We have a problem — you have and I have it. I may have worked on it a little longer on it than you have, but maybe not. Here is the problem: we have very little motivation to give up our comforts for something that is greater than we are. There is nothing in our life that we are willing to sacrifice everything else for. I’m not talking about the belief that we would sacrifice our lives for our loved ones. We all claim that we would sacrifice our lives for the ones we love. I have always been skeptical of those kinds of statements, and I continue to agree with myself.
When we have no cause, no purpose, to our life, then we have to ask ourselves, “What is it that we are living for.” Are we really living for tomorrow so we can visit with our friends and talk smack? Some people live for tomorrow so they can go to a party or maybe meet that someone special, a someone like a “soul mate” (whatever that might mean) that will finally make them feel “whole”, get high or go to their boring day job and do something that provides no value to humanity. Some wallow in a life hemmed in by a dead end marriage or hopelessly trivial relationships. The Buddha ha a word for this, Samsāra the concept of wandering through the realms of existence.
When we feel badly about the condition of our lives we often blame our circumstances or other people because that is the most convenient thing to blame. We live in the same house, the same neighborhood, in the same city, year after year, growing older stagnating more with each passing year. This has become our comfort zone: not living and blaming imaginary causes and conditions. Is this what we are doing?
Just how do we propose to create a great life from that? It’s not like we are engineering more skillful mental fabrications. In Pure Land Buddhism that would be called, “creating a better delusion,” but what kind of better delusion can you create from a life of stagnant tedium? We just keep on reinventing the same worn out excuses to explain why life has treated us so poorly. A person caught in this kind of lifestyle is simply pathetic self-victimizing.
Our society has made this triviality of life possible for us because life has become so simple. We tend to live in a herd, maybe it’s a herd of cattle, maybe it’s a herd of sheep, it could even be a herd of venture capitalists or politicians — it’s still a herd. That herd is stampeding sown a canyon toward a cliff. The herd doesn’t see the cliff. It only knows that it has to keep running so no one can get ahead of them.
Life is so excrementally easy when we don’t have to do anything except sit on our collective butts only to get up to go to our meaningless jobs and cling to meaningless problematic relationships and amusements. We are told what we should eat, on what we should sleep, with whom we should sleep, whom we should love, and who and what we ought to be thinking and believing. If we don’t like the entertainment we see on the TV (and who does?) we don’t even have to get up to change the channel. We have remotes for that now. But the divine doorknob (aka God) help us if we turn the electronic drugs off. We are constantly bombarded with entertainment. We have TV, the Internet, smart phones, tablets, videos, music, billboards, clubs, bars, restaurants, 3,000 entertainments are available to us in the click of something called a “mouse.” Then we repeat the same process the next day. Meanwhile our herd is running toward a cliff and doesn’t know how or when to stop. Even if someone explains this to us we still keep running. It’s only when we stop and get to higher ground that we can see ahead; the cliff becomes evident. Then, maybe we will be wise enough to turn in the other direction, but maybe not
Eventually we might go out and find a psychologist, a minister or a Dharma teacher and beg the answer to the same worn out question, “What is my purpose (meaning) in life.” And that is the problem! Life has no purpose or meaning. There is no inherent purpose or meaning in life at all — we have to create that. Life doesn’t come with an owner’s manual. We spend a lifetime looking for our purpose, the meaning of our life, just as we spend a lifetime creating our “soul” (we didn’t come with one of those either). Then in the end we decide the purpose of life is to be happy. Unfortunately what we call happiness is only immediate gratification without depth and lastingness. If our only purpose to life is to gratify our senses then we are wasting our lives. We become fat, lazy, addicted to substances that we hope will bring us momentary escape from the pain of dissatisfaction.
Great people become great people because they have a sense of purpose. They have created for themselves a cause that is so important to them that they are will to fight and even die for it. Most of us are too cowardly to fight for the causes we have. Maybe unconsciously know our usual societal causes are frivolous and inconsequential. Maybe they are and maybe they are not. Courage is not about having no fear; it’s about overcoming the fear, working with it, to live a more meaningful life; a life that is more eloquent to you if no one else.
