We all have the same road to walk from birth to death. And along this path we all fight the same battle between our base nature, that which prioritises our own needs, and our higher nature, that which sets us apart from the beast and is founded on love.
In essence this struggle is not religious though you can make it so. It is a struggle faced by people of all religions and none. Indeed it is a battle fought more nobly by the thinking atheist than by the nominally religious hedonist whose highest expression of love is that found in mere piety.
As transcendent as truth, the higher values are indestructible and eternal. The question is whether we cleave to the light or cleave to the dark side. The dark side has its own beauty. It is not something easily shrugged aside in an instant. It has a deep attraction and its own awesome power and value.
This dark side, this most primeval aspect of our nature, is founded on four key urges, urges that are for the most part, of themselves, each enormously important. They are:
And these aspects of our nature are in some degree essential. Without them our species would never have got past the starting block.
These core attributes stand in stark contrast to the qualities that define and express our higher nature. These are:
These too are present in each and every one of us, at least in some measure, and have been part of our nature since the beginning. Their sum total is best expressed in the one word, “Compassion”. Note that their expression is not confined to humanity; the higher mammals are quite capable of acts of selfless compassion, from the dramatic, as when the dolphin saves the drowning child, to the commonplace, as when the dog licks the hand of the lonely stranger.
There are some however, the emotionally disabled, who feel little compassion for the other, and whose universe is full to bursting with their own needs, their own troubles, their own personal hopes and desires, to such a degree that there is little room for anything else.
These poor ones, these emotionally impaired quasi-sociopaths, need our help most desperately. They are on a rollercoaster ride to a uniquely terrible hell of their own making. For unless the most natural drive of all, that materialism expressed in the adage, “He who dies with the most toys wins”, that predatory drive for hegemony over the other and self-preservation at all cost, is tempered by our higher nature, we are indeed a doomed species whose lusts can never be sated.
So let’s reach for the stars. And let’s start with the most fundamental of all qualities, that of purity.
At the outset, it should be clear that purity has nothing to do with piety, though the two are not mutually exclusive. Nor is purity some virginal quality denied to the worldly wise.The word “purity” means many things to many people. However, there are five key elements, key aspects of purity. They shine like beacons. For you the definition of purity may have other elements, or perhaps you would restrict purity to some state of sexual abstinence, of non-exploitation of the other. We make choices here. The following list is inevitably subjective
- LISTENING: The first key element, or perhaps pre-requisite, in any state of purity is the ability to listen. That means finding the space and time in the hubbub that is modern life to commune with the inner voice. For the religious that may mean communing with their God. But the still small voice deep within can be accessed by all, saint, sinner and atheist alike. There is a paradox in that. You do not have to be good to be pure. Goodness may be valuable, indeed is valuable, but it is not the quality we speak of here per se. Those who are pure subject themselves to guidance. They listen. They are capable of being still
- RESPECT FOR LIFE: An absolute respect for life is the second great requirement, or pre-requisite, for those that wish to attain purity. Gandhi took this to an extreme, regarding vegetarianism as key for any advocate of purity. The taking of life is, for many from the Indian subcontinent brought up in the Hindu tradition, anathema. That may or may not be an element in your personal path to purity. The South American Indian, it is said, will share the practice of the Bushmen of the Kalahari, a practice that is common to many primitive societies, that of thanking the animal you kill for surrendering its life to feed you, that of treating your prey with respect. Some in the Jewish tradition have a heightened respect for human life. Similarly in the Muslim tradition it is written that to save one life is as if you had saved the world, and to kill one human being is as if you had killed all, so great the error. And perhaps the defining quality of modern humanism is respect for life. Without respect for life we are inevitably less than completely pure
