On January 3 I gave a talk at our local Unitarian Universalist congregation. My theme was, roughly, the human condition, so I was painting with a very broad brush. Although this sort of essay inevitably oversimplifies, a big-picture sketch can be useful. I preceded the talk with some centering words:
This day is precious to us, and to all living creatures. This is a day to open ourselves to fulfillment. This is a day to soften the boundaries between ourselves and others, To touch what is real and see through our illusions.
This is a day to welcome life’s gifts, especially those that surprise us. It is a time to extend love and create value. This day will never come again. We can only know this day. It is the day when we live.
And here is the text of my talk:
The Trap, and the Quest
January 3, 2016
The new year is a good time to look at the big picture, and one way to do that is by asking – what are we and where are we?
Well, we are intelligent conscious beings in a vast cosmos that is evidently the home of other intelligent conscious beings. Just in our own galaxy we now estimate that there are at least 50 billion planets and at least 500 million of those planets are in the Goldilocks zone – not too hot, not too cold, just right for life. There are at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe, so if our galaxy is typical and if my math is correct, the number of potentially habitable planets might be not a billion, not a trillion, not even a quadrillion, but 50 quintillion! With 50 quintillion possibilities I have no doubt that there are intelligent beings out there. These unknown aliens are kindred to us – in an achingly poignant way – because they are probably struggling with the same issues that trouble homo sapiens. Another way of saying this is that each of these intelligent life-forms needs a Buddha.
“The Buddha” is a title given to someone who seems enlightened, and it’s often associated with a man named Gautama, who described our situation 2500 years ago in starkly simple terms. He proclaimed “the Noble Truth of Suffering: Birth is suffering; [he said] decay is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering.” (Just about everything is suffering!) He then traced the problem of suffering back to tanha, a Sanskrit word translated as thirst or craving. He said that if you get rid of this craving, you get rid of suffering, and he presented a program for doing just that. So Gautama realized that we are caught in a trap, and offered a way to be free.
The Buddha’s ideas about our human predicament seem more helpful to me than those of the Middle Eastern religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Now I have a lot of respect for these religions and they have a great deal to offer, but they give us the wrong diagnosis of our basic problem. They say we are trapped in suffering because of sin. Christian theology says Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden and their mistake somehow embroiled the whole human species in a vast smoldering cauldron of collective guilt. But today most people reject the idea that someone’s sin infects that person’s descendants with guilt. I think inherited guilt is a confused and misguided notion, and mainstream Christianity is based on that idea. Now obviously there are many versions of Middle Eastern religion with many different views about inherited guilt, but they do usually emphasize that we suffer because we are sinners. But babies suffer and animals suffer. They do not sin, but they are also caught in the spider-web of craving, frustration, and distress.
Today science helps us see why this is so. Science shows that evolution has been driven by competition between predators and their prey. In a world where animals eat each other, developing higher levels of intelligence is rather helpful. Smarter critters survive. But evolution also injects craving and suffering into animal minds. Creatures are more likely to survive if they strive desperately to have lunch rather than to become lunch. Which reminds me of a story about religion and survival needs: A fellow was being chased by a bear through the woods, and he cried out, “Please God, make this beast into a Christian!” Whereupon the bear fell to its knees in front of the man, clasped its great paws in prayer, and spoke! “Oh Lord, please bless this food I am about to receive.”
Religion is one thing, but we all need to eat. Some philosophers and neuroscientists now believe that the struggle for survival has shaped consciousness itself. What it feels like to be human has been shaped by craving and suffering, attraction and repulsion, approach and avoidance. We are driven forward by rewards and punishments. Desire is the honey and suffering is the whip.
So the battle over teaching evolution in school involves our fundamental understanding of the human condition. And I believe that in our universe the only way that consciousness spontaneously appears is through evolutionary competition, through struggle, driven by craving. If that is true, then intelligent space aliens are just as much trapped by desire as we are.
