The other day in New York City I was talking with a friend of mine about possible reasons for such a strong need in humans for an ideology – a religion, a philosophy, a new-age system and alike. Why is there always a seemingly endless queue of happy customers for just about any possible type of ideology?
Then it dawned on me – since the purpose of ideologies is to help us make some sense of the world, they offer us a model of the world and provide us with answers. This way they seemingly take the dilemmas away, especially these existential dilemmas, the most annoying ones. You know, the big four existential dilemmas about freedom/responsibility, death, isolation and meaninglessness.
Yes, this is what an ideology does – if you go for one, you are suddenly provided with all the answers, about life, death, future, nature of things, nature of yourself… Everything is suddenly clear, you have gotten rid of the stressful and frightening dilemmas and you are fine. As long as you stick to these answers you are safe, you will not be disturbed, you will have the comforting feeling that you know what your life is all about. It’s like a drug, isn’t it? Creating an illusion that your existence has no unknown realms, everything has been explored, there’s nothing to be afraid of, everything is clear. Just don’t forget to give some donation on your way out of the temple. And make sure you don’t ever question the provided universal answers.
This may be the reason why I find it so hard to communicate with people who belong to religious or new-age ideologies – whenever I express a dilemma of mine (like, oh, I am really wandering about the purpose of what I am doing in my life, for instance) they instantaneously jump with an answer (yes, but but but you must, you have to, it is like this, it is like that…).
I guess it all has to do with the ability to face and live with the unknown. To face the fact that there are and will always be these existential dilemmas around in our lives and they will not be ultimately answered – until the moment of death at least. Because all the possible insights into the nature of our existence are inherently embedded in so many contexts that they cannot ever be reliable. Yes, letting go of the illusion of knowing and sinking back into the humble role of ignorant explorer can be frightening. But you get used to it and start using the sentence: “I don’t know” more often again. Perhaps this is what Suzuki meant when he said that the true goal of Zen practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind, since only the beginner’s mind, the mind of the not-knower is free of self-centeredness and involves true openness to the complexity of existence. Tomorrow I am leaving for a Zen seshin retreat and I will have plenty of time to climb another few rungs out of the illusion that I know anything at all, and explore the beginner’s mind.