Printed in the Spring 2015issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Boyd, Tim."Viewpoint: A Practical Contempt" Quest 103.2 (Spring 2015): pg. 48-49.
It's a good life, if you just don't weaken.
- Bill Lawrence
What is it about the normal course of living that evokes a sense of struggle? Whether we look to stories and aphorisms from the scriptures of the world, or to the teachings of the modern Theosophical movement, or simply to the common-sense phrases routinely uttered day after day, there is a shared recognition that in this world nothing comes easily.
One story that expresses life's laborious futility is the myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was a Greek king and something of a rogue. He was such a clever man that he was able to trick the gods on more than one occasion â€” one time even handcuffing Hades, the lord of the underworld and god of death. Hades' temporary confinement caused great problems up above in the human realm. One of which was that war started to lose some of its satisfaction. Because no one was dying, the situation became so desperate that one king arranged for Hades to be released, so that people could start dying again and he could continue striking fear in the hearts of his enemies in war. In punishment for his numerous crimes against the gods, Sisyphus was condemned to an afterlife of eternal drudgery. For all of eternity he had to spend every moment rolling a heavy boulder to the
top of a mountain, only to watch it roll back down and begin the process all over.
In the Bible the most notable voice for the meaningless hardship of life is found in Ecclesiastes â€” the Preacher. "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity" was one of the succinct ways he characterized the human condition. "What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest" was another of the Preacher's sobering observations. This line of thought tracks back to the curse of Adam and Eve for eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The cycle of struggle for the human being begins with the declaration to Adam that because of his awareness of duality â€” good and evil â€” he is condemned to "painful toil" for "all the days of your life." Eve's lot is no better.
Buddhism also deals with what is seen as the fundamentally unsatisfactory nature of the human condition (or for that matter, of any of the other five realms of existence in Buddhist cosmology). From that point of view, a life lived in the pursuit of normal pleasures â€” knowledge, religion, politics, work, family, etc. â€” ensures that one remains trapped on the cyclic wheel of existence. Samsara is the term for the repetitive cycle of birth, sickness, aging, death, and rebirth in which we are all engaged. This idea is a broader restatement of the Sisyphus myth, but here instead of one individual, all sentient beings are caught up in the cycle.
If these were our only options, life would be bleak. Of course, all of the traditions that give such in-depth portrayals of life's limitations also affirm the possibility of liberation or redemption. Spiritual traditions speak to people at the level of their understanding. For the person whose awareness is rooted in the world of struggle and suffering, they give counsel on how to make things better. This is the level of rules and ceremony, where we are counseled how to behave â€” what foods can be eaten, what clothes we can wear, ways in which we can meet and associate with each other. All religions contain such advice. For the individual who has some awareness of a more expansive consciousness, they show how to deepen it, all the way to what is called "Christ consciousness," moksha, enlightenment, etc.
One of the gifts of the Theosophical worldview is the recognition of the multidimensional nature of the universe and ourselves. The practice of the spiritual life often begins with a consideration of the possibility that we are more than we had previously imagined, and that consciousness is essentially what we are. We are asked to think about it, to try to determine the range and limitations of consciousness. "Think on these things" is what has always been told to the new student. The process begins with thought. Whether one finds that one agrees with these new ideas or not, the mind starts to become accustomed to functioning at formerly unfamiliar levels. We ask ourselves questions and, initially, we search for answers. As we become familiar with the different levels of our being, we soon find ourselves listening for answers. The process becomes more and more internal.
In what is commonly seen as the most important of the letters from the Mahatmas, the Mahachohan's letter, struggle is an important theme. "How . . . are we to deal with the rest of mankind? With that curse known as the struggle for life, which is the real and most prolific parent of most woes and sorrows, and all crimes? Why has that struggle become almost the universal scheme of the universe?" It is an important question to which he provides an answer: "Because no religion . . . has taught a practical contempt for this earthly life; while each of them . . . has through its hells and damnations inculcated the greatest dread of death."
From this point of view, the limits of our vision have intensified the struggle for life. Our fixation on this one life and this one body and the fear of losing them have rooted us in the fight to preserve them at all costs. For most of us this life is the only thing we can be sure of. What comes after is uncertain, and if we accept the afterlife descriptions of the various religions, for most people it will be a very long and very uncomfortable period. We struggle to hold on to what we know, this narrow band of awareness that we accept as life. "Better the devil we know than the one we don't."
How do we break this cycle? In the letter the Mahachohan suggests a way out: "a practical contempt for this earthly life." He urges, "Teach the people to see that life on this earth, even the happiest, is but a burden and an illusion; that it is our own Karma [the cause producing the effect] that is our own judge â€” our Saviour in future lives â€” and the great struggle for life will soon lose its intensity."
A great difficulty for people raised in the West is the seemingly life-negating view of traditional Eastern approaches to spirituality such as Buddhism and Hinduism. I have met many people who, when first introduced to Buddhism, found themselves repelled by its emphasis on life's sufferings and by the nature of its apparent highest goal, nirvana â€” literally a "blowing out" of life's flame like a candle. For the mind formed in the normal Euro-American system of values there is little attraction to suffering, extinction, or "contempt of earthly life."
At the level of first impressions these are not appealing. Those who persevere in the attempt to understand these ideas come to realize that these words are necessarily inadequate attempts to describe a richer, more expansive life and consciousness. The value of the descriptions is that they do not only talk about otherworldly states, but they indicate ways to experience these states. The sincere seeker necessarily becomes a practitioner, one who engages in experimentation in the laboratory of one's own consciousness.
Anyone who has faced life's difficulties and demands can be critical and disdainful. "There must be a better way" is commonly heard, but in the absence of some positive alternative it ends up as complaint and cynicism. Mere contempt for earthly life is easy and is the work of the cynic.
"Practical contempt" is a different matter and is the work of the practitioner. It is the outcome of confirmation by experience. Only those who have by "self-induced and self-devised efforts" won their way to a broader experience of consciousness can judge the struggle of earthly life fairly. The little book Idyll of the White Lotus says, "The soul of man is immortal and its future is the future of a thing whose growth and splendor has no limit." Those who have had even a momentary glimpse of life from the soul's point of view come away from that experience with a new sense of priorities. The life of struggle and limitation does not go away, but it loses its claim to all-importance. Whether we describe this as contempt or simply seeing clearly, the outcome is the same. Being in the world, but not of it becomes the new way of living.