When feelings such as loneliness, loss, and placelessness assail them, people often get into serious emotional trouble. It is interesting to note that, when some people experience such feelings, they do not turn inward for an explanation of their own emotions. They do not even turn to psychology or philosophy, external knowledge bases which would give them some inkling of what is happening to them and are therefore relevant to their condition. Instead, they turn to spiritual belief systems. With Christianity, the West’s traditional religion, now fallen from favour, troubled individuals feel they must look elsewhere for spiritual comfort and understanding. With increasing regularity, they turn to godless belief systems such as Buddhism and Taoism. The absence of any moralizing god and the possibility of solitary spiritual practice are powerful attractions. That is, people prefer a godless belief system with no churches or temples and no organized religious service. We might call this, “do it yourself” spirituality.
Unfortunately, there is a problem here. While the more subtle points of Buddhism and Taoism may be unknown to them, most people are aware that these Oriental belief systems are short on knowledge and long on paradox. Everyone has heard of the puzzling koan. Even allowing for people’s ignorance, choosing Buddhism or Taoism suggests a wilful dismissal of reason, logic, and rationality (long held in high regard in the West) in favour of ignorance and irrationality. Increasingly, we choose arbitrary subjectivity over objectivity.
Quoting Lao Tsu: “In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something is added. In the practice of the Tao, every day something is dropped.” The goal is to become a “know-nothing.” Paradoxically, according to the practitioners of Buddhism and Taoism, this progressive ignorance is actually the road to enlightenment. In reality, there are no such things as paradoxes. Quite obviously, they cannot exist. When faced with a paradox, you have not discovered something profound; you have simplified the situation to the point where it no longer makes any sense. You have made a mistake. When you add back the appropriate details and qualifiers, you dispel the simplistic mystical paradox.
Why choose these Oriental belief systems? People who make the choice have no concept of their own (already existing) inner resources and strengths. Our lack of knowledge in this area is one of the world’s great failings. What we are talking about here, in its most basic form, is the psychological concept of self.
Now, the most striking aspect of the self is its constancy. The self is home to our most vital emotionally important ideas and subjectively formed guiding principles. These are established by our genes interacting with our early childhood environment and stay with us throughout our lives. They form the basis of our genuine personal worldview.
The most striking aspect of Buddhism and Taoism is the notion of complete changeability. In these belief systems, there is no concept of a stable self. Therefore, you can be anything or anyone you wish to be, changing from one person into another depending on your surroundings, like some kind of human chameleon. I call any particular example of this changing “self,” the false persona du jour. Such flexibility and “freedom” sounds lovely, but whether you like it or not, you are already a particular someone. That someone (your authentic self) is not an illusion or a needlessly rigid false persona that you may choose to destroy or discard.
Ceaseless persona change is a characteristic of the ego and the idealized false person it manufactures. Ceaseless change is not – repeat not – a characteristic of the authentic self. Anyone who is not in touch with their stable authentic self lacks a well-defined sense of self and remains trapped in the endlessly shifting thoughts and personas of the ego. Many misguided individuals mistakenly refer to this false persona as the self and often long to “escape” from it. This is hardly surprising since such a person has no ground, no anchor, no centre, and no still-point. In addition, since they have rejected the true self and deny any hope of self-knowledge, they have no way of ever getting those things. Buddhism and Taoism, with their belief in perpetual persona change, fix the believer in never-ending self-alienation.