If I think about all the attention and time I’ve spent on deliberate self-improvement over the years, almost all of it surrounds the reining-in of some very basic human inclinations — like eating, overthinking, avoiding pain, clinging to altered states, chasing “enough” — in order to avoid its nasty side-effects.
I don’t think I am especially prone to any of these human pitfalls, but they’ve done a number on me — and the people around me, through me.
Eating, for example, does keeps us alive, but it can get out of control rather easily, even threaten our lives. Thinking is indispensable, but it easily reaches snowball-velocity, leaving us restless or sleepless. Avoiding pain is sensible too, but looking back at my life there’s probably nothing that’s caused me more pain than my preoccupation with avoiding pain.
We can handily dismiss these dysfunctions as the effects of modern society: over-stimulation, consumerism, something in the water, the kids today, or too much television, and often we do. But I find it hard to believe there was ever a time when human beings weren’t constantly running afoul of their own basic human traits.
As human beings we’re each in the pilot seat of an incredibly powerful (and incredibly dangerous!) vehicle. How do we manage our abilities and inclinations without letting them run us — or others — through the ringer?
The “human condition” is a relatively new phrase, but the concept is ancient. All people are subject to a host of powerful influences on their poor little minds, no matter what social setting they come from. There are too many to name and they can be hard to articulate, but prominent among them are the need for a purpose, the need for affection, the need for security, anxiety about death, persistent curiosity, restlessness, idealism, and the lust for ego gratification.
These forces drive people to do anything and everything humans do: volunteer for churches, bulldoze forests, enlist in the army, talk to oneself, read philosophy books, gamble, gossip about celebrities, hug friends and family, spend a year in an ashram, hunt animals to extinction, save for a boat, commit suicide, write blog posts, hoard socks and underwear, steal the neighbor’s WiFi, burn ants with a magnifying glass, collect coins, drill for oil, tend gardens, run for office, avoid eye contact on the sidewalk, attend Klan rallies, buy oceanfront property, raise large families, or head off into the Alaskan wilderness with a 22 rifle and a bag of rice.
These drives make the human world go round, and they inevitably create conflict within individuals and between individuals. These conflicts always cause some level of suffering, from the hint of angst you feel when you don’t make a green light, to war.
Another facet of the human condition is that we tend to rationalize the pursuit of our own drives, while decrying others for theirs, if they happen to oppose each other. With all these forces pushing in different directions, and given that they are seldom recognized as the ceaseless, arbitrary desires they are, we can be led to cause enormous harm just by doing what comes naturally to us.
Humans are inclined to do a lot of things that cause harm, even if we don’t mean to do it, or understand why we do it. This isn’t news. It’s not as if nobody’s recognized this problem or attempted to address it.
Religion started with something unreligious
When I was a teenager I was a rabid atheist. Religion seemed to me to embody the most destructive of these motives: self-deception, self-absorption, materialism, denial, wishful thinking and dogma.
I don’t call myself an atheist anymore, because I feel like it implies that there are essentially only two positions on the matter. God, or no. Theist or atheist. God is a concept and everyone’s got a different one, and I no longer see any need to take a stance on what someone else has come up with. I’ve just tossed the whole believer/non-believer dichotomy in the garbage where I think it belongs.
This has let me open up to the notion that even the most asinine of today’s incarnations of the great religions are descended (distantly) from sensible sets of practices for addressing the human condition. The afflictions it causes — greed, violence, ignorance, materialism and suffering — have never been anything but prominent in the human experience, and so it’s natural that people would want to figure out how to uh… tackle that one.
I don’t think it’s too big a stretch, even to the most militant atheist, to guess that religion began as those earnest attempts to mitigate whatever it is in human beings that is so damn dangerous. But one look at Tammy Faye Bakker or Osama Bin Laden might suggest that different people’s takes on religion are each bastardized, to varying degrees, by exactly the human dysfunctions their religions were meant to address.
The baby and the bathwater
It’s clear to me now that today’s religions, before they became institutions, before they became religions, were practical methodologies for living in such a way that the human condition does not take us over and drive us to cause harm.
