We all need a place to belong, something larger than ourselves. We cherish other people who understand us and share our values, familiar places, and experiences that offered meaning for an existence, validation fo our life, assurance that this life is worthwhile, perhaps even that there may be comfort and old friends in an eternal home beyond our earthly existence. This was the theme of many of our world's religions, a promise that seems to diminish the fear of death, but more profoundly to offer hope that our mysterious universe may reveal promise beyond the despair of our present time and place.
So where do we draw the boundary of our "world?" Where does our world begin and end, or perhaps even more accurately, where do our "worlds" begin and end as we live simultaneously in more than one world, more than one state of mind.
For the moment, then, I will define "world" as the state of mind that encompasses my many realities. Such are my memories and anticipations of friends, birthdays, anniversaries, jobs, travels, books, food, animals that both delight and also threaten me, pests that plague me (mosquitos!). Such are the "ups and downs" of my worlds. Some days I exhilarate in the joys of living, but on other days circumstances throw a dim light on my world
In the 1985 move "Cocoon," a friendly group of retirees discovered a mysterious trace of an extraterrestrial place where the inhabitants lived with no worries of aging, sickness, and death. At the conclusion of the movie, they are given the option of boarding a spaceship that will take them there, or the option of remaining in their present home with the human suffering that comes with aging.
Straining our capacity to imagine such a place and opportunity, I am reminded, however, of our ongoing fascination with UFOs or UAPs. At the center of this controversy is the search for hope "beyond the stars" where we may continue our existence but without the despair life on earth brings with its conditions of suffering.
THis is the nature of our life, said Siddartha Gautama, known as the Buddha. Living at the base of the Himalaya mountain range in what we now call Nepal, during the 6-5th centuries, Siddhartha forsook the life of privilege to which he had been born when he despaired over such suffering that privilege could not eliminate, suffering that threatened the meaning of life. He became a wandering ascetic searching for hope for all human beings who faced the despair of childbirth, sickness, old age, decay, and death. Renouncing his princely life, he came to find peace of mind with his realization of the Four Noble Truths.
"Noble" does not refer to the truths themselves but rather to the state of mind of individuals who live by the Noble Truths which are as follows:
- dukkah. Suffering. The reality of human existence must be faced in its true nature and must not be avoided or rationalized in any way. Human beings cannot avoid the pain, anxiety, and finality of aging, sickness, death, and the mental gymnastics that arise trying to avoid these unpleasantries.
- samudaya. The Cause of Suffering. This is the craving, the attachment we make to the false hope of attempts to avoid the suffering.
- nirvana. There is a Cessation to Suffering. Here is the promise of hope over despair. Here is the promise of liberation, the fading of craving, the release from attachments, freedom from the obsessive desire for pleasure as a means of ending suffering.
- marga. The Path to the Cessation of Suffering. What is this path? To the Buddha's credit, and for the benefit of all who yearn for hope over despair, Buddha laid out in very specific words the way of the path which he called astangika-marga, the Eightfold Path.
Before specifying the steps along the way of the Eightfold Path, it is helpful to place this way of living and realizing hope as a Middle Way. It is called that because the Eightfold Path weaves its way through the challenges of life without falling into the extremes of either asceticism or sensual indulgence. Granted, any one of us at any time may stretch the boundaries of the Eightfold Path. And, as is most likely, the extremes are not always crystal clear. For example, consider our use of time. How much vacation time is enough? Our time for balancing work, play, socializing, loving, caring, and being cared for cannot fit within the same prescription for everyone. The Buddha never specified the balance with which we approach our commitments. But, make no mistake, the Eightfold Path clearly outlines a path of moderation.
Here is the Eightfold Path:
- right understanding. This refers to an awareness of what the Four Noble Truths mean.
- right intention. The intent is to confirm one's resolve to follow the Path.
- right speech. Lying, divisiveness, and meaningless pandering are destructions and not right.
- right action. Do no harm to any other living thing or the environment.
- right vocation. Do not accept work that endangers oneself or others.
- right effort. A lackadaisical attitude sabotages one's Path. The way of the wandering mind can distract one from focusing on the effort to continue the Path.
- right mindfulness. Distractions, like weather systems, come and go. The aim is not to attach to a sensation, emotion, or thought but to let them pass through the mind.
- right concentration. Without intentionality, effort, and awareness, the mind wanders aimlessly making concentration impossible. Right concentration focuses on one-point, descending as the mind brings its energy to rest within a deep center of psychic balance.
There are other paths that lead to hope. But none of these paths deny the present reality of despair as we face the darkening skies of climate change and political extremism. As Carl Jung reminded us, only when we encounter and endure the threat of our despair, personal and collective, only then is there a genuine promise of hope. Toward that end, we will meet again next time.