How Wise Shall We Be?

Discussion in 'Religion & Philosophy' started by Consider This, May 3, 2017.

  1. Consider This

    Consider This Member

    Mar 2016
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    This brief piece concerns some valiant philosophical efforts to eliminate human suffering. However, it focuses mostly on the limitations of those efforts.

    Suffering is addressed in the ancient philosophies of both West and East. In the West Stoicism would be the prime example; in the East, Buddhism.

    Both of these systems emphasize non-attachment and equanimity. That is, maintaining composure or evenness of mind, not just in the face of adversity, but in the face of all change, moment to moment. Stoic practice approaches this primarily through various types of thoughts. Buddhism approaches it primarily through meditation.

    The importance of this ancient wisdom is enduring. Even our casual speech seems to acknowledge this. The meaning of the old phrase “taking it philosophically” refers to the very qualities of composure and acceptance these ancient traditions advocated.

    These traditions were bold. They claimed there was a way to eliminate suffering, not just to reduce it. Buddhism in particular was very specific. The Third Noble Truth, which translates most economically as “There is an end to suffering”, lays it on the line.

    But even among Buddhist practitioners, not everyone endorses this claim. I have a longstanding practice and, for just about the same amount of time, a skepticism about this assertion. Sylvia Boorstein, the gentle Buddhist grandmother from northern California, expressed this in her own kind way. She called it the “third and a half noble truth”, by which she meant that suffering, if not eliminated, could at least be reduced.

    In fact all of the meditation teachers I have known or met have seemed appropriately down to earth on this issue. They have made it clear that no person is completely non-attached, and that all practitioners, experienced or not, are only in the process of working on this skill.

    Aside from what’s possible, there is also the matter of whether we, whether anyone, would truly want to be completely equanimous. This is an issue I have considered for years, and I was delighted to see it addressed in Todd May’s recent, excellent little book A Fragile Life.

    May recognizes that philosophic perspectives and exercises can be extremely helpful for dealing with mild to moderate adversities. However, he doubts many persons have been able to achieve invulnerability to life’s harshest trials. On this point May is more charitable than I. He is willing to believe that at least some, perhaps, have achieved invulnerability. I am not.

    But more importantly, May opens the question of the bigger picture: would we want to be completely non-attached? He suspects that for most of us the answer is no, and I suspect he is correct. We are goal-making creatures, undoubtedly by genetic disposition. Goals large and small. They consume our day. When there are goals we pursue over an extended time, goals with which we somehow resonate, we talk about a sense of meaning. Thus meaning is bound up with, in fact largely springs from, attachment. Attachment to goals we consider important.

    If equanimity is indeed the heart of wisdom, then we must ask: how wise shall we be? Most people, I suspect, would choose the satisfaction of a sense of meaning, even if it came at the cost of suffering. For example, if caring for others was something that truly gave meaning to my life, I would choose to have skin in the game. I would chose to be attached to my goal. And I would be willing to accept the internal, collateral damage such attachment invites.

    Of course all of this is ultimately academic. Realistically, none of us is will ever come close to complete, ceaseless non-attachment. We will not have to make a decision about this matter, because it will always remain beyond us. By necessity our focus will be more modest. Maintaining mindful equanimity in at least most of our smaller, daily matters will be more than enough challenge for us all, master and novice alike.

    Still, there are reasonable differences of opinion on the most useful attitudes toward practice. I am reminded of a discussion I had some months back with a friend. He is also a psychologist and also a Buddhist with a longstanding practice. For him, my emphasis on the reduction rather than the elimination of suffering would be counterproductive. It would be, in a sense, a strategic error. It would create a self-fulfilling prophecy that would subtly, unconsciously, limit the depth of his skill. And so on practical grounds, for the sake of developing his potential, he chooses to approach the Third Noble Truth as valid.

    Fair enough. For me, however, a gentle realism about the human condition is more helpful. It helps me toward self-forgiveness, a kind of amnesty for those multiple instances of attachment and suffering—large or small—that continue to populate my day. And sometimes, if I’m lucky, a virtuous circle ensues: this self-forgiveness spreads out, as it were, and becomes equanimity.

    Sometimes acceptance of self becomes acceptance in general.

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