Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Garden of the Good Life Part 2

Planting The Seeds.

Once we have laid the foundations of our garden, laid the soil, laid the mind to a state of relative serenity. There are no fires to put out, no disasters to deal with. We can now take some time to build for a better life. We can start to plant the seeds necessary for the cultivation of well being. What could these seeds be? I’ll offer some examples that we may wish to grow to better ourselves and our communities in which we reside.

Its useful to consider what ideas we may have of community. Aurelius considers us to be made for each other, like limbs connected to the tree of life. We do not live alone, we need other people like a left foot needs a right one. Most religions place community and ideas of respecting and loving one another as yourself. Any conception of the good life must consider our treatment and view of other people.


The first seed I would plant is the seed of tolerance. John Stuart Mill captured the essence of tolerance in this line “Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest”. The caveat is of course we should not tolerate the intolerant.

Any semblance of civilisation should be based on tolerance, from its institutions to the family to the individual person. Tolerance is living by your own lights and letting others live by theirs. It is of course not an easy state to obtain. Many hurdles may have to be overcome to see the world in such kindly light. Upbringing, education, past experience, suspicion and fear of others. Zen Buddhism talks of something that is similar to tolerance though distinctly different is lovingkindness. Even if we cannot obtain or even if its possible to obtain such a state of universal love, tolerance is something that we can and should obtain.


Generosity is listed as the first perfection of the Buddha. Generosity without thought as to who the person is or what we might get back (if anything) in return. We should give to ease the suffering of other people. Natural, unprompted giving is an expression of mind that is non-attached or one of non-greed, not clinging not clasping. Even sharing with other people, our friends and family. We should also be generous in our praise of other people. To be happy not jealous when they succeed. Being generous however is not a simple commandant to be followed. We should experience a lighter happier state of mind when performing such actions which lessen the mind to attachments and promote bonds with people.


Though it is not a hard and fast rule that educated or knowledgeable people are more ethical or happier. I do think there is a substantial link to suggest that there is. There is a difference of course between intelligence, knowledge and wisdom which I wont discuss here. I’m not really talking about school education but a kind of curiosity, an awe of the world. I feel incredibly lucky to live in this time and place. To be privileged to know so much that thousands of smarter men and women before me did not know. I believe an interest in the arts and sciences is vital. Arts especially which make us identify with people such as literature or certain films especially foreign or radically different ones to our typically parochial perspective. We should travel, talk to as many different people as possible. Immerse ourselves in other cultures. These things can help sow the seeds of tolerance. As Socrates was claimed to say an “unexamined life is not worth living”. As such learning should be one of the driving forces in our life. We should learn that there is a deep well of universal human nature on this planet. That people are motivated by much the same needs and wants. This cuts both way of course, love and compassion and altruism are ever present but so to are ignorance, delusion and racism.

Reason and detachment from delusion.

Can we say that Nazi Germany was a exemplar of reason when it purported to believe that it was a master race descended from Norse Gods? Was burning books, invading other countries and murdering six million Jews really the end product of reason? We don’t need such striking examples to show that reason and delusion are like love and hate in our discussion of the good life. Consider the jealous and suspicious husband who when drinking hits his wife and utters sexual obscenities over her supposed transgressions. His wife is not cheating of course, its all in his head. He is guilty off not using his reason (as well as compassion and restraint) and acting under a drink induced delusion.

Reason is the exercise of intelligence to construe the world in a way that purports to reality. Delusion is living with ideas, opinions and beliefs that do not meet the necessary burden of proof. Following on from delusion is dreaming and wish thinking. Dreaming is of course useful but all to often it carries over into the real world. How we view ourselves, our lives, other people and the world itself.

In life we have to be brave and put our dreams or comforting delusions away. Our attachment to such states is a source of our suffering. The Buddha said of our thoughts can be likened to “water in a cup. If the cup is filled with dirty, stale water, it is useless. Only after the old water is thrown out can the cup become useful.”

Best and Be Well.

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