THE PATH TO SPIRITUALITY BY WAY OF
THE WORLD BEING SERIOUSLY MESSED UP
Article by LiveReal Agents Blake, Grace, and Thomas
We can describe one route to spirituality as “storming the front gates.”
This “front gates” approach is fairly straightforward.
It happens when someone hears about spiritual or religious ideas. They “click,” the person hears them, adopts them, and applies them in life.
Everyone basically lives happily ever after from there.
But for some, that route doesn’t really work.
This “front gates” approach sometimes leads people to reject spirituality and religion.
There are lots of reasons, but one important factor can be fairly simple: for some, the ideas just don’t make sense.
They just don’t seem credible.
To someone hearing them for the first time, they might even seem strange, odd, or unbelievable.
Sometimes, the person talking about the ideas leads with the wild stuff. For example, someone might hear about blinding lights, chakras and chi, burning bushes, parting seas, exotic enlightenment experiences, souls reincarnating, virgins giving birth, dead people who live, and so on.
These ideas can sometimes seem a little far out.
After all, for many of us, our actual experience of life consists more often of bills, chores, and lines at the grocery store.
“The real,” for many of us – in a word – is mundane.
There probably aren’t many of us who have ever seen a burning bush or a parting sea. There’s a decent chance that we’ve never met a person who has survived death or had a legit enlightenment experience.
Based on evidence from the daily grind of modern life, it might seem like the days of miracles and lightning from the sky and making the blind see and so on ended a few thousand years ago. Some wonder if they ever really existed at all.
Talking about them now can sometimes seem like walking through a fantastical history museum gift shop filled with wild, exotic, otherworldly ideas.
That gift shop might seem fun to tour for a while.
But it’s probably not where someone wants to actually live.
Strange and exotic ideas might seem interesting and even entertaining for a short time. But at least in some cases, it might not seem like anything to really, seriously, take seriously.
It just doesn’t seem credible.
This overall approach can lead some people to reject spirituality and religion entirely.
Either that, or they water it down to where it basically means little more than, “Just be a good person” (as opposed to being a bad person.)
After all, they want to “keep it real.”
And the “real,” as they see it, is The Mundane.
It’s food, laundry, and bathroom breaks.
As this line of thinking goes, the far-out stuff – miracles and enlightenment experiences and the supernatural and so on – just doesn’t really happen in real life. The bumps and bruises of the rat race are real, and all the rest seems impossibly distant and improbable, and maybe even imaginary.
Sure, certain people with odd tastes might be “into it,” the thinking often goes, the way some people are “into” wine or gaming or collecting butterflies. But only a few, it seems, have that particular “taste.”
It can be like a math textbook.
When we skip ahead to look at answers in the back of a math textbook, those answers might seem like puzzling, absurd nonsense. When most of us look at advanced math, it can look like meaningless scribbles. Sure, a few oddballs might enjoy tinkering with them for some reason. But as for the rest of us, well, we don’t.
Religion and spirituality can sometimes seem the same way. It’s strange, hard to understand, and seemingly useless except for those few who enjoy tinkering with it.
So, some folks reject it.
If “spirituality” means heading west, they decide to head east.
Instead of The Museum Gift Shop of Exotic Ideas, they turn instead to fine-tuning various details of the mundane-but-immediate experience of everyday life.
But when this happens, they can sometimes wind up coming at things from an entirely different direction.
They can wind up “storming the back gates.”
This often follows a certain course of events. It usually goes something like this.
We all have to face daily life.
Everyday life confronts us with certain challenges and questions.
“What do you know for sure?” is one question.
Other times, it’s the classic, “What are you doing with your life?”
“Are you happy?” is another. “Are you miserable?” often comes along with that. “And why?” isn’t usually far behind.
“Is this all there is?” is a popular one.
“Where is all this going?” is a big one. It’s a version of, “What’s the point?”
Sometimes it’s just a simple, “What are you doing, and why are you doing it?”
These are The Big Questions of life.
These are questions we all face, whether we’re “religious” or not.
They’re like our own personal Sphinx that gives us existential riddles.
As the old story goes, we either answer these riddles correctly, or the Sphinx eats us.