People seemed more courageous in the past. Why would this be? This is possibly because until just recently survival was on their minds almost all the time. Life used to be a matter of literal survival. We are very much more pampered than someone of just 100 years ago. There were wars, famines, and dustbowls, even plagues to force people to think about life’s purpose. Today we have at least some kind of social safety net, well, not so much in the US, but in most of the industrialized world. In the past people weren’t constantly entertained and told to buy the latest zoo-zoo and wham-wham as we live on internet heroine. Just 100 years ago people weren’t so hyped about getting into romantic relationships. In our world society tells us that we are a failure if we don’t have a perfect partner in life. That partner has to be drop dead gorgeous, our age, rich beyond belief, and characteristics we find perfectly suited to our wants, desires, and fixations. Our life has to be perfect and that special other will guarantee it. Not too long ago people were expected to find their own way, their own unique “bliss.”
It isn’t true that you are a failure if you do not have a lover, own the latest electronic gizmo, or get an Master’s of Business Management, whatever that really is, but we are told that we are losers because if we don’t have these things then some other loser will post our shame on Face Book where it will linger online forever and everyone will know we are a loser.
We are so conditioned to believing the lie of the societal market place that we cannot accept the truth; even if it just the truth of who and what we are. We live in a world where most of us don’t have to think about what we need to survive; we only have to worry about what is going to make our lives more comfortable. Instead of starting our hero’s journey we become stuck in the sticky saccharine goo of boring self-centered routine — our world, Samsāra.
We need a purpose, a reason to struggle, a challenge to us to get us outside of our heads. Without challenges we have no reason to struggle and we languish in the desire to fulfill our cravings. Craving to fulfill our desires is what Buddhists usually call dukkha, “contemptible emptiness” or even better, “contemptible missingness”; the desire to fill up the empty spaces that we perceive in our lives. Some Buddhists, like the Siddhartha Gautama, just call it stupid.
Emptiness is a good thing in Buddhism, no? Well, not always. Sometimes when we feel our wants and desires aren’t being filled we feel an unpleasantness that we describe as “sadness.” We often feel that there is this void within us; and when that “hollowness” manifests we feel “un-full-filled”, empty. That is contemptible emptiness. It is contemptible not only because of the sensation of unpleasantness but also because we fall into the trap of wanting more and more stuff that just won’t satisfy us even in the short term. We might sit around and claim that “if only I had a different job I’d be happy” or “if I had a romantic relationship, I would be happy” or “if I were rich I would be happy.” There is an uncountable list of “if only” things. The problem is that when we get those things we are pleased for a very limited time before we find the thing that was supposed to bring us happiness only brings a whole new category of dukkha and the craving of more “if only” things.
Religion might have taken root in ancient times because there were those that needed a greater purpose than their own ego centric desires and they couldn’t find it inside themselves. In our contemporary world we see a similar phenomena in politics, New Age religions and philosophies that make no rational sense and are devoid of critical reasoning, but many cling to these intellectual pursuits in spite of the lack of intellectual stamina. Why would a person do this? Probably, like our ancestors, they want to be a part of a greater scheme of things, something beyond the hum drum routine of day-to-day life. Today we really don’t need such things to survive in society, but be we still want to believe in higher values. So we rush to find the nearest herd.
We have to find something that is greater than the lusts of our daily life. We have been conditioned by society to be out of touch with our needs. It has programmed us to be mainly in touch with our desires. Because of this conditioning we tend to crave things that have no value while being disconnected with the things that are of value. We know what the valuable things are but we are constantly distracted from them by the latest “techno-crap.”