In the big picture, we are part of an unfolding cosmic journey. The journey begins with unthinking, unfeeling matter. Through the struggle for survival, some of this mindless stuff turns into conscious organisms, caught in the push and pull of pain and pleasure. Some of these animals then become intelligent enough to notice that they are in a trap, and to imagine the possibility of liberation. This leads some of them to rebel against their own biological programming. And this act of rebellion against blind nature turns what had been a mindless journey into a mindful quest.
You and I are creatures of the quest. And we are situated at an awkward spot in our pilgrimage. Even fairly insightful humans are still enslaved by craving much of the time. There are moments of clarity when we slip out of our prison. But when we are enmeshed in an endless series of desires fulfilled and desires frustrated, these obsessions distract us from enjoying our blessings. We have only so much mental bandwidth, and if our heads are full of cravings, we don’t have much space to be free. We can get stuck in mindless melodramas, preoccupied with a dreary laundry list of obsessions that have little to do with anything real and lasting.
Many are obsessed with whether they’re OK, whether they are worthy, lovable, or attractive, whether they have high or low status. And we are so fascinated by conflict. I consider it a tiny step toward freedom that nowadays I find most action movies to be just nauseatingly tedious. Pow, pow, ow, ow, wow, wow, what now? And I hate the way the media focuses on the conflict dimension of politics. I found common ground with Ted Cruz during a debate among Republican presidential candidates when he scolded a CNBC interviewer, and said: “This is not a cage match … How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?” But the media thinks people are more interested in watching a good fight than in thinking hard about hard issues – and they’re probably right.
When our eagerness to fight each other is combined with our cleverness in constructing weapons, then we’ve really got trouble! Just as children cannot be trusted playing with matches, many grownups can’t be trusted with guns – much less with nuclear weapons. Right now the US and Russia still have intercontinental missiles tipped with hydrogen bombs pointed toward each other on hair-trigger alert. That is absolute madness. If any of us need proof that the human race is out of touch with reality, this is it! And if any of you are concerned about this bizarre situation, I’d love to talk with you.
So here we are, singing with Joni Mitchell, “it’s life’s illusions I recall. I really don’t know life at all.” But realizing that we are caught in illusion is a huge step forward. And we are looking for a way out, here on Earth and elsewhere. Perhaps right this minute, in some distant constellation, in some far-off hidden corner of the sky, other self-reflective beings are also asking, “How do we get out of this pickle?”
Now I don’t want to exaggerate how dreadful it is to be trapped in an endless cycle of craving and frustration. Humans have been smart enough to improve our situation through labor-saving devices, comfortable housing, modern medicine, health insurance, and chocolate-covered almonds. And we do get to enjoy magnificent experiences of meaning, wonder, and fulfillment. When we stop taking our cravings so seriously and loosen the grip of our own melodramas, we can savor these amazing human realities. One way to become more conscious of life’s gifts is to ask what we value in itself. What do we cherish for its own sake? It’s so easy to focus on things we do for the sake of other things. Yes, we want financial security, but for what? We want to save time, but what good do we get from the time we save?
The morning prayer I shared earlier reminds me to welcome life’s gifts, to see through my illusions, and to focus on what I treasure for its own sake.
So what do we value in itself? Love, of course. Romantic love, the love of lifetime partners, love for parents, children, family, friends. Love is useful as a means to other ends, but it’s also precious for its own sake. And what else? Music is another mind-boggling human reality we are so privileged to enjoy. Singing, playing an instrument – and dancing to music can put us into Paradise. There is also art and poetry. Enjoying what it’s like to have a physical body. Feeling a sense of accomplishment – fixing things, solving problems, completing projects. Being absorbed in a story, in a book or a movie. There is beauty – painting, sculpture, dance. Playing games. And what about humor? If I wanted to make a case that human consciousness is utterly miraculous and inexplicable I would start with the miracle of laughter, especially shared laughter with those we love. And let’s not forget the quiet, gentle times that can be so dear, like driving around at night looking at holiday lights.
