The Enlightened Path
There are trivial truths and great truths.
The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false.
The opposite of a great truth is also true.
- Niels Bohr
- Is light a particle or a wave?
- Is the electron here or not here?
- Was the universe created for me or am I merely dust and ashes?
- Should I be rigid or flexible in my demands of myself?
Oddly, the best answer to each of these questions is, "Yes!" Both of the incompatible alternatives are valid simultaneously.
We do not have direct access to objective reality. All that we think and experience is a creation of our nervous system [see The Soul Illusion]. We believe we know the truth, but in fact our understanding of reality is riddled with paradox. To follow the enlightened path you will have to cope with such paradoxes. This path is not available to the young, for it requires the maturity to accept ambiguity and the limitations of our ability to influence the way things actually play out.
The Watercourse Way
To the Tao poets the watercourse way represents the natural order of things. Water follows the path of least resistance. Appreciating and working with the cause-and-effect principles of hydrodynamics enables the construction and maintenance of irrigation and plumbing systems that work. Just as the flow of water is influenced by lawful principles such as gravity, the course of your biography is influenced by lawful principles such as the PIG. Appreciating and working with the cause-and-effect principles of experiential phenomena is the way of the will.
It is not the water’s fault that it is influenced by gravity, nor is it yours that you are influenced by the PIG. You are, however, responsible for taking factors such as the PIG—the hyperbolic relationship between the immediacy of a payoff and its influence on state-dependent phenomena—into account when you develop a plan to escape your addictive trap.
You are not responsible for having fallen into an addictive trap; there are a range of biological, psychological, and social principles that conspired to produce your current predicament. However, now that you are an adult and have recognized that you have a problem, you are responsible for solving it.
You have now examined two escape strategies: the rigid Impeccable Path and the flexible OPEN Path. Soon you will develop a specific escape plan. You will then have to follow your plan, even during crises when your motivational state is likely to be quite different than it is now.
When attempting to escape the corruptive influence of an incentive that offers pleasure or relief, how flexible should you be? At one extreme is the commitment to rigidly adhere to the details of your plan with no exceptions [even at times when doing so seems forced, foolish, or unreasonable]; at the other extreme is the OPEN Path, in which you trust that you will have sufficient cognitive resources available during the crisis to react flexibly to the demands of the local situation.
The Enlightened Path is a middle way and contains elements of both. You must honor all commitments without exception, but you must only commit to what you can control. You control your behavior and attitudes, but not outcomes! You can accept responsibility for what you do, but it would be imprudent to accept responsibility for outcomes; there are many factors that influence how events play out in the objective world. So be careful about committing to improving your life or to repairing relationships; you may have less control over such things than you think.
This middle way is focused on rigid adherence to procedural commitments with a curious interest in the effect these procedures have on outcomes. In contrast to the conventional definition of success and failure in terms of outcomes, the Enlightened Path presupposes that your understanding of reality will always be imperfect, so you must be open to disconfirming information and use it to nurture your understanding of cause-and-effect. Like the scientific method, upon which it is based, the goal of the Enlightened Path is to discover the truth rather than collect evidence about your intrinsic worthlessness or the hopelessness of your situation.
This is a deceptively difficult challenge, and our primary enemy is demoralization. Of those who ultimately escaped their addictive trap, few did so without error. A lapse often contains the information that can help you solve your puzzle and set you free. Even a history of repeated relapse does not mean the task is hopeless. In fact good long-term outcome is often preceded by several failed attempts.
If your plan fails it means you did not take something into account. Your observations of how events unfold contain the crucial information you need to be successful. To take advantage of this expensive education, you have to be open to it. The last thing we want is for your perception to be distorted by strong emotional states. Nature is trying to tell you the truth, and the truth wants to set you free.