“THE GREATEST OF ALL THE ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF 20TH-CENTURY SCIENCE has been the discovery of human ignorance.” Lewis Thomas, Lives of a Cell. “OUR IGNORANCE, OF COURSE, HAS ALWAYS BEEN WITH US, AND ALWAYS WILL BE. What is new is our awareness of it, our awakening to its fathomless dimensions, and it is this, more than anything else, that marks the coming of age of our species.” Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Great Questions

Mark Canter © 2011

It is each person’s responsibility to directly investigate all the hearsay about spirit and truth and enlightenment, in order to discover the reality for oneself. To this end, questions are the builders, not the saboteurs, of a realized faith or life-way. The courage to question demonstrates faith—faith in one’s own process, faith in the hero’s journey.
Of course, not all questions arise from the same depth. I was taught in journalism school that every article should attempt to cover the five W’s and one H: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? But those questions only lead to information—“Just the facts, ma’am.” They are not the great questions, which may lead to wisdom.
Science offers an endless supply of conundrums to solve: Why do cells age? How much of human behavior depends on genes? Of what is dark matter composed? Is there an ultimate elementary particle? Is there intelligent life beyond Earth? Are men from Mars and women from Venus? And on and on—tempting mysteries of biology, cosmology and physics waiting to be unveiled; and, of course, the answers will spawn a new generation of questions, and a new line of beneficial and frightful technologies.
But again, most of these are not the great questions, the perennial questions that have haunted humankind through the ages. Just a century ago, no one had even heard of dark matter, subatomic particles, and so forth.
These questions and their answers don’t reach down to what Zen Buddhists
call kokoro—the heart-mind. Kokoro means all one’s powers of awareness: the bodily senses, intellect, emotional intelligence, intuition. A question that grabs you in your heart-mind gets you where you live.
I asked the psychologist Sam Keen—years ago, when he was writing Hymns to an Unknown God—what he considered to be the great questions. He said they are the very ones that myths and religions address:

·        Who am I?
·        Where did the world and I come from? Where am I going?
·        What is the meaning of my life, my death?
·        What are my gifts? What is my vocation? What may I give my life to? What must I do to die with a sense of completeness?
·        What do I really want? What can I hope for?
·        Who are my heroes? My people?
·        How was I wounded? How can I be healed? How do I forgive?
·        Who have I hurt?
·        How can I help others?
·        What do I fear?
·        What is my shadow?
·        What is evil? Why does evil exist? What is my relationship to evil?
·        What is sacred, inviolable? What is taboo?

That’s Keen’s list, and certainly, it can be added to. Listen to the question the Hindu poet Kabir asks, “Oh tell me: Who have you loved your whole life long?”
 That is a powerful query! It reminds me of a Hasidic tale of a poor woodsman who fell in love with the King’s daughter when he came upon her bathing in a river. He declared his love to her with such passion and sincerity she was moved to tears. “Lover, it is only in the cemetery that I will one day be able to join with you,” she said, meaning that only in death can a princess and a woodsman become equals. Nevertheless, the young man, beside himself with adoration, took her words literally and went to the cemetery to wait for the princess to appear.
Day after day, as he waited, he thought of nothing but his beloved, contemplating her lovely form and qualities. This led him to feel grateful to her ancestors, who had made possible her birth, and to meditate on all the elements that supported her life. His appreciation expanded to include vaster spheres of being that gave life to the woman he loved, until, at last, it seemed to him that the One who was his Beloved was the very universe itself.
“Oh tell me: Who have you loved your whole life long?”
During our childhoods, we rehearse a set of official answers to the great questions that are given to us by our families, in church, in school, the army, the workplace, books and movies. However, what leads us to authentic adulthood is not having memorized the answers, but living with the profound questions.
To be spoon-fed the answers to the great questions betrays the possibility of discovering truth. To illustrate: If I had been raised Catholic and had been made to memorize the catechism on the purpose of life, “The purpose of life is to know, love and serve God,” I might have revolted from that doctrine, just as I did rebel from my own Jewish schooling. But, having lived with the great question, “What is the purpose of my life?” I have come to my answer, my truth; and now I can proclaim that the purpose of my life is—to know, love and serve God.
Yes, that is exactly my life’s purpose, but I found it for myself—and the God I’m talking about won’t fit between the covers of a book, or within the bounds of any belief system—nor even fit inside my own mind.
This is why in the Zen tradition it is said, “Enlightenment cannot be passed from
father to son.” In other words, it cannot be inherited. It cannot be taught. Enlightenment refers to a profound awakening that can only be realized directly and then lived.
To ask the great questions is not optional. There is no way finally to avoid asking them. Sure, we can ignore them for a while—there are many distractions in life. Nevertheless, eventually these questions enforce themselves because they are real. As Sam Keen put it, “I didn’t make them up.”
Old age, disease, death, tragedy, beauty, love, glory, joy; we must be reconciled with our experience. Someone might protest, “I don’t have time for these questions. I’m no philosopher. I’ve got to live my life.” Okay, so live your life—until the world clobbers you—until you get cancer, or your child dies, or you realize you haven’t the slightest idea who you are and you can’t figure it out from the diplomas on your wall, the stack of plastic in your wallet, or the type of car you drive.
Keen warns that the longer we defer the investigation of what is centrally important to us and continue with a life that is largely uninspected, the more traumatic the turnaround is apt to be. Some of us have to edge very close to dying in order to come alive again, to get real. But the earlier we sincerely ask these great questions, the more the answers will be integrated with our lives and the better chance we have of making choices as we go along that don’t turn out to be disastrous.
Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, wrote about “the hero’s journey”, which is shorthand for this whole process of delving beneath one’s day-to-day persona to seek abiding truth. Going down into the strangeness of our own lives—finding out what moves us. In the heroic journey, we leave the familiar world in which we have been indoctrinated with readymade conclusions and we seek our own experience and learn to tell our own stories.
Odysseus returned; Jason returned; all successful heroes return. They bring back with them a boon: They no longer talk out of someone else’s experience. They are not like the Pharisees; they are not quoting Page 158, Section 34 of the handbook. They have become self-realized, and therefore, dis-illusioned and unexploitable; and they are tolerant and supportive of the quests and questions of others.

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