….but we are all fabulous.
I don’t believe in a god or in a strict notion of reincarnation (whereby my soul is reborn intact in another form). If pressed I would have to say that I believe the molecules and atoms that we are composed of return to the earth and are recycled into life in another form whether that is plant or animal life.
If this is the case then what is the purpose of our lives on earth? I know we can find meaning in lots of things – our families, friends, work, the pursuit of pleasure, doing good deeds etc. but ultimately what is the point of our existence? There is obviously a biological imperative to procreate and ensure our species continues, but what is the species continuing for? I would like to think that we exist with a less circular purpose than to procreate simply so that the next generation can exist to procreate. But there seems to be scant evidence that this is the case.
What about our soul or spirit or whatever word you prefer for the intangible essence that makes us feel unique? Clearly a collection of complex chemical and neural activity but surely far more complicated than is needed to ensure the species survives? Not to mention the fact that many human actions seem aimed at destroying human life rather than facilitating it. This baffles me – whilst the technological evolution of our species increases exponentially we seem rather slower to evolve spiritually and ethically.
The endeavours of each generation have taken many of us out of caves and into extravagant homes with running water and central heating. Technological knowledge is passed from generation to generation, each one developing it further so that we are now able to have mass communication, to produce food in vast quantities, to travel to the ends of the earth in relative safety and comfort, to fly to the moon or even to Mars. Yet when we contemplate our psychological or spiritual development as a species this is rather less impressive.
We persist in carving the world up into pieces which we then fight over, neglecting the poor, the hungry, the sick, the elderly in pursuit of oil and power. We commit appalling atrocities in the name of spiritual goals or stand idly by whilst others do, wringing our hands and deploring the state of the world as it is today. We live in a world where more people have access to a mobile phone than to a working toilet.
We know better than this.
But it shouldn’t have to be this way. We have the technology to do better and despite our reluctance to act on it, we have a lot of knowledge about what makes humans behave the way they do. We understand much about how individuals develop, what environmental issues are more or less beneficial to a child’s development, yet we still leave children in appalling conditions and abandon them to their fate as ‘adults’ when they turn 18. We understand much about how group interactions work and why stereotypes and prejudices occur, how they are promoted and maintained, yet we still allow the peddling of misinformation via many sources including the Daily Mail and do little to foster the benefits of inter-group contact. We understand what we need to do to preserve the earth’s resources and live harmoniously with our surroundings, yet we ship food half way around the world to countries already abundant in natural produce and then allow much of it to go out of date. We understand that spiritual and physical balance and harmony is good for our health and wellbeing yet we seem hell bent on ignoring these facts, putting work before family and television before exercise.
What can we do?
Perhaps recognising our inter-connectedness is a good first step – everything we are and everything we do impacts on the people around us. We need to realise that we have more things in common than not – we are all human, we are all born and we all die. We all feel pain and hunger and get sick. We are all born with the capacity for good and joy and love.
Rather than despair at the state of the world, we could pick one or two or three projects to contribute to which will make a positive difference to the world – not imposing spiritual or political views on others but rather working to improve their quality of life or reduce our own ecological footprint.
I came across the 14 precepts of Engaged Buddhism whilst I was thinking about this blog. They seem to be a wonderful starting point for thinking about these issues (from: http://viewonbuddhism.org/resources/14_precepts.html):
Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.
Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to receive others’ viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times.
Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education. However, through compassionate dialogue, help others renounce fanaticism and narrow-mindedness.
Do not avoid suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.
Do not accumulate wealth while millions are hungry. Do not take as the aim of your life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure. Live simply and share time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need.
Do not maintain anger or hatred. Learn to penetrate and transform them when they are still seeds in your consciousness. As soon as they arise, turn your attention to your breath in order to see and understand the nature of your hatred.
Do not lose yourself in dispersion and in your surroundings. Practice mindful breathing to come back to what is happening in the present moment. Be in touch with what is wondrous, refreshing, and healing both inside and around you. Plant seeds of joy, peace, and understanding in yourself in order to facilitate the work of transformation in the depths of your consciousness.
Do not utter words that can create discord and cause the community to break. Make every effort to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.
Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people. Do not utter words that cause division and hatred. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things of which you are not sure. Always speak truthfully and constructively. Have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety.
Do not use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit, or transform your community into a political party. A religious community, however, should take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts.
Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. Do not invest in companies that deprive others of their chance to live. Select a vocation that helps realise your ideal of compassion.
Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life and prevent war.
Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.
Do not mistreat your body. Learn to handle it with respect. Do not look on your body as only an instrument. Preserve vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realisation of the Way. (For brothers and sisters who are not monks and nuns:) Sexual expression should not take place without love and commitment. In sexual relations, be aware of future suffering that may be caused. To preserve the happiness of others, respect the rights and commitments of others. Be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new lives into the world. Meditate on the world into which you are bringing new beings.
So what is the point?
Ultimately we will all die and whilst some of us will live on through our children for a while, we are all part of a wider society and a bigger picture and so far the only point that I can really see is to try to leave the world better off for you having been in it.
I came across this interview excerpt this week and found it powerful and moving. The interview is between Oprah Winfrey and the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn (who wrote the precepts above in his book ‘Interbeing’). He talks of community and how to listen deeply even to your enemies: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJ9UtuWfs3U