These are questions we all have to answer. Those answers might be deliberate and conscious or accidental and unconscious. Either way, we have to answer them. In this sense, we’re all philosophers.
Some might dismiss The Big Questions as pointless, or unanswerable, or just a way to spend time that’s less fun than many other ways to spend time.
But just to be fair, these are answers themselves. In other words, the answer that “The Big Questions of life are pointless or unanswerable” are themselves answers to The Big Questions of life. Declaring that “There are no solutions!” is still a “solution.”
At any rate, plenty of other questions along this route that do the same job. “What is real?” “What makes people tick?” “What is The Matrix?” And so on.
When it comes to far-out, exotic, supernatural events and ideas, some of us might find them compelling, and some might not.
But we all have to answer the questions.
So, how do we answer them? And answer them well?
These questions are simple, but not easy.
They’re important. If we answer them well, life is more likely to go well. If we answer them poorly, life is much more likely to be much more painful than necessary. Much of our happiness or misery depends on our answers.
But if we really get serious about answering them well, it can lead to “storming the back gates.”
This approach has a different starting point than the front gate route. It reorients us to come at the situation from a different angle.
The starting point here isn’t the extraordinary or bizarre.
Just the opposite.
It’s trying to account for the life that’s right in our faces.
It’s not the way of trying to explain the fantastic. It’s the way of trying to understand the obvious.
It’s trying to decipher the rat race.
This approach starts with the mundane. It begins with our present, everyday experience, right now, and tomorrow morning, and next Tuesday afternoon, and the first moment we were born, and the moment of our last breath, and goes from there.
Our task is to make sense of it.
That’s the challenge.
Along these lines, there’s one huge gorilla in the room that deserves a mention.
It might be one of the most basic observations we can see with our own eyes.
The world seems seriously messed up.
This is something almost everybody can agree on.
Life is hell, at least sometimes.
This is often self-evident.
It’s obvious. Anyone who needs convincing could probably just take a look at the news, any day of the week. What’s happening here isn’t a romantic comedy. It often seems something more like a comedic drama-horror.
If there’s one basic idea we can probably all agree on, one common denominator to all of it, it’s that something is seriously wrong with the world.
“The world” also includes people, of course.
People can seem seriously messed up, too.
We might disagree on some of the details – the who and how and why and so on. But we usually agree on the bare facts that come earlier: people do really bad things sometimes. Some people are jerks, and others are worse.
We’re people, too, of course, so we can include ourselves in this. To “Know Thyself” isn’t always a flattering journey.
The point is, suffering seems baked into the cake in this life. We’re born screaming and crying. One of our very first experiences of life usually involves getting smacked. That’s our greeting from the world. Sure, that smack comes from a doctor or someone who is trying to help us survive. But that fact somehow doesn’t make the situation we suddenly find ourselves in more attractive.
That should tell us something.
Then there’s the question of “why?”
Why is suffering so baked into the cake?
Our efforts to understand and explain our suffering can lead to a whole other kind of suffering. In other words, it’s one thing to suffer, and another to suffer without understanding why.
Since this route involved rejecting the Front Gate approach, we’re sticking only to what we can see with our own eyes. And based on what we see, all our suffering can seem to happen for no apparent reason.
To be fair, there are “reasons,” and then there are reasons. Plenty of smaller, local reasons are often suggested as options to “explain” smaller, local circumstances. Why do we suffer? Some say it’s due to our childhood, or genes, or the structure of a dysfunctional society, or brain chemistry, or lack of role models, or corrupt institutions, or a few specific bad people who are the root cause of all suffering in the world, and so on.
These explanations can sometimes shed some light on a small scale.
But they don’t explain the situation ultimately.
They can sometimes “explain away the problem” instead of really answering it. We’re aiming higher (or deeper.) Answers like these can sometimes seem like ways to get us to stop asking instead of offering answers that are truly satisfying.
They might explain suffering with any of the options above. They’re answers on one level. But there’s usually another level. They still don’t explain why we might have bad childhoods, busted genes, dysfunctional societies, or bad people and so on in the first place.
What’s the ultimate reason?
Eventually, we seem to reach a dead end.
Life just happens. And then it’s over. At some point, we can be left wondering: “What in the heck was that?”
If we’re left solely to our own experience, that’s what we’re often stuck with.
