“People who chant all the time are just like frogs croaking day and night in spring fields; their effort will be of no use whatsoever.” —Dogen
One of my favorite short poems is by Stephen Crane:
“A man said to the universe: “Sir, I exist!” “However,” replied the universe, “The fact has not created in me a sense of obligation.””
One of the reasons we think so many unnecessary thoughts is that we hear so many unnecessary things. We hear others speaking to the void, “I exist! I exist!” We misinterpret this noise as a response from the void itself.
To be human is to be perpetually uncertain. We can dominate the earth’s resources with science and industry, but even the most brilliant among us can’t predict surprise natural disasters or spontaneous market rifts. We can dominate one another in relationships and outward power struggles, but we can’t rid ourselves of the deep insecurities that cause us to do so. We can meditate or exercise, but we’re never fixing ourselves for good. The mind and body are still subject to malfunction. As Lenny Bruce said, ‘The fault lies with the manufacturer.’
The deeper lesson here is to accept what we can’t change. Easier said than done, huh? But I’d like to focus on just one part of that acceptance: opinions.
When we reflect on ourselves, the immediate reaction may be one of confusion, but eventually that turns into a sort of humility. With humility comes gratitude and an understanding of our limitations as humans. But without that humility there’s really no limit to our potential arrogance; you see this everyday. You see it most evidently in the way people acquire and discard opinions like playing cards.
People behave as if their opinions are sworn facts. Maybe they watch the news and think what they see is the truth. They’re so overwhelmed by the fact that what they see validates their crude interpretation of the world that they don’t question it, and it thus informs further opinions. In a world of perpetual spectacle, mass deception and warring power factions, we can’t trust ‘the truth’ any more than we can trust ourselves to know when the next flash flood is going to hit.
I enjoy reading old novels because the masses in the town square are always referred to as what they are: vulgar. In fact, the very word ‘vulgar’ comes from the Latin ‘vulgus’, which means ‘common people’. We always hear about the value of the collective unconscious, the hive mind, the majority opinion, but the larger a sample size grows, the lower it stoops in qualitative value. To take your own opinions as fact, to trust the news and not suspect it’s half-truth or entirely fake, or to listen blindly to what others tell you without internal validation is, well, vulgar.
Spiritual practice means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but part of it for me is trying to be completely honest. Sometimes this means pissing off people at parties, but it also means acquiring a lot of respect. Sometimes it means feeling a sense of paranoia or insecurity knowing the world we’re told we have agency in is actually operating on deeper levels we can never influence, but with this comes an awareness of the truth. But mostly it means accepting myself as I fundamentally am, collecting experience and information, and making educated guesses rather than blindly grabbing at this or that trendy opinion.
Don’t participate in the vulgus, lest you become vulgar yourself. This is just another way people direct their attention outward to avoid confronting themselves. They go, “Oh wow, isn’t that awful,” at all the stuff they’re told to think is awful without considering the ulterior motives of the person sharing it, their boss, that person’s boss, their bosses’ informant, etc. For every piece of valid information we think we have, there’s a game of telephone crawling through the depths of anonymous high-power individuals obscuring its validity. You can only truly trust what you uncover and experience yourself.
Stay skeptical and weary of the information circus, and direct enough attention inward to not get sucked into the vortex of chaos. This shouldn’t have to be a fundamental part of our practice, but in a post-modern digital world where everyone is competing for your attention so they can convince you to believe X or Y, it’s important to remain your own keeper.
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