There are many ways to find enough mental freedom to appreciate our blessings. Psychotherapy can help. If our brains have gone off-kilter, medications can be life-saving. And spiritual teachers have said we can find freedom by just observing our own mental machinery. Watch all of that mental stuff cranking repetitiously till we see that it’s just machinery. Nothing to get hung up about. The spiritual teacher Ram Dass suggested that we observe the mind by tuning in to an inner witness, a calm inner observer who watches what’s happening with total objectivity. The witness is a part of us that sees us clearly and does not judge us or get caught up in the drama. It’s like a selfie-stick that shows us from a distance, but that photographs us for accuracy rather than for vanity.
By seeing through the useless distractions of our own illusions, we can focus on what’s meaningful and lasting. For a few minutes now, let’s explore these themes in a meditation, and after the meditation I’ll resume the sermon. So I invite you to close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and relax your body. Think about the anti-illusion strategies that work for you. Do spiritual disciplines help you? Counseling? Classes and workshops? Reading good books? Coming to Mission Peak? What helps you set aside distracting frustrations? And for you, what life-experiences are most precious and meaningful? Think back to the experiences I listed earlier, and others as well. What do you treasure for its own sake? If you could become more conscious of one kind of human experience, which one would you choose? And now take a few breaths to bring yourself back to this room, and open your eyes when you’re ready.
And now back to the sermon, but at coffee hour I would love to hear about your strategies for letting go of needless frustrations and focusing on what you value for its own sake. And I want to mention something new that I’ve been doing to set aside what distracts me so as to savor what really matters. I just say three simple words to myself: “Don’t miss this.” Don’t miss this moment of face-to-face communication. Don’t miss the sky on this wonderful winter day. Don’t miss the satisfaction of finishing a difficult project. These three words are brightening my life: Don’t miss this!
I’ve been speaking of the quality of our individual lives, but these ideas are also related to our common human endeavors. If we practice looking at ourselves objectively, using that spiritual selfie-stick, we can become more objective about our own political opinions, and our opinions about religion, culture, and morality – the basic building blocks of human community. Mostly I’m still trapped in my opinions about religion and politics but I have moments of lucidity when I see that my opinions are just … my opinions. No doubt I’m mistaken in some ways and I can learn a lot by being more open-minded. Then I can say, “I disagree with most everything that politician stands for, but she just said something brilliant! Or, “I often criticize Middle Eastern religion, but there is something beautiful in the Jewish faith, that is a fine insight of Christianity, those are helpful teachings from Islam.”
Even at this early stage of our quest, we are already starting to free ourselves from illusion, in both our inner lives and in the larger world. And importantly, the value of life is not determined by comparing the number of moments we feel good with the number of moments we feel bad, the amount of time we’re trapped versus the time we are free. It’s a matter of quality, not quantity. The wonderful times we treasure most dearly can outweigh many boring or unpleasant moments. During these little bits of heaven, we can agree with Robert Frost that “Happiness makes up in height what it lacks in length.”
And don’t just practice these principles yourself. Tell others, and especially teach your children. If the stories of the Buddha’s early life are true, I can see why he saw that suffering is a fundamental problem. As a child he was shielded from unhappiness, pampered and protected, and when his illusions were ripped away, it was shattering. I wonder what he would have thought of these words of the poet William Blake: “Joy and woe are woven fine, clothing for the soul divine. … And when this we rightly know, safely through the world we go.” Today we can show our children how to safely move through joys and woes, rolling along with life’s ups and downs. We can do this in our homes and through religious education. Perhaps some day all children will learn these principles in school, and that could change the world.
So that’s how I see the big picture. You and I are minds shaped from matter, speaking our truth from our particular point in a very long journey. Other good minds in other galaxies are on the same great quest. Their skin may be green and their feet may be webbed like ducks. But their deepest challenge is basically the same. We’re all trying to spend less time in the prison of craving and frustration, and more time treasuring life’s gifts. May 2016 be a year when all of us find much more freedom and joy!