Back to contemplating Meaning and Being while my book goes to the printer.
How does a person decide was is right? Right conduct, right priorities, right choices in who to be and whom to be with. Nearly all of us grapple with this question at one time or another, some of us more than others. We tend to buy our life philosophies off the rack. The easiest path is the one we were brought up with. Catholic, Baptist, Jewish; Democrat, Socialist, Conservative; we have ingrained guidelines, and if we are in doubt, there are authorities we can turn to.
Or, we can poke around and find out what else there is to believe, and pick something congenial. New Age Pagan perhaps, or Buddhist, or just choose a guru whose preachings resonate with you. Deepak Chopra or Dr. Wayne Dyer, or even Earl Holt III.
But why choose one over another? If we just take on a life philosophy like a suit, why ever question it? Why would a child grow to question the wisdom of a parent, or a priest question the teachings of a church? What causes that gut reaction of, “Yes, that makes sense to me,” or “No, they’ve got that wrong.”?
Because at the heart of it, we all have an innate sense of what is right and wrong. Even monkeys and dogs have a sense of justice. Much as we might want to shrug off responsibility for making moral choices, deferring to authority rather than making our own judgements and risking being wrong, the moral buck stops with us. There is some unconscious part of us that reacts to ideas and behaviors, judging them valid or invalid. And like so much else about us humans, it varies wildly.
So we can throw up our hands and embrace nihilism, relativism, or some other brand of Nothing Matters So Why Bother, or we can accept the rules of the game as given and work with them. We have to make choices. We might at well do our best to make enlightened ones.
It is quite likely that we can thank evolution for what we are, including our subconscious impulses. Empathy and cooperation solidified bonds among individuals in a group and enhanced their survival. But under some circumstances, selfish, anti-social behavior worked better, and so that was perpetuated, too. Sometimes embracing novelty is good. Sometimes sticking to what’s tried and true is good. Life is complicated and different strategies work depending on the situation. Humans excel at adapting. Our behavior can be extremely variable, thus we have an arrow in the quiver for whatever game we find.
So here we are, billions of individuals, all running a massive experiment in which life philosophy works best. Is it better to identify the enemy and destroy them? Or is it better to overcome differences and create alliances? Should we be socialistic, or ruggedly independent? Worship and obey without question, or refuse to cooperate when we think authority is wrong?
Each of us has a role to play in this vast experiment. We see how, over time, even within institutions like an organized religion, rules and beliefs change considering what works and what doesn’t. We don’t stone adulterers to death anymore. At one time, that made sense to pretty much everyone. But it proved to be a bad policy which most of us have rejected. There are still individuals out there who would advocate for it (in Saudi Arabia for example); that gut reaction hasn’t completely died out yet. But our social evolution would appear to favor mercy over retribution.
As communication improves (thank you, Internet) we have much more to consider. We have many alternatives to what we were brought up with. If we are the sort who feels that breaking the bonds of tradition is a good thing, we can strike out on our own and build a life philosophy that suits us precisely, then share it with others to see if it resonates with them. We can continue to tweak and fine-tune our philosophy as we try to live it and encounter problems. We run the experiment for ourselves. What tends to work better? Reaching out to others, or minding my own business? Trust or suspicion? Self-indulgence or self-discipline?
By my way of thinking, a practice works if it tends towards happiness and away from suffering. And by happiness I don’t necessarily mean pleasure. I mean the sort of inner peace and satisfaction that makes a person feel their life is good. And because people who feel that way are much better to be around, I want happiness for as many others as possible. So this is my contribution to the great experiment. I find Buddhism congenial, have a great respect for science, tend towards liberalism and socialism. I value compassion and empathy, and believe that being concerned with the happiness of others contributes to my own happiness. This is the life philosophy I am building (it is a work in progress) based on the person I am.
Each of us does this, more or less, consciously or unconsciously. With our nearly infinite variability, we contribute to the experiment.
And over time, the best philosophy shall succeed.