Saturday, January 26, 2008

Towards an Answer 1

It’s All in the Mind

In the preceding ten or so posts I have attempted to come to terms with the problem or rather mystery of suffering. As regards terminology, I suppose I could more correctly say that suffering is a mystery (in the existential sense) that poses the human mind with certain intellectual and moral problems. I have adverted already to many of these problems and to certain theodicies advanced over the centuries by Christians and others to account for the presence of suffering in life. I have also been arguing that the desire (or dream as I have called it in several posts) for perfection has caused many intellectual and moral problems and much mental anguish to human beings over the many centuries they have lived together in civilization.

Each civilization (I count also the many civilizations that have disappeared here) with its particular culture(s) has advanced its own ways of dealing with the problems of evil and of suffering. One major way of dealing with these problems was, of course, through Religion. Before the Major World Religions advanced their specific approaches to the question of suffering, more primitive societies or cultures saw life and what they would have perceived to be their then known universe as being ruled by opposing gods who were constantly at war. These gods had to be propitiated constantly by appropriate sacrifices; oftentimes these sacrifices were human as well as animal or cereal. Then the Chinese, the ancient Egyptians, the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Minoans, the Greeks and the Romans, to name the more well known civilizations, all had their own pantheons of gods who were constantly warring with each other. Because of this continual "godly" struggle, there was suffering in these ancient worlds.

Into these worlds eventually there emerged the great world religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Judaism saw evil as coming into the world through mankind’s disobedience to God’s will – human nature’s desire to rebel against its lord and master – his/her pride, selfishness and greed – in short what the Bible termed “sin.” Christianity and Islam, the two other great monotheistic religions essentially grew out of the Old Testament to go their own specific ways on certain doctrinal matters. Christianity saw “Original Sin” as being the essential reason for suffering and evil in the world. Because of this sin humankind had to earn his/her way in the world through “the sweat of his brow,” a nice tidy metaphor for the necessary evil or suffering which is the result of the sin of disobedience by the first parents Adam and Eve. Christianity brought this myth to its logical conclusion – just as sin had entered the world through the First Adam’s disobedience, it had essentially been conquered by the sacrifice of the Second Adam, namely Jesus Christ. Jesus had by his death redeemed (bought back) humankind from Original Sin. This is a neat and tidy, if not aesthetically beautiful myth spearheaded by St Paul at the foundation of the Christian Church. God the Father had lovingly accepted his Son’s sacrifice for the sins of humanity and Jesus rose from the dead, thereby fundamentally conquering death and bringing to each and every believer the promise of eternal life with him in Paradise. All in all, then, this is the Christian solution for the mystery of evil. It’s all too neat for me, but nevertheless it’s a beautiful myth.

Buddhism advanced a more psychological approach to the question(s) posed by the existence of evil and suffering in the world. This, I believe, is why Buddhism with its many and varied practices of Meditation, each based on the centrality of the human breath and the stilling of the mind, has always been so attractive to Western psychologists and psychiatrists. Also, there are some who argue that Buddhism is more a way of living and being in the world, a sort of philosophy of life and living, than it is a Religion as such. There are a variety of approaches among Buddhists – from those who believe in reincarnation and in the various gods to those whom I will call here agnostic or purely psychological Buddhists.

I believe and feel that Siddartha Gautama, also known as Shakyamuni or the historical Buddha, advanced profound psychological principles whereby to live life and to not alone offer some plausible explanation for evil and suffering, but also to offer a psychological technique for effectively dealing with it in our day-to-day lives – this technique is that of Meditation. Essentially, then, I believe that Siddartha Gautama was one of the first to realise the profound truth that while the problems posed by the mystery of human suffering are very real, they are in another more profound sense, “all in the mind!” It is to this topic of the psychology of belief and to the topics of a philosophy of mind and that most basic of concepts namely consciousness that I wish to discuss in future posts.

Above I have uploaded a picture I took recently in Paris at the Rodin Museum. This is one of Rodin's most famous pieces called "Le Penseur" or "The Thinker!" Perhaps it could also have been called, equally as appropriately and aptly, by the title "The Questioner."

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