The problem of neurosis is this. Why is it so difficult to be natural: to be straight-forward, to be in tune with one's instincts? Why do we worry unnecessarily and then, when we worry appropriately, think that there is something wrong with us? Why do we preserve a secret self that we dare not show to the world? When we consider the question in this last form, it becomes apparent that the answer does not lie entirely within oneself. We live a thoroughly unnatural existence. We were not really evolved for this. Yet, even in terms of what we were evolved for – which was probably to live in small relatively isolated family groups, perhaps in the savannah or forest margins or perhaps on the coast, gathering, hunting and fishing, it is still not that easy to live naturally. People in less economically developed lands do tend to be happier and more carefree and have less of the hang-ups and neuroses characteristic of civilisation, but they still have complicated lives that are a good deal less than enlightened. Life can still be “nasty, brutish and short”.
To Stop Trying is Not So Easy
This is also a basic spiritual question. Really, to be natural and to be enlightened are much the same thing. We say: When Shakyamuni is, was and will be enlightened, he realised no birth. What does this mean? One thing that it means is that you are what you are, you were what you were and you will be what you will be and this is not something that you should be ashamed of. There is a basic paradox. We will make things happen when we stop trying to make things happen. We shall be more how we should be when we stop trying to make ourselves be the way we think we should be. This applies whatever it is that we think we should be – more of a saint, a more effective gangster, a better parent, the most cynical person on the planet, whatever. We shall be perfect when we stop trying to be perfect at whatever it is. At a subtle level we are caught in a problem of control. The problem of life is caused by will displacing willingness.
Perhaps we think we have to heal the past, but the past is past and, anyway, is not exactly how we remember it to have been. Perhaps we feel we have to guarantee the future, but the future will not be what we expect. Perhaps we feel that there is something wrong in the present time, but the present time is what it is. Perhaps we think there should not be so much suffering in the world. A noble thought and, in itself ,quite natural. However, even while I write these words somewhere some animal has probably just been ripped to pieces by another one for its dinner. I did not do anything to cause nor to prevent it. Am I, therefore, guilty? In one sense yes and in one sense no. No in the obvious sense. Yes in the sense that I willingly and wilfully participate in this life in which suffering is an intrinsic dimension. This latter kind of guilt is built in. One has to take it on without being crippled by it and without running away from it. Much of our supposedly self-improving is actually just the working out of deep existential guilt.
The life of Shakyamuni is instructive in that he only arrived after swinging from one extreme to the other. Mostly, we try to reduce our swings or hide them, but he really went for it. He swung as far as one can go in the direction of self-indulgence and then in the direction of self-punishment. He gave them both a good try. This must mean that, thereafter, he knew them and knew them in a way that most people do not. We could say that he had tested self-power to its limit and found it lacking.
There is a world of difference between knowing in one's bones and knowing in one's head. So it was quite natural for him to not fall into extremes later, not because he had a theory about the middle path, and not because he was constantly monitoring himself for tendencies toward error, but because he knew it in the same way as a person who has been burnt does not put their hand in the fire again. He did have such a theory and he did monitor himself effectively, but these were only means to implement what he felt deeply from experience. When we have the theory and/or the technique we are liable to think that that is what matters, but they are not much use without the deeper knowledge.
So some of the reason that we live unnatural lives is that we continue to be ignorant of what this artificiality is doing to us and we are party to that ignorance – we have a range of strategies to perpetuate it. This wilful ignorance is called avidya. This is one reason why a large part of Dharma training is unlearning rather than learning. A second reason is that learning is one of our strategies.
The modern educated person has a tendency to confuse knowing and knowing about. Knowing about something is not he same as knowing it. I know a certain amount about China but i have never been there. Actually, I probably know more about China than I do about Korea, but I have been to Korea several times. I know Korea in a quite different way to the way I know China. There are many people who know Dharma in the way that I know China.
So, in a funny kind of way, we can say that in the modern circumstance it is quite natural to be unnatural. You would be, wouldn't you? In fact, being natural in this kind of world is rather unnatural, in a certain way. Such is the paradox of modern life. Enlightened people are likely to be seen as odd.
Such Faith is Rare
However, as I said earlier, this is not just a problem of modern society. Much about modern society exacerbates it, but there are also universal human factors. Relationships are always complicated, even if you live in a cave, and they put pressure on the individual to betray his or her deeper instincts, yet we cannot live without them. This is a challenge to develop relationships of a kind that are supportive of liberation - what we call sangha. To do so requires a faith that transcends ephemeral circumstance, and even long lasting circumstantial conditions, and such faith seems to be rare.