At a retreat I was helping to lead some time ago, I made a comment during the Dharma talk. It went something like this, “There’s nothing you can do to change the world.” At the end of the retreat one of the participants followed up for clarification. He asked with a friendly but incredulous look on his face, “Did you really mean that?”
Taken at face value it sounds fatalistic. Why would anyone say such a thing? With all things, there are two sides to the coin. Let me explain.
It’s Not Just a Good Idea, It’s the Law
I’ve just finished reading a fantastic book called This Explains Everything. It’s a series of essays by various prominent thinkers answering the question “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?”
Three ideas that weaved throughout the book will help me make my point. The authors cover a gamut of disciplines including cognitive science, biology, economics, music, social sciences, and physics. I confess to being an avid pop physics reader. So I was drawn to the essays focused on cosmology and quantum mechanics.
The first idea I’ll borrow from the book the idea of order. The universe appears to follow a set of rules. Things like Newton’s Laws and Maxwell’s equations are highly predictive and explain a lot about our experience. Even the bizarre probabilities of quantum mechanics demonstrate that there is a certain order to the universe.
Implicit in this observation is that the rules don’t change. This explains how we’re able to use them to predict events with some degree of probability. If the laws changed, things would be completely unpredictable, in fact life couldn’t exist.
Order out of Chaos?
The second concept is determinism. The probabilistic nature of Quantum mechanics has shown that while the universe has order, it’s not precisely predictable. The laws of nature point to likely outcomes, but not rigid cause effect chains. This is a very important point. Ideas about determinism (and free will) have always been critical to defining our world view. If we misunderstand cause and effect, we’re at risk of misunderstanding everything.
The final idea is Emergence . This is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. Scientists have used emergence to develop plausible explanations for everything from the creation of stars to the evolution of life. These explanations are truly deep, elegant and beautiful.
To Illustrate how cool these ideas are, I’ll give you some examples. Interesting fact; in the beginning, if the universe had a perfectly uniform density, it would have been a very different, bland place. Because of the ever so slight differences in density throughout the fledgling universe, gravity caused some particles to congregate (see a recent TED talk on the confirmation of this hypothesis). Over the course of billions of years these congregations of particles formed hydrogen and helium atoms which in turn formed the first stars.
As the process of emergence unfolded, the stars eventually exploded in super nova, resulting in the creation of larger elements like carbon, iron and so on. These ingredients formed the raw materials for new stars, planets, and ultimately life.
It’s remarkable that scientists have been able to reverse engineer the story of the cosmos. We have a decent picture of the past and a certain degree of confidence that its correct because it was derived from the same rules that we use to reliably predict probable future states.
The human body and its behaviors are adaptations produced by an emergent process we call evolution. We’ve evolved to respond to our environment in ways that increase the likelihood of survival (or more specifically, to increase the likelihood we reproduce). We blink when something approaches our eye. We produce adrenalin and its associated self preservation responses when we are in danger. These naturally selected traits allowed our ancestors to live another day by surviving one moment to the next.
Evolutionary development has allowed humanity to move beyond the survival stage into relative comfort and wealth. We even enjoy the luxury of contemplating happiness.
Is happiness an evolutionary trait?
Norwegian biologist Bjorn Grinde proposes in his textbook, Darwinian Happiness: Evolution as a Guide for Living and Understanding Human Behavior, that it may be.
He argues that human emotions find their cause in evolution. Evolution might tend to add stronger incentives for behavior benefiting the genes in an individual with a powerful free will; as otherwise, the free will could easily result in maladaptive behavior.
Recognizing emotional traits as emergent phenomenon is not hard to see. The attachment between a mother and her child clearly serve to ensure that genes are successfully passed on. But, day to day, it’s often difficult to see our own emotions in this context. We don’t view our love of family in the context of perpetuation of our DNA. It seems a little more complex than that.
Grinde is right in that we don’t always make wise choices in exercising free will. The effects of our bad decisions can be devastating. The fact that climate change is considered a man-made phenomenon, tells you how much of a mess we can make of things. But broadly speaking, the capacity to exercise freewill has proven to be a tremendous advantage. We only need look at the success of the human species for evidence.
So we should acknowledge that emergence seems to have mapped out at least two purposes in life. First, we function to perpetuate life – i.e. pass on our genes. Second, related to the first, is that we are stewards over the power to exercise the freewill.
Here is where I’m going to draw the analogy to Pure Land Buddhism. Embedded in these purposes we might recognize the metaphors that Buddha Amitabha, the Buddha of endless life and endless light, embodies.
The metaphor of endless life reveals humanity’s natural propensity to preserve and perpetuate life. The metaphor of endless light represents sentience, and by extension the ability to exercise free will – i.e. we are sentient actors in the world.
There is Nothing You Can Do to Change the World
To steer back to my original point, we have to acknowledge that there is much in the world we cannot change. On an impersonal level, it’s fairly easy to recognize that the laws of nature are what they are. The acceleration due to gravity will be the same tomorrow as it was 300 years ago.
Getting a little more personal, there are some truths that can be harder to accept. Learning that your purpose is to perpetuate the information you carry in your genetic code can leave you a little cold. My own experience with accepting this was rocky. It was pretty hard to take. Viewing the love I have for my wife and children as simply the actions of “selfish genes” seems belittling. But no matter how I choose to view it, I am basically a DNA carrier.
Accepting who and what we are is a must. If we choose to resist the implications of our fundamental nature, we’re going to suffer. The evidence is incontrovertible. Climate change, pollution, and addiction are all problems stemming from a damaged or faulty understanding of our true nature.
And there is; the Buddha’s message!
The centrality of suffering and the causes of suffering in the Buddha’s teachings is very compelling to me. The journey begins with discovering our true selves. If we fail in this, we’ll have little to offer the world.
My personal challenges with this hearken back to one of the best lessons my teacher gave to me. He taught that you have to work through your own stuff before you try to lend a hand to someone else. “So much of what we do is minding other people’s business” he said. At best we come off hypocritical and more often we do harm.
Accepting what we can’t change about ourselves and the world is critically important.
Don’t Ever Stop Trying
The great embrace, the Mahamudra, is the peculiar union of the unchanging eternal nature of the universe and its constantly evolving character. Both aspects of the world are observably true. The universe is what it is. Its laws are inviolable. But as these laws manifest over time, a vast diversity of matter, energy, and life is constantly unfolding before us.
This esoteric teaching is a deep, elegant, and beautiful explanation. Its something I view as on par with evolution and quantum mechanics. It reminds us that both things are true in this quirky little universe of ours. The world is simultaneously unchanging and constantly evolving!
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead
We have freewill. We have intentions, make choices, and those choices affect the future. There is much good we can do in the world. We can listen and empathize. We can speak up when we see injustice and we can be better stewards of our environment.
But we must do the hard work of putting our own house in order before we can start changing the world for the better. We need only look to history for a multitude of ardent people who have paved the road to hell with their good intentions. These would-be saviors arise out of naive ideologies. Their solutions tend to lead to more harm.
My recollection of the idealistic 1960s and 1970s are filled with examples of misguided efforts to change the world. The Symbionese Liberation Army, The Weatherman, and the Black Panthers were all founded on deeply held, but flawed premises. They spiraled out of control because they perpetuated the cycle of suffering.
So get out there and change the world. But do it from a firm foundation. Do the work that’s required to understand the causes of suffering and apply what you learn to reduce it. It often starts from a promise that is less about doing good, and more about doing no harm.
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi