Glimpses on the meaning of life, and spirituality

 

You will find a first contribution to spirituality (which I believe still valid though too heavy) on the parent site. The present glimpses detail and precise the parent site in the form of a sequence of short comments.

 

Glimpse 1. A surprising ratio

 

I wished to begin this set of glimpses by something as:  “I am well aware that our world primarily respects commercial values instead of spiritual ones etc.” Wanting to check how much that was true, I did a few Google requests on “spiritual life,” “meaning of life,” on the one hand and also on  becoming rich,” “earning more money.” I was real surprised when receiving some four hundred millions replies on the first requests and some one hundred thirty millions on the second ones. All things considered, Internet users seem to be three times more interested in their spirituality than in their money. A similar test done in French leads to very similar results. If the variations were not so large, it could be claimed that my question and/or Google search are not precise enough. The exact ratio, however, is not significant for me because if we had the reverse result: people three times less interested in spirituality than in wealth, I would have already been amazed by such a ‘large’ proportion.

 

The Web ‘real people’ are at least three times more interested in the meaning of their life and their spirituality than in the increase of their financial means.

 

(“Glimpse” will be understood in the following)

2. All in all, why giving a “meaning to our life?

 

The idea that I wish to present by posting here multiples glimpses on this topic nicely summarizes in an easy to say sentence but one difficult to explain, not to speak of practice:

 

To give a meaning to our life is equivalent to give a meaning to our death, one cannot go without the other.

 

This idea is far from being new, it is even basic to most religions that claim to provide meaning to both our lives and our deaths. Most of us are well aware of this dilemma, except perhaps some young individuals who push it away. Its existence becomes obvious to the elder, as we now will see.

 

The concept of senile insanity or dementia is slowly disappearing from our modern vocabulary. What ‘exists’ nowadays is Alzeimer disease reserved to old people, or the early Alzeimer for young ones, or ‘youthful dementia’ when the young person does not carry this degenerative disease. This is a devious way to avoid speaking of a real problem, because senile insanity indeed exists and is caused by a kind of dread in front of the signals of death arrival.

Starting at some age, physical degradation becomes so obviously irreversible that sustaining the illusion that it does not proclaims death coming becomes impossible. This removes their convincing power to our small hopes of ‘temporary immortality’ such as: “My current health state will still last ten years, thus I will think of my death in ten years,”  and this reasoning repeats itself each ten years. These ten, twenty or thirty years pass at full speed and the doors that shut the thinking of our own death to our mind shatter under the blows of physical and intellectual degradation. Then, the old one (let us say 75 years old, exactly my own age) becomes conscious that his/her life has been almost meaningless, that it was a repetition of unconscious gestures, of badly thought decisions, of disappointed hopes. An old person is thus wedged between death arrival that he/she feels to be totally ‘insane’ and a life he/she finally acknowledges as being ‘insane’ as well. The small aphorism framed higher becomes an obligatory task for the one who wants to understand why he/she will die. This task is much more difficult than it may seem and most are unable to achieve it. These who succeed this ethical self-examination will stop fearing death and will quietly await it, in an attitude of: “There is no hurry.” The other ones never really fail this examination, but they become painfully conscious of their inability to make a success of it and become, in a way or another, obsessed by their problem which looks like they are demented, have them or not Alzeimer.

 

3. General information on the ‘means’ to achieve meaningfulness

 

In practice, how to obtain the psychic weapons necessary to give meaning to our life in order to avoid this ultimate degradation that is senile dementia such as it has been just above defined? A first difficulty lies in the seemingly obvious answer: “It is necessary to live with the goal of preparing death,” since it  actually is the worst possible one! It is necessary to live for the pleasure of living. Otherwise, we fall into the traditional trap: “I lived to prepare my death and, now that it comes forth, I realize that I never really lived.” The solution goes necessarily through a: “It is necessary to prepare death by fully enjoying life,” which looks like a logical contradiction. Thus, a detailed answer is neither unique nor simple. My small glimpses will attempt to provide  a kind of ‘manual for a happy life for a happy death’, at least for these who have freedom to control most of their life choices, i.e. something like ‘normal’ living conditions.

