"The Problem Of Life"
A Thought Experiment
"...to succeed at last,
after a long process of elimination,
in reaching the heart of the problem..."
- Hubert Benoit
When we talk about our lives, we usually talk about the problems in our lives and how we're dealing with them.
That's literally the core of the drama in our lives: the problems. And of course, there isn't just one problem, obviously. There are many.
But what if, as a purely speculative exercise, we turn this on its head: What if there actually aren't "many" problems; there is just one?
On the surface, after all, there appear to be thousands - millions - of different problems in life.
Paying bills is a problem. Working a job involves lots of problems. Making good grades in school is nothing but a series of solving problems. Being popular, respected, having a good social life is a problem. Dating involves massive avalanches of problems. Getting married, raising kids, growing up, finding happiness, and just making it through the day . . . we seem to be constantly struggling against a constant, unending tide of problems.
But what if this is all appearance? What if, beneath the surface, behind the appearance, what if there aren't really a million problems, but only one? One Big One?
We could call that "The Problem of Life."
If we pursue this thought experiment, we could see fame is one "solution" to the problem of life. Alcohol is another solution to the problem of life. Drugs are another solution. Sports, another. And drama. Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, eating disorders, general neurosis and so on are all reactions to it. And "love" - they can all be understood as various solutions to "The Problem of Life."
After all, why are we drawn so irresistibly towards sports, drama, fame, alcohol, drugs, love, and a million other things? Perhaps it's because they are small, bite-sized versions of "solutions" to "The" problem of life.
These "solutions" all look different on the surface, but underneath, in this line of thought, they are all the same: they all involve a state of discontent, a certain amount of tension and opposition, and a release - an "ahhhh" of miniature, temporary, release.
But of course, these "solutions" are, as we often discover the hard way, temporary, short-lasting, miniature, and only "imitation" solutions. By this measure, they could even be described as "phony" solutions. After we watch the sports and drama, after we imbibe the alcohol and drugs, after we find the love and eventually find it wanting . . . we still hunger for more. That wasn't "IT".
Picture a large tree. This tree would have dozens, perhaps hundreds of branches, which then split into secondary branches, tertiary, and so on...which divides further into ever-smaller stems, ultimately to individual leaves, or needles, or points, etc. Ultimately, tens or even hundreds of thousands of different pieces. Looking at the tree from this perspective, on the "surface," if every leaf would be a problem, we'd have tens of thousands of problems to keep track of.
Yet if we examine the situation from the other side, from the "depths"...all those thousands of separated elements eventually all connect back together, and unite into the trunk of the tree, and unite into one single, complete, unity of the trunk.
Maybe the problems in our lives work the same way.
After all, this is what most spiritual traditions (which, according to some, at least, are the best wisdom us humans have available to us) say in different ways.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam say in various ways that "the core problem" is that we dropped into a fallen/sinful state, far away from heaven/God, and so we need to find our way back (salvation).
Buddhists and Hindus say that we've been seduced into a state of ignorance or illusion, and so we need to pursue enlightenment.
Taoism proclaims a system for on getting back in tune with the "Tao" - presuming, then, that we've lost touch with it, and that getting "back in tune" with it is worth doing.
Even non-religious folks seem to agree that there's at least a problem, even if they disagree about the form it takes. Some insist, for example, that the basic problem is environmental destruction (fall from Eden), and our most important mission is to restore it (environmental salvation). Some believe that the biggest problem is the discrepancies between the rich and the poor (fall from grace), and we need to create equality (one version of heaven). Some folks believe the basic problem lies in various world conditions - hunger, poverty, disease, famine, etc - and the basic solution lies in eradicating these. Some believe that the other team, the other political party, the other opponent within the same political party - is "the" problem, and the solution lies in basically defeating them.
So, folks might disagree on what form of suffering the problem takes, but one basic axiom that almost everyone seems to agree on is that, in some way, there is a problem.
Every story - every movie, film, sitcom, television drama, play - starts with a problem - a "fall from grace" or some kind of exile from happiness - and then tells the story of characters struggling to find a solution.
Every movie, every sports game, every piece of music, then, could be seen as a way of shrinking "The Problem" down into something that's bite-sized, something we can get our hands around, something we can handle. We might not be able to work directly on solving the problems of the universe . . . but we can work on scoring more touchdowns than the other team.
And, if there actually is only one problem instead of many . . . then perhaps you can solve that core problem.
And perhaps, if you'd actually solve that problem -"The Problem" - then all the other problems take care of themselves.
After all, if you chop down the tree, then all the leaves naturally come with it. Not that they would get literally solved, but they would be put in proper relative perspective...which would mean that, once they're seen with the proper perspective, would case to be "problems." They'd transform into minor, interesting puzzles, games, dramas, occurances, events. Something with the element of life-or-death stakes removed, that is actually, well, enjoyable. Like a good drama, movie, or game.
