What the World Needs Now

July 12th, 2019

Perhaps everything which is terrible is, in the deepest sense, something that wants our love.

Rilke

Why are we here? Are we here to do something for the world? If so, some say the best thing we can do for the world is, as Gandhi says, to “be the change” we want to see in it. Some call that becoming “enlightened.” If so, what does enlightenment look like? Is it, like world peace, something to work towards? Is it something to be achieved?

If you want a building, you build it. And once it is built, it lasts. It wasn’t there before and it is there now. Is enlightenment, or any kind of progress, like that? Is there something we are here to achieve?

I think any kind of achievement is what Eckart Tolle calls your secondary purpose (see A New Earth, Chapter Nine, “Your Inner Purpose”). Our primary purpose, as I understand it, is to experience enlightenment — as a state, not a stage. To understand the difference, consider hunger.

There’s a difference between trying to end hunger on an individual level versus working to end it on a collective one. All of us experience temporary, acute hunger, the kind where you might say, “I’m hungry” and you eat. The other, chronic kind is when you’re hungry and you can’t eat. That kind of hunger is a lack of food, not just the desire for it. In other words, it’s a long-term lack of food.

It would be silly to want to end the normal, short-term kind of hunger: to think, “no one should ever feel hungry. Everyone’s belly should always be full.” That would be as silly as thinking that no one should ever feel tired, sleepy, sad, lonely, or angry. These and many other uncomfortable feelings are just a part of life.

But what if world hunger — the second kind of hunger, with a capital “H” — is also, in the big picture, only temporary? Isn’t it too a part of life, the life of humanity through history? Trying to end hunger on any level means trying to reach a particular stage in history, whether personal or planetary. There’s nothing wrong with working towards that, just as there’s nothing wrong, within reason, with getting a bite to eat.

In looking at a state of affairs, however, there’s a certain level of acceptance that is necessary to stay “within reason.” A balanced view recognizes that history (or “progress”) is a process. And in that process, we are always at some point or stage. In childrearing, for example, you don’t expect a child to act like an adult; say, for an infant to be talking at two months old. You could say, ‘you don’t expect an adult to act like a child either, and the human race should be grown up by now.’

But it’s quite possible that humanity is not grown up. Some argue that in fact, our species is merely in its adolescence (see e.g., Ehrlich and Ornstein, Humanity on a Tightrope, page 30). One can even look at life on earth and say that it hasn’t grown up because we still have what looks like injustice; namely, predation. Is it fair for animals to eat each other alive?

To see predation — or any kind of “selfishness” — as wrong, that is, as something we can and should grow out of, could be as misguided as imagining that anything ever completely grows up, once and for all, in the first place. For one, every human dies. Do they have a soul that keeps growing? You could say the species keeps going/growing. But most species die: that is, go extinct. You could say life on earth goes on, but the earth could be destroyed in some cosmic catastrophe. Of course, you could say that this too is part of the life (or evolution) of the universe, and that basically, life goes on.

What I’m getting at is whether life is really about getting anywhere. I do think that evolution has a direction: the universe grows in complexity. Steps that might look forward or back to us are all part of a grand progression. And a sense of this overall progress is, I believe, a useful definition of enlightenment. Being enlightened means trusting that life is a process: that it’s always getting better even though it’s mostly out of our hands. Whether you or I achieve enlightenment, for example — as a permanent state — is mostly out of our hands. But being at peace with that is enlightenment. Enlightenment, in other words, is not a stage but a state.

As I see it, enlightenment is a certain amount of healthy detachment. It means you don’t have to see the big picture; you trust that it looks good. Can you do this, even as you’re being foreclosed on, raped, or eaten alive?

Of course not. And that’s okay, just as violence, a.k.a., “injustice,” is, on some level, okay. To be able to accept that on some level, even the most seemingly terrible things are OK is enlightenment. Accepting the fact that you can’t accept everything is enlightenment. And accepting that you can’t accept that is enlightenment.

None of this is easy, and that’s OK. In fact, enlightenment means believing — really believing, which means feeling — that everyone and everything is OK because everyone is doing the best they can: including you and God. In this sense, everything is perfect. The world is perfect because it’s always getting better.

Imagine you’re running around a race track. Every moment is perfect because you’re getting there as fast as you can. To think you should be going faster is to not be enlightened. To think you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself is also to not be enlightened.

You can be enlightened right now. Just accept the way things are right now. Watch for the word “should.” The word should is a sign of shame. And as they say, SHAME stands for, Should Have Already Mastered Everything.

Should you be ashamed? Should you have already mastered everything? Should anyone? Should God? Or has God already mastered everything, and we just don’t recognize God’s “mysterious ways?”

You don’t have to believe in God to get this. For me, “God” simply means everything, that is, the universe. The question is, do you trust in the universe — in life — right now? Do you believe in yourself? Is there anything you could do that would make you feel ashamed?

If not, you’re probably not human. Shame is built into our biology because we are social animals. Enlightenment includes recognizing and accepting that as a social animal, feeling a certain amount of shame is actually healthy.

You can be enlightened right now. You can love life and yourself. You can think — and really feel — that “I may not like what’s happening, or everything I do, but I love my life, and I love myself, and I love everyone and everything.” Is that so crazy? Is that really naïve?

You may say, “love is not the same as logic. It’s logical to not resist the way things already are. But I don’t have to love it.” Yes, the love I’m talking about is calm, not giddy. Enlightenment is liberating. It brings true freedom because your sense of well-being is not tied to circumstances. This liberation, when partial, can be exciting, but chances are that these feelings will be fleeting because there’s bound to be circumstances that will still upset you, sooner than later.

The kind of love I’m talking about is like the love you might have for a puppy or a child, no matter what they do. If you can love someone no matter what they do, no matter what happens, you’re enlightened. And that’s the best thing you can do for the world. The world doesn’t need your help, just your permission.

Life is not a great mystery, not if it’s just about loving it. What if life is just a lovely ride, and our only “job” is to enjoy it? To “try not to try too hard”: could the task really be that simple?