Everyone, Unknowingly, Has A Philosophy Of Life

Everyone, that is, each one of us, has a philosophy of life that not only provides the coordinates for how one lives but also shows up in how one conducts oneself. For most people, this philosophy of life remains that to which they remain unaware.

You might think, if this is true, that the best way of discovering someone’s philosophy of life would be to ask that person what he or she believes, what gets him or her up in the morning, what is that person’s life for, and so on. Reasonable for sure but mistaken. A far better approach is to just observe how that person conducts himself or herself on a daily basis. What thoughts arise in that person’s consciousness? What habits are sedimented? What actions and what goals recur?

Let me illustrate this approach. A few years ago, I was speaking with a high-level executive at a major tech firm. He was telling me that he was a devout Christian and that he was soon going to be married. Yet what did he think almost always about? Namely, how to make a favorable impression on his boss. How to come up with killer strategies at work. How to be lauded. In brief, what he really cared about was success, status, and reputation, and these teloi were action- and thought-guiding. Here was the center of his philosophy of life.

The crux at the heart of this approach is that the unexamined life entails not knowing oneself in a very real sense. To lead an unexamined life just is to be living either on autopilot or, as it were, schizophrenically. On autopilot in those cases where someone does not know, because he or she has never examined, why it is that he or she lives. The person controlled by autopilot is also very likely the person who accepts external, provisional goods like wealth, status, and success as the highest goods. This one I call “idolatrous.” Or schizophrenically because what one declares to oneself and others may bear no resemblance whatsoever to how one actually lives or, even worse, may be genuinely at odds with how one actually lives.

The lesson? Examining one’s life is one way in which one can truly become wise. Sans self-examination, one may remain one’s entire life half-alive.

Being Laced With

The reality is that our selved experience is laced with dukkhaDukkha, a Pali term used by the Buddha, refers to the basic unsatisfactoriness of experience, the feeling, as I’d say, of something being off, if only a little bit.

When we say that “X is laced with Y,” we mean that Y occurs in small or trace amounts in X. Why is this analysis significant?

Because we’re willing to grant, I think, that one may enjoy eating ice cream (or whatever), finding it pleasant, only later on to feel the pain of having eaten too much. So too with other selved experiences: pleasure follows pain or pain precedes pleasure. Our egoic experience, indeed, reveals to us that pleasure is transient.

This, of course, is true, but it’s not yet profound. What is profound is the more nuanced understanding and feeling having to do with dukkha insinuating itself even, if only a tiny bit, into whatever it is that is going on providing that one is egoically engaged.

And this is disturbing. It’s disturbing because it feels as if everything we touch is tainted somehow, stained in some way, painted with poison. Therefore, I say again, “The reality is that our selved experience is laced with dukkha.”

But, you reply, surely this does not describe all my experiences? Quite so. You’ve probably, if only rarely and fleetingly, had non-egoic experiences, experiences when you “lost your self.” You tasted something indeed, something very special or, if you prefer, very ordinary.

Enlightenment, the total losing of one’s self, is therefore the experience of freedom and purity. The experience of this not being laced with dukkha.

Ecodharma And Our Climate Emergency

During an interview with the Buddhist scholar David Loy yesterday, we were speaking about ecodharma, a neologism that tries to synthesize the teachings of the dharma with a commitment to ecological engagement.

Loy thinks we have every reason to believe–and so he argues in his book Ecodharma–that we’re right in the thick of a climate emergency. What does this mean for a socially and ecologically engaged Buddhist?

On the one hand, he says, “It looks bad.” We might, he says, liken caring for the earth to hospice care. You don’t cease caring for someone who is dying. On the contrary, you act so as to reduce their pain and suffering and with a view to hearing and feeling them with all your heart.

On the other hand, he goes on, as Buddhists, we really don’t know what is going to happen. In this sense, we are, as we must, be open to the Great Mystery.

Some ecologists have gone into despair and thence into hiding. Some Buddhists have retained a single-minded focus on attaining classical, individual enlightenment. Neither will do for Loy. As we spoke, what stood out to me was his resolve: we must “do the very best that we can,” he observed, without “knowing whether it will make any difference” while accepting that “that’s OK.”

But what does this enigmatic commitment mean? One, you act while “abandoning all hope of results” as the Tibetan Buddhist slogan from the lojong training would have it. Two, you accept that everything you do may amount to nothing in the end. That is, you don’t delude yourself into thinking that any collective effort will contribute in any significant way or at all to the viability of the earth and to the well-being of future sentient beings, whatever these might be, that inhabit it. And, three, you embrace non-attachment in the fullest sense of the word. “Basically,” Kyogen Carlson states in Zen in the American Grain: Discovering the Teachings at Home, “nonattachment means all-acceptance with willingness and positivity of mind. All-acceptance means complete willingness to admit that things are exactly as they are.”

Ergo, act with resolve; act without knowing; act while being all-accepting. Wise words these.

What Wisdom Is

The word wisdom is thrown around a lot these days, especially in business circles. This person is wise; that was a wise thing to do; what wise leadership; such wise counsel indeed.

The explosion of interest in philosophy in Silicon Valley (I’m thinking of Stoicism, Buddhist philosophy, and to a lesser extent Aristotelianism but also of philosophically minded people like Paul Graham, Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, and Reid Hoffman, among others) has resulted in the word wisdom getting bandied about even more.

It would, let’s say, be wise not to speak bullshit, however, when we’re talking about wisdom. Better yet, it would be wise not just to want to be wise but also, actually, to be wise. Therefore, it would be good to go back to the beginning and ask: what is wisdom?

Here’s one pithy definition I’ve come up with: wisdom is right conduct flowing directly from right understanding. 

Start at the back. Right understanding refers to empirical, theoretical, and experiential knowledge of the nature of the cosmos and human nature.

Right conduct refers to almost always doing the right thing in whichever situation one finds oneself.

Flowing directly from means that right conduct is neither willy-nilly nor shot out of a cannon. It wasn’t a lucky guess, a good shot, or a spot-on intuition. No, the conduct came directly from the understanding. It’s as if the understanding were the gentle hand guiding while supporting the action.

Is this right?

Tests and Observations: (1) See that we often use maxims (“Be kind.” “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”) when we’re referring to wisdom. Each maxim embeds within itself a kind of knowledge that the wise person actually, remarkably embodies. (2) See that a single act of compassion (e.g.) can only be said to count as a wise act if it really was based on right understanding. (3) See how wise people are often quite spontaneous because their knowledge is so aligned with their habits that they don’t, in many cases, need to deliberate. Simply, they act laudably. (4) Even so, wise persons are also, when need be, capable of ethical deliberations, which enable them to harmonize their understanding with their resultant conduct.

If this definition is correct, then plainly most people are not wise. Ourselves included. In a good sense, this is humbling. Maybe, just maybe this insight will loosen–or shatter–our egocentrism.