Let’s not go over board here. I use my computer, it is a wonderful tool as is my iPhone, but honestly, I could probably really live without them. Many people treat these things as toys and become addicted to them. Challenge someone to put his or her smart phone and laptop away for three days and you’ll find that many, if not most, just can’t do it. They feel the need to be touch with everything except themselves. They want to go on Tinder and find their perfect romantic match, or find out when the next party with their friends is on Face Book, or are waiting with baited breath for the next text message. How is this living? Instead of living we are deeply embedded in a prison of desires distracting us from what is meaningful in life.
Please don’t throw the time worn emptiness trip at me. Saying things like, “in emptiness there is no ____(fill in the blank with what you are in denial of)____.” That argument only betrays a misunderstanding of the teaching on emptiness.
If we want to have a life of meaning we can give value to things other than our personal cravings, clingings and the demands of social media. We can make Beauty our life’s purpose. This is not just going outside and saying, “Oh, that’s beautiful.” I mean we can create something of beauty. Even if we don’t have an artistic bone in our body we can still create things of beauty by cleaning up our room, apartment, picking up litter on the street. We can give a homeless person a reason to smile or a child a cause for laughter. These are beautiful things. Think outside the box here.
We used to talk about truth in advertizing until the Supreme Court of the United States decided that was a bad idea; or just not lying. By valuing truth we can go into the world and find out what is true while remaining inside our self to discover what is true there as well.
It seems easier to wade through the bullshit we find in the world, but what about the bullshit that is going on in our head? Just look at contemporary popular spirituality that can’t help itself but to look out into the world for salvation and happiness and treats “fairy dust” as if it were reality; wishful thinking and irrational belief for universal truth.
A commitment to discovering the truth, going deeper into the truth, educating the rest of us about what is true and what is false seems to be a much more purposeful life.
Many see Metta and Karūna — Loving kindness and compassion — as things of value and purpose. Metta means something like “loving friendliness” and refers to the idea that we consciously desire every living thing to be happy. Karūna refers to actually getting up off our lazy behinds, put down the remote, turn off video stream, stop Face Booking, texting and worrying about if we’ll ever have sex again, and doing something about the wish that everyone be happy. Many of us cannot actually bring ourselves to be compassionate. We want to negotiate: if I do this for you have to do this. That is neither Metta nor Karūna; it’s selfishness.
Genuine Metta and Karūna are living core values, yes?
We say we love but do we really love? Most of us are very selfish about love. We say we love but mean we want to be loved. We want to feel loved but not feel loving. Loving takes a lot of work. Love is about who we are and how we share ourselves with others and not needing or desiring anything in return. This can shine through in how we treat our family, friends, and even pets; our day-to-day interactions at work, the store or just walking down the street. If you are really a loving person the world will know it. We won’t have to tell a living being, our love will just shine through. You don’t have to volunteer at a soup kitchen to show love, you can do that by just being alive. But, if you need help getting started, please do volunteer at something. Don’t just mouth the words; actually do something.
Stop and think about this: we live in a pretty ordered and lawful society compared to much of this planet. How did that come about? It came about through hundreds and even thousands of years of struggle, conflict, brutality, and blood letting and suffering; not to mention the legal arguments, debates, legislation, balance of powers and the hundreds of other facets of government and societies that came before us. This is the cause of justice and peace. You don’t have to be Gandhi to promote justice and peace — just being sane is often very helpful.
People are actually supposed to be involved with lawmaking. That’s why we vote. We are the recipients of the actions of people who made laws in the past. There was a point where making law was important, a matter of survival, and to make sure that society can be just and fair, not some system of an eye-for-an-eye. Justice involves making things the way they ought to be and not just allowing things to be the way they are. We might want to make society better, but how about starting with your company and place of employment, or your own home? That would be a purpose with value; a life with meaning.
Look at all the art, music, literature we have created as a culture in last 40,000 years. We have a wonderfully rich intellectual history. What kind of deep effect does intellectual creativity have on the average person — including you? Creativity also gives purpose to life.
