What does it mean to be a human being? This question has fascinated and perplexed people throughout the ages. Addressing it raises a host of related questions, such as: What should I do with my life? What are my responsibilities to my family, my friends, my society, or even myself? Is there really even an I in the first place? Are we but the evolutionary fruit of lifeless matter, or is our physical body the evanescence of a shared universal and transcendent spiritual reality.
Obviously, it is difficult to know what we can or should become if we don’t know what we are or how we got to be this way. Various philosophic, religious and more lately scientific schools have sought to provide answers to these fundamental issues. The most materialistic of these find no enduring aspect in us as humans except for the very consequences of our actions. We shine briefly upon life’s stage and then vanish at death. Yet even those who completely deny any existence after death will often still argue that we should nonetheless behave in a way that is harmonious with others. They may advance sociological or physiological theories that attempt to show that we are all better off if we behave in a way that benefits the group, thereby benefiting each individual as well.
Religions are all over the map when it comes to what a human is or should be doing. Some encourage us to recognize ourselves as essentially spiritual beings trapped here on earth in a weak and deceiving physical body. If we can overcome the tests and base temptations of material existence we may, after death, pass on to a subsequent existence of further delights or torments. Such a viewpoint tends to see physical embodiment as a rather unfortunate problem. Life would be much easier without the debasing influences of matter dragging us down. Many Buddhist schools go so far as to see any form of manifested existence as inevitably leading to suffering. Therefore, the goal of successive lifetimes of individual spiritual progress becomes to get completely off the wheel of life, hence beyond the reach of any form of suffering, by being “blown out” of manifestation all together.
I find myself in agreement with some of these ideas. I do believe that we share a common spiritual origin and a future of limitless possibilities. But I do not see any fundamental conflict between spirit and matter. Indeed, to me they are but different aspects of the same thing. I believe that manifestation is an infinitely varied kaleidoscope composed of innumerable grades of consciousness-substance. Some of these we look at and see as material. Others we experience as thoughts or emotions, the will or spiritual aspirations. I am quite content to call any of these matter or spirit or consciousness. Just as no aspect of reality is intrinsically better or worse than another, so too no aspect of ourselves is intrinsically worth more than another part of us. For me, the goal of life is not to transcend or leave it. Rather I would like to have all aspects of myself fully and harmonious functioning together in the here and now. I would like to hold the universe in my thought and at the same time try to be fully present for the person right before me, be they in immediate need of life saving help or just a smile. Hence, life itself becomes the method and the goal. We don’t need to go anywhere special or do anything in particular. Rather, our whole life becomes an expression of love and harmony, both within ourselves and with each particular expression of the all. – Talk delivered November 2008
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