[This piece first appeared in my column "A to Zen" in the March/April 2015 edition of Unity Magazine and is reproduced here with permission.]
Thinking that we see things as they really are is the most injurious hindrance of all. As the African proverb says, each of us lives at the bottom of a well. Looking up we see only a tiny blue dot and mistake it for the entirety of the sky.
An attitude is an explanation, a value-laden and limiting description of a vast phenomenal realm. As we construct a worldview out of the infinite array before us, our attitude says more about us than it does about reality. As the Talmud says, “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”
When you have a negative attitude you are projecting your own fears of scarcity, loneliness, and hopelessness onto the uncarved whole. When you have a positive attitude you are projecting your boundless gratitude, optimism, and loving-kindness onto the uncarved whole. As Buddha said in the opening lines of the Dhamapada, “Our thoughts of yesterday built our life of today. Our thoughts of today build our life of tomorrow. Our life is a product of our thoughts.” The interesting question is not whether we live in a hopeless or hopeful universe. The interesting question is Why do we gravitate toward one explanation over another?
Albert Einstein said that the most important question you need to answer is Do I live in a friendly or a hostile universe? The way you answer this question determines the entire course of your life. If you believe you live in a hostile, dangerous universe a thousand consequences follow – a negative view of human nature, a pessimistic assessment of current conditions, and a powerful expectation of disaster. Everywhere you look you see problems, conspiracies, and failure. If you believe you live in a nurturing, supportive universe a thousand different consequences follow – a hopeful view of human nature, an optimistic assessment of current conditions, and powerful expectation of abundance, healing, and justice. Everywhere you look you see solutions, possibilities, and evidence of our imminent awakening.
A nice play on an old saying comes to mind: “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it,” becomes, “I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.”
Psychologists call this confirmation bias. We all do it. We exaggerate evidence that supports our preconceptions and dismiss evidence that challenges them. This, from the point of view of critical thinking, is an unmitigated disaster. Turns out the mind loathes one thing above all others – change. It will do anything to stay the same, even distorting inflowing information to suit its needs. Distortion after distortion – it’s a wonder we can think at all.
In 1950 Albert Einstein wrote a letter to a grieving father bereft at the loss of his young son. In an attempt to console him, Einstein proffered a bracing vision of the human condition. “A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Here, as many wisdom traditions teach, the alleged limitations of the world are nothing more than limitations within us. We have the power to choose the way in which we see the world. With each elevation in consciousness a new world is revealed. But it isn’t always easy. Nothing beautiful is. In wry recognition of this invigorating freedom and terrifying responsibility Einstein wrote, “To punish me for my contempt of authority, Fate has made me an authority myself.”
It is for us alone to do the work of seeing past surfaces and laying bare the essential nameless truth, beyond all categories of understanding, hidden in plain sight in this ordinary, wondrous world.