This morning, I thought about having myself a good day. It started out pleasant enough. I awoke from an idyllic dream of a stroll through the woods. Then my regular routine took place as usual. Even the weather seemed relatively pleasant for a change.
However, there was a delay getting into the gym. Then my usual bike needed to be rebooted and still refused to work properly. Thankfully, the regular gym buddies were on hand for companionship and gossip. It looked like the day was going to be the usual mixed bag of good and bad. I got to thinking that if the worst disaster I have to suffer through is an exercise bike not connecting to the Internet, then I really have a pretty good life.
It seemed obvious to me, this morning, that our lives appear good or bad simply by what is in our heads. Most of us unconsciously categorize various objects, events and people as being good or bad. Many people believe that everything and everyone can be judged by black or white standards. The idea that categories of good or bad can shift or not even exist is too ambiguous for many of us. Situations and people who exist outside of our comfort zones seem threatening or evil on the surface.
We then lock that judgement call into our minds. If someone tries to convince us that an alternate view is actually true, we become even more rigid in our opinion. If we believe a certain person or group is generally good, we will maintain that opinion. If we think another person or group is bad or evil, we will rarely change our opinion, even when presented with rational, logical evidence to the contrary. This locking in is even more effective if we can vindicate the opinion with that of some sort of authority figure or institution.
It is this good or bad opining that is at the root of our own personal problems and the collective social dysfunction that we find ourselves in these days. The political leaders we admire most, are good at figuring out what trips our triggers for happiness and which will stir up our fear and anger. We then align ourselves with one side or another as to what we believe is good or bad. Maybe you don’t like certain minorities or innovation, then you’ll call yourself conservative. Maybe you think that progress and improvements aren’t happening quickly enough, then you’ll call yourself liberal. Anybody who disagrees with you is then labeled bad or evil.
So you see, we are easily seduced by our own emotional beliefs and, in turn, by peers and leaders of our own particular political or religious group. People who share the same opinions are “in” and good, everyone else is “out” and probably up to no good at all. We invest great emotional capital in such opinions. Even if we wish to change our minds, we don’t want to lose face. We don’t want to become a member of the “out” group that our “in” group hates so much.
How can we, individually and collectively get off of the merry go round of classifying everything and everyone as either good or evil? If I had a pill to block that, I’d probably become a tycoon overnight. How do we all stop believing that we are blessed with exclusive and excellent wisdom and knowledge and that everybody else is a nincompoop?
Maybe, if we all might learn to understand that ignorance is a universal trait. It is in ignorance that we place ourselves and our in-groups on a pedestal and give ourselves a glowing opinion of our own superior goodness. How might we begin to chip away at our own ignorance?
The various wisdom traditions are full of practices that have been discovered by our ancestors along life’s way. Almost universally, the practices are simple, but not always easy.
We are cautioned to seek knowledge that is tempered with compassion. We find out that self-reflection is very healthy. Benevolence in word and deed is a sign that ignorance is slipping away. Self-restraint and genuine humility, that is not showy, is another sign of somebody who is allowing ignorance to fade away. These are continuous practices that can become habitual if we sincerely wish to understand and reveal the love that we have at our cores.
Isn’t it true that things that are harmful to oneself and to others arise from a mind that is inattentive? Think of the most outrageous crimes that have been committed against humanity. Perhaps the Nazi halocaust comes to mind? It was only possible because of generations of inattentive people with uncompassionate opinions about other people. The strong negative political and religious opinions seemed to justify the genocide. The willful public inattention and ignorance allowed harm to continue until it was halted by outsiders.
Meantime, if a person is mindful and watchful of his or her thoughts and actions, ignorance is shed away. If you know that a particular thought leads you towards unhappiness, you will be less likely to continue thinking those thoughts. If you are mindful of the presence or absence of compassion in your deeds, you will be less likely to treat people harmfully. If you are mindful that people who don’t belong to your “in” group are still human beings, you may be less prone to advocating actions that are unfriendly towards them. You may even gradually understand that there really are no pigeonholes of “us” and “them”.
When there is cessation of attention or love, the conflict of what we or others “should be” arises. When mindfulness resumes, we notice that we become constructively sensitive to the needs and wishes of ourselves and of others. When you discover total attention, you will become aware of the goodness of yourself and others.
The Blue Jay of Happiness knows that causing harm and divisiveness is never enlightening or good, ever.