We all have problems in life. Life wouldn't be what it is, if it didn't involve problems. Every day we need to find food, water, shelter, and other necessities of life.
Even when these are available, other problems arise.
What is most important to do from moment to moment? How do we maintain good relationships with other people? What pleasures should be pursued and pains avoided?
Since we are mammals, other types of animals share these concerns. Our two dogs, for example.
(Of course, these pampered pets pretty much have the necessities of life handed to them by their supposed "masters" or "animal guardians," a more politically correct term.)
It takes a member of the Homo sapiens species, though, to go beyond dealing with life's problems. We are the only creature on Earth who makes life itself into a problem.
Mostly through religiosity.
Also through philosophy and other forms of self-reflection. We humans have a peculiar -- apt word in this context -- concern with trying to solve The Problem of Life.
Again, not a particular problem.
The overall problem: Why are we here? What is the meaning of our existence? Where do we go after we die? What is the purpose of living? How do we become genuinely human, self-realized, enlightened, saved?
When you think about it (and I do, believe me), these are weird questions.
It's difficult for me to imagine a flower, rock, tiger, whale, or butterfly spending so much of its life worrying about whether it is living correctly. Other living beings simply live. Until they die.
They deal with specific problems during their lifetime, not an overarching existential angst.
It takes a human mind for that, one often, if not usually, filled with abstract concepts concerning God, existence, life after death, perfection, ultimate reality, and such.
Evolution has brought us many wonderful attributes, such as a powerful brain.
However, with the good comes the bad. Our unexcelled self-awareness not only enables us to accomplish things other animals can't; it also enables us to drive ourselves crazy in ways unknown to other creatures.
Today I enjoyed reading another of David Chapman's always-intriguing posts. This one is called "Beyond Emptiness: Zen, Tantra, and Dzogchen."
It got me musing about our human predilection to make life itself into a problem.
Western religions like Christianity tend to worry about sin, salvation, and such. Eastern faiths like Zen, Tantra, and Dzogchen tend to worry about enlightenment, self-realization, and such.
What they have in common is an attitude: life is a problem that needs fixing.
Chapman mentions the oft-heard Zen adage, first there is a mountain, then there isn't, then there is. I used to think this was a profound bit of spiritual philosophizing. Now it strikes me as stupid.
Um.... here's an idea: just accept the mountain as it is. Period.
There's no need to spend years meditating, being hit by a Zen Master's stick, solving koans, and all that, in order to be told by a spiritual elder, "Ah, now you have realized there is no enlightenment and no one to be enlightened; all is as it is, suchness."
I remember listening to a recorded talk that included this line by a poet:
We should be able to look upon a mountain without considering it a commentary on our life.
Love it. Other animals can do that. Why not us? It shouldn't require a lifetime of religious or spiritual practice to be able to do what a dog does so naturally.
Most people demonstrate their disagreement with Socrates that "the unexamined life is not worth living", by living like dogs, conditioned by their masters to obey, salivate, and attack on command.
All people, dog-like or not, are beset with questions that can only be answered through patient, diligent, thoughtful examination. So one either takes the time and trouble to do the examining, or delegates the work to others, e.g., teachers, authors, priests, gurus, etc. It isn't easy being human, and the tendency is to go to the dogs, join the pack, and gulp down whatever your master feeds you.
Posted by: cc | December 13, 2013 at 10:44 AM
"the unexamined life is not worth living"
--I agree with cc that since we do have these brains that produce all sorts of concepts and ideas it is probably best to examine our lives a bit and come up with some principles and values to generally live by. Otherwise, who knows what sort of obamination we could create out of our imaginations..like Obamacare. (Sorry. I had to mention that. I was speaking to a Dr. today. The law is screwing up his practice and of other colleagues he knows.)
Otherwise, I agree with Blogger B:
"Um.... here's an idea: just accept the mountain as it is. Period."
Posted by: tucson | December 13, 2013 at 05:08 PM
Western religions like Christianity tend to worry about sin, salvation, and such. Eastern faiths like Zen, Tantra, and Dzogchen tend to worry about enlightenment, self-realization, and such. What they have in common is an attitude: life is a problem that needs fixing.
Fixing is the problem, not the solution. We are fixated, locked into an approach we can't modify or moderate until we can get enough distance from it to see it for what it is. If there was only one way to get that distance and gain that perspective, we'd be in a hopeless fix and the proprietors of that way would be in the chips. This is how religion works and why people become fixated on supposed solutions.
We know, at some level, that we need to step back and get a good look at what we're doing so we can be self-correcting, but not knowing how to step back, we seek help and consult the experts. Thus, we're led to drugs, to scriptures, to meditation techniques, by people who'd have us believe they have arrived, achieved, attained, via this means or that. One can spend a lifetime in this fix.
Posted by: cc | December 14, 2013 at 08:31 AM
Here is an interpretation I heard or read somewhere re the mountain. It fits in loosely with David Chapmans Zen, Tantra and Dzogchen journeys.
First there is the mountain (seeing the mountain through preconceptions or thoughts about it).
Then, either through practice or accident the self momentarily takes a back seat (emptiness).
Then the mountain is seen again but without preconceptions being heaped upon it. (satori or insight).
Posted by: Turan | December 14, 2013 at 08:49 AM
As for "the mountain", the question is whether its possible for perception to be anything but my perception; whether anything can be seen for what it supposedly is.
