Last week I heard a Taoist scholar/practitioner say, "Feel small, and your problems will be small."
Makes sense. A similar intuition has been taking root in me since embracing the non-faith of churchlessness six or so years ago.
Most religions teach that bigger is better. We're supposed to expand our consciousness, rise up to heaven, grow in spiritual understanding, enlarge our connection with God.
I used to enjoy the feeling that my devotional practices enjoined by a religious organization -- meditation, volunteering, vegetarianism, tee-totaling, and such -- were helping me to become more.
More detached from this lower world of materiality. More attached to a godly power that was omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient. More virtuous and ethical. More in touch with my soul, which would endure for eternity after my physical body/mind died.
Like virtually all religious believers, I was out to solve life's problems (including death) by becoming larger, stronger, and indestructible. Not in a material sense, of course. Spiritually.
Eventually I came to feel that this was a misguided way to go. There's no demonstrable evidence that any person ever has been able to overcome human limitations by becoming larger than life.
However, both logically and experientially I'm attracted to a less is more alternative.
Since we Homo sapiens are so puny, weak, and clueless in comparison to the vast, wild, mysterious cosmos, why not humbly acknowledge our littleness? And perhaps cultivate some shrinking to become even less than we already are.
This isn't any sort of original idea.
Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism/Vedanta, and other "eastern" faiths promote various varieties of no-self or ego-loss. So do the more mystical sides of the world's monotheistic religions.
Striving to become nothing seems contradictory to me, though. When I pull the plug on our bathtub drain, the water doesn't go through any effort to disappear. It just swirls away. Until...it's gone.
Similarly, I suspect that simply observing the nature of what we are -- basically, natural -- is all that needs to be done, or not done, to get one's psyche pleasantly small. (Again, not at all an original idea.)
Modern neuroscience doesn't find any enduring self or soul reflected in human consciousness.
I haven't found one either. It sure seems like there's no difference between me and the rest of the natural world, aside from the fact that, being a self-aware human, I can imagine/ manufacture/ produce/ create a seeming difference.
Isn't it true that what is bothersome are differences? Such as: The difference between what I want to have happen and what does happen. The difference between an enduring universe and a time-limited me.
The smaller I feel, the less these differences matter to me. That may sound paradoxical, but it isn't.
If I consider that I can play golf fairly well, then comparing myself to Tiger Woods makes me feel lowly on the links. But if I see myself as utterly incompetent at playing the game, I've got no pride to defend, so the difference between me and a top pro isn't bothersome.
Here's a thought experiment that I enjoy playing around with:
What if I learned that, ala the Matrix, I wasn't the "me" that I've always considered myself to be, but a computer simulation? (Some scientists take seriously the notion that the universe is simulated reality.)
This knowledge wouldn't change how I experience life directly. But it sure would affect how I experience my experiencing of life.
How? I can't say, because I'm only imagining that I've learned I'm part of a computer simulation. But is this so different from the "real" thing? After all, how could I know for sure that the unveiling of the Matrix wasn't another aspect of an illusion?
As I said on this post recently, in the end imagination is what we're left with when we approach the limits of thing-ness (when we pass from considering discrete things to the seeming unity that things exist in, or as).
So I can imagine that once I've realized that I'm not really the separate "me" I thought I was, but rather part of a simulated whole that includes a representation of the self I seem to be, dying wouldn't bother me nearly as much as it does now.
My substantiality would have been recognized as a mirage. My simulated consciousness would have come to understand that it was a simulation, part and parcel of a wholeness that was out of my control and would continue (or not) with or without me.
Increasingly, it seems to me that what people call "enlightenment" is nothing more than what I've just described: recognizing that the separate enduring self each of us appears to be is just that, an appearance.
Which makes me feel really, really small. Yet also really, really relaxed. Like Janis Joplin said:
Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.