What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. (–Ralph Waldo Emerson) This self, after its humble search of wisdom, comes to maturity at middle age, confident in the knowledge that actually nobody knows better how to live. The decision is yours. The risk is yours. The stage is yours. The best freedom life grants you is the freedom to make mistakes. To take risks and to make mistakes are better than to leave a life unlived, which is the worst sin. There are threats and punishments from the establishment. As a fish in a fish bowl, when you jump out, instead of finding the ocean, you may well die of thirst on a waterless table. All the other fish in the bowl, witnessing your terrible end, will celebrate their captivity, their decision to not seek freedom. There is no right or wrong. There is always risk. There is always hope. Walk out of slavery or forever remain in the false peace, it is now or never. At middle age, the inner fire burns into panic, in the hope of final awakening and action-taking. Otherwise it will be too late.
Since this world we are not satisfied with
We will create another world for ourselves
Let the unknown force take us to the unknown path
Along the unknown path to the unknown grand entrance
— Translated from a popular book in China in the 1980s: The Fourth Generation
The world is my playground, though it took me many years to learn the rules. Many of the rules are hidden. Those explicit are often false. Actually, there aren’t that many rules. There are a few iron laws. The rest is left to you to define. Seeing through the false rules and breaking them are part of the fun, not known to those serious people.
The old monk faced the wall of his cave for 10 years, meditating on truth. What we lack in today’s life is long span of silence and solitude. It is considered abnormal and unnatural, if at all available. If you are not working you are supposed to spend time with your family. If you are not married you are supposed to be dating. If you can’t find a date you are supposed to hang out with your friends. Strangers and acquaintances look at you as a weirdo when they hear you just want to be alone. Parents and friends worry about you. Few understand the needs of individuals for long enough spans of silence and solitude. Yet this is essential for us to grow to full human beings. Only with fully-grown human beings can true society come to existence. What we have now is a bunch of intellectual and emotional cripples depending on each other. If nobody is self-contained and self-reliant, there can be no true relationship. Independence must come before interdependence. Unless you are a true individual, you should not attempt to enter into any relationship on equal terms.
What society is developing is in the opposite direction. Social media networking websites make it possible for individuals to stay connected, while the connections grow extremely diluted and superficial. The individual receives endless stimuli from his connections, never needs to face himself. The short and easy exchange makes the telling of deep inside stories impossible. The many updates make one’s attention span very short. No thinking can be done. No deep conversion and thorough exchange of life experience take place. I don’t use Facebook much. If my friends need me, they will write me long meaningful emails. Meantime I don’t need to know the superficial side of their lives. They all appear to be happy and healthy on these media. What they truly want to reveal, they will only reveal to me, and they will find time to do so.
If we want nothing but truth, we shall have no fear or concern, for all paths lead to truth, should we just try less hard to self-deceive. Things are what they are, as stars shine no matter if you look at them or not. We may see partial truth, but more truth will be revealed to us in due time, provided we do not resist.
If what we want is gain or benefit, whatever it may be, then we have a reason to fear, a motive to deceive our originally truthful mental eye. It is from here a thousand complexes spring, a thousand knots multiply, a thousand conflicts emerge, and we are forever at war with ourselves, subject to all kinds of mental disorders.
As a living being we have needs and wants. Therefore the reason to be afraid and the motive to deceive our own mind are always there. For example, in order to survive in a society and civilization, you have to adapt to the dominant orthodox beliefs of your society, also to the many little norms of your civilization. Society and civilization, as systems developed for collective survival and goal-achieving, have an intrinsic tendency to manipulate individuals. Therefore their doctrines and values are often not genuine. This is only a small example. The human mind has many reasons to temporarily or permanently deceive itself to be able to survive, collectively or individually.
All monks try, all philosophers try, all scientists try, to overcome this natural tendency of self-deception, to eliminate this ever-persistent end-gaining mindset, to come to truth, complete truth. To be able to do so is to get beyond the limitation of one single living organism, to have a share of eternity and the infinite universe.
The river flows. Going forward is its only nature. Good things happen to it, bad things happen to it. The river rejoices, moans, suffers, zigzags in unfriendly lands. The harsh mountains try to block it, the vicious deserts try to devour it, the deep valleys try to detain it, the gentle plains try to slow it. It changes its shape under each circumstance, becomes a torrent, a waterfall, a stream, a lake, or a mighty source of irrigation, but the unknown direction is calling, and it eventually takes its leave.
It accepts everything and everyone that comes its way. If they cannot go with it, it leaves them behind and flows ahead. Friends, enemies, all is temporary. The river keeps flowing. Sometimes it becomes dirty and muddy, sometimes it becomes clear again, but it is forever growing, absorbing, taking whatever is capable of being taken. It is weak. It is powerful. It is frustrated and intimidated. It is fierce and formidable. It is soft and calm. It is crazy and dangerous. Going forward is its only nature. It cannot stay still.
