We saw in last week’s post that the Greeks issued a warning to us 2500 years ago. “Don’t forget your mortality,” they said. “Don’t hide from the inevitability of your own death. If you do, you’ll end up chasing things that cannot sustain you – things that will eat you from the inside out with anxiety, fret, and concern.”
Interestingly, both Jesus and the Buddha taught the same thing. This week we’ll think about the Buddha, next week, Jesus.
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism center on waking up to our own mortality.
Truth 1: Suffering is part of life. Get used to it!
Truth 2: We suffer because we attach to impermanent things as if they were permanent.
Truth 3: You can reduce suffering to the degree you stop attaching that way.
Truth 4: There is a spiritual path that will help you do it.
We are all going to die. We are all going to suffer loss and grief at some point. Our bodies will inevitably fail us. We will eventually lose everything we have.
– Do you like that new car? Give it a few years. It will be old.
– Do you love your family? Give it a few years. You will lose them (either your loved one will die or you will).
– Feel attached to your youthful energy and beauty? Just wait.
As long as we live in this earth, loss is inevitable.
Nevertheless, we human beings share an unconscious instinct to deny this basic and self-evident truth. In fact, we avoid it like the plague! In the same vein as Earnest Becker and the Greeks, the Buddhists teach us that built right into the human heart is a strong incentive to keep our eyes closed to the inevitability of loss, grief, suffering, and mortality.
It turns out that this very avoidance is what causes our deepest suffering. By denying our mortality and the inevitability of loss, we fool ourselves into unconsciously believing that things will last forever. We grieve the loss of our youth because, without thinking it through, we had convinced ourselves that youth would last forever. We suffer when we lose a loved one or the security of a job, because we had fooled ourselves into the visceral belief that we never would.
But, when we move past our illusion; when we are consciously aware of the inevitability of death, aging, and the certain loss of everything, counter-intuitively we actually reduce our suffering.
However, that is no easy thing to do! If it was, everybody would do it. All of our psychological, emotional, economic, and social systems are oriented around not awakening from the illusion of immortality and permanence.
So, we need a spiritual regimen to help us. We need spiritual disciplines to help us overcome our illusion. We need practices: communal practices, contemplative practices, learning practices, and serving practices.
We need practices to enrich our souls, to help us see past the unconscious illusion of immortality that turns out to be the cause of our suffering.
I like those Buddhists!
(And those Greeks
. . . and Earnest Becker.)
Next week: Jesus.