Again, some voices within some traditions claim that this is the case: in Christianity, the single most important, most significant problem is salvation, or finding your way to heaven. Nothing else really matters. In Hinduism and Buddhism, finding enlightenment is truly the only thing that matters. As Einstein famously said, "I want to know God's thoughts. The rest are details" - the rest of it all, miraculously, becomes a matter of details. "Problems" then become a matter of working out the 19th decimal place. Meaning, the important stuff has been taken care of, the rest are, truly, details.
After all, if we are living in "The Matrix" (or if not "The" Matrix, some kind of "matrix" - if nothing else, the matrix created by our own thinking), it might seem as though we have many different problems - our jobs, our relationships, our health, etc. But actually, the only real problem is...we're in The Matrix. All the other problems are actually illusions.
Or, imagine having a dream where you're being chased by zombies, and you're almost out of ammunition, and there's no food or water, and your best friend is close to being discovered . . . there seem to be many, many serious problems. But in fact, there is only one real problem: you are asleep, and dreaming. As soon as you wake up, all the other problems - the zombies, the ammunition, the food and water, your friend - all vanish.
That is what traditions describe as real salvation or "enlightenment".
Some folks say there is a solution to "The Problem of Life": call it "enlightenment," call it "salvation," call it "moksha," "nirvikalpa samadhi," "waking up from the dream of life" or "escaping from The Matrix" - many folks say that such a thing exists, is real, is attainable, and is worth striving for.
In fact, many folks say that it's not just what we should be striving for, it's what we all already are striving for, whether we're aware of it or not.
We're all searching for "IT" - and typically, all we find are substitutes. We aren't satisfied with these substitutes, so we keep searching. And we'll keep searching until we actually do find "IT" - or become "enlightened."
So if there is such a thing as "enlightenment," and it does mean "solving the problem of life" - does that mean that, literally, all the mundane errands, tasks, and difficulties of life magically vanish?
No. If enlightenment is real, then by all accounts, the mundane day-to-day issues of life still continue: enlightened folks still have to eat, drink, wash, and if they're living in an apartment, pay bills. In fact, it's a tempting error - called the "spiritual bypass" school of thought - to believe that achieving spiritual enlightenment will automatically erase the mundane problems of the world - finding friends, paying bills, and so on. It won't.
The difference is that the day-to-day problems lose their urgency and significance. Once the Big Picture is taken care of, these more minor problems lose their life-or-death importance. They become minor details, tiny brush-strokes to paint as polish on a fully completed canvas. The Big Stuff is accomplished, over, fixed, completed . . . and the rest is small stuff. The Super Bowl is over, and has been won, and the rest is post-game interview and champagne-popping.
This is a total contrast to our normal way of doing things.
Typically, paying bills is a life-or-death matter. Getting rich is a life-or-death matter. Becoming famous, finding love, becoming successful all becomes a life-or-death matter. All of life is truly a life-or-death battle, and it's truly stressful.
In this sense, we lose perspective, and endow insignificant things with an undeserved importance, infuse unimportant things with a life-or-death urgency, and all too often, treat truly significant matters as if they're insignificant. We get things upside-down and inside-out. We get ourselves all worked up and stressed out about things that ultimate don't matter.
But when we take care of, and resolve, the things that ultimately do matter . . . then the rest we can just really enjoy.
So, is there a real solution? If drugs, sports, shopping, work, television and so on are stand-ins, imposter, phony solutions . . . is there a real one? Is there a solution that's final, and permanent? Is there really an answer to "The Problem of Life"? If the answer is something along the lines of "spiritual enlightenment," called by whatever name you use, is it something real, or is it just another fable or decoy?
And if we do get "spiritually enlightened," would that help the famine, poverty, hunger, disease, famine in the world? Would that help the environment? Would that ease other folks' real suffering? Would that mean I don't have to pay my bills, work a crummy job, sit in traffic? If we're all enlightened and just sit around playing harps all day . . . wouldn't that be boring? What would we do then?
And then, of course, how does a person become enlightened? It seems like plenty of people talk about enlightenment, a few people actually seek it, and very few claim to find it . . . so, if the concept of this is interesting to us . . . what are we supposed to do? How?
This is what we, your trusty and overcaffienated LiveReal Agents, are working on.
We think these are all questions worth exploring. And we plan on continuing our explorations.
Because of course, like you know, and like most folks like to remind us about . . . it's not really as neat as this. The concept of "Spiritual Enlightenment" sounds great, "getting free of suffering" sounds great, and it all might works as a nice, neat, tidy concept wrapped in a nice, neat package.
But it's not - life is pretty messy, and doesn't fit into tidy packages. At the same time, we need these tidy packages, we need models we can use, and maps we can use to travel safely . . . and perhaps even reach our destination. After all, even finding and making halfway accurate models and maps is quite a challenge nowadays, and quite an adventure.
And actually traveling, actually using the map
and walking the territory
is a whole other adventure . . .
So stay tuned . . .
"To be, or not to be:
that is the question..."
- William Shakespeare
"To be, and not to be:
that is the answer..."
- Douglass Harding