Disillusionments and disappointments are part of its life, but so are discoveries and inventions. It flows, and sometimes looks back, marvels at the static nature of other things, those it used to think it belonged to. But no, the river has never met its match. Everything else stays. The river itself alone goes forward, despite all the remarks that it should stay also and despite its own doubt. Maybe the sea is its dream, maybe the infinity it dreams is even beyond the sea. The vastness, the boundless, the indescribable rich, the river can only be calm when embraced by the inexhaustible wonders of life. Anything more finite means boredom; its heart will not be content.
The river’s mighty heart! Compared to it, everything external is very small. Its fate is too small for its nature, but nonetheless it is forever in searching. The hope lives as long as the life. Always with false hope it grabs a new discovery, only to be burnt and laughed at. The river moans, licks its wounds, winding a little, brooding on its mistake, then leaves the old place and goes forward again. It cannot stop, however much the damage. Its intrinsic nature is purity. Whenever it is left alone, the contamination will deposit and depart, and the clear, innocent nature is restored. It always seems silly in a sophisticated, treacherous world, but it becomes comfortable with itself, and carries its childish heart cheerfully.
Every brave step I take causes irreversible expansion and growth. Anyone who has never done that will not know the joy. When we only try to keep what we have, our possessions shrink instead. Risks must be taken. Also, the long hard lonesome work of preparation must be done. There is no such thing as a lucky moment. What determines that strike of luck is many hours of work, done well and sufficiently. What seems like a spontaneous reaction that is so right in both content and performance and not repeatable, is actually brought about subconsciously by years of learning, thinking, and practice. It is always only the tip of the iceberg shown to spectators, who therefore misunderstand the essentials. There is no shortcut. The longest way is the shortest way. Shrewdness leads to deviation. Corner-cutting leads to defect in the final quality. An average intelligence can achieve great things, if only the integrity and determination are there.
When you speak, it is not the person speaking in that moment. It is the work you have done speaking. How well you speak, and how much others will listen, is decided by how seriously and thoroughly you have done your thinking on that subject. Luck plays no role. Your physical and mental state may not be perfect for the moment, but 90% of the victory is won before the battle. How you deliver matters little. You have had time to prepare. Therefore come prepared, though you will always wish you had prepared more.
The only critical success factor for a life project is the time and energy put into it. In the end, you will inevitably find yourself running out of time, and wish you had allocated your time and energy wisely, ignored those distractions. I have had this regret before each exam, but afterwards always forgotten this lesson. An exam devised by an education system is easy; the project you want to personally accomplish demands 100% effort.
This is what I mean by “standing in the future to look at the present.” This perspective shall straighten our priorities. All the losses and sorrows beyond our control shall not distract us too much from our task. There is work to do. We shall carry on. Life is too short. We must learn to say no to many things, despite popular opinions and sentiments.
Much time and energy has to be wasted before a person finds what he or she wants to do, and before the structure of the work that needs to be done slowly emerges from thin air. Implementation is easier than soul searching and declaration of war against the establishment. Any creation takes courage and persistence.
Affection and approval from other people are only small rewards and recognition for our work. Like misunderstandings and hostilities, love and respect shall not deter us either. There are new lands to be discovered, new souls to be hunted. There are massive problems to be solved.
There is very little room in one’s life to struggle for a better, more enriching life. Just look at the average, overwhelmed adult life. However, whether to use this tiny space of time, energy and solitude, or fidget it away, marks the difference between fighters and losers. You may not win, but you can always fight. That lifts you up to the fighters’ rank, no longer among the losers.
There is vast difference between what people think you should do and what you should do. More often than not, we take in the external standards, and develop wills we think are our own. For example, men should be rich and successful, women should be thin and beautiful. We constantly live for others, are constantly concerned about other people’s opinions. We forever seek approval and praise. A contemptuous look or gesture may destroy our self-esteem, especially in our young and tender years, and especially for those whose internal being never developed. At the same time, we use the same method unconsciously to destroy others.
All this is alright to do for a community to function (and honestly there is no escape from it), but only after we have figured out the two preliminary and primary questions: What do I think? What do I want? The ultimate task is to live and speak honestly. It takes courage and creativity. It takes a lot of work to undo the harm, to chase out the external impositions, to establish one’s own being through self-knowledge, knowledge of the world, and creative work.
We were born to be loners. And alone we must face life. Without this solitude, this standing erect among a sea of neglect and hostility, we cannot become a whole person. This is our trial. This is our training. This is the fire through which we are made into useful vessels.