Spiritual traditions, if I can still use that muddled term to refer to practices before they went awry and became religions, seem uniformly determined to address the human problem from its source: the subject. What’s so crucial to understand is the conscious being at the center of it all, which could only ever be you — that’s the point of contact at which the human condition can actually be addressed. You.
These traditions were not really concerned with the condition of the objects the subject is conscious of — the situations, stories, rituals, behaviors, personalities and other forms that make up the physical detail of life. Spirituality, from its inception, has been concerned with looking at the subject, the experiencer of all this stuff.
Religion, at least today, is mostly preoccupied with forms and objects, the words and deeds, the proper and improper, which leaves its followers only conceptually aware of the formless, subjective qualities it is supposed to examine. It’s a map, unaware that it is not the territory, or that there is even a difference. Myths have value because they illustrate truths, but that value is lost when they aren’t recognized as illustrations, but as truths themselves. This is where mainstream religion is stuck today.
In particular, God has been rendered in popular religion as a form, a character with specific words and deeds attributed to him. He’s even been assigned, bizarrely, a gender. God has been made into another object — to be coveted, sought and feared by the subject. No wonder it’s so confusing. Maybe God was meant to be a quality of the subject, not just an object with super-powers.
When practitioners of spirituality get lost in the objective matters: the names, dates, historical events, verbal doctrines and objective details that make up scriptures, you get a religion. Does it matter whether Jesus was named Jesus, or Fred — or whether he existed at all as a historical figure — if you don’t understand what he was getting at?
But scripture-as-truth-itself is the status quo in the modern religious world, and so it cannot deliver what it promises: a workable answer to the human condition.
Getting the objective bits right is the realm of science, so it’s no wonder science-minded people are so overwhelmingly dismissive of religion as we know it. Religion is trying to do the same thing as science — create a coherent model of the universe, with which to improve our quality of life — but unlike science it isn’t able to be honest about what it finds, because its object-oriented approach can never deliver its subject-oriented promises: the realization of peace and the end of suffering.
So with that tepid bathwater, out goes the baby — religion’s subject-oriented, object-neutral parent, spirituality.
What are these practices meant to practice, exactly?
Buddhism seems to be relatively uncorrupted by the worst of the political forces that mutated the other great religions. Although it can still get convoluted, and has its bouts with dogma, it retains at its core a well-defined premise and a workable set of practices.
I’m not saying it’s the true religion, or the best religion. In fact, I’d argue that its usefulness stops where its religiousness starts. But it does give us a glimpse of the workability of a spiritual practice when the practitioner doesn’t lose sight of the reason for the practice in the first place.
The other great religions are so mired in politics, historical conflicts and social hierarchies by now that their usefulness for addressing the human condition is drowned out by the effects of the condition itself.
I’m no theologian but I suspect not all of the Bible’s 700,000 words are necessary for understanding what it’s getting at. And I also suspect that those 700,000 words are not, by themselves, sufficient for understanding what it’s getting at.
So how do we know wheat from chaff here? Religion has accumulated a lot of verbage, a lot of it apparently self-contradictory, bizarre, cryptic and useless. I think there’s an extremely simple message that it can be reduced to, or at least one that can be used to provide clarity whenever it gets ambiguous.
I am convinced all the great religions began with the same purpose, which is to address the human condition. And they did that with this same essential message:
Learn how to cause the least harm possible.
Know what you do that creates suffering, why you do it, and how you can find another way. And that’s hard to do, for a creature that has such trouble just sitting still. If your religious convictions or spiritual practices do not bring you farther away from the propensity to harm others, it’s safe to say you’re missing the point.
So in your interactions with other people, learn how to cause the least harm possible. In your decisions about what to buy, what industries to reward with your disposable income, what to eat and drink, cause the least harm possible. In your posture, your demeanor, your intentions, your habits, your goals in life, cause the least harm possible.
We have always been resoundingly powerful creatures, and the urgency of addressing humankind’s intrinsic dangerousness was recognized long before we had fossil fuels, industrial-scale production and nuclear weapons. This world and its inhabitants are very delicate, and we haven’t yet developed the grace to keep from breaking things every time we turn around.
If you are human, you are a bull in the china shop. That’s the human condition.
Photo by jenny downing