Six Ways of Life and One Human Illusion

I wrote these down about a decade ago and thought I would dust them off and share them once again. They don’t say everything about my perspective (leaving out especially my amazement and delight at the intelligence and creativity of the other animals and my insistence that they not be treated like commodities or “resources”). These “ways” came into view for me over the course of an extended period of solitude. A few will be familiar to Buddhists: impermanence and interdependence particularly. But I did not learn them from any religious or spiritual tradition. They are not matters of belief. You can test them against your own experience and verify their validity.

The Way of Not Knowing: Nothing is what it appears to be.

All experience consists of the sensory and mental apparatus of the experiencing organism, not of objective reality. Sensory illusion is relatively trivial compared to mental illusion, which is much more troublesome. Mental illusion filters and obscures our experience so that our ideas about reality can become deeply divided from reality itself. This is the state most of us are in most of the time. Everything known and experienced is at best an echo of reality, and at worst a delusional fiction. The real can’t be known. The known isn’t real. The best we can do is to pay attention to what is actually happening right now, and not get completely lost in thought, while realizing that even the most careful attention yields an imperfect view of reality.

The Way of Interdependence: There is no such thing as a separate thing.

Everything (including humans of course) is and belongs to and contributes to and derives its essential existence from, a system of interrelated systems. A thing cannot be understood outside of its context, outside of its relationships, outside of its interdependencies. This is true at all levels, organismic, ecological, and cosmic. In some sense, the universe is one organism, one being, made up of nested, interactive systems, just as the body is made up of many cells, and many systems that work together, and is host to many organisms on which it depends. Organisms are not really organisms. They are expressions of a system of relationships. The sense of separation that humans often feel is an illusion.

The Way of Impermanence: Nothing lasts forever.

Everything that is born, dies. Everything that arises, falls away or is transformed into something else. Thoughts. Breaths. Heartbeats. Bodies. Species. Suns. Galaxies. Reality is in constant (if sometimes very slow) motion, and always returning to emptiness. For anything to exist at all, it must have a beginning, it must go through multiple transformations, and it must have an end. But that does not give us the right to hasten everything to its demise. It makes existence precious.

The Way of Emptiness: Emptiness Is the Presence of Everything.

Emptiness is the essential nonexistence of the self that believes it is separate from everything else, but it is also much more than that. Emptiness is the immeasurable. Emptiness is often realized in an encounter with something you cannot fully comprehend: a deep love, or a terrible loss; the arrival or departure of another life; or the inscrutable nature of your own mind. Emptiness is the fact that your existence is not separate from the existence of everything else, that everything exists in interrelationship and interdependence, and that reality cannot be controlled or managed or experienced or understood in its vital actuality. The mind can’t grasp it. It’s too big. It’s too complex. It’s too dynamic. It’s too alive. Emptiness is the unfathomable, living presence of everything. Touched by the infinitely unknowable, nothing can ever be the same. Life is so much more than this petty little mind. One of the practical expressions of recognizing the emptiness of life is allowing time to be alone, to be quiet, to be still and to listen. When we fear emptiness, we spend every waking moment trying to fill the world with our noisy selves.

The Way of the Present: Life only exists here and now.

If we live in constant resistance to what and where and when we are, we cannot live fully. If we derive our sense of self from anything other than who and what and where we are right now, we will never be happy. Living in the present is not a task to be achieved. Living in the present is what we do. Always. No matter what. The present is the only reality. It is impossible not to live in the present.
But it is also possible to live in the illusion that the present is not the only reality. Living in time’s illusion means the mind is caught up in obsessing about an imagined past or future. It means investing all of life’s energy in what we might become, or what might have been. It means never noticing what is right here in front of us, and being content with that. Having a good memory, and being able to plan for the future are still relevant and useful in a practical way. It’s just that life is always here and now, not there and then, not maybe someday when everything is perfected.
In short: There is only the present. Whatever is happening, it is happening now. Realize that, and the mind’s desperate attempt to resurrect the past and control the future will probably relax, and things will probably go more smoothly.

The Way of Love: The essential nature of reality is total acceptance of, and movement with, everything exactly as it is.

This is very difficult for most of us to accept. We tend to define ourselves by what we exclude or whom we exclude. Total acceptance of everything exactly as it is feels like an abdication of sensible judgment, if not a kind of annihilation of our sense of self.
Acceptance does not equal approval. There is a lot of bad stuff going on in the world, and most of it is born of our mental illusions. But we cannot come into alignment with reality by denying that things are the way they are or by creating sharp divisions between “us” and “them.” Those divisions exist only in the mind, and obscure our vision.

The Illusion of the Separate Self: There is no separate “self!”

The illusion of the separate self is our attempt to violate the ways that life works. To believe in the fiction of the separate self is to avoid all of these ways, and since these are ways that cannot be avoided, the attempt to do so causes much suffering, for oneself, for others, and for the Earth. The illusion of separation, and it is truly only an illusion, a tale we tell ourselves about ourselves, comes from resisting some aspects of life and clinging to others. Imagine if the “in” breath tried to separate itself from the “out” breath and declare that it alone is eternally real. Death would not be far off.
Be empty, welcoming everything, possessing nothing. That is the way of life.