Colleges are filled with people seeking a better life. Who outside college wouldn’t like a better life?
It begins with dissatisfaction: why would you look for anything unless you thought it was missing?
What is it that people really looking for?
They’ll tell you it’s a well-paying career, a good love affair, a happy family, or a little piece of fame. Though they may think that that’s what they are looking for, those are superficial goals.
What’s behind them is a desire for a better life that will create the satisfaction that comes from a live well-lived. Why, for example, would you want to raise happy children if you didn’t want the satisfaction that comes from doing that successfully?
There are two fundamentally different kinds of seeking.
There’s no standard terminology here. Let’s call the most common one the way of (I) seeking understanding and the less common one the way of (II) seeking insight.
After clarifying what these are, I mention the most common mistake regarding them.
(I) Understanding is conceptualizing (classifying, sorting, categorizing, labeling, separating). To understand what-is is to conceptualize it correctly. If you think what I’m sitting on is a chair, you understand; if you think what I’m sitting on is an elephant, you misunderstand. Concepts like chair or elephant are principles for classifying objects. So understanding is conceptual (discursive, classificatory) thinking.
To some degree or other, we all do it simply to function in Becoming.
The method of understanding comes from noticing relevant similarities and differences. Coming to understand a new object (thing, form) involves relating it to previously understood objects by paying attention to how it is like and how it is unlike them.
This kind of seeking is dominant in the western philosophic tradition. Plato’s Socrates is the paradigmatic western philosopher. He engaged in the “dialectic” or give-and-take of argumentation that is inseparable from thinking hard about relevant analogies.
Developing fundamental understanding requires persistence as well as rigorous intellectual effort. It’s an active process that requires hard intellectual work. It’s always a gradual process.
It always proceeds on the basis of the logic of noncontradiction [where ‘F’ stands for some concept, an object cannot simultaneously be both F and not F] and the identity principle that an object is what it is and cannot simultaneously be another object.
I believe it’s much better to have fundamental understanding than to be confused.
The problems with respect to this method come from the fact that it is limited to the domain of Becoming. For example, since Becoming is in incessant flux, the task of understanding or theorizing is endless. Furthermore, it cannot yield the most important kind of ethical knowledge [though explaining this here would take us too far afield].
(II) Insight requires letting go of all understanding; it’s impossible to think your way to insight. “Insight” is the nonconceptual apprehension of what-is. Whereas conceptual apprehension is indirect because it proceeds using concepts, insight is direct apprehension.
If so, obviously it cannot be explained using concepts or language! Words and concepts are denizens of Becoming.
It can, of course, be contrasted to understanding. Whereas understanding is active, insight is passive. Unlike improving understanding, it’s impossible to attain insight by thinking harder. Whereas understanding is limited by the logic of noncontradiction and the identity principle, insight isn’t. (Zen koans are the most notorious examples of this.) Whereas understanding is achieved gradually, insight is often achieved suddenly in a kind of mental cataclysm. Whereas understanding involves gaining, insight involves losing, in other words, letting go of all concepts. Whereas functioning in Becoming is impossible without some understanding, functioning in Becoming is possible without any insight.
Such contrasts, though, are useful for clarifying what insight is not rather than for clarifying what it is.
Insight is conceptually unintelligible or indescribable.
The reason for this, however, is perfectly intelligible: unity cannot be conceptualized. As soon as anything is conceptualized, it is divided (sorted, classified, categorized, labeled). Thinking changes unity into plurality. Plurality can be thought and understood, but unity cannot be thought or understood.
Unity is logically more fundamental than plurality. Without unity, there would be nothing to be plural; there could be no multiplicity. If we take unity to be Being, this is why sages often say that Becoming comes from Being, that the “essence” or whatness of all forms is the formless. [This is the heart of a “nonsubstance” ontology that I have considered elsewhere.] Being is often said to be “empty.”
Both understanding and insight have their own kinds of wisdom. Sages may have great insight without even being literate. Great thinkers may lack direct awareness of Being.
The greatest philosophers (lovers of wisdom) have both kinds of wisdom. The greatest philosopher was the Buddha, who was a master dialectician as well as someone intimately familiar with Being.
If so, what’s the most common mistake?
It is neglect of Being. Even despite occasional spontaneous direct apprehensions of it, most people proceed as if they were nothing but slaves to Becoming.
For example, most people seem to fear being dead. (I don’t mean fear of dying a painful death, which is a fear of pain; distinguish being dead from dying.) Why?
They fail to identify themselves as Being. They typically only identify with some form or set of forms: their bodies, their experiences, their thoughts, their emotions, their stories, their kinsmen, and so on. This is a tragic mistake.
Each of us is infinitely valuable. Each of us is sacred. Each of us is Being. None of us is separated from the whole. None of us is only an item in Becoming. (This is why sages do not suffer from loneliness, greediness, or other emotional afflictions of separation.)
Being is deathless and timeless. Our forms are temporal, but our essence is not. Hence, fear of being dead is irrational because it mistakenly assumes that we are not what we are.
There is much more to be said here, but this may be a sufficient example. “Being blindness” can only be cured by insight into Being. It’s not a matter of thinking more; it’s a matter of directly realizing what already is.
Here’s a secret: it is impossible to realize Being and continue to suffer.
(Please don’t confuse pain with suffering. As living bodies, we experience pain, which seems – at least occasionally – inevitable. Suffering, though, is wholly optional.)
Seekers suffer or they wouldn’t be seekers. Realizing Being is the end of seeking. Fully realizing Being entails the abolition of suffering.
By all means, improve your understanding. However, given that you already have enough understanding to function in Becoming, what is critical is opening up to Being.
In other words, most people should focus much more on Being rather than on Becoming, on insight rather than on understanding. Sadly, it’s the opposite.
You already have everything you need not to suffer. There is no need to spend life seeking for something you presently lack. Since all forms are impermanent, no forms can yield permanent freedom from suffering.
Dropping your habitual, incessant conceptualizing for one moment is sufficient to grasp that truth directly. Nothing else is needed to live well. Nothing!
Living well is living with a balance between Being and Becoming, which means experiencing forms from the standpoint of formlessness. Forms, objects in Becoming, cannot be experienced until Being is realized.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please forward it.
RECOMMENDED RESOURCE: Eckhart Tolle’s “Through the Open Door” (2 CD set).