The people concerned are thus not as seriously sick as their choices would already be fixed by the need for surviving the disease. Besides, these people already lived part of their life (let us say that they are at least aged thirty) so that they can be conscious of how much well or badly based is, for them, my advising: they have to understand this advice in terms of their real life experiences, and not only by means of their abstract thought - what I will call intellect in the following. To illustrate this need, the next glimpse will tackle the problem of the conflict between internal versus external assessment, i.e. how to stand the social constraints that subject us to a relentless assessment (positive approval vs. negative contempt) while we feel all that giving meaning to our life goes through an internal assessment.

 

Setting up an appropriate vocabulary

(a personal parenthesis)

 

It is rather easy to describe an external approval that includes all our behaviors relative to our social relationships. Internal approval resists better the analysis and we thus will be forced to twist the meaning of some words out of their common use.  

For example, the concept of soul has been so much commented in the context of our Christian civilization that it is impossible to use it without evoking some reasoning specific to this religion. This is why I shall push the word ‘soul’ out of our vocabulary, and I shall use the expression ‘subtle body’ to speak of our non-material body, which covers what is currently called ‘soul’ or ‘aura’. It follows that our material body (we usually call ‘body’) needs to be specified and we will call it our ‘physical body’. The unqualified word ‘body’ will now indicate the two existing bodies, the physical and the subtle one. This vocabulary will enable us to speak without verbal juggling of the ‘subtle body’ which is indeed a body but behaves differently from its physical counterpart. An example of this vocabulary usefulness is linked to the shamanic way of speech: “leaving one’s body.” Discussions about this behavior are always perplexing even though it is very significant in shamanism: As goes a usual questioning: “what is leaving, do I imagine it or not, etc.?” We are now able to speak of it as a manifestation of the subtle body and describe the various forms it can take. Conversely, here is an example of Christian debate that becomes difficult with this new vocabulary: all discussions on monism and dualism, related to the separation or not of soul and body, become almost incomprehensible if our vocabulary is used. The two bodies, the physical and the subtle one, are neither identical nor separate, except when the physical body dies.

In addition, I will never indicate the productions of this part of the physical body named ‘brain’ by words connected  to ‘spirit’ or ‘spirituality’ that are reserved to the manifestations of subtle beings. To have ‘spirit’ is no longer a behavior of our physical brain but it can be one of our subtle brain that has, of course, a non-material component. Spirituality, a word we use at the beginning of this set of glimpses, is not the same as in Christian world. It indicates the behavior of beings as ‘ghosts’ (and also ‘spirits’) or ‘fairies’ or ‘demons’ or ‘spirits of a place’ or ‘elves’ or even ‘guardian angels’ etc. This vocabulary is needed for these who fully accept the existence of such subtle beings. It makes it possible speak of living beings in their various forms:  physical, subtle, or both together.

 

We must however be constantly aware that spirituality, as it is now defined, has been giving birth to hosts of naïve shams and dangerous swindlers! Those who fight for restoring the truth, though they often uselessly employ insulting words, should be respected for their sanitizing job.

 

To indicate the manifestations of the physical brain, we will use the words ‘intellect’ or ‘reasoning’ for thoughts stated in words or writing, of ‘visualizations’ for thoughts stated in pictures, of ‘physical feelings’ for thoughts stated as a bodily answers. We will not need here to touch sounds and smells although there obviously exist ‘subtle sounds’ and ‘subtle smells’. To name the subtle demonstrations of the body, brain included, we will call them ‘subtle feelings’ in order to make the difference between them and any physical feelings such as hunger, breathlessness, sexuality etc. It is obvious that our physical feelings are much stronger than the subtle ones (they are more subtle). This is why many challenge the existence of the subtle feelings: they ask for much work, and a lot of forbearance as well, before we become able to make the difference between a subtle feeling and a simple “weak physical feeling.’

 

There are still many words that indicate abstract qualities like ‘thought’, ‘ethics’, ’strength and weakness’, ‘intelligence, understanding, and stupidity’, ‘endurance and brittleness’, ‘joy and sorrow’, ‘scorn and esteem’ etc. that we will use with their usual meaning. Only when these qualities relate to nothing but a subtle being, shall we will qualify them as such.

 

 

4. Opposition between internal assessment and worth’ and external assessment and worth’ (1)

 

First of all, let us notice how often aged persons are said to be ‘unpleasant’ because they no longer care external assessment and clearly state their reproaches or their annoyance. They become aware that courtesy does not longer mean something for a being affected by death. This ultimate burst will not bring much to them but it illustrates how heavy social hypocrisy may feel.

