Sunday, September 30, 2012

East and West: A Philosophical Push and Pull

     Jill and I spend a lot of our time talking.  We talk when we eat.  We talk when we work together.  We talk when we are in the car.  And with all that talking comes quite a bit of philosophical musing.  The other day over dinner we started to discuss ideas about what makes people in our culture work the way they do and for the things they work for.  If you have been following our blog at all you know that since we were married, we have been working at finding happiness, in part by simplifying our lives and living deliberately.  We have seen quite clearly that when material goods are not your principle goal happiness is much easier to find.  Now you also know (again, if you have been reading our blog) that we are hardly hermits, and that we have acquired many things; a new house, a chicken coop, shed, lots of tools, quite a few animals, and plenty of land that needs tending and stewardship.  But all of these things have been acquired with the goal of becoming more self-sustaining and in order to find pleasure in a more "earthy" lifestyle.  Contrary to the apparent fads visible on the internet, it is not possible to be both a true minimalist and a self-sufficient homesteader (try the latter, and you will soon see why), but both philosophies are born out of the same ideals:  A greater appreciation of every aspect of life yields a greater amount of joy from a smaller quantity of stimuli.
     These are ideals that Jill and I are capturing, and we believe that the fact that we live in a nearly constant state of great joy bears out this concept.  And so we are often bemused by so many of our friends, family members, and co-workers who slave like dogs to purchase things, the possession of which demands that they work even harder to maintain them:  The end result being that they are never able to enjoy the things they have worked so hard to get, and real happiness eludes them still.  We want to just shake them and say:  "Look!  Just give that stuff up.  Logically reevaluate your priorities and you will see just how easy it is to avoid stress and find joy."  But we also realize that our culture has engrained this kind of behavior in people over the past few generations (i.e. since the Great Depression).  The Baby Boomers, fearing to go through what their parents went through, dedicated themselves to material acquisition, and that attitude has been passed down.  The American Dream has been redefined from "America:  Where you can make yourself into whatever you want to be," to "America:  Where you can get whatever you want to get."
     America is the heart of what has been known as the "Protestant Work Ethic."  Those words conjure up images of earthy Pilgrims with bones of iron and wills of steel, and quiet, resolute, unflagging Pennsylvania Dutch.  In the time of the Protestant Revolution, work was seen as a spiritual pursuit:  You worked to prove that you merited God's blessing and approbation, and through hard work you were purified and made into a better man.  But as our country has become increasingly more secular, and even religion has become more and more about external appearances, that spiritual aspect of labor has disappeared.  And when that aspect is taken away, all you have left is the tangible end result of work which is "stuff" and "things."  So it is no surprise to see how the Protestant Work Ethic has shifted quietly into present day Materialism.
     Thinking and talking about the Western attitude towards work and happiness, and how it got derailed along the way, led us to look, by way of contrast, at the Eastern philosophies.  Overall, it seems safe to say that the Eastern ideal is to reject materialism and focus on the immaterial, spiritual, and intangible.  Concepts such as maya (that reality is an illusion) and reincarnation reinforce the idea that one's focus should be directed away from the cares and distractions of the world, as these are not capable of producing any real happiness.  However, it is very possible to take this attitude too far as well, to the point where some sects of monks, for example, become a burden on the populace, incapable of supporting themselves.  It is no surprise that the Mao's Cultural Revolution saw no place for religion in a new China.
     It is also easy to see how stereotypes of the East and West are easily engrained in peoples' minds.  Many people in the West see those in the East as lazy dreamers that spout ambiguous maxims, perhaps as they sit on top of a Tibetan mountain, or under a tree along the Ganges, living off the charity of their followers.  And the stereotype of Westerners as grasping covetous cold workaholics is just as prevalent.
     But the truth of the matter is that both East and West have something in common - something that is vital to success, and yet easily misdirected:  Drive.  Drive is the ambition to grow, attain, and succeed, but if the end goal is not firmly set, one's drive will miscarry, and the harder one tries, the further they end up from true success and happiness.  I am reminded of the admonition to be in the world, but not of the world.  The core of this counsel is balance.  We are to be in the world, which is to say that work and material gain are not in and of themselves evil, but rather a part of the human experience on this earth.  However, we are not to be "of the world," which suggests that we should not let the worldly things become our primary focus, but only a pathway.  We must balance work on one hand, and the metaphysical and intangible on the other.  This is how we become a whole person, and our drive will carry us to a noble and worthy goal, rather than to empty extremes.
     There are many ways to assure that your goals are noble, but they all call for a good dose of introspection and honest analysis.  Getting carried away is usually the result of not paying attention.  By looking at your priorities and values, by analyzing them and stripping away whatever is superfluous or ill-conceived, and by focusing your drive on what is left, you are far more likely to achieve real happiness.  In that regard, it is clear that the aphorism from the temple at Delphi is a true key to finding happiness:  "Know thyself."  If we can look honestly at ourselves, we learn what things are most likely to bring us joy, and what will be found to be hollow and empty.

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