When there’s struggle and suffering for no good reason and with no apparent end in sight, and if nothing we do seems to matter, ultimately, it can be easy to say, “All is vanity.”
We might ask, “What’s the point?” And then, unless we have a good answer to that question, we might just say, “Well, there isn’t one.”
That idea can be a downer.
Again, it’s one thing to suffer. It’s another to suffer for no good reason. Suffering heroically for some great and noble cause can be invigorating and maybe even ennobling. But suffering for nothing takes the original suffering and adds to it.
The idea that life is like a road trip that sets off with some grand destination in mind – only to later get hit with the thought that “We’re heading nowhere!” – takes ordinary suffering and then also makes it demoralizing.
If we know a story has a bad ending, the rest of the events leading up to it don’t quite seem as fun.
It can mean trying to enjoy cocktails on the deck of the Titanic, with icebergs looming all around. In this predicament, the amount of fun a person has is in direct proportion to denial. The mood isn’t genuine joy, but something more like anxiously festive. It’s a fragile pseudo-happiness that works only by keeping one’s head in the sand. It’s depends on ignoring our bigger predicament in life.
Meanwhile, spirituality or religion is often way over there, sitting quietly in the dusty corner, being ignored.
They’re often quietly whispering something roughly along these lines:
“This isn’t all there is. There’s more to it than this.”
Given this predicament and the somewhat-less-than-attractive alternatives, we might sometimes give these yet another look. After all, plenty of people claim that spirituality or religion helps them make sense of things.
But sometimes, these only add to the insanity and misery.
Adding crazy ideas on top of an already crazy world sometimes doesn’t help.
It can easily seem like we have nowhere left to turn in times like this.
Now, we’re really in a pickle. It can seem like we just have to resign ourselves to being stuck in some sort of cosmic insane asylum, where we’re doomed to struggle and suffer, with no hope of parole or escape until our time is up.
The only course we can take, it might seem, is to find some pleasant distractions to either amuse or numb us enough to carry through another day.
Our motto can easily become “Just don’t think about it.” Thinking is depressing, after all, because it often just seems to lead us back to our dead-end plight.
So “The Answer” is to 1) avoid thinking, and 2) speed-chug as much amusement and distraction as we can during the little time we have.
But this doesn’t seem to work all that well, either.
After all, sometimes it’s hard to avoid thinking. We can never totally turn it off, no matter how hard we try. Reality usually winds up breaking through, eventually.
In fact, not thinking about things often makes things worse.
Again, we still have to answer the existential riddles that get served up to us by our inner Sphinx. Driving them underground doesn’t magically make our answers better. It’s usually just the opposite.
And still, the explanations we often get rarely seem to get down to the root of things.
The only approaches that seem to really tackle things on this level – the bottom, bedrock level – once again, are religion and spirituality.
So, we can sometimes find ourselves giving them yet another look.
Yet these forces still seem to collide.
The idea that “the world is seriously messed up” is sometimes described as “the problem of evil and suffering.”
It’s often used as an argument against religion and spirituality.
After all, if there really is a God, and if this God is really all-good, loving, and powerful, why is there so much pain and suffering?
This can seem to be the final nail in the coffin. Some ask this question, fail to find a satisfying answer, and once again, reject religion and spirituality as a result.
That said, “God is good, loving, and powerful” is a back-of-the-book answer.
Our suffering, on the other hand, is very real, vivid, and immediate.
It’s in the front of the book. It’s a problem we have to solve.
Given that conflict – the faraway and abstract versus the immediate and visceral – it isn’t hard to see which approach often gets the trophy. When it’s theology versus toothache, the toothache usually wins.
But that isn’t the full picture, either.
Despite even this, our task displays a Rasputin-like persistence: we still have no choice but to face this fact about the world, explain it, and figure out what to do about it.
Declaring that one approach fails doesn’t tell us what succeeds. The claim that religion and spirituality fail to help us solve the problem still doesn’t leave us with a solution.
So, we still wind up asking: Is there an answer to suffering? Is there some kind of genuine resolution to the human condition? Is there more to the story? If we’re ignorant, how can we find knowledge? If things are “wrong,” how can we make things “right”? If we’re living in what seems like an insane asylum, how do we become sane? Is there a way out of our fundamental condition of suffering? Is there an escape from “life is hell”?
