By Pierre Grimes, Ph. D.
Man is a curious creature. There appears to be nothing he will not try if it offers the slightest chance of overcoming his sense of alienation. He will go to war, use drugs, get married, and even play golf. Even if it has only the slimmest chance of ending his sense of futility, he will gamble on it.
The sense of being incomplete has driven many into psychotherapy, it can lead one to search the heavens for some clue to one’s destiny, it can awaken a need to meditate in Zen, it can draw one into the priesthood or to coaching little league, and for some it can motivate them to exchange their talent and life’s energies to enrich a corporation in return for a vague promise of financial gain and, possibly, retirement.
But, while nearly anything will be tried, there is one thing that nearly everyone rules out, something that they are sure will never work and that is relying upon one’s own reason to lead to resolvement of their conflicts and their dissatisfaction with life. For, life is lived through the mind, conflicts are only resolved through the mind, and through that solution the unity of life and the mind is recognized.
The realization of the profound unity of our existence is the foundation for a deeper understanding of the mystery of our existence. The way to that realization and understanding is the ancient path of philosophy.
However, the idea of philosophy most people are acquainted with is derived from a European tradition that is hostile, or indifferent, to spiritual goals and metaphysics. Philosophy in the European tradition is an attempt to discover a place for knowledge in history, language, science, and even common sense but not in the quest to know thyself.
Those that have turned to the most profound of Eastern philosophies have discovered in their very quest for the Self that reason and intellect do not play a primary role there either. In our own educational institutions the idea of pursuing a philosophy that is centered around the quest for wisdom would be regarded by most as not only unscientific but irrelevant if not heretical to the direction of contemporary thought and philosophy.
It has been argued by some that in our society that there is a pervasive skepticism and distrust of reason; clearly, it is not that reason has failed, for the truth is that we have ignored our past, not rejected it; our culture has not kept alive the profound traditions of our past. Thus, the claim that philosophy can reach meaning and can explain the dynamics of mind is something most people would find hard to understand.
The ancient Greeks, in contrast with European tradition, had cultivated a philosophy and traditions that centered around the quest for wisdom that had granted them profound spiritual goals.
An adaptation of this philosophy has disclosed that we are in the grip of a strange kind of problem, one that we hadn’t suspected we have. It has been demonstrated that any false belief about oneself and the nature of reality has sufficient force to block one from the attainment of one’s highest aspirations and most meaningful goals.
A further difficulty: They are virtually invisible to the believer. Since they are not identified by the believer as something they themselves believe, they cannot recall it nor reflect upon it. Curiously, then, these false beliefs are accepted as intuitively certain yet are not recognized as being believed by the believer.
Clearly, this is the worst of ignorance, to believe one is intelligent and good enough without realizing the depth of our ignorance and just how far we have slipped from realizing our ideals; while the need for understanding oneself and reality is desperate, we remain indifferent to our plight.
It might be asked, if we are ignorant, how can philosophy offer an approach to the problem of ignorance? The practice of philosophy starts with ignorance, or not knowing, and charts a journey through the intellectual domain to right opinion to understanding and to knowledge or wisdom; it moves as if by a flight of stairs, until one reaches that perfect learning called wisdom.
Being ignorant is the state of mind when one’s false beliefs about oneself and reality block one’s own development. It has been demonstrated that since these false beliefs are irreconcilable with one’s highest goals and aspirations that they are the inevitable cause of our failures and disillusionment with our lives.
When you learn the right opinion you have the right answer without understanding the reasons why it is a right opinion. The way to discover these reasons is, of course, the exercise of reason. Again, someone may ask what kind of reasoning and practice is this that can eliminate those beliefs that you never knew you believed?
Well, reason is what it is, whenever the conditions allow it to be, then it naturally emerges. The way reason functions in philosophy is no different than the way it functions in the sciences. Consider, do we not say that reason allows us to discover the causes of the patterns we observe? The patterns can be in our behavior, in our dreams, or into the sub-atomic world of quarks and super-strings.
When we search into the causes of the patterns discovered in the heavens, it is called cosmology; when it is into the causes of our believing false beliefs, into the processes of reaching understanding, and into the nature of mind, it is called philosophy. If what is found to lie at the root of man’s irrational behavior are false beliefs, then the discipline that identifies and resolves these false beliefs through the exercise of understanding is what should be cultivated. The struggle to reach understanding develops the understanding; the struggle to get out of problems is the cultivation of understanding.
Surely, now, if this is true there should be a way to lead another to an exploration of their particular problem. There should be a way to find the false beliefs that underlie each problem. Each problem has its own unique roots but since the general form of all problems is much the same, then, a set of questions should be designed to serve this need. Indeed, a set of questions has been developed to meet this very need.
These questions have introduced people into self reflection and many people to the art of delivering oneself of false beliefs. They were designed to be part of a program to teach this art. It was called “A Guide For Your Reflections: A Journey into Philosophical Midwifery” and we have adapted them for your reflections.
These questions will bring to the surface the nature of a person’s problem, either your own problem or someone you might care to share them with. It does take some skill to fully understand the material brought up by the questions, but when they are reflected upon again and again, the mind is brought to see distinctions and connections in the material and that network of connections found in the material becomes the basis of a new understanding of oneself and reality.
It is like the polishing of a gem – it can gain luster by repeated polishing.