“The highest excellence is like (that of) water. The excellence of water appears in its benefiting all things, and in its occupying, without striving (to the contrary), the low place which all men dislike. Hence (its way) is near to (that of) the Dao.” – Lao Tzu
Some people are surprised to discover I am an avid fan of traditional Taoist and Buddhist teachings. This bewilderment derives from the misconception that Taoism and Buddhism are necessarily organized religions.
While it’s true both philosophies have been widely institutionalized (and, I believe, abused), it is not in these aspects of the doctrines where I have found the most peace; my fascination has come from the more individualistic aspects found in their origins — dating back thousands of years. If you go to these sources, you discover no religious underpinnings at all — the early proponents decried organizational submission to the disciplines. They pushed heavily for decentralization and simplicity — suggesting to — rather than demanding from or coercing — their adherents. This simplicity essentially boiled down to a single universal practice: surrendering to the indomitable direction of the universe.
Being an agnostic-atheist does not mean I am resistant to the idea that many aspects of our universe have yet to be understood — or even discovered — by science. This is a trap that positivists fall into — that is to say, if science can’t prove it, it has no meaning. To me, such attitudes result in vast, irresponsible wastes of exploratory energy and imagination. How much of human progress can we attribute to the seemingly impossible hypotheses by geniuses like Newton and Einstein? Where would we be if they had not dared to dream?
This is the rigidity many scientists are constrained by today. While I can give some credence to the idea we should stay within the confines of falsifiability (to a large degree), I am terrified by the proposition we should ignore avenues which might seem outlandish in the moment — but could very well lead to incomprehensible discoveries later… when science is ready. Do we really want to foster an environment in which the dreamers give up — simply because the more traditional and inflexible among us say “it can’t be done?”
I pursue everything in my life from the locus of rational scrutiny. I am an ardent critic of all things pseudoscientific (UPDATE: link), and I am equally reviled by every organized religion I have ever encountered. But in my mind, the impetus behind science is to discover the unknown. There are so many inexplicable subjective experiences firing in my psyche at every moment of my life that I really have no choice but to submit to the mystery of it all. I realize if I want to maintain honesty and integrity in my pursuit of the truth, I have no choice but to explore the realm of what most people call spirituality (although I do so abhor that word).
As such, I refuse to be so uncompromising as to deny the conceivable potency of the inscrutable. This is the foundation of acceptance and clarity — two of the most necessary ingredients in science. I have spent many years nose-deep in everything from the formal texts of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism, to more modern “self-help” and “new age” publications and films. I have struggled with the absurdity and irrationality of all of them, and I tend not to go back down those paths very often anymore. It has, however, been interesting — and if nothing else, I gained perspectives I now consider to be antithetical to human progress. That familiarity serves me well… for so many reasons.
But the journey also introduced me to Taoism, and later Buddhism, and I have never been able to dismiss them. I think this is because they are passive in their manifestation — that is, they don’t implement agendas by demanding, coercing, or punishing. Instead,they offer peaceful, suggestive thoughts that guide and inform, rather than dictate.
Ultimately, for me, their efficacy comes from the simple feeling I get when I consider them, because the most compelling theme is also their most recurrent: simply to let go.
I will not delve deeply into this abstraction; another reason I am so attracted to these epistemologies is their brevity and restraint. It is something akin to the “don’t tell me, show me” mandate; their might doesn’t come from the telling, so much as it does from the doing. And so I have found serenity in simply surrendering to the universe — and it really is just about that simple.
If you think about it, why should it be? The universe is a strange, mysterious, and possibly infinitely large… thing. What we know about it is almost certainly insignificant compared to what we don’t know about it. It contains everything from supernovae to (a little closer to home) hurricanes. If there’s anything you can say with certainty about this universe, it’s that it is more powerful than any (or all) of us. Why wouldn’t we try to live in harmony with it?
When I was younger, I drove like most young people: fast. I had places to be, and I needed to be in these places as soon as possible. I can’t tell you why there was such urgency, but there was.
The people who got out of my way did so because they must have known how important my mission was. And the people who didn’t get out of my way? God help them. They became the recipients of rude gestures and filthy insults. It didn’t matter that they couldn’t hear the insults. They could see them. And that was enough. I had taught them the lesson they so desperately needed to learn. Because I was right. And, apparently, late.
Today, I get on the freeway, scan my surroundings for the slowest vehicle, and get behind it. I lean back, put both hands on the steering wheel, relax, and resign myself to get to my destination as slowly and safely as possible. That’s the way my whole life is now. And it’s nice. I don’t need to do anything. I simply take care of the people I love, and I do the best I can.
This doesn’t mean I’ve stopped thinking, or dreaming, or working (or eating or breathing). That would be absurd. But I approach these things now in a different way.
The universe is 13.7 billion years old. To understand the magnitude of that number, think about one year. Then think about ten years. Then think about 100 years. 1000 years. 10,000 years… 100,000 years. We haven’t even scratched the surface…. 1 million years. 10 million years. 100 million years. 1 billion years. Now multiply that times 13.
Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is about 110,000 light-years wide. That means, traveling the speed of light (186,000 miles per second), you would cross our galaxy in 110,000 years. You’d be dead for about 109,950 of those years. But you’d be across.
The Milky Way has an estimated 100 billion planets, and as many as 400 billion stars.
Estimates suggest there are up to 200 billion galaxies in our universe. In other words, multiply our Milky Way galaxy (see above) times 200 billion.
I don’t have an answer for the meaning of life. But these days, I don’t really need one. I have a checkered past — as all of us do. But I don’t live there. I have an uncertain future, but I don’t live there either. I just take what the universe has for me, and I go with it. Because if there’s anything I understand now, it’s my relative insignificance in space and time. What’s the rush? What’s the fight about?
What is so important…?