These questions might seem overwhelming or paralyzing.
But if we keep digging, we can take some solace in a certain fact.
These aren’t new problems.
Humans have been working on answers to these problems for thousands of years.
We sometimes assume that we haven’t made any progress along these lines.
Or, just the opposite. We might assume that the latest, trendy answer that just came out last week is really going to do it this time. The new cell phone model is The Answer to life's problems, or living in a virtual reality headset will do it, or bio-implants – that should definitely solve it. It’ll really work this time. What could possibly go wrong?
But optimism can sometimes act as blinders. As the saying goes, it’s often the triumph of hope over experience. History can also be seen as one long series of efforts to solve the problem of suffering. There might be a few trickles of success, but there are floods of failures.
But even if there are some successes at the fundamental level we’re aiming for, we run into yet another problem.
Much of the difficulty would lie in communicating that answer.
After all, imagine certain individuals would actually find some legitimate solutions.
If someone struggles with a problem for years or decades, that person would naturally want to pass that answer on to other folks. After all, they’d be able to save some others the trouble of having to figure it out themselves all over again. Somewhere in here lies the origin of tradition.
But that itself can become a problem.
When this happens, people wind up pushing their answers.
They wind up pushing what they worked out.
They wind up pushing something that belongs in the back of the book.
Certain traditions do this all the time.
A great deal of religion and spirituality consists of giving people answers to questions they haven’t asked yet.
This translates into situations that can seem absurd.
It can mean they’re sometimes trying to shove “the cure for suffering” onto people who imagine that they’re already happy. Or they’re trying to shove the answer to the meaning of life onto people who have never thought that life is meaningless. Or they’re trying to shove the explanation for the creation of the universe onto someone who couldn’t care less about understanding how the universe was created.
Sometimes, “Is this all there is?” should come before “This isn’t all there is.”
Sometimes, this dynamic creates a major disconnect between the day-to-day reality of everyday experience and the back-of-the-book answers.
Instead of teaching us how to fish, they wind up just handing us fish. Instead of teaching us math, they just have us memorize answers to specific problems that other mathematicians have already worked out.
This can leave us vulnerable and dependent.
Sometimes life serves us up with problems that don’t exactly match the exact questions the others have already worked out. Life often confronts us with fresh and unique situations. In these, we need to know how to do the math ourselves.
In some cases, what we’ve learned through storming the back gates can wind up serving us better.
Start with the obvious, and work out the math from there.
That could heal this split.
This can have a big impact on the problem of suffering and evil.
Again, this problem – suffering and evil – sometimes seems to undermine some of what’s said about religion and spirituality.
After all, the argument goes: God is supposed to be all-powerful, all-good, and all-loving. If that’s the case, why do we suffer so much? We’re “supposed” to be “good,” and we’re not supposed to be “bad.” But the good often get creamed, and the bad often thrive. What gives?
Again, this causes plenty of people to reject religion and spirituality because it seems to contradict the most basic facts on the ground.
The back-of-the-book answers seem wrong. Our own math might not be perfect, but at least it’s not imaginary.
And once again, we find ourselves once again on Groundhog Day, right back where we started. We’re still faced with the basic problem. What are we going to do about it? Giving up on trying to solve it doesn’t help.
But if we keep digging, suddenly, the whole situation can flip.
The storming the back gate approach turns this around on its head.
If we start with the obvious, “the obvious” is that the world and people in it are seriously messed up.
And ultimately, as it turns out, certain aspects of religion and spirituality really can help. If we head far enough east, we wind up back in the west.
We can look at a few examples.
Once upon a time, there was once a pampered young son of a wealthy and powerful man.
He was so coddled and insulated from real life that he had never even been exposed to even the most basic realities: old age, disease, and death.
He probably received the best “education” available to anyone at the time. He probably thought he had it all figured out. And yet, as the story goes, he was completely ignorant about certain fundamental facts of life. He had no idea that old age, disease, or death even existed.
But one day, he discovered a horrifying truth that apparently surprised him: people age, they get sick, and they die. In fact, that’s pretty much guaranteed to happen to all of us eventually. Even celebrities and billionaires.