Instead of allowing senseless entertainment dumb us down, instead of wasting our precious humanity and lives on idle and trivial pursuits, wouldn’t valuing creativity give some greater purpose to one’s life? Wouldn’t it benefit our society as a whole? Well, maybe we are just too lazy or too weak to share our creativity with the world. Try this: start by getting touch with your creativity.
These values are deeply engrained in Buddhist thought, and many of the more ancient religions and spiritualities of our world. These values or causes lead one toward a greater intensity and purpose of being. A human being living in tune with these kinds of ideals is one who is moving toward a blossoming of their own humanness. This person is not living for sex, stimulation, and trivial pursuit or being entertained, this person is living for a purpose greater than himself or herself.
In a sense this is the Eightfold Path, what the Buddha called to “Way to Liberation.” We cannot unravel the Eightfold and make it eight separate lanes of highway. They are artfully intertwined. Samma Ajiva (Right Livelihood) is not so much about earning a living than it is about harmonious lifestyle. If we find values greater than our own petty self interests then we are living transcendentally, above the pettiness of my normal worldly existence as a simple social critter; living above the herd.
This transcendence changes the arc of our lives. We have to have a cause or we aren’t going to make a cause for real and lasting happiness. If everyone reading this post today takes these words to heart and adopts any of the suggested causes only a few will really change their lives. This is because for most of us it is just too hard for us live for something that is beyond how we see ourselves. We see ourselves as living in poverty, doing without what others have. This sense of poverty tells us that we aren’t good enough, pretty enough, rich enough, have enough time or resource. Eventually we just curl up like a dying flower and let life pass us by.
Here is a hard fact of life — you are dying! We are all dying, every single one of us. Why are we dying? We are dying because we were born and too many of us only mature to be about sixteen or seventeen. Then we stop growing up; we are just growing old. Somehow we began to believe we don’t have to push ourselves and grow, instead we have bought into the idea that we are entitled to the good life — whatever that means to you — and we don’t have to work for it. The question is, do we want to die as a sixteen year old trapped in a seventy year old body? Is that the purpose we want in our life?
If we really commit ourselves to a cause the possibilities for our lives are enormous. This requires the commitment to something other than what we see ourselves as being. Breaking through the prison of self-perception is probably the most difficult thing we will every do, and yet it is the most important thing that we will ever do if we are to be a fulfilled person, a person of value. Somehow we must learn how to go beyond our conditioned selfishness and give up our egocentric view of self to be some one greater than the one we believe we are.
Instead of a purposeful life, most of us want to get into a comfortable relationship, a better paying job, a better neighborhood, and a better car. We get stuck into the idea that the world is all about me and we don’t have to do a damn thing with our lives if only we had a great job, the perfect spouse, a two hour work week, unlimited travel, be on vacation and hang out with our friends. Okay, if anyone wants to live his or her life like that go ahead. I really don’t care if they want to waste their life in trivial pursuit. They’ll have a lot of time doing a lot of useless things.
Nobody is saying we have to give up friends and the really cool stuff in life that brings us momentary gratification. We can have all that, but that’s only a side dish in life, you should be enjoying the main dish, that big beautiful main course. Your life really isn’t only about you. Each of us just a microscopic cell in an infinitely large body, as such we are not all that important. If we want to mean something at the end of our life, our purpose in life ought to be to advance the cause of humanity in some way. That advancement can be anything that is meaningful to you, for everyone it’s a little different. People can be visionaries, others might want to be artistic, but there is something in life that can be fulfilling.
We should look at how we live our life. Are creating something of value, something beautiful, something just? Is your job doing any of that? Is your religion or politics? If life isn’t creative, beautiful, leading to freedom, peace and happiness then you need to make a change. Most of us won’t because we are afraid. There aren’t many heroes in the world. There is little heroism in most of our lives. Most of us are not courageous but that possibility is there. There is no heroism in being selfish. We each choose our individual journey; it’s not forced upon us. That journey through life can be one of fear and disappointment living in a fetal position or one a great courage and satisfaction while standing tall.
We have to make a choice. We owe it to ourselves to choose wisely.
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