Last entry, I wrote about recognizing the primary moods of suffering. In this piece, I want to share some false perspectives which often lead to suffering. In recognizing them as false, we can free ourselves from the suffering they bring. I chose three for this post and will share some more in my next writing.
Life Could Be Other Than It Is
This perspective is a common source of suffering. It implies that we could have something different than we have right now. How? In this moment, we are in a location, with our current circumstances, related to our network of relationships, and living with various commitments. In a moment, it could all change, but right now, it is exactly as it is. And that statement is always true.
We can imagine that life could be different. These imaginings take the form of conversations like: if I had chosen that college, or not taken that job, or married that person, life would be different. Yes, of course it would be different, but we cannot know how it would be different. Those conversations belong to the realm of imagination. They are based on the false premise that we can know how life would have turned out on those alternate paths, which we cannot.
Everything that happens, happens in an inter-related network of happenings: change anything and you change everything, perhaps imperceptibly so, but finishing the second piece of toast at breakfast determines when your car enters the freeway, the traffic you encounter, whom you walk into the building with at work, and so on and on. If you had made any decision differently in your life, life for you and many others would be altered, but we cannot know how. (Indeed, finishing that second piece of toast might have saved you from a car accident—we can just never know.)
Everything that has happened in our life has brought us to this moment. Change anything in the past and this moment would be different. Recognizing this truth is a source of liberation.
I Could Have Done It Better
This perspective is the guilt-heavy version of the one above. Rather than just reflecting on how life could have been better, we focus our thinking on how I could have done it better, leading to moods of guilt, shame, and regret, all of which can transition into self-loathing.
The fallacy in this thinking is that it implies we could have seen or understood more than we did at some moment in the past. We saw and understood what we did at a particular moment, based on the situation around us and our ability to interpret it. From that perception and understanding, we responded as best we could. Afterwards, we can criticize the decision as a mistake, but that is only possible at a later moment. When the decision was made, it fulfilled the old cliché, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” And that is always the case.
I find this understanding easier to grasp when I allow that what I usually consider to be me is a biological-psychological system, which is responding to each moment in the only way that it can. The system learns, so similar (never exact) circumstances in the future may trigger a different response, but that response is also the only one possible in the moment.
When we review the past, there some possible valuable actions: first, we can offer amends where we have hurt others; second, we can learn from our past behavior. These both allow us to move forward in a caring and intelligent way. Dwelling in guilt does not.
Additional freedom comes in recognizing that the same is true for everyone else: they were responding in the only way they could at a particular moment. We do not have to endorse what they did, but we can free ourselves of anger and hatred when we recognize this fact.
We Know What is Good or Bad for Us (but consider the parable of the Chinese farmer)
There is a wonderful parable I have heard from a couple of sources about a Chinese farmer. It usually goes something like this:
There is a poor Chinese farmer, who has one son and one horse. One day the son forgets to close the gate and the horse runs away. The neighbors say, “You are so unlucky.” The farmer says, “Maybe.”
The next day the horse returns with three wild horses, so the farmer now has four horses. The neighbors say, “You are so lucky!” The farmer says, “Maybe.”
The next day the son, while attempt to train one of the wild horses, falls off and breaks his leg. The neighbors say, “You are so unlucky.” The farmer says, “Maybe.”
The next day the Chinese army comes through and drafts all the son to join them a campaign in a bloody war, but they can’t take the farmer’s son because of the broken leg. The neighbors say, “You are so lucky!”
The farmer says, “Maybe.”
The farmer was very wise. He knew that we cannot know how today’s events will affect tomorrow—what may seem wonderful can lead to new challenges, and seemingly terrible events can lead to unexpected blessings. Most of us forget this point and think we can judge the present as clearly bad or clearly good. We are being narrow-focused and naïve in those moments. Life unfolds in all its complexity. Why do we think we are omniscient when it comes to consequences?
* * *
I will share some additional perspectives next post.