Another grey, rainy day. But it is not so cold, and I’m happy to see the water tables being restored to normal. I sent off another piece to the Monitor this morning. My last one earned some vitriolic comments. I found it rather amusing, since the commenters were unwittingly making my case for me. If any of you are curious, I post links to my most recent articles on the sidebar of my website as they get published.
My friend Nick sent me a letter with a quote from Carlos Castaneda. I enjoy talking with Nick and his wife Mary. They live in the north country and have a delightful little guest cabin which I try to come up and visit every chance I get. They share my enthusiasm for hiking, and for stimulating conversation. We have some excellent discussions both on the trail and around their kitchen table.
This excerpt from The Teachings of Don Juan concerned what defines the “Man of Knowledge”. Knowing of the questions I’ve been wrestling with, Nick wanted to share it with me because it impressed him a great deal and related to other things he had read.
I remember reading Carlos Castaneda when I was young and naive and still had a boatload to learn (I expect I still do). At the time, it also impressed me a great deal. However, that was back at the height of the hippie scene, when any reference to mind-altering drugs was taken as cool and profound. I don’t think I appreciated the actual philosophy in Don Juan as I should have because of that. Rereading it now would give me a very different perspective.
I studied religion along with philosophy when I was in college. I joke that I wanted to be sure I understood what I didn’t believe in. I traveled through agnosticism to paganism to militant atheism, finally settling on my present beliefs. I am a provisional atheist; I believe all gods and supernatural entities are purely imaginary until proven otherwise. And my criteria for proof are pretty rigorous. I rely on the scientific method as the best way to avoid fooling ourselves. Because we humans are very, very good at fooling ourselves.
But aside from the supernatural element, the world’s wisdom traditions carry a great deal that is useful. Never mind all the melodrama (for example the brouhaha over Castaneda and his books). One doesn’t have to buy the myths, magic, and mysticism of a belief system to appreciate its wisdom. I don’t need to believe in reincarnation to appreciate the teachings of Buddhism. I don’t have to believe in the divinity of Jesus, or even that the man existed at all, to read his teachings as described in the Bible and understand their value.
There is no single path to knowledge (I prefer the word “wisdom”; there is a subtle shade of difference in meaning: One can possess a great deal of knowledge, and still not be wise). I think this is what can be so confusing: there are so many different belief systems, so many different paths to enlightenment, salvation, happiness, the Truth (capital “T”). They can’t all be right. One has to either conclude that all of them are wrong, or seize the one which sounds the best and cling to it fiercely to the exclusion of all others.
Truth is a bit like Art—no one can come up with a definition that satisfies everybody, but we all know what we like. We think we can recognize the Truth when we see it. How do we do this? And why do we come up with such different conclusions? When we read a passage from the Bible, or Castaneda, or the Dalai Lama, or Socrates, what is it that makes us say, “Yes! Yes, that is wisdom!” Perhaps it is because it resonates with our own experiences. And our experiences are unique. We are all a bit different. The way our brains are wired, the lives we have lived, the culture we were brought up in, the people who have influenced us; it’s a complex recipe for a singular individual. It’s why one person can read Eckhart Tolle and be deeply inspired, while another tosses the book aside, exclaiming, “What pretentious bullshit!”
Yet, there are commonalities among human beings that allow us to agree on certain truths. Nearly all wisdom traditions, for example, teach some equivalent of the Golden Rule. Most teach charity and humility. Many value compassion. There are parallels, regardless of religious trappings or lack thereof, that seem to resonate with a human sense of what is good. Even so, there have been notable figures who have totally cast aside these values, and they, too, have their followers.
All of that is a question of statistics. What do most of us recognize as Truth? What strikes most people as wise? Is it all, then, merely a matter of majority rule?