The brain perceives in terms of its experience, so when experiencing what it doesn't recognize and can't identify, it's encountering something for the first time, something new. But the mountain is nothing new to the brain that has seen the mountain a thousand times, so how can the brain see the mountain for the first time, simply, directly, uncontaminated by its reams of stored data about mountains?
Certain drugs can bring about this experience by affecting the brain's response. And, according to certain gurus and teachers, this or that meditation technique enables the brain to magically dispense with all extraneous response to phenomena, thus experiencing everything in its naked primeval state...if you can believe it.
Or, you can just practice "beginners mind" and consciously edit perception down to the ineluctable facts.
Posted by: cc | December 14, 2013 at 02:34 PM
I have written to you several times...I was initiated by Charan Singh and left the path after 18 years for many reasons, many of which are the same as you. I have few beliefs except walking my dear dog at dawn. Much gratitude for this blog which I read daily. Thank you, Brian. As the New Year begins, accept my gratitude.
Posted by: Kathie Weston | December 14, 2013 at 05:49 PM
Kathie, thanks for sharing your thanks. Much appreciated. I walk our dear dogs in the evening, so we have that in common. Like you, I believe in dog-walking -- because I have directly experienced the reality and satisfaction of it. Unlike the abstractions of religion.
Posted by: Brian Hines | December 14, 2013 at 07:34 PM
Thanks for your comments cc. You may well be right, but as more and more research is emerging, particularly in the field of neuroscience and mindfulness the ‘mountain’ analogy may have something going for it. It's probably not a case of seeing the mountain as something new but seeing it without extraneous thought.
Needless to say I’m interested in the effects of meditation on the brain.
In Psychology Today, David Rock talking about the ‘Science of Mindfulness’ discusses the two ways in which we experience. One is called the default or narrative network, the other through (you’ll love this cc) the direct experience network. Below are a few quotes:-
“When you experience the world using this narrative (default) network, you take in information from the outside world, process it through a filter of what everything means, and add your interpretations.”
“The default network is active for most of your waking moments and doesn't take much effort to operate. There's nothing wrong with this network, the point here is you don't want to limit yourself to only experiencing the world through this network.”
“You can experience the world through your narrative circuitry, which will be useful for planning, goal setting, and strategizing. You can also experience the world more directly, which enables more sensory information to be perceived. Experiencing the world through the direct experience network allows you to get closer to the reality of any event.”
Norman Diorge in his book ‘The Brain Can Change Itself’ states “It is aplastic, living organ that can actually change its own structure and function, even into old age.”
Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin has looked at the effects of meditation on the brain. His results show different levels of activity in the brain areas to do with attention. He says these functional changes may cause changes in the physical structure of the brain.
Posted by: Turan | December 15, 2013 at 06:16 AM
It's very fashionable these days to berate "us humans" for complicating everything. Why can't you just live? Why can't you just appreciate what you've got? Look at all of the rest of nature? It doesn't sit there, asking stupid questions that don't have any answers. Dogs don't philosophize! You'd never catch a lion or a dolphin asking what it all means! Be more like dogs, or lions, or dolphins!
But another thing other animals don't do is enjoin each other to try to become something they are not. Life has always been suffering for any sensitive thinking human who has seen even a fraction of the misery of the world and truly considered it their birthright, and this cannot be hand-waved away by doing our best animal impersonation. It is because of our sensitivity and our ability to discern pattern in nature without knowing or finding evidence of any deeper purpose for it that "we make life a problem." Life, when viewed in the combined light of rationality and feeling, IS A PROBLEM. SUFFERING is a problem. DEATH is a problem. And the most problematic part of it is that THERE IS NO FIXING IT... it will be a problem until we are dead, and then we will be dead. THAT IS THE PROBLEM for the sensitive mind.
Of course it "shouldn't require a lifetime of practice" to be like a dog... if you are a dog. If you are a human who embraces their humanity, however, your anodyne prescription to "love it" is not remotely helpful to anyone. (I know I'm assuming you were writing to help your readers? Or do you post on a publicly accessible blog just for your own enjoyment and expression?) The time you spent composing this little wisdom nugget would have been much better spent walking your dogs for an extra 10 minutes (I'm assuming that's about how long it took you to write), or better yet, volunteering in a soup kitchen or orphanage.
Very happy you are able to "accept the mountain as it is," whatever the hell that means. It's wonderful for you that it is so easy. Are you also able to accept the child broken by hunger and poverty as it is? Or your terminal cancer, as it is? Or the land mines in Cambodia and Vietnam as it is?
How easy! What's all the fuss? Jeez, you'd think humans with their stupid religions could just get it figured out, like I have... there's no need to spend time on the problem of life, because contrary to the philosophical and religious writing tradition of hundreds of years, there is no problem. Time to walk the dogs...
Posted by: Larry Fishburn | December 31, 2013 at 10:11 AM
I think you missed the whole point. The blog host was saying exactly what you are saying he doesn't understand. It's hard to believe you didn't get that.
He made it clear that it's "time to walk the dogs". I think you missed it because you have yet to learn that yourself.
Posted by: tucson | December 31, 2013 at 11:15 AM
Mr. Fishburn's point, if I'm not mistaken, is that the human condition has to do with the suffering, the anguish, that comes with knowledge, and gurus and zen masters who teach that you can be as dumb and mindless as a dog are selling snake oil to people who don't appreciate their own humanity.
Posted by: cc | December 31, 2013 at 08:21 PM
Wel cc for once I can connect what you are saying. Most of your comments go straight over my head. I feel a warmth for you now, although you will proablely Diss what I,m saying.!
Posted by: june schlebusch | January 01, 2014 at 03:53 AM