Posted On 10 Jul 2011
Why is there nothing to gain in order to live well?
For about a decade before I retired as a professor I had at least one course each semester in which I taught the chief ideas from the Buddhist tradition to undergraduates.
Initially, only because these ideas are so radical to the western mind, I was skeptical that I would have any success at all. I needn’t have worried.
From the very first semester, students were able to understand them–at least intellectually.
Believing them was another matter entirely. There were two ideas in particular that were extremely difficult for any student actually to accept.
One critical question: How could anyone believe that there is nothing to gain in order to live well? Even if it is possible to think of living well, of enjoying life without suffering, what sense does it make to think that anyone is able to achieve such an exalted condition without adding something to one’s present condition?
The other critical question: How could anyone believe that there is no separate self? Doesn’t just having any beliefs whatsoever require a believing self?
The answers to these two concerns are intimately related.
I now think that the root of the problem concerns identification. If I ask you, “Who are you?” it’s nearly certain that your answer will reveal your identification with your autobiography, the story of your life, the narrative of your experiences.
In a minor or peripheral sense, that is who you are. For the most part, those events happened. You are the protagonist of your own story.
However, that story is not central to who you are. What you have done or experienced is only peripheral to your identity.
If so, the central problem here comes from identifying completely with just a small part of what you are.
Notice that, in terms of your story, there’s always something more to be added. Your story isn’t finished; there’s more to come. Even if it has been a relatively good story (as mine has been), it’s incomplete. In that sense, it’s unsatisfying.
How could there be nothing to gain if there is more to come? How could that be true as long as one is alive?
It’s not that there’s nothing to gain at all; it’s that there is nothing to gain that is critically important to living well. Lots of things are relatively important, but there is nothing to gain that is of ultimate importance.
Why? How can that be?
It’s because, although what you do is relatively important, only what you are is of ultimate importance. Being trumps doing.
There will always be more to do. However, you already are what you are. Therefore, there is nothing to gain to be what you are, which is what is of ultimate importance. The fullness of the present moment is sufficient for living well.
Since they inherently involve classifying, words and concepts are always inadequate when it comes to these topics. The central idea, however, is simple: what you are is not separate from the totality of what-is.
To identify with your story is only to identify with your separateness, that part of you that distinguishes you from the whole of being. Separateness is the root of suffering.
What really matters is your identity with the totality of what-is. That is the divinity within you.
You are that already. You always have been that. You could never lose that.
That’s why there’s nothing to gain that is critical. All that is required is realizing what you already are. It’s a matter of uncovering what is already real rather than a matter of gaining something more.
That’s why you do not have to keep waiting for Godot. You do not have to wait for health, or a great love affair, or immense wealth, or a happy family, or a wonderful place to live or whatever else it is you think you need to live well. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with getting whatever you desire–it’s just that it won’t complete your story or enable you to live well.
Until you gain more experience getting what you want, you probably won’t believe that. As long, say, as you are broke, you will probably believe that becoming wealthy will solve all your problems: if only I had money [or whatever], then I would live well. My students couldn’t help thinking that way. Of course, they were young and suffering.
When, though, has anything you have ever gained permanently elevated the central quality of your life?
That’s not the way life works. Instead of incessantly focusing on what you lack, the better strategy is to focus frequently on what you already are.
To avoid wasting life, avoid all the if only type of thinking. All that is required to do that is to understand that there’s nothing to gain.
There’s nothing to gain because you already are everything needed to live well (even if you haven’t yet realized that).
As Emerson wrote: “The day of days, the great day of the feast of life, is that in which the inward eye opens to the Unity in things . . . It is not in us so much as we are in it.”
May you have that day before you die.