Life is Great, But Don't Take My Word For It
Painting by Caravaggio depicting the moment when the resurrected Jesus reveals himself.
The great masters have consistently told us that there is an end to suffering and that the world is designed in such a way that it continually orients itself to maximize each one of our lives to its individual best. Maybe because most of us don't recognize this truth in our own lives, we ignore this insight. Among many it is almost considered a joke or the falsity of this claim as proof that there is no god. We don't believe it to be true because this is not our experience. I think we could say that the consensus opinion is that life isn't great at all. Quite the contrary. Most would probably say that life is filled far more with suffering than joy. Yet over and over again the wisest humans to have ever lived reach this same conclusion. Why would so many great thinkers from such diverse times and places all arrive at the same conclusion if it weren't true? Let's take a look at what they said so we can judge for ourselves.
Buddha’s Four Noble Truths are one of the more famous examples of this. The First Noble Truth states that suffering (or unsatisfactoriness to be more precise) is a defining characteristic of this existence of ours. So it acknowledges what most of us perceive: life kind of sucks. Most of us stop there and never get to the second truth, which states that the cause of suffering is attachment or craving or resistance to what is happening to us in the world. Good or bad, if we are attached to it or wanting it or resisting it, this will cause us suffering. The Third Noble truth is that suffering can end, that there is a method that allows a human being to escape the resisting, the holding and the wanting. The Fourth Noble Truth is this method, and it includes following the Noble Eightfold Path, restraining one's self, cultivating discipline, and practicing mindfulness and meditation.
So Buddha for one is saying that life can be great. But Buddha is not alone in this conclusion. We can go to the famous Hindu Scripture, The Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna tells us that "Through devotion to [Krishna and the practice of tranquility of self] ... one reaches through my grace an imperishable, unchanging home... Take me alone as your place of rest, and do not grieve, because I will free you from all evils."
Sounds fantastic! Freedom from all evils is quite a strong statement but there it is, just like the Buddha's claim that suffering can end.
But they are not alone in this promise. We can move to the New Testament where we read passages like this one from the Gospel of Luke: "
Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, [Jesus] answered them and said, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or, 'There it is!' For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.””
Or in the Gospel of Thomas where Jesus says that "the Kingdom is within you and it is outside of you." He couldn't be more clear. Heaven isn't some place we go when we die. This notion, at least according to the words of Jesus that have been passed down to us, is a misunderstanding of the profound truth that the "kingdom of God" is available to each of us right here, right now.
Before the meaning of Jesus' words become lost in the development of the church as an institution, we see a similar idea expressed in the timeless words of St. Paul,
"Christ has set us free to enjoy our freedom. So remain strong in the faith. Don’t let the chains of slavery hold you again... My brothers and sisters, you were chosen to be free. But don’t use your freedom as an excuse to live under the power of sin. Instead, serve one another in love... So I say, live by the Holy Spirit’s power....the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness."
Caravaggio painting depicting the conversion of St. Paul
St. Paul is telling us that we are free. We are free to enslave ourselves just as much as we are free to enjoy the fruits of the spirit that our freedom brings us. These "fruits" St. Paul describes as what it is like to live in the Kingdom of God: we get to experience a life filled with "love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfullness." According to Paul, Christ has already freed us and it is up to us to have faith in this fact and use that freedom to harvest these fruits of the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, he notes we also have the power to use our freedom to suffer. It may not be conscious but we are nevertheless making a choice about the life that we want to have.
It doesn't look like we have this choice, like the world is perfect, or like the fruits of the spirit are available to us anytime because we are using the wrong faculties to perceive the perfection.
In the words of Ancient Egyptian Hermetic texts we read that "You will only experience this supreme vision when you stop talking about it, for this knowledge is deep silence and tranquillity of the senses." When we use our senses and our emotions and thoughts as our measure of reality we can't experience truth. For example, we mistake a push in the right direction as a frustration of our near sighted and self-defined goals.
It appears that the key is to develop our mind in such a way that we can anchor our experience of reality in "deep silence and the tranquillity of the senses" and the fruit of this shift in identity will be all the good stuff St. Paul mentions ("love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness"). Every tradition has their own version of being still but they include the familiar prayer, meditation and contemplation.
In the words of the great Islamic mystic, Jalaluddin Rumi:
“Do you know what you are? You are a manuscript oƒ a divine letter. You are a mirror reflecting a noble face. This universe is not outside of you. Look inside yourself; everything that you want, you are already that.”
Or of the Hebrew Bible's beautiful Psalm 23:
"The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the stillwaters."
So here we have reviewed words of wisdom from Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Ancient Egyptian Hermeticism, Judaism and Islam. And we could go on to include more wise masters from these same or any other spiritual tradition I am aware of. In every case, they all tell us the same thing: Life is great, everything we want, we already have within us. All we have to do is be still and these fruits, this freedom from evil or suffering, will manifest.
My strategy is to assume that I am not smarter than all these extraordinary wisdom masters. Rather, I am going to assume that they are right, that they weren't all lying to us, and any variance to that in my experience of reality is my own doing or misperception. And then take it from there. This is a core principle underlying the Serena guided meditations.
I'll be sure to let you know how following this strategy works out but so far the effects have been extraordinary.