Our desire, our aspiration for a better life is beautiful. It makes us bold and willing to risk and with risk comes both failure and discovery, both have their own value. We can’t be to often reminded that humans learn in three ways; imitation, repetition, and discovery. Each way of learning about ourselves and the world has its own value but only one has the possibility of leading to something better beyond the limits of the past. Monkey see, monkey do makes it possible to avoid reinventing the wheel, the technician like a musician or engineer refines what they do through doing it over and over and this may even lead to discovery but we must remember, when the discovery begins, we are no longer in repetition or imitation. We enter into the unknown and that is goddamn scary because unlike imitation or repetition, in discovery our ability to predict is useless. But at least in discovery we are aware we don’t know and that is also goddamn fun.
Discovery happens in relationships, in our work, our daily responses to changing events and in the way we understand ourselves. Discovery has two outward forms, 1, is doing something we have never done before and 2, is doing something nobody has done before. It is easy to dismiss number 2 because we tell ourselves that there is nothing new under the sun but that is not true. The world before electricity and the world after. The world before the printing press, airplanes, plumbing, the fucking tooth-brush, before and after the agricultural revolution etc. Nothing was ever done that someone wasn’t the first to do and that someone was an extreme minority.
Aspiration can be misguided. Earlier this year I did a book tour in India. In many places in the world, particularly in the east, if you wish to see the physical demonstration of aspiration, you need only go to a temple. My dear friend, Chandra, loves to go to temples and would invite me to go. My distaste for superstition makes my skepticism palpable. Chandra also rejects superstition, I’ve seen him do it, but he still loves to go. I’ve meditated for over thirty years and I am no stranger to temples and spiritual make-believe. But I contend that it is the elimination of irrational make-believe thinking that actually allows us to make the most of our spiritual aspiration. Hidden in all the wonderful art, music and rituals is a doorway out of our typical thinking. If we look at sex, it is also a way out of our habits. It is a glimpse of the quiet mind in meditation and the dissolving of the concept of self.
Aspiration to a better life is an impulse and in that way it seems instinctive, but instincts misguided by things that are untrue are like a chicken’s brooding instinct misguided by a wooden egg (the real ones were stolen by us.) With human beings, the false egg we sit on often exists in our imagination. It is not that we should forsake aspiration but rather look to see if the particular ideal is mistaken e.g. When we mistake a means for an end it is likely we will miss the end. When we miss the end we miss having a better life. If we forsake affection available now to make money, let’s ask, what is the money a means to achieve? If the leisure gained by money allows us time to enjoy our affections, we may have the cart in front of the horse by forsaking real affections for a dubious future. I’m not saying money is not needed, but it is a means. I’m am saying any idea about the future is, by definition, imaginary and here we see imagination can destroy what we truly value. So let’s use imagination to bring out value. If we imagine money by itself, with us alone in a universe, with nothing else, we see that money has no inherent value because for most of us, that would NOT be a life worth living. If we look at shared affections both sexual and friends, in an isolated universe by itself, now we see a different kind of value indeed. Ends are things that make for a good life.
Recently a woman born into poverty in Brazil told me she had, in some ways, more happiness amidst the problems of poverty than she does in her more successful life in America. I think that is, in part because, when we recognize a doubtful future, things with inherent value emerge HERE AND NOW that are enjoyable like a dance, a song, the embrace of a beloved, sharing food, and making someone smile. Happiness is part of a better life.
We have a short time to be on this ball of mud called earth. If we can recognize that there are things here, right in front of us that make for a good life, then we will want to protect and share not only those good things but the things that make those good things possible like clean water, clean air, educated children and the excitement that comes with taking a risk with the aspiration to discover something good and much more. This is not about superstition but rather things we can really have perhaps even today, if we are able to see them. We may need to look beyond our fears of an imagined future to see the good things now. Because it is here and now that we live a better life.