 

Pedagogy knows well the difference between students’ internal motivation mainly motivated their greed for learning, and their external motivation, based on the desire to avoid punishments and to receive rewards. In first analysis, the difference between self-assessment and external assessment (assessments of worth will be understood in the following) is similar to the one for learning. These who devote themselves to self-assessment use internal criteria of evaluation, those who devote to external assessment use criteria based on what they believe to be the others’ evaluation. It is however necessary to take into account two complications that upset this simple scheme.

The first complication is that many criteria of external evaluation become unconscious because they were acquired during childhood and youth: They are believed to be internal criteria.

A simple example is that of the codes of proper eating behavior. The child to whom these rules will have been taught with patience and love may look at them as natural and pertaining to his personal set of evaluation criteria. If he/she rebels against these criteria during his/her teen-age, the opposite rules are nothing but a mirror of the original ones, and rejection or acceptance of family rules is, in both cases, based on a family external assessment.

The second complication is that the external criteria of evaluation are not always explicitly provided to the person. It can take years to him/her to become conscious of this.

As an example of the kind: ‘ignored negative assessment’, a polite external behavior may hide some scorn that stays unknown to the subject. Exaggerated pity and compassion are obvious illustrations of this case. Ostentatious compassion is typical of a hidden scorn. For example, pity for handicapped persons, which actually strongly irritates them when they are aware of it, is typical of hidden contempt which is not so easy to spot in many other cases. This scorning compassion is even counter-exemplified in Hávamál stanza 71 where the god Óðinn (Odin) implicitly recommends respect instead of compassion to handicapped people, because their handicap can shape them as being particularly useful in some situations.

Another example, now of the kind ‘ignored positive assessment’, an aggressive external assessment can hide esteem felt as humiliating by the aggressive one. This case is obviously illustrated by the never-ending aggressions that ‘gifted ones’ bear from ‘under-gifted ones’.

 

5. Opposition between internal assessment and worth’ and external assessment and worth’ (2)

 

A useful exercise of sincerity consists in raising the question to know if  some of our actions are caused by our need to ‘be’ ourselves or by our need to ‘seem to be’ in front of others. We notice without difficulty how much other persons posture in front of an external assessment and this leads us into believing that it is easy for us to spot our own posturing in such a case. We have however just seen how social life, since our earliest childhood, conditions us to reacting to external assessment. Adolescence is, to some extent, the only period of life during which we systematically object to external assessment it. This takes place however, with such anger that the teenagers are generally unconscious of their motivations and they hide their externally acquired behaviors under layers of their angry need to internally self-control. All this external assessed behavior acquired during early childhood becomes thus unconscious after teen-age crisis, might it appear under the form of a rejection or the form of an acceptance. Thus, our capacity to differentiate our internal from our external acquired behavior, how much sincere we might be, can collapse without us being aware of it.

We are thus wedged between an acknowledged socially-based behavior and an unconscious one, which leaves a minimal place to the internally based behavior, which can even disappear if we do not deal carefully enough with this problem.

 

In any case, when we hesitate in our self-evaluation by questioning if it is of real internal origin, it is essential to avoid too harsh judgements. It often happens besides that our social functions force some to us stick to external assessment For example, a teacher can hardly wear too eccentric clothes, be them too relaxed or too stylish, because both are a potential source of tumult. In such a case, a form of enduring acquiescence towards the social obligation is the only possible solution. In order to ‘endure’ it, it is judicious to add some humor to this ‘endurance’ in order to lower its painfulness.

 

 

As a conclusion, self-evaluation should not be practiced too sternly. It is harmful to feel guilty of an externally-based behavior that has been imposed to us. It happens however that some people stick eagerly to the social game and they forget internally rebelling against it. In this case, becoming old, they will not be able to find a meaning nor to their life, nor to their death. An accumulation of such seemingly trifling errors will prevent aging persons to reconcile with their past and may cause failing the “self-examination” necessary to a peaceful death.

 

 

6. Opposition between internal assessment and worth’ and external assessment and worth’ (3)

How all this theory can be handled in practice?

 

I confess being human, how could I not agree?

Between internal and external assessment,

Runs a lengthy, narrow and blurry path:

A lifetime may disentangle all these knots

Before brute death slits them into nothingness.