- NON-VIOLENCE: Is non-violence a pre-requisite for purity? Some would argue that it is. Now we must choose our words carefully here. We do not mean pacifism. Gandhi, whose views on purity are particularly worthy of respect, viewed the concept of pacifism as a potential excuse for cowardice. For Gandhi, non violence was proactive and involved putting yourself at risk if necessary. But is the extreme form of Gandhiesque non-violence essential for the pure in heart? Martin Luther who was not especially noted for being an advocate of non-violence, believed that it was wrong to defend yourself but right to defend the other. He was not, primarily, concerned with issues of war and peace when he said this. He was irritated by self-defence when it came to the brickbats of life. He felt that to expend energy on defending your reputation was a distraction and should be left to others. For others non-violence is conditional on the nature of your opponent. The adage “Do not hurt or fight with gentle people”, being one way of putting the concept being advocated here. Could the soldier who lays down his life for a cause greater than himself or herself be pure in heart? Yes, he or she could. But not, arguably, the soldier who accepts collateral damage, or the collective punishment of a people for the sins of the few, even were that soldier ordered to take that action. The pure in heart could never, would never, harm a non-combatant. In essence, this form of non-violence is an attitude of mind, an attitude that is so predicated on a respect for life that to cause harm to another is gravely disturbing, and certainly not an action undertaken for mere self-defence
- SEXUAL PURITY: It had to come to this did it not? We cannot avoid the issue, the core issue, of sexual purity. Since the beginning of time there are those that have advocated one rule for the goose and another for the gander in this context. The famous line from ‘The King and I’ is à propos: It is natural for the bee to go from flower, to flower, to flower; not for the flower to go from bee, to bee, to bee. Banish such disparity of thought. What applies to the male applies to the female.Are we talking of Bible Belt purity, whereby the homosexual is condemned? Assuredly no. Are we talking of purity in the Judeo-Christian tradition, whereby we place the concept of marriage centre-stage and regard all else as, at best, fornication, and therefore to be condemned? Well no, not exactly. Indeed there are many, many, many in the modern world who enter into relationships that involve life-long cohabitation and total commitment but that never marry. What then? Our sexuality is primal. It is a dominant force in both the male and the female.So wherein lies sexual purity? Sexual purity involves the abnegation of the predator within. Promiscuity, a practice that so often involves sexual predation, is fundamentally impure. The sexual betrayal of the other to whom your commitment was absolute is impure. Taking without giving, the exploitation of the other, is impure. Divorce, at the expense of children, is almost always impure. ‘Almost always’ because to remain trapped in an abusive relationship is also impure in so much as it is an abnegation of honesty out of mere moral cowardice. Sexual purity means exactly what it says on the label. It means valuing the other and not entering into sexual relationships for mere gratification. We are talking here of a demanding concept that avoids and indeed condemns mere lust. It requires a vigilance that is 24/7. Sexual purity is no commonplace path. It transcends action and is an attitude of mind. It is not, and has never been, easy.
- THE AVOIDANCE OF MATERIALISM: Curious is it not, that there is no obvious word to describe the opposite of materialism. Our world is supremely materialistic. For many, financial security is the ultimate goal. The acquisition of wealth and its trappings of wealth consumes the energy of fully half the world. But should such a base instinct be our main driving force? We are too often like magpies, salting away treasures we do not need, or even truly want, for the mere gratification that security provides. It is understandable. It is an easy measure by which to gauge our self-worth in comparison to that of the next man or woman. And it is not merely that we need more. It is comfortable to have more and more and more in abundance. We enjoy luxury and comfort. Can that be wrong? The acquisition of wealth is dangerous, most particularly when that acquisition means the accrual of more than we need. The pursuit of wealth for wealth’s sake is impure. It is honourable to pursue a credible goal and to accrue material wealth in order to facilitate that work. It is dishonourable to make mere financial gain our ultimate objective.
What then of honesty? What do we talk of when we talk honesty? The kind of honesty that means we declare the truth to the taxman?
No actually, admirable though that may be. To make pecuniary transparency the sole focal point of our effort to be honest is to completely miss the mark.
Honesty goes way beyond mere pedantic truth.
Honesty means righteousness. It means being straight as an arrow is straight. Straight as a die. Honesty means transparency without hubris. It means what you see is what you get. It means a life led without pretence.