That realization was traumatic. “Is this really the situation we’re in? Is that really what we have to look forward to?”
He soon made up his mind. “This is a problem. And this problem needs to be solved.”
So, he set off on a quest to figure it out. He went on a journey to try to learn from folks who claimed to have The Answer.
This became the story of the Buddha, and the origin of Buddhism, more or less. (This is our read on the story, anyway, as are the rest of these.)
There’s another example.
One day, a certain old geezer got sick of all the nonsense.
He said, in so many words, “To heck with it all. Let it burn.”
He decided to head for the woods.
He seemed pretty certain that whatever it was that he had figured out was better than anything the rest of the world had to offer.
So, he set off. But on his way, someone stopped him and asked him to jot down a few of his thoughts. He grudgingly obliged.
He then went into the woods and was never seen again.
Those few words launched what eventually became Taoism.
There are several other examples.
One is the story of a baby born in a barn, right next to a bunch of barn animals.
The chief politician at the time was trying to figure out where that baby was so he could murder him.
The baby managed to escape that particular politician, grew up, and eventually went on to become the most influential figure of human history.
That’s one part of the origin of Christianity.
Some of the rest of the story follows along the same lines. That “influential figure” was eventually tortured and executed, despite almost everyone agreeing that he had done nothing wrong. Yet that story ends in triumph. That figure takes essentially the worst the world has to offer and overcomes it, literally: “I have overcome the world.”
Another example tells the story of a different baby.
The chief politician at the time was also trying to murder him as well. (There seems to be a trend here.)
As this story goes, his mother, likely in a desperate state of anguish, made an agonizing decision to put him in a basket and send him floating down a river. She didn’t know what would happen to him, or if he would live or die, but she did it anyway.
That child wound up surviving, and even going on to also become yet another one of the most influential figures of human history. That’s the story of Moses.
Yet another example is the story of another old geezer who used to go around asking people questions. He was apparently a pretty smart guy, although he didn’t necessarily see himself that way.
Some of his fellow citizens, however, got a little aggravated at all his questions. Apparently, those questions sometimes exposed them as being somewhat less brilliant than they imagined themselves to be, and they didn’t really like that.
So, they decided to murder him.
They voted, through a formal democratic process, to execute him.
At the appointed time, they gave him poison, and he drank it willingly. Even cheerfully.
After killing him, of course, we wound up studying the things that guy said and did for thousands of years. (This seems to be another trend.) We’re still studying the words that guy (Socrates) said today. That’s more or less the origin of the Western philosophical tradition.
All of these approaches – among other things – agree on one basic point.
The world is seriously messed up.
The First Noble Truth of Buddhism sums it up pretty well: “Life is suffering.” That’s the starting point of Buddhism. Everything else follows from there.
The fact that insane politicians were busy trying to kill babies, for example, conveys another truth.
We’re all in a bit of a predicament here, right from the start. A place where insane politicians even want to go after babies, or are able to, or where seemingly rational citizens can vote to execute one of their best, is really just the tip of the tip of the iceberg. This place has serious problems.
Other approaches might phrase it differently. They might say we’re in a “fallen state.” That’s one basic point where Christianity, Judaism, and Islam also agree.
In Apocalypse Now, Marlon Brando summed it up in four words: “The horror! The horror!”
(Brando got it from Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius, to be fair, who got it from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.)
However we might say it, the basic idea is the same.
We’re no longer in Paradise. Eden left our rear-view long ago.
Or, another approach might phrase it differently.
It says, in so many words, that we’re living in The Matrix.
Hinduism calls it maya, or illusion. The basic idea is that we are lost and confused. We’re separated from reality and ourselves, and that is why we suffer. It says our most fundamental read on reality, down at the very bottom, is usually mistaken. (Einstein also suggested something along these lines, for what that’s worth.)
Plato – who learned from Socrates – tried to explain his version of The Matrix with an illustration. As he described it, the normal human condition is essentially this: we’re all living in a cave, watching shadows on the wall. Our basic choice is to either stay in the cave, or turn around and walk out. Reality is outside of the cave.
Being outside is better.
Taoism also describes “The Way.”
A “way” implies somewhere to go. It’s baked into the words. Having “somewhere to go” implies that there’s somewhere better than just staying here.
