I don’t know when it started.
Maybe it was my continuing attempt to understand the point of the Socratic dialogues? Many of these dialogues had no resolution, yet Socrates kept on seeking. What did he find? What kept him going? What did he mean when he said the unexamined life was not worth living?
Or maybe it was inspired by Bertrand Russell’s essay on studying philosophy.
Or perhaps it was Professor Jacob Needleman, who once wrote that freedom arose from a confrontation with our contradictions.
Perhaps it was long ago, when I read about a Buddhist school whose entire path consisted of contemplating The Noble Truths.
Heck, even the classic dictum comes to mind: Know thyself. What does that mean, and how can it help?
On top of this, there are some interesting parallels between some of the more extreme intellectuals (like Archimedes ) and certain spiritual figures. Perhaps its due to the detachment from worldly affairs fostered by the seeking of inward goals?
The rest of this article is a somewhat meandering rumination on this.
What is the connecting thread?
Could this thread be the power of the question and all it implies? I speak not of a specific question, but any question, provided it is honestly asked. A question so asked may be worth more than a thousand answers.
What is an honestly asked question? It is a question asked without preconceived notions of what the answer should be. It is a question asked with an open mind that awaits any discovery, even if it only deepens the question. It is a question that understands truth to be what we honestly confront. It is a question that understands that dishonesty is not just how we relate to others — but much more importantly — how we relate to ourselves.
The question can be what we normally think of when we think of questions. Or it can be a study of some subject. It can even be a look within. The question is simply a turning of the attention to passive receptiveness.
However it is “asked”, such questions transform us — at least in that moment. We stop doing, we stop trying to be anything, we stop trying to reconcile experience with expectations. In that moment, we simply pay attention and are in the moment.
Since much of our troubles stem from our battle with experience, the ability to let go of all that is freedom. In that moment, we surrender, for we are consumed with the desire to know. Our surrender is ever purer, because it is not intentional for even in the attempt to surrender, there is an element of obstinacy that tries to drag our own wills to the act. Will trying to be will-less.
The true question is surrender. It is honesty. It is curiosity.
When I am curious, I simply want to know. My only desire is to see what comes next, and so I cannot be disappointed for disappointment requires that I expect something to be this or that. When curious, I simply want to know what it is.
I can remember encountering things for the first time. There was no expectation, no posturing, just a loss of myself in wonder.
To be curious is to be a beginner. Beginners are open. They have no agenda, no investment, they don’t even know enough to know what is and is not “worthwhile”. Theirs is the Eden of pure discovery. Then they eat the fruit and are cast out into the world of ego and expectation.
To be an “expert” is to close the mind, to treat knowledge as another asset, an ego prop, and to treat every newcomer — be it in the form of new information, a new expert or a dissenting opinion — as a threat instead of a discovery. This happens because knowledge stops being the goal and becomes a means to an end.
The joy of knowledge is rarely thwarted, but the search for external goods often is.
Can we be as the babes again — the beginners — and find our way back to Eden? Can we be experts while still being beginners? Is a heartfelt “I don’t know anything” the password to get back in? Was Socrates onto more than we think when he said he was the wisest of men because he knew that he knew nothing?
The question was powerful enough that Socrates died rather than stop asking.
Is humility a pre-requisite to curiosity? How can we open to knowledge unless we admit ignorance, even of the things we thought we knew?
Is spirituality in what we seek or our attitude? There are spiritual materialists who measure attainment and seek status. There are also material spiritualists, who take their delight in what they do for its own sake. An example of the latter may be Paul Erdos, the mathematician who forewent money, a home, and much to pursue math. .
When I imagine Erdos, I imagine him happy — far happier than most people will ever be. His was a life consumed by true intellectualism. He was an expert, yet he maintained the openness of a beginner for he loved his field for its own sake.
Is it a coincidence that some of the true intellectuals were de facto ascetics — not because they self-consciously tried, but because they naturally turned within? Could it be that the inward turn is easier if we turn TO something rather than AWAY FROM something?
Francis Bacon said: “Seek ye first the good things of the mind, and the rest will either be supplied or its loss will not be felt.”
To understand the premises of the spiritual search is to be enlightened, and perhaps the paths are a Plan B if we miss that subtlety, which we usually do. It is hard to practice and not expect some mark of attainment. It is hard to encounter a base emotion that should have been conquered years ago, confront its continued existence and all it implies.
The beginner may have the advantage here, with novelty helping and no expertise to hinder.
Is philosophy an attempt to return to beginnings? Philosophy studies the fundamentals, things we should be experts in. What could be more basic than ontology, ethics, happiness? We have spent our lives with these, and even lived our lives by their (sometimes tyrannical) dictates. Yet when we study them, what answers do we find? Philosophy is still grappling with these questions to this day.
Yet philosophy keeps going back. No answers are found, but the philosophical inquiry transforms. It is the power of the question, and the question is now turned to the foundation of our lives.
So maybe my task is to open myself to the question? How can I do this? Can I cultivate curiosity? Can I make it a habit to learn for its own sake? Will this seep into my life? Can I develop my curiosity to the point that I can seek knowledge in even the most painful of my experiences with the attitude of a detached observer?
Is this enlightenment?
Is this one answer to the question of what will keep me going if I conquer my desires?