Saturday, November 15, 2014

The great paradox.

Things are not as they appear, nor are they otherwise.

Complacency is indeed comfortable. It lulls us into the illusion that all is well when the wolf is near our door. Just when we think all is well, the storm of change comes upon us. We so wanted the security of eternal bliss but it rushes suddenly away like a hurricane through our fingers, ripping our pleasure away and leaves us with a devastated spirit. All spiritual traditions address this looming catastrophe, yet we assume it won’t happen to us. In 1 Thessalonians 5, the Apostle Paul wrote,  “…for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.”

What is this “day of the Lord?” Many would argue it is the day of final judgment, when we must stand before God and be held accountable for our actions. Judgment seems to be extraordinarily important and justice will at last prevail, or so we’ve been led to believe. However, there is an alternative that is worth considering.

An aspect of being human is to think that our way alone is secure while all others are in jeopardy. There is a psychological term to explain this. It’s called either the optimism or normalcy bias and is central to nature of self-destruction. While in such a state of mind we deny the obvious, at least for ourselves and justify our choices because of our self-centered sensed need. Destruction is someone else’s problem but certainly not ours. Our attitude is governed by a self-understanding that appears to keep us apart from others, secure in our sense of superiority. Today there are many who choose to live in states of denial and they will discover too late that, contrary to belief, we are not apart. What we choose collectively effects us all.

While in such a state of mind we are sure that, given our sense of self as unique and special, we are above the suffering of others. But all too often we make choices we are not proud of because we misidentify as someone unworthy, far beneath the unrealistic standards of perfection we set for ourselves. Or we may do the opposite and imagine that we alone are superior. The moment we awaken from our sleep of self-centered delusion is our personal day of reckoning; our “day of the Lord.” In that very moment we discover that we are no more special than anyone else, yet we and they are pure of heart. Before that moment we lived in a state of complacency and delusion, sometimes called normal.

The very first of the Buddha’s Four-Nobel truth explains the nature of suffering and it has  three aspects:

  1. The obvious suffering of physical and mental illness, growing old, and dying;
  2. The anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing; and,
  3. A subtle dissatisfaction pervading all forms of life, due to the fact that all forms of life are impermanent and constantly changing.

The second of his truths is that the origin of suffering is craving, conditioned by ignorance of the true nature of things (most particularly ourselves). The third truth is that the complete cessation of suffering is possible when we unveil this true nature, but to do that we must first let go of what we previously thought. And the final truth is the way to this awakening: the Eight-Fold path. What we discover along this path to a higher level of consciousness is the same driving force of suffering that moves us out of ignorance and towards awakening: the first truth. It is both the cause and the compelling force for change. 

“Things are not always as they seem; the first appearance deceives many.”—Phaedrus, circa15 BCE
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