It also implies, by describing a certain “Way,” that there are other ways to live that aren’t this Way. It also assumes that going The Way is better that Not Going The Way.
In other words, all of this points toward something to do. There’s something to search for.
This is even assumed in other approaches we take for granted.
It’s assumed in approaches that lie at the foundation of modern life.
Some of us these days can feel lost, helpless, and miserable without our cell phones.
Cell phones are based on technology. Technology is based on science.
Science, on its better days, when it’s actually functioning, is a search for truth.
Science assumes that we start out in a state of ignorance.
Science claims that if we apply a certain method in a certain way (form a hypothesis, run experiments, gather data, peer-review, make it double-blind and so on), then we might be able to discover certain specific things about how the world works. But we have to apply the method if we want to find out.
In other words, science is a search for truth.
And a search presumes that there’s something we don’t have already. It presumes a prior state of ignorance. If we search, we won’t discover anything scientifically. (Ironically enough, science also winds up with its own set of back-of-the-book answers, which it then often tries to shove into bored minds that also haven’t even asked the questions it’s answering.)
Science is also, in some ways, based on philosophy. The words “method,” “scientific,” “search,” “truth,” “facts,” and so on are all ideas. Philosophy examines ideas.
Philosophy, on its better days, is also a search for truth.
“The search for truth” assumes that truth is something we need to search for. It implies that we don’t already have it. (Or if we do have it, it’s only in some unconscious, inactive, or potential way, like something we know but just can’t quite remember, where we have to find some way to make it conscious, to activate it, to realize it.)
A search for truth, in other words, begins with a state of ignorance. If we already had the truth, we wouldn’t need to search for it. Those who do not seek, do not find.
The point, in a nutshell, is this:
All of these approaches share a common starting point.
The world is seriously messed up.
Life is painful for reasons we don’t entirely understand. When it comes to The Big Picture we’re involved in, often we ultimately don’t seem to know what’s going on.
This might not be the most flattering idea on the planet. It’s not exactly an existential Disney vacation.
But this can offer us a fairly solid foundation to start from. It can establish a ground that serves to orient our basic approach to life.
All major religions, philosophy, science, and everyday commonsense all seem to agree on this.
"...a Canadian Forces padre asked me
how, after all I had seen and experienced
I could still believe in God.
I answers that I know there is a God
because in Rwanda
I shook hands with the devil.
I have seen him,
I have smelled him
and I have touched him.
I know the devil exists,
and therefore I know there is a God."
- LGen Roméo Dallaire
from Shake Hands With the Devil
But with that established, some approaches then go further.
They describe answers.
Spiritual and religious traditions describe answers to this basic condition.
They claim to have discovered solutions that really work.
For example, the other three Noble Truths describe the way to overcome suffering. Other traditions describe a process of conquering illusion and finding Reality, the way to get right with the Creator of the universe, the way to “overcome the world,” or just “The Way.”
They offer back-of-the-book answers. But then they also offer suggestions on ways to do the math ourselves. They offer methods.
We might adopt a contemplative practice, for example. Or, if we want to be scientific about it, we could run a few "experiments." We can work overall to beef up our life philosophy or become more existentially fit. All of this is part of a certain kind of inner work that eventually becomes a direct experience where we’re able to see for ourselves.
They claim that we can do this kind of thing is part of our “human potential.” In fact, if we don’t make use of this potential, we wind up worse off for it.
To be fair, there are hazards with this route.
If we decide to work out answers on our own, it isn’t hard to veer off course.
We can easily wind up wandering the Existential No-Man’s Zone.
Math is hard, after all, and this kind of existential math of the human condition can be even harder. As Nietzsche said, it’s possible to wander through our inner labyrinths and be devoured by some minotaur of conscience. Losing the trail at times is common and even expected. Sometimes it winds up with someone snow-blind, dehydrated, and completely disoriented.
If we reject the front gate approach, but then we don’t put in the work and preparation that’s necessary to storm the Back Gates successfully, then it’s possible to wind up getting nowhere.
We wind up staying outside of the gates entirely, in the shallows.
If we aren’t willing to put in the effort and work it takes to train, pack canteens, use a compass, learn the terrain and how to navigate it, and so on, we can easily wind up becoming a sad statistic of soft nihilism. Or even hard nihilism.
