-telling minds, thus, never reaching moments of peace.

Inquire: What is your mind telling you to go out seeking? What does it want to be improved or get over with first before the moment can be enjoyed? The stories may or may not contain legitimate demands. Even if the demands are legitimate, we can always take care of them at the appropriate time and not need to get bogged down by them any other time. The stories can be very subtle, so listen carefully.

2. Has there ever been a fulfilling moment in the absence of what seems to be lacking now?
Once you have identified what seems to be lacking, try to remember an instant of fulfillment when the seemingly lacking ‘mind-object’ was absent. For example, if you are single and you watch a romantic comedy your story may make you believe that to be alone is to be lonely and that you can only be truly fulfilled and in harmony with the world in a romantic relationship. In this case, remember an instant when you were single, on your own and fulfilled at the same time.

3. Does my fulfillment really depend on what seems to be lacking?
Once you have identified an instant when you were fulfilled even in the absence of the seemingly lacking ‘mind-object’, ask yourself: is it really true that fulfillment depends on this ‘mind-object’? The answer, obviously, is no. Which means you must have been fooled by the story-telling mind which, if we look at it with compassion, simply tries to protect and secure your existence by means of reaching out and manipulating your environment. While this function of the mind is very important for our survival, its purpose is not finding fulfillment. Fulfillment lies in the absence of the search for fulfillment.

When you see through the story of the mind, you have a chance to dis-identify from it and to not let your wellbeing be kept hostage by it. By ‘stepping out’ of the story, we ‘step into’ the ‘Now’, for the ‘Now’ is within and through which the illusion of the story appears. To truly live we have to show up, which can only happen ‘Now’.

“Truly, is anything missing right now? Nirvana is right here, before your eyes.”
~Zen Master Hakuin