Aro teaches a way of living. Buddhism is not a set of concepts, belief system, or philosophy – but a way to change our experience of the world and our actions in it.
Our emotional pain and confusion about how best to lead our lives results from the illusion that we must choose between opposed conceptions of life. Meditation reveals reality beyond all conceptions. Freed from the tensions of impossible alternatives, we can live with audacity and awe, inspiration and persistence, curiosity and authenticity, appreciation and creativity – with gallantry and courage.
Suspicious About Living
It is mysteriously difficult to make sense of life – even though the basic facts of our human situation seem obvious. We are born, grow up, grow old, and die – and along the way we have: hopes and fears; growing children and aging parents; affairs and projects; crises and resolutions; successes and failures. It seems that this is life – but it also seems that these criteria somehow miss the point. We sense that there must be something to life that goes beyond this. It is not simply that something seems to be missing. It is that the way we live sometimes seems completely irrelevant to what matters. There is something about this set-up that never seems to add up.
At times our world seems coherent; at others, it threatens to disintegrate in crisis – and we are torn by polarities. These polarities are not merely alternative courses of practical action between which we must choose through rational criteria. Looking beneath the turmoil, we are faced with fundamentally different ways of defining our selves; fundamentally different ways of thinking about life; and fundamentally different criteria for making choices. Should I live according to a rigorous ethical code and devote my life to others – or concentrate on enjoying my own life? Am I inevitably a victim of others – or can I seize control? Should I accept the world-view taught by authorities – or create my own? Am I an ordinary person who will lead a life with no greater meaning – or do I have a special destiny?
Polarisation Doesn’t Work
We attempt to resolve these polarities by declaring allegiance to one side and rejecting the other. When we are able to do so, it seems for a time that we have achieved emotional stability. Yet repeatedly we find we have mysteriously migrated to the opposite pole.
We might patch over a crisis by declaring that henceforth we shall put ourselves first – we shall no longer allow ourselves to be victimised by people who exploit our good intentions. Yet within days or weeks we will find ourselves in new situations in which to be selfish makes no emotional sense.
We may turn to a religion or spiritual system that promises to eliminate emotional confusion by conclusively resolving all polarities according to the dictates of a higher power. But such absolutism produces an increasingly restrictive world-view – requiring that we blind ourselves to contrary evidence. We come to inhabit a totalitarian fantasy world – missing both the beauty and disfigurement of the world as it appears.
Then we rebel. Having unmasked sanctimonious piety and narrow-minded religious cruelty, we may declare that there is no higher meaning than what is mundanely obvious. But this renders life flat and futile. We rage against loss of meaning – then lapse into depression.
Seeking purpose outside organised religion, we may try to find our true mission in life. Perhaps there is some work of Art – some great altruistic action we were born to author. Perhaps our suffering comes from failing to align our lives with that mission. Unfortunately, the nature of our mission proves elusive. We may waste years in the search. At times it may seem we have found it – yet after a few months of joyful allegiance to any supposed life purpose we find ourselves in a blind alley. We seek advice from aromatherapists, career counselors, hallucinogenic shamans, and Jungian psychotherapists. They seem helpful at the time – but cannot provide durable answers.
At times we abandon the search and revert to simple consumerism. At least when we pursue worldly benefits we know whether we are making progress. It is just a matter of hard work and straightforward cause-and-effect. Unfortunately, getting the things we wanted is usually less satisfying than we expected. As soon as one desire is satisfied we feel restless and new desires arise. Even while enjoying what we have achieved or acquired, under the surface there is a deep sense of further craving, of need, of desperation. There is no obvious end to consumption. We can never have enough – or can we?
When we recognise that our emotional lives are dominated by dead-end polarities, we can ask: “What is going on here? Why does it seem that I must choose between these unworkable alternatives?”
The Path out of the Maze
Religious, political, and ethical ideologies; psychological theories; fashionable ideas of how to live – may only add to our confusion. It is not possible to resolve our dilemmas through conceptual understanding.
The way out of the maze begins with non-conceptual experience – and that we can only find through meditation. In meditation we discover what we are like in the dynamic space which exists before thoughts and conceptual complexity arise. We learn to experience the impossible polarities we find there without the accustomed knee-jerk reactions. We realise that the forced choices with which we have been confronted were false: the reason we cannot adhere to either side of a polarisation is that our fundamental nature is undivided.
We can allow both sides of every polarity to exist within ourselves. We can then manifest paradoxes: ferocious compassion, dignified exuberance, joyful hopelessness, realistic reverence, honourable deviousness, light-hearted resolution, violent grace, affable opposition, and humorous heroism.
The Way of Being
Beyond blind consumption and the fruitless search for our ‘true life mission’, we discover usefulness: the desire and ability to help others as opportunities arise – without furore, fuss, or furtiveness. We discover genuine audacity, honesty, civility, loyalty, and persistence.
Beyond hope and fear we discover inspired commitment: the confidence and determination to do what needs to be done, regardless of the outcome.
Beyond faith and scepticism we discover curiosity: a sense of wonder at the vastness, beauty, and intricacy of the phenomenal world.
Beyond conformity and rebellion we discover authenticity: making choices based on accurate perception of circumstances – rather than anxiety with regard to the possible reactions of others.
Beyond hedonism, asceticism, and ‘sensible’ moderation we discover the possibility of enjoying all circumstances immoderately. We do not have to consume extraordinary treats to find joy and delight. We do not have to reject sensual pleasure to discover enlightenment. We do not have to measure out our lives with teaspoons to live with dignity and honour.
Beyond ideas that we are special or ordinary, we discover gallantry. We relate to all people with respect, decency, and grace. We utilise whatever personal qualities we may have delightedly in service of others.
Beyond indulgence in victim rôles—and fantasies of triumph over others—we discover generosity. We can give without feeling impoverished because we have confidence in our own resources. We cheerfully manifest courtesy, care, and reliability.
Beyond conceptual codes of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ we discover pure appropriateness – the natural presence of compassion that animates appreciation. We have the playful courage to act spontaneously, effectively, and outrageously to for the benefit of all.
Beyond sanctimony and cynicism we discover reality: a willingness and ability to see the world as it is, rather than as we wish it was or fear it may be.
Beyond religious dogma and ‘scientific’ nihilism we discover awe. Beyond all polarities, and beyond the fundamental duality at their root, we glimpse the ultimate nature of being.