“To be free from convention is not to spurn it but not to be deceived by it.” – Alan Watts
We all think we know what is going on. We think we have some basic sense of what is true and not true concerning who and what we are, what our family and social interactions are about and what is true about our society and the world. We would be shocked and offended if someone were to say that we were delusional about much of this, but it actually is quite true that a good deal of our view of “reality” amounts to a delusion of sorts. It is a delusion built on convention, and convention is really a shared habit of interpreting the world and responding based on unseen forces of evolving culture and society going back through generations into the mist of unknowable origins. It’s “the way things are” or “what is” at any given place and time, and interestingly, for being “what is,” it is always changing.
It is very important to realize that the world-view we believe in is profoundly different from that of a 10th Century Arab, who similarly believed that their world-view was true, or for that matter, a 21st Century Jihadi Arab, or perhaps, in very important ways, a fellow 21st Century American who votes for a different political party. Most importantly, OUR world view and sense of who we are, our “what is,” may be very different from what it was ten or twenty years ago. How can this be? We all live on the same planet, with the same senses and brain. We are all of the same species. A 10th century squirrel and a 21st century squirrel, no matter where they are on the planet, have a pretty universal squirrel “what is.” Yet, we humans from different places and times have very different notions of what is true and not true. This is because humans have abstracting minds that generate what amounts to virtual realities, stories about who we are, and what is true and not true created by cultural, historical, social, and psychological perceptions, all quite subjective.
What IS true is that we humans mostly live inside these stories in our minds about what we want and what we fear and what we believe to be true – repeated over and over creating the effect for us that these stories ARE true and real – when they are not. Within a relatively narrow range of political, cultural, religious and personal differences, white, financially secure Americans have a large overlay of agreed consensus-reality, such as America being the best country in the world with the best system of government, which is the same belief most citizens of other countries have about their country despite all the complaints they may have about the country’s actual functioning. Most “mainstream” Americans similarly believe that the American capitalist consumer economic system is the best system despite mounting evidence that it does not lead to happiness or fairness, and is threatening the environmental sustainability of the planet. That Native Americans, many people of color, those who are in poverty, or those who have studied these issues carefully might not agree with these stories doesn’t really seem valid to the “mainstream” American. So if these stories of American exceptionalism may not be true, what IS real and true? It might be helpful to remember the wisdom of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates who said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
Yet, it is important we seek to have as good a grasp on the possibility of truth and reality as we can. Zen addresses this conundrum by seeking to guide us into the fine-honing of all our sensory and mental capacities through training in in-the-moment awareness. It teaches that we are mistaken in believing we are the activity of our mind, all these thoughts and emotions, but rather that we are the energy of consciousness prior to any belief or opinion of this or that. It teaches us to be vitally present, to be increasingly aware of being the witness of the moment, to bring non-judgmental questioning into the “thusness” or “what-is-ness” of the moment, including the stories our mind is telling us. It encourages us to acknowledge the underlying mystery of existence while conceding that we must believe and do something, for the world must also be approached in a practical and functional manner. For this, convention is useful. It is just important not to mistake convention for truth. It is A way, not THE way of any situation.
Buddhism tells us that which IS real is the unfolding moments of life at multi-dimensional levels from the microscopic to the cosmic and everything between, including humans with their stories. It is a dance, an interplay of phenomena, energies, forces, Nature, history, institutions, persons and intra-psychic conditions and conditioning. It is also the projection of our stories onto whatever and whoever is happening in front of us. It is an acknowledgement that whatever our truth is in the personal, cultural, social and political spheres may be as true or untrue as any other, that what really matters is what actually works to minimize unnecessary suffering in the world. It warns that our anticipations of the future are mostly unlikely, just as our memories of the past are mostly distorted projections of whatever is OUR story. Even more importantly, Buddhism points out that we are seldom truly present for whatever and whoever is happening in front of us. Rather, it cautions us, to notice that we are often only partially present for the what-is that unfolds around us, and instead are caught up in telling and projecting our mental stories. We are missing Life as it happens. In a very important way, this is simply insane.
To be truly sane, to be what Buddhism calls awakened, is to realize that these stories are a kind of virtual reality created by the mind, and instead of continuing to be pulled into and motivated by these stories, to get in touch with and respond to the realities of the what-is in the moment as it unfolds. This is mindfulness. To be mindful is to engage the moment as the observing awareness that can watch these stories arise within us and others, noting their shifting, morphing, unstable and impermanent nature, and how they pass, making way for another story that will arise, have a duration and then pass. To be mindful is to realize this witnessing awareness is completely stable and enduring, as is Nature, and so this awareness is OUR nature, and it has been the witness that is the true core of who we are for our entire life. And it is entirely sane. Action that arises from this mindful engagement will then be more likely true to the situation and beneficial.
To be mindful is to train in stabilizing awareness as our present-moment self, in penetrating with ever-increasing subtlety of awareness into the flow of the moment, to realize awareness as our true presence that can penetrate the “what is” of the moment in a balanced application of our senses, intelligence, emotions and intuition. This has been the reality of every mystic in every culture throughout human history. It is the perception that allowed Socrates to note the nature of wisdom over 2500 years ago, interestingly at approximately the same historic time that Lao Tzu was making such an observation in China and Buddha in India, perhaps because the civilization-myth-as-reality was fully replacing human identification with Nature about that time.
As long as we live out of the stories that pass nearly randomly and involuntarily through our field of consciousness, we will be unable to address effectively the real and true challenges or celebrate the real beauty of life. This is true for individuals and it is true for society. We are unable as a society to address effectively the challenges we face precisely because we are living out false and limiting stories concerning what-is, and instead we act out of the false narrative of stories that no longer apply. This is why our politics and governing is so dysfunctional. To evolve is to become increasingly aware and adaptive to what-is, and never in human history has it been more imperative than it is now to let go of living out of stories of what was and come into the real challenges of what is.
To have enlightened and effective societies we must first do the work of becoming effective and enlightened individuals. We must STOP LIVING INSIDE THE OLD STORIES. We have to be ready to face the very real possibility that the story of American society may be about to change dramatically in the coming years and it is imperative that those who want to shape that story in a more enlightened and compassionate way are unafraid and capable in the face of whatever new “what is” may come along. We must be ready to break free into the “what-is” that unfolds moment to moment with a questioning and open mind. There is no doubt that we can create beautiful lives individually and collectively, but only if they are built on the true shifting sands of what-is with humility, wonder, skill and faith that no matter the what-is we can find a path of action (or non-action) that will sustain and nourish us and lead our society in the path of enlightened evolution.