There is a cycle of pain people fall into.
Disharmony causes confusion. Which causes mental pain. Which causes bad habits. Which causes physical pain. Which causes disharmony. The cycle of pain repeats over and over.
In this cycle, physical pain and mental pain, discomfort and confusion all get blurred together to create a general torpor. A sense that one’s life is not going as it should, that the world is not right, that something needs to be done to “fix” things, but unclear what that is.
The search for the meaning of life, or for God, or for wisdom is just this: a way out of this cycle of pain.
At the root of the cycle of pain is disharmony. Of feeling out of whack.
What is out of whack?
Four aspects or dimensions of life: the personal, the communal, the intellectual and the spiritual.
In other words: autobiography, history, science and myth.
Every person partakes of these four realities. Like pieces in a puzzle, if the four realities don’t mesh harmoniously together within oneself, there is existential anxiety and pain. And emotions that flow out of that: anger, disappointment, disorientation and frustration. When they mesh together harmoniously, there is peace and strength. And emotions that flow out of that: serenity, compassion, equanimity and joy.
The personal is what we are most in touch with. It is the realm of our personal ups and downs. It is the main stories and battles in our lives as we think of them. For me it has to do with my immigrating to America from India when I was 11, my path into and out of academia, my philosophical relation with my father, and so on. The things I think about everyday, which structure how I view my life and its triumphs and challenges.
The communal is the stories and reality told in the broader community. Be it family, city, country or the world as a whole. It is the space of the broader causes and effects within which my personal realm has its place and meaning.
The intellectual or scientific is our attempt to understand the synthesis of the personal and the communal through analysis, discussion, debate, observation – through a focus on understanding.
The spiritual or the mythic is our attempt to understand the synthesis of the personal and the communal through stories, rituals, habits – through a focus on transformation.
Each of these four dimensions are initially in tension with each other. Well, the dimensions themselves aren’t in tension. Our awareness of them is in tension.
The personal takes the egocentric point of view that my life is the center of my life. What happens to others happens to them, but what matters most is what happens to me. That is what I will spend most of my time thinking about. Naturally, this pulls against the communal, which takes the group point of view that an individual’s life is but a part of the broader fabric of human life – a mere drop in the ocean of billions of other people.
The intellectual views the spiritual as a fantasy, as a pre-intellectual mode of cognition. Whereas the spiritual views the intellectual as a mere tool, as a pre-spiritual mode of cognition.
All the struggles and battles we see are but variations of the tensions between these four dimensions of life. Between oneself and others. Or between this group and that group. Or cultural battles between science and religion. Or between religions. Or between nationalists and globalists. Etc.
A person is not just defined by the personal. A person is the synthesis of these four dimensions – of how those four dimensions come together withing a particular body and space of consciousness.
If each person only cared about the personal dimension, we would be worse than many animals, which are also defined by the communal. We fight and argue with each other not because we are selfish as in care only about one’s personal dimension, but because we are making a claim on each other in virtue of our communal dimension.
Most fighting is not a reflection of our selfishness. It is a reflection rather of differing modes of communalness. We fight because we know we are bound up with the other, and yet because we don’t know how to coexist with that other. Coexistence is part of our blood. And it was more simple when it meant just bands of a dozen people in a hunter gatherer group. What it means when that coexistence and sense of community involves thousands, millions, billions of people, and ultimately all people – that is the story of human history.
Religion began as a way to tell that story (or stories) of human history in a way which harmonizes the personal and the communal. But the complexities of that history meant that religions, science and atheism, agnosticism and nihilism are themselves part of the very big picture story any of them want to tell.
No matter how much one wants to tell a matter of fact story of just what happened – “God created Adam and Eve”, “It’s all evolution”, etc. – the telling of that story and that vision itself becomes part of the disagreement and disharmony of our lives and interactions. No one can enter simple and prestine and just get the facts right. We are all sinners in that sense – all struggling with the same sense that, in a certain way, entering the communal conversations means we are but one part of the conversation and don’t see the whole picture.
Live one’s personal life while having the communal in view. Take the communal perspective while remembering that at root the communal is just made of individual persons. Take an intellectual view while realizing that it requires one’s own transformation to better understand. Live the spiritual view while having the humility to express it intellectually so that others with different views can understand.
Be oneself but also be a we. Be the mind while transcending it. Be a we in the midst of a personal life. Be with God while being open to those who don’t experience God as you do.
The four dimensions are aligned only through contradiction and paradox. This and That. Neither This Nor That.
Those who want harmony without paradox remain in disharmony. Those who embrace the tensions of paradox live in harmony.
Embrace the paradox and enter the fifth dimension where the four dimensions merge without being the same.