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The Fear of Imperfection, Dogma and Our Own Personal Paths

Last night, a dear friend and I had a discussion about the people in our lives that we care about that seem to be seeking an absolute worldview.

So many people bounce from philosophy to philosophy, going from Christianity to Gurjeffian philosophy to Kierkegaard to existentialism.

As I commented yesterday when it came to the dharma of the raft, we all have to come up with our own individual way of living. We can’t live someone else’s dream, we can’t use someone else’s raft. We have to find a way of crossing that river with our own techniques. Others may help us along the way, inspire us, direct us, but everything we should learn should be practical.

There are always going to be things we won’t understand, things to learn, things we strive to perfect and implement. But we will never, not once, find a philosophical system that guides us in every situation. The Bible doesn’t have answers about quantum physics. Quantum physics can’t teach us when it may be justifiable to break informed consent. Medical ethics can’t guide us in our day-to-day lives.

At some level, it can be terrifying for us to admit that the combined philosophical, spiritual, and personal lessons that we’ve found won’t work for every other person in every other situation. It makes us believe that they were false. But this is an incredibly simplistic idea of truth. Gasoline is a fine fuel for a car, but maybe you might want jet fuel for an airplane, and neither are going to be ideal for a safe campfire.

I have an upcoming post on Kierkegaard and his idea of despair as the means for ethical life. I disagree with his central concept of despair even though I agree with much of his reasoning. That doesn’t mean I didn’t learn something. And, now that I know about Kierkegaard, I can teach that idea to others who may find it more useful for their particular struggles.

We need to abandon this sickness of looking for one master solution to our problems and start having the humility to realize we’ll always be looking. And that’s a joyous thing. I learn something new every day in my job. As much as I would like to have every answer so I could help others flawlessly, I would also be deprived of that daily, wonderful, joyous experience.

I find it unfortunate how many of our spiritual traditions seem to seek fit to excoriate people as inadequate. While I find much compelling in the ideas of Christianity (and plan to discuss them in a book about how to synthesize the great philosophical traditions), original sin as a concept as conventionally imagined I find to be an impediment to us doing great work.

The great artisans, like Jiro, learn something new every day. Great scientists discover new theories every day. I loved reading Noam Chomsky point out that “Chomskyan linguistics” changes every time he talks to a grad student with an exciting new idea.

Holding onto that need for a single absolute solution is just fear. It’s fear of our inadequacies, fear that we won’t be able to implement our instincts.

Here’s an example of a philosophical idea that resonates with me, that guides me right now. This is from an analysis Chogyam Trungpa did on the bodhisattva vow.

“The bodhisattva vow is the commitment to put others before oneself. It is a statement of willingness to give up one’s own well-being, even one’s own enlightenment, for the sake of others. And a bodhisattva is simply a person who lives in the spirit of that vow, perfecting the qualities known as the six paramitas [perfections]—generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation, and transcendental knowledge—in his effort to liberate beings.

Taking the bodhisattva vow implies that instead of holding our own individual territory and defending it tooth and nail, we become open to the world that we are living in”.

Read that really carefully.

That’s something you, and I, and everyone we know, can do right now. We can start creating habits to be that way at this exact moment. It’s not something for later. It’s not some kind of super power state. It’s a real thing. Real cops live a bodhisattva vow. Many of us took that vow before we even knew it. When I read that line, I remembered being a kid playing Final Fantasy and deciding that was the way to live a life. Like a paladin.

If a deeper philosophical analysis of Buddhism happens to be useful to us, that is great. But if all we learn is that idea, that there’s a world system that put at its core that concept and why it works as a way to live, that’s valuable to us.

Once we stop being afraid of being incomplete and imperfect, we’ll start realizing we have the tools we need, right now.

And my own work, part of my own bodhisattva vow, has been to try to help people with all of the philosophical and practical knowledge I’ve acquired add pieces to their own personal raft that works for them. And there are few things even comparably as satisfying in this world as seeing someone exceed your expectations and do something you never imagined or anticipated using a tool you gave them.

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