 

I have the feeling that, for many people, the difference internal and external assessment is not really significant nor useful. I understand that the link between these two behaviors and giving a meaning to life and death is not so obvious. The difference between the two is an everyday fact of life. These last is somewhat trivial, let us nevertheless come back to it by looking at the differences between the two kinds of life, one devoted to external only, vs one devoted to internal assessment only.

 

At first consider people exclusively living by the rules of external assessment. They give all their attention to the way others judge them. They alienate their personal freedom, they act and react exclusively according to what they believe to be perceived by the other ones, being understood that they can, moreover, be mistaken in their belief. In addition, other people  reactions to each one of our actions are not easily predictable. In other words, their life will never show any coherency. This feature defines a meaningless life.

Consider now people exclusively living by the rules of internal assessment. They are unaware of the judgement of others ones. Either they live as hermits and have thus cut all bonds with society, or they are sick persons indifferent to their social environment, for example persons affected by Alzheimer disease. The famous symptoms of this disease show well that ignoring our social environment makes us erratic and prevents us, hermits excepted, also to give some coherency to our lives, it makes our lives meaningless.

 

This why “a lengthy, narrow and blurry path runs between internal and external assessment.” We thus have to find a balance, certainly different for each of us, in order to have a life that is not torn between contradictory positions, i.e. before giving a “meaning to our lives,” let’s us know what is its “meaning” for us.

In addition, concerning our balance between life and death, the result of any externa           l assessment is a help to forget death, as indeed most people wish to do. Conversely, the thesis that we support here is that we can escape this serious problem by considering with humor the situations where we are forced to taking account an external assessment, while concentrating our efforts on the recognition our internal one. This helps us accept death.

 

All that explains why it is so important to differentiate the two options, it does not say this task is easy. This is still accentuated, in our society, by the social compulsion for courtesy or compassion to be displayed (or even  shown off) in front of any kind of handicapped person. Jean de la Fontaine’s fable “the Miller, his son, and the donkey,”  shows that 17th century people did not refrain to loudly express their reprobation for any behavior they considered strange. Each one was then brutally confronted with their external assessment and could not ignore it. The nature of blaming has deeply changed today.  The first example of the fable, in which they carry the donkey on their back, would lead them directly to a psychiatric hospital. Thus, you cannot hope that your friends - even more so your close friends - to warn you when they consider that your behavior generates external assessments that goes out of limit, and this is even more impossible for everyday small deviations from the norm. What seems to be nowadays everyone’s solution is the miller’s conclusion (although very few overtly agree on that):

“I am a donkey, I agree on it, I acknowledge it;

From now on I may be either blamed or praised,

Something might be or said or not,

I want no other leadership than mine.” He did so, and did it well.

 

On the other hand, this fable illustrates perfectly well that anyone is splendidly equipped to produce an external assessment. Thus, the solution to become conscious of the influence of external assessment on the self is to practice assessing other people in order to detect the signs that feature a person behaving under external assessment. Recognizing these signs in ourselves may ask for some courage though it does not seem an unmanageable task.

 

Refusing to endeavor this effort of conscience amounts to give up giving a meaning to our life! It is similar to preferring to temporarily forget death rather than working at accepting it.

Just consider that this “temporary” will probably last until death knocks on the door.

 

The only true difficulty to overcome is avoiding to stay ‘locked inside’ when trying to recognize what constitutes our own “really deep being” as purely defined by our internal assessment . We the need to have a ‘generous’ look at the other ones. The type of generosity needed here is the one by which we try to find in what the evaluated person is superior to us, instead of the usual deprecatory evaluation. The other one’s inferiorities will be easily observed, just concentrate of his/her superiorities.

 

In the final analysis, this “generous assessment” of others is the most difficult part of our program for finding our life’s meaning.  In the following, we will come back at length on this somewhat unusual kind of generosity. In addition, age is not very relevant to the amount of difficulty met. Young and old people have their own difficulties in performing such a generous assessment.

 

Now, I indulge in a small runic wink. Who knows of the runes will recognize here rune Raido (rune of a travel towards another one) that encompasses the faculty to meet others with our generosity. Rune Kaunan (or Anglo-Saxon Kenaz) is the one of our inside fire, pessimistically called an “ulcer” by Germanic peoples, i.e. the one driving our internal assessment.

 

You find an English version of this fable at :

http://www.la-fontaine-ch-thierry.net/threemillerfrogs.htm