We might arrive at a cosmic Wally World that's closed for renovations.
In certain cases, then, we might be better off not trying to work out all the math completely by ourselves. Sometimes it’s better – and totally fine – to find someone trustworthy and take their word for it.
After all, we should be careful not to underestimate what we’re up against.
The task is daunting, and the stakes are high.
This involves tinkering around with the source code of our lives, after all.
The effort to understand who we are, why we’re here, what’s messed up about the world, and what to do about it involves our happiness, our sanity, our very selves.
This isn’t basic addition or how to sharpen a pencil. If we’re serious about it, this stuff can be hard.
It can be easy for us to fool ourselves. We can think we’re in terrible shape when we’re actually doing well, and we can think we’re doing well when we’re actually in bad shape. We can imagine ourselves strutting through the world as masters of the universe when we’re actually parading around our living room, sleepwalking in our underwear. Aristotle said it well: “To attain any assured knowledge about the soul is one of the most difficult things in the world.”
The point is, this is no small task. If it was easy “Know Thyself,” we wouldn’t have had to carve it in marble to remind ourselves about it. To underestimate the challenge can make things even tougher. It can be hard enough to figure out how to lose five pounds, much less solve the most fundamental problems of life and death.
With stakes this high, and a challenge this difficult, then if we’re serious, then it’s probably smart to make use of all the help we can get.
After all, there’s no use in reinventing the wheel.
More than a few really good wheels have been invented over the centuries.
Meaning, there’s plenty of help along these lines.
This is where making use of others’ work can come in handy. Some really smart people have insights that we probably never would have discovered on our own.
Today, we can make use of ideas that might have taken someone else decades to discover. A few hours of reading can sometimes save us years of effort.
In many stories, the hero or heroine gets help in their quest. This help often comes in the form of nuggets of wisdom, tools, or advice from a mentor.
These nuggets can sometimes make all the difference.
Without Ariadne, Theseus would have been minotaur grub. Without Obi-Wan, Luke would have probably still been hanging out at the Toshi Station, whining about power converters. Without Mr. Miyagi, Daniel might have wound up just keeping to himself, eating lunch alone, staying off the beach, and never talking to a girl again.
We have to do this for ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we’re alone.
In real life, the right advice can dramatically improve the odds that we’ll wind up in fair and friendly terrains, with good weather and friendly locals, instead of wandering, snow-blind, through the Existential No-Man’s Land.
Sometimes we can wind up storming the front gates and the back.
When it's something this important, maybe we should attack from all sides.
We can start with the problems in the front of the book, and make use of the answers in the back of the book, and go back and forth. Through this process, we can wind up really learning the math ourselves.
This is how tradition can work properly. It means passing down solutions that have worked before so we don’t have to solve problems that have already been solved. But at the same time, it doesn’t force them. Nobody likes even good answers when they’re shoved down our throats.
It also has to work both ways.
Mentors can’t make the trip for us.
We can’t have our mentors face The Sphinx for us.
We all have to go to the top of the mountain alone.
This business isn’t like information that can simply be communicated from one person to another, like the price of beans or a weather report.
Some insights can’t be given. They can only be discovered.
We have to see for ourselves.
This isn’t a mechanical process like copying a pile of data from one hard drive (or brain) to another.
It’s more organic. It’s more like a process where some potential that sleeps inside us, awakens. Something dormant in us gets activated. This isn’t a mere transfer of information. It’s more like giving birth. It can’t be fully communicated this way. It has to be directly experienced, firsthand.
It’s never easy. It’s almost guaranteed to be messy.
It’s not a school test, where you can just memorize the answers and just parrot them back out. It’s a confrontation with The Big Questions of life.
One does not simply walk into The Big Answers.
It’s the biggest and yet most intimate task of a person’s life.
It’s like being locked in a room that only unlocks from the inside. We each have to find our own way out. In some ways, it’s unique for each of us. We each have our own life story, and our own unique key that fits our own unique lock.
But then again, sometimes we can still check the answers we’ve worked out, and compare them to the answers in the back of the book.
Every so often, they match.
But this time, we understand.
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
- T. S. Eliot