How should we live?

Why do we ask this question, and what does it imply? It implies, doesn’t it, that we are looking for rules, for some kind of ideology or moral code by which to live our lives? Seeing the prevalence of misery and chaos in the world, and experiencing pain and sorrow in our own lives, we ask if there are rules we can follow that will set the world to rights or at least bring some improvement.

What is implied in living by rules? It implies conforming to an idea, doesn’t it? But ideas do not equip us for meeting and understanding life. On the contrary, they limit us because ideas are only conceptual structures, collections of symbols on a page. Once formulated they are fixed, although we may debate their interpretation. Life, by contrast, is constantly changing, endlessly subtle and complex. So to meet life with ideas is to do it an injustice; it is to impose a narrow formula on an infinite field.

Why do we want to live by rules? Is it because we feel compassion and want to make the world a better place? If so, compassion itself will guide our actions; we do not need rules to muddy the waters. Or do we want rules because we are afraid of disorder, afraid of having no path or guide? If so, inventing a path won’t solve this problem; on the contrary, it can only compound our confusion.

This is not to suggest that we should not have guidelines, which can be useful for reminding us of life’s essential truths. The dictum ‘Do unto others…’, for example, reminds us of the value of empathy and consideration. But if we follow it out of a desire to be morally righteous or spiritually safe, the hypocrisy of our actions will ultimately lead to conflict.

Rather than asking how we should live, let us consider how we are living now. If we can understand why we live as we do, that very understanding may free us to live intelligently and harmoniously.

At present, most of us are primarily concerned with fulfilling our personal needs and desires, tempered perhaps with concern for the needs of our immediate families and friends. We have fixed opinions, rigid convictions, non-negotiable beliefs; we identify ourselves with nations, religions, ethnic groups and ideologies; we are acquisitive and ambitious; we are, if we are really honest with ourselves, deeply insecure. None of this is conducive to collective or even individual wellbeing; on the contrary, it is a recipe for unhappiness and violence.

Condemning self-concern has no value; you only condemn what you do not understand. What has value is to understand the roots and causes of self-concern. These lie in the fact that we have been conditioned from birth to experience life as separate selves, isolated in our own private worlds of pain and pleasure, comfort and strife. This sense of separateness may be partly innate, but it is reinforced by our culture and conditioning. The simple act of being given a name reinforces the belief that we are separate. Assigning names to everything around us and acquiring a conceptual view of the world compounds the illusion of separateness to the point where we accept it as ‘the way things are’.

It is the feeling of separateness that causes our chronic sense of insecurity and insufficiency – discomforts we try to allay by acquiring property, status, beliefs and so forth. But acquisition does not bring fulfilment or security; on the contrary, it only reinforces the feeling of being separate.

We can be free of the sense of separateness only when we understand the psychological processes from which it arises. This doesn’t require a university degree, but it does require a willingness to reappraise the way we are living now and to examine the processes of our thinking in our everyday lives. Only by inquiring honestly – which implies putting aside all our beliefs and assumptions – can we discover the limitations of thought and end the illusion of the self.