Honesty means enabling trust. The person who trusts can never be mistaken, only betrayed. The honest are those who can be trusted in all circumstances. Those whom we can believe knowing they will not deceive us.
We live in a world in which the media is pervaded with half truth, xenophobia and disinformation. We at least must be cut from finer cloth.
This matters in the little things in life. We have to be reliable. If we say a thing is so, it should be so. If we say we will do a thing, we should do it. An important element in the pursuit of absolute honesty is learning to say, “No”. We should not make promises we cannot keep.
So to reiterate: Honesty goes way beyond the mere pedantry of personal truth telling. Honesty means being both transparent and reliable.
And a footnote here. Honesty is too often used as an excuse for the kind of personal candour that borders rudeness. That is not righteous honesty. That is an abuse of truth that represents the gravest deceit for it is self-serving and cruel. Truth not tempered with compassion is a kind of truth that is gravely dishonest and should be exposed for what it is.
The honest are never cruel.
Selflessness is perhaps the most empowering of all the absolutes. In the broadest sense there are three great fears, great burdens we carry. These are the three Ds: Disease, Debt and Death.
We are so frightened by the disabling power of sickness, of disease and consequent disempowerment. The fear of disability, and ultimate decrepitude, stalks us all.
For many of us, debt, and / or the lack of the wherewithal to sustain the life to which we are accustomed, is also terrifying. This self-concern can become so total, so obsessive, that it has on occasion driven poor souls to suicide. And for a substantial percentage of this world’s population, making ends meet is a daily problem of gargantuan proportions.
And then there is death, the great leveller. The grimmest of prospects for most of us. There are the privileged few for whom death holds no terror. Those whose religious faith is total fall into this category, as may those few who are so sanguine, so at peace with themselves, that they face this ultimate challenge with equanimity. They are lucky. For most of us mere mortals, the prospect of the leap into the unknown to face either judgement or oblivion is daunting to say the least.
What a treasure then is selflessness. If we lift our thought, through diligence and daily discipline, to such a degree that concern for others consumes us and our own concerns become mere dross, how empowering that is. As we fill our hearts with love for the other day by day through life, even to the moment of death itself, how supremely we are protected. Selflessness is the ultimate remedy for all of life’s ills.
To fail to be selfless is to descend into the miasma of selfishness encapsulated by the Arab proverb that goes, “My toothache is worse than a hundred dead in Jerusalem”. There is a middle road of course, which most of us travel, whereby we have our self concerns but also have some measure of compassion for the other. That middle road simply will not do. It is not truly empowering. Only to be absolutely selfless is to be free from fear, empowered, liberated in every sense from the dross that drags us down, day by day, as we travel through this beautiful but broken life.
And again, the obvious needs stating: To be selfless means we must disavow spitefulness, which means we must be concerned for all, not just our friends. Selflessness, to be effective, requires that we be compassionate and caring of our enemies as well as our friends. Selflessness goes hand in hand with forgiveness. It was ever thus.
And so finally to love, the fourth of the absolutes in this particular sequence but by no means the least. Love, the sum total of compassion.
Perhaps less needs stating here because this clarion call is so evident, signal in its vital importance.
For many the zenith of love is encapsulated by the so called golden rule: “Do unto others as you would be done by.” It makes for a good maxim. But to be truly effective, love is more than mere action. Love is a state of mind in which we embrace more than humanity, in which we care for all that is, that has been, and ever will be.
Love is a state of empathy with the transcendent universe, just as love is the affection a mother shows for a child. And love is exactly that total, for a mother’s love for one child is total and if she has another child the love for the first is not diminished but the love for the second is also total. Thus it is that love is limitless. If we can but weep all of our tears and laugh all of our laughter and throw ourselves bodily into the ocean of love, there is no end to what we may achieve, to what we may become.Loving matters. It is our ultimate goal. To love without boundaries, to love without constraint, is to change the world whether we mean to or not.