I want to talk about two important concepts: Appearances and Judgments.
Appearances are things that come to me unbidden. Examples of appearances are: seeing an object, noticing a smell, and hearing a sound. Senses are the most obvious source of appearances, but even the mind can provide appearances, provided it gives me something unbidden. For instance, if I suddenly feel sad or have a thought pop into my head out of nowhere, those too are appearances.
Judgments are thoughts about appearances. Examples of judgments are: deciding the thing I saw was a car, that what I smelled was offensive, the sad feeling meant something was wrong, or the thought that popped into my head was accurate and must be dealt with.
Since thoughts can be appearances and judgments are types of thoughts, can a judgment be an appearance if it seems to pop up of its own accord? Yes. However, these judgment-appearances can come under my control with training, such as meditation.
Well being lies not in appearances, but in judgments, which is great since judgments are more under my control than appearances. Unfortunately, most people seek happiness by trying to fit appearances to judgments rather than changing the judgments themselves.
How does one control an appearance? By altering conditions to encourage/discourage certain appearances. For instance, I can try to earn respect by acting a certain way, avoid burglaries by moving to a different neighborhood, and so on. Yet this is an odds game; at the end of the day, it’s out of my hands, and my degrees of freedom with regards to controlling conditions are limited to begin with.
So reliable well-being lies in addressing judgment, and many paths agree. What follows is a sampling of what some major ones had to say about this.
Yoga is not to be confused with the physical exercises. A common phrase encountered in Yoga is: Withdraw the mind from the senses.
The senses deliver appearances and withdrawing the mind implies a suspension of judgment (among other things) with regards to them.
This quote by Shantideva is a succinct overview:
Where would I possibly find enough leather with which to cover the surface of the earth? But (just) leather on the soles of my shoes is equivalent to covering the earth with it. Likewise it is not possible for me to restrain the external course of things, but should I restrain this mind of mine, what would be the need to restrain all else?
Then there is mindfulness. Mindfulness suspends judgments about appearances, and there’s a useful term that’s often used to describe it: bare attention. One experiences what is, without adding or subtracting:
What is right mindfulness? Here a bhikkhu abides contemplating the body as a body, ardent, fully aware and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world. He abides contemplating feelings as feelings, ardent … He abides contemplating consciousness as consciousness, ardent … He abides contemplating mental objects as mental objects, ardent, fully aware and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world. This is called right mindfulness.
You can read more here.
Furthermore, Buddhism classifies the mind as a sense, thus allowing it to function as a source of appearances.
Previously discussed here, this ancient Greek philosophy is often given this memorable (if somewhat misleading) summary: To find happiness, abandon all beliefs.
Beliefs are not about religion or propositions; they’re best treated as judgments. Pyrrhonists advocate taking appearances as they are, and not going any further — even when going further seems neutral, obvious or harmless. If one suspends judgment (Epoche) one experiences freedom from worry (Ataraxia).
The Discourses of Epictetus has this to say:
Make it your study then to confront every harsh impression with the words, ‘You are but an impression, and not at all what you seem to be’. Then test it by those rules that you possess; and first by this—the chief test of all—’Is it concerned with what is in our power or with what is not in our power?’ And if it is concerned with what is not in our power, be ready with the answer that it is nothing to you.
Dionysius the Areopaite (from here) writes:
Let this be my prayer; but do, dear Timothy, in the diligent exercise of mystical contemplation, leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and nonbeing, that you may arise by unknowing towards the union, as far as is attainable, with it that transcends all being and all knowledge.(1) For by the unceasing and absolute renunciation of yourself and of all things you may be borne on high, through pure and entire self-abnegation, into the superessential Radiance of the Divine Darkness.(2)
To those who argue this is about reaching the Divine, I offer that the Divine is seen as the only true source of happiness. This thus works out to finding happiness, albeit (according to the mystics) an incredibly profound kind.
The results of transforming judgment can be profound. If our personal reality arises from judgments, then changing judgments would change this reality. Judgments give our senses import, solidity and essence. Without them, things seem illusory and we can become more detached from the world. From there, it’s easy to feel we transcended this world, or are even looking into it from another, more real world. This can easily lead to the kinds of dramatic claims common to these paths.
These paths may not aim at the same thing, but they don’t need to in order to share profound similarities. Sometimes, there is a documented historical connection to explain similarities. Other times, not so. But even historical connections may not explain why these teachings found new homes; clearly something was seen in them.
These paths aim at something better than our mundane experience, be it Ataraxia, God, Nirvana, etc… Yet different or not, the path requires transcending our every day experience. Since this experience is the result of our judgments about appearances, then a focus on judgment and appearances is natural.
Environmental factors may also explain these similarities. These are the sorts of views that can result from quiet reflection and a willingness to look critically at life. Well, isn’t this the very intellectual and physical environment shared by (ancient) philosophers, monks and wandering hermits?
Regardless of the path chosen, it helps to have a healthy mistrust of thoughts. To this end, I offer the following quote by Pierre Cabanis as an inspiration and close to this article:
The brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile