I backpacked a lot in southern Arizona when I was in high school. I’d disappear with a couple of friends on the backside of Mt. Lemmon or hike deep into the high desert above Sabino Canyon. I’d be gone from 4-7 days and lived completely off the grid. No music, no timekeeper, and certainly no phone. On some trips we never saw another soul.
Even as a kid, these excursions helped me to appreciate how wonderful life can be living unencumbered by technology and possessions, with little more than the natural beauty of nature to enjoy. I even recall telling myself at some point, that I never want more possessions than I can throw in a backpack!
The worst part of my ventures came during the end of the hike while preparing to return back to civilization. The morning was usually spent eating everything I could to lighten my load. Then an uneasy anxiety would set in as I thought about the stresses of returning back to the pressures of life as a sixteen-year-old. I could feel these stresses building with each step on the way down. Eventually, we would start passing other hikers coming up the trail, and the sprawling expanse of the city of Tucson came into view. By the time we’d reached the parking lot, the metallic drone of the urban had slain the sounds of nature behind me.
I envy the caveman of yesteryear
Finding balance in life must have been so easy for them. For if I was a caveman who lived 20,000 years ago in the same mountains I hiked in as a kid, I could see myself being plenty content just sitting by a warm crackling fire chomping on a coyote thigh with a good woman by my side. Good in the sense that she could de-thorn a prickly pear cactus, dress a carcass, and tend to the children. (It’d call this achieving equanimity the primal – chauvinist – way!)
But if by chance I ate the wrong colored mushrooms one evening, traveled forward in time, and gazed at the city lights of Tucson twinkling far below my perch in the mountains, I would have been terrified. Because lurking in that city virtually everything happening in modern life would have ruined my peace of mind. Stuff like car payments, taxes, Covid-19, rent due, poverty, traffic, angry people waving signs, racial discrimination, late school busses, police brutality, people living in makeshift blue vinyl caves on city streets, dog licensing fees, water shortages, and . . . well, these are just the little factors.
Here’s a few of the major factors which prevent us from achieving balance in life:
- the demands placed upon us by our culture
- the pressures of conforming to social norms
- engaging in the political process and our civic obligations
- dealing with work related issues, colleagues and coworkers
- finding a religion or belief system we can trust – or not!
What I’m getting at is that finding the sweet spot in life is extremely difficult these days. Knowing what you want out of life (as discussed in the opening post to this series) is only a part of the challenge. We also have to “factor in” all these other factors.
Speaking of modern life … don’t we live in fantastic times!? Relative to our cavemen ancestors, there are so many more ways for people to live exciting and engaging lives. Unfortunately, while modern life does offer many options which inspire us to dream big, this exponentially increases the potential for suffering.
On a personal level, the potential for suffering is increased because having more options to succeed equates to having more options to fail. But we also have to consider the vast array of institutions, organizations, businesses, agencies, systems and-the-like that enhance – and to an extent control – much of what we can or cannot do in life. While these organizations enhance our well-being, they also come with their share of ills. More importantly, these organizations are run by people, and people are prone to being human. Which means, that not only do most organized systems run imperfectly, but we may also discover the people who run them to be corrupt, incompetent, greedy, unqualified, insensitive – or possess one of a hundred other undesirable human traits.
It would be too boring to go into all the ways that these minor and major factors cause an imbalance in our lives. We all understand that all of these factors demand our attention in their own, annoying ways. Given that these factors also involve people, well … then we should hope for the best but expect the worst. This may sound defeatist but having this kind of an attitude has a lot to do with achieving balance.
But there is one particular factor that at least deserves an honorable mention. This would be religion, and in particular Christianity. As with the other organized systems mentioned above, it wouldn’t be beneficial to highlight all the pros and cons of Christianity, but it’s important to mention one notable way in which it causes imbalance in the world.
How religious beliefs cause an imbalance in our minds
The beliefs I’m speaking about involve Christianity’s teachings regarding human nature, which in my view are filled with a lot of doom and gloom. Basically, Christianity teaches that human beings are born evil, that we can do little to make life better; and this is because the earth itself has been cursed. This worldview drives the impetus of the faith, which is to encourage disciples to purge themselves of their natural human traits and ways.
The problem with this view of human nature is that it conflicts with the way our brains naturally function. As I talked about in a previous post, we all have needs and wants, which trigger our brains to think in “selfish” ways in order to survive. In addition, our minds have also advanced beyond merely providing for our needs. We now possess wonderful mental qualities (such as desire, motivation, creativity, and many more skills) that permit us to maximize our potential. We use these evolved capabilities not only for selfish reasons that only benefit us personally, but to make life better for everyone.
What Christianity is attempting to do, is purge the brain of its carnal and natural ways and to replace it with a modified view of human nature. This causes a profound conflict of interest, in which disciples attempt to free their brains of their own humanity and replace it with thoughts and mental processes deemed to be more divine. In effect what is really happening, is that the religious mind is trying to convince its own brain that it’s defective. Engaging in this mental futility can cause a severe “imbalance” within the mind.
There is a similar dynamic happening in philosophies such as Buddhism. Whereas Christianity attempts to purge people of selfishness, Buddhism (and other sources of mystical thought) are working hard to prove that the “self” is merely an illusion. These kinds of teachings can also cause a great imbalance in the brain because of the obvious: How can we understand ourselves – who and what we are as individuals– while being taught that our “self” is irrelevant or non-existent?
For me, this represents one of the greatest inexplicable mysteries of life… Why do so many religions and philosophies teach that our own species is fundamentally flawed, and that the only way we can be “enlightened” or “saved” is to escape our own humanity?
Finding balance as a freethinker
As a freethinker, the best way for us to establish balance in our minds is by learning to understand and value human nature. This would include appreciating all of our seemingly, undesirable traits. This can only be achieved by fully embracing our natural or primal desires, if for no other reason than these desires play a key role in our survival.
Using myself as an example … I know that as a human being I am prone to having many faults and deficiencies. I also know I’ve misspoken and said things some found offensive. I may have even done some bad things. (Okay once: I got caught for shoplifting in the 5th grade.) The point is, I expect to screwup many more times for being human, but I just accept these mental glitches as a natural quality of being human. So, I do not require intervention by a religious system to purge me of my own humanity. Having this kind of an attitude about oneself is just one of the things that keeps me in my comfort zone.
I also extend this courtesy to others. I don’t fault people for making mistakes in the past, and I expect people to make just as many mistakes as I will make in the future. We’re all even-Steven in this regard. Accepting my own humanity and extending this curtesy to others gives me a great sense of comfort and balance. I can be less judgmental and more forgiving. Pathways of empathy and compassion can be forged. All this frees me from experiencing much social anxiety, and this contributes to my overall sense of balance.
Yet there is one more way to achieve balance …
If we are willing to accept our own humanity and let others be human too; then we can easily apply this attitude to all the organizations, institutions and systems which seek to rob us of our inner peace every day.
The trick is to keep in mind that all these organizations are run by people, and usually in service to others. Which means, that so much of what happens in life is really beyond our control. It’s not up to us to change the way people act; we can only change the way we act. It’s not up to us to correct how a business operates, how the U.S. Congress should work, or even the price of tax on a gallon of gas. We can do what we can –and should – but we are not responsible for how the world works. Accepting this reality of how life works refines your rational thinking skills, and provides yet another opportunity to feel equanimity when life is not going the way you expect it to go.
In the final post in the series I will look into how we can use meditation to achieve balance in our lives.