Because suffering is part of human life, everyone asks why it exists, and the answers we give to ourselves make a great deal of difference. Explanations lead to action, for one thing. Billions of people choose religion as a way to accept suffering or to try and escape it. In the first post of this series we began with the opposite of religion, however. The modern tendency, deeply influenced by science, is to explain the bad things in life as random and accidental. This explanation also leads to action. If you accept that random events will bring pain into your existence, with no blame or guilt on your part and no higher being who is punishing you, you won’t behave like a devout Christian or Muslim.
The notion that science has raised us above superstition has become a stick that staunch atheists like Richard Dawkins use to beat religion over the head. Yet the issue is subtler than the war between belief and skepticism. In the world’s wisdom traditions suffering has a cause and therefore a solution–such is the message of every great spiritual guide. The answers that they delivered have shaped civilization. In the first glow of discovery, Darwin and Freud, not to mention Marx, were eager to throw out the worst of religious excess. Yet as we saw in the first post, substituting randomness for God was not a psychological step forward. An accidental universe is almost impossible to live with for creatures like us who shape our existence to be meaningful.
If the good parts of your life are to have meaning, the same must be true of the bad parts. That, too, is a continual message delivered by the world’s wisdom traditions. How, then, are the dark and the light related to each other? There are cosmic answers to this question, and by a kind of trickle down effect, the cosmic answer turns into the answer we accept in normal, everyday existence.
Here are the basic choices for how the two aspects of life, pain and pleasure, came to exist.
1. Two universal forces contend for control of creation, one being good, the other evil. Human beings are caught in this titanic struggle between light and darkness.
2. Creation cannot exist without destruction. These forces are not opposites but two sides of the same eternal process.
3. The only real existence transcends good and evil. All events that we perceive as good or evil, pleasurable or painful, are illusions compared to the “real” reality, which is whole and therefore not divided into opposites.
4. Creation was originally good, with no blemishes, and life was without suffering. Then sin entered the world through human error and disobedience. After that disastrous event, creation changed.
5. The cosmos is presided over by higher beings who sport with humans. Our experience of pleasure and pain reflects a game that is played out beyond our ability to comprehend it.
6. The cosmos is in the state of constant evolution. Good and evil, pleasure and pain are prompts to guide us forward in our own evolution.
7. The relationship between this world of light and darkness and some other world cannot be known. Going beyond pleasure and pain reveals a kind of emptiness, which is the only escape route, despite our yearning for higher purpose.
Although there are countless variations on these seven themes, they will serve as a template for how people explain good and evil as cosmic forces. For the devout, there is no mixing of stories – a fundamentalist, whether Christian or Muslim, adheres to the teachings of his faith. Yet increasingly we feel confused; some bits and pieces of each explanation tug at us. On some days we watch the news and an airplane crash is shrugged off as a terrible accident. On other days a well-known villain gets his comeuppance, and we tell ourselves that good has won out over evil; a just punishment has been rendered.
Confusion makes it more difficult to lead a meaningful life. In the back of our minds, we’d prefer to know, with some certainty, that our lives mean something, that we aren’t pawns in a game of blind chess. In an effort to tell yourself a consistent story about who you are and why you are here, you can’t escape the temptation to choose a cosmic explanation, even if it’s the explanation that rests on randomness. Depending on which explanation you finally accept, your whole life will unfold along a path. Call it a spiritual path or not, the implications are spiritual. You are testing through your daily actions how the universe works; you are making a silent wager over the state of your soul (for atheists, the wager is that the soul doesn’t exist).
In later posts we’ll see how each of the seven cosmic explanations alters your existence and guides your choices in life. As a preview, here are the primary decisions that each of us can choose:
1. You can live to obey God and resist the temptations of the Devil.
2. You can choose the most creative life.
3. You can decide to offer yourself in service to others.
4. You can seek to purify yourself of sin or bad karma.
5. You can pursue enlightenment in order to go beyond the world of illusion.
6. You can work to maximize your inner potential, speeding up the process of evolution.
7. You can become a co-creator of your own reality, aligning yourself with cosmic intelligence.
These are big choices based on big stories about how creation works. they are the most fascinating issues but also the most troubling that we face every day. Your ability to settle these issues becomes the most important power you possess, once you realize how deeply your life reflects the workings of the universe.
(To be continued)