A Fundamental Understanding

Earl R Smith II, PhD


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Realization often takes more time because ego and hubris interfere. Presumption is a challenging adversary when it is self-deployed. In an effort to avoid the implications of impermanence, we often work hard to convince ourselves that we are the architects of our lives and the framers of reality.

The foundation of such a strategy is the idea that there is such a thing as “I” or “Me”. The synthetic judgment a priori is that there exists, at our very center, a self which fixes our own identity. That identity carries through a life as a constant. “I am always me.” Sometimes this is referred to as a “soul” or “my immortal soul”. Others might call it “my spirit” or “my essence”. But, no matter what it is called, the basic strategy is the same. To overcome the terrifying reality of impermanence. But, and here’s the rub, impermanence is uninterested in such reactions.

A broader deployment brings an incredible range of denotations. We busily define a world “out there”. Our minds get busy naming and categorizing. Once we have robbed our self of the direct experience of reality, we set out to do the same to the rest of the world as we find it.

A living thing becomes a “tree” and, having so labeled it, we studiously avoid seeing it for what it is. A brother or a sister becomes a “sibling” and our relationship gets reduced to “sibling rivalry”. The result being we neither see the person for who they really are or understand the relationship for what it really is.

But the fact is that our delusions and attempts to reduce both our self and the world as we find it to a rack of dead and dying symbols doesn’t change the nature of things. And that’s the major road. All these efforts – all the tension and striving – all the aggression and passivity – are designed to conquer of fear. That fear is that we are not in control and, without our understanding, the world as we find it would be incomprehensible.

And so, we insist and persist. We describe and proscribe. We push and we pull. Actions become a substitute for understanding. Ego insists on primacy. It insists on being the author of a life and the evidence of understanding. But, deep down, it feels an insecurity. In the face of the unavoidable realization that, if there is any part at all, it is a very small one.

Michael J. “Crocodile” Dundee: Well, you see, Aborigines don’t own the land. They belong to it. It’s like their mother. See those rocks? Been standing there for 600 million years. Still be there when you and I are gone. So, arguing over who owns them is like two fleas arguing over who owns the dog they live on. 

Things as they are are indifferent to our understanding of them. That’s not a bad thing or a good thing. It’s not fatalistic or nihilistic. It’s just the way things are.

So what’s the point? The point is that all we can do is try to make sure that our understanding of things as they are is as close as possible to things as they are. There is an old Zen proverb that puts all of this into perspective:

“if you understand, things are just as they are; if you do not understand, things are just as they are.”

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