Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Only Moment that Matters

God exists, god does not exist, but the matter of your enlightenment remains the same.
~ The Buddha

When I first started reading philosophy in college I was enchanted by the grand imponderables. How did I get here? What is the meaning of life? I was drawn to mysticism and esoteric schools of thought. God and the nature of god were the most important things to me. In my post adolescent angst I was missing the point of life.

That changed gradually over the years. As I have matured the more important question isn’t “how did I get here,” but rather, “I am here so what do I do about it?” I still am fascinated by the grand imponderables. But, they seem more a speculative game of metaphysics. They’re an entertaining way to pass the evening instead of watching television or playing cards. But, they no longer carry the import they did for me in my youth. They don’t really provide an effective way to live. Too much contemplation and you may find yourself riddled with angst to the point of depression and unable to move. I have “been there, done that,” as we like to say.

When you get right down to it that “there is something” instead of “nothing” regardless of whether you choose to believe that god created the universe out of nothing or that the big bang theory, natural selection and quantum physics can explain everything, our existence is no less a wonderful absurdity that could just easily be the opposite. It’s just as likely or absurd that we never came into existence as it is that we did. We may eventually answer the question how we got here, and some believe they already have, but the wonderful absurdity of existence will still remain. A mystery solved is no less breathtaking.

When I was 22 I remember reading an essay on Buddhism that echoed the Buddha’s admonishment to his followers to not get caught up in idle metaphysical thought. Our enlightenment, the way we live our life now that we are here is what counts. There is a story that says the Buddha was questioned as to whether or not he believed in god. His response is reported to be, “God exists. God does not exist. The matter of your enlightenment remains the same.” God just doesn’t figure into the Buddha’s equation. Nor should god figure into our equation either. It gets us bogged down in things that don’t necessarily matter.

Theology is a strange discipline to my rational, humanist way of thinking. It’s an absurd fantasy, but one I have been caught up in from time to time even now as an atheist and humanist. But, overall I concern myself with what I refer to as practical ethics. How do I live my life? For what do I live? Some will answer, “I live for god.” But, I cannot do that reasonably. I see no evidence of god – at least not the god I was raised to believe in and then developed conceptually in my mind. Proof becomes a subjective self validating process. It’s only meaningful to me – the thinker – and may not have any value for someone else. In the end we all have a different god, to a certain degree, even if we are of the same religion or faith. That is the danger of subjective validation.

Having been raised in the Christian religion that is post modern, post Vatican II Roman Catholicism it seems believing in the god of the West is to believe in a being that cares more for itself and it’s needs than it does for the needs of its creation. Humanity is always secondary. This god, Yahweh is a fascinating archetype of the human psyche that says a lot about us, but doesn’t seem to reflect ultimate reality…whatever the hell that is anyway. My humanist perspective impels me to reject any philosophy or religion that does not put humans as its primary concern.

“Spiritual” people, in my estimation, waste a lot of time trying to be spiritual (or pretending to be) when they really need to turn their attention to the life they are living in this moment. Karma, reincarnation, heaven and hell are all speculative ideas for which we have no actual proof. Once again, what you may call proof is really just a subjective self validating truth that may or may not have any bearing on reality. Here is what I know for certain….I am ignorant. The more I learn the less I find that I really know nothing at all. Empirically all I am certain of is that I was born, am living and will die sometime soon never to exist again in this world as I understand it. What happens after my terminal breath is beyond anything I can know with certainty.

When one studies the words or teachings of those so-called spiritual people that we tend to esteem – Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha, Lao Tzu and others – we see an undercurrent of how to live in the here and now. Sometimes, as in the case of Jesus and Mohammad, those teachings get imbedded in a cultural morass of doctrine, theology and moralizing. We miss the larger ethical message underneath the religiosity of our time and place. We become too dogmatic for our own good worried more about the label of Christian or Muslim then about the truth.

The practice of mindfulness allows me to clear away all of this supernatural and cultural detritus so that I may see myself and others more clearly. This is the key to ethical living. Stripping away culture, time and place I experience others as I experience myself. These, largely superficial cultural assignments, are simply veils that obscure the faces of others. It’s like looking in a steam coated mirror. What I see is a distortion of myself.

When we return to the words of the great masters we hear a call to treat others as we would be treated. The so-called Golden Rule is not a Judeo-Christian innovation but came into being before Jesus walked the earth. Feeding the hungry, taking care of the orphan, the sick and the oppressed are offered to us as sacred duties to be embraced with zeal.

Today we have other concerns to add to our list of sacred duties. We need to be better stewards of our planet and of our resources. We need to close the gap on the wide disparity between wealth and poverty. Our consumption of energy and other consumer products as well as the way we produce food and provide medical care all need to come into our focus.

I no longer look to an undetermined future in this life or the next. I assume that this moment is the only moment I will ever have in which to live and act. That makes this moment the most important moment there is. What I do matters. How I treat others matters. There are no do-overs. But, I am compassionate with myself when I make mistakes and I treat others with that same attitude. Let’s not be type A. But be clear on this, the only meaning my life has is the meaning I give it in this present moment in time and space.

Looking to an entity that may or may not exist does not give great meaning to my life. Likewise worrying about what happens after death is a waste of time. If I choose to live mindfully with compassion for all sentient beings; if my actions come from this enlightened place then the next life, if there is one, will surely take care of it self. If at the end of my life my consciousness snuffs out like a candle burned to the end then the darkness can take me because the memory of my life in the hearts of others will have created beauty and love regardless of what awaits me at the grave.

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