Over the years, I have read many wonderful books on the subjects of spirituality, philosophy, and personal growth. These books usually paint a beautiful and inspiring picture of reality. They speak of the underlying unity of all things, of the goodness and light that shine in and through every creature and every event. They discuss deeper realities like "soul" and "Spirit," and assure us that there is a profound meaning behind the seeming chaos we often experience in our daily lives. They encourage us to live in harmony with Nature to live with unconditional love, patience, forgiveness, and reverence for all things. They speak of peace and harmony — for the individual person, for nations, and for the whole planet.
But often, after the inspiration of the book had faded, I found myself asking, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if reality were like that?" The very grammar of my question betrayed my disbelief and despair. What I would have liked to say was, "Isn't it wonderful that reality is like that!" But often I didn't actually experience reality in such a beautiful and spiritual way. Moreover, I lived in a culture that constantly seemed to tell me how ugly and dangerous and threatening the world really was.
I turned back to my inspiring books, desperately looking for some kind of proof that these beautiful visions were true. As a reflective and thoughtful person, I didn't want to adopt a belief simply because it sounded noble and inspiring. But for the most part, I found that these books did not provide any kind of proof at all — I had to either accept their wonderful theories on faith, or not.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if the world were really as good as all these books proclaim it to be? Not overly cute or cloyingly sweet, but just fundamentally positive and good. Wouldn't it be nice if we really knew in our hearts that everything was for the best that every event and situation in our lives was somehow guided by a loving wisdom, so that it would turn out for the good of everyone involved? Wouldn't it he wonderful if we knew that every seeming crisis and tragedy in our lives was somehow a blessing in disguise?
What would have to change so that we could actually experience our lives like this? Would we have to change the people and circumstances in our lives? Even if we changed our immediate circumstances, would that be enough? Would we also have to change national and global circumstances? All of the news media seem to tell us that the world is a dangerous and hostile place, and that it is getting worse every day.
If we listen to television and read the newspaper, it is easy to believe either that there is no God at all, or that He (She, It) doesn't really care all that much about what happens here on earth. One currently popular theological explanation claims that God takes no active role at all in the affairs of the mundane world, except to give us the strength and courage to somehow survive the negativity and hostility that permeate our lives every day.
Perhaps the answer lies in simply changing our perception of reality. Is it possible to experience a more wonderful world merely by changing our beliefs and attitudes? In the children's movie, Pollyanna, Pollyanna believed that everything that happened was intrinsically good. She believed that every event presented opportunities for joy and growth. As a result, she experienced a wonderful, positive world, no matter how negative her circumstances seemed to be. No matter how much scarcity seemed to pervade her life, she believed that the world was essentially abundant. No matter how petty and mean others seemed to be, she trusted in their inner goodness. Not only did her beliefs affect her own perception of reality, but in time they affected the perceptions of everyone around her. The people in her town became more loving and forgiving, and the town became a happier place to live.
But is such a shift of attitude realistic? Are these kinds of beliefs about the goodness and abundance of the world really true? Do they accurately represent reality? Is this Pollyanna view of the world merely a fool's paradise? Is this approach to reality even safe? If the world really were hostile and negative, wouldn't all of this positivity and optimism be potentially dangerous, especially if we let down our defenses? If we close our eyes to the real dangers and hostility of the world, won't we be hurt? Won't others take advantage of us?
We could just as well ask the converse questions. Is the fearful negative view of the world realistic? Is it true? Does it accurately represent reality? Is the Ebenezer Scrooge view of the world merely a fool's hell? If the world really is friendly and positive, wouldn't all of this negativity and pessimism rob us of our full potential for growth and joy? If we close our eyes to the underlying essential benevolence of the world, wouldn't we cut ourselves off from enjoying the good and the beauty that surround us?
Or maybe neither of these views is correct. Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between. Maybe the world is neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad. Maybe the world is essentially like some large, indifferent machine — the gears simply go round and round, and sometimes things work out well for us and other times things work out badly. Maybe the most realistic approach is to simply accept the fact that you have to take the bad with the good, the thorns with the roses.
But even if this half-and-half view of the world were correct, how would we decide if a particular event in our lives is good or bad — or at least, good or bad for us? How would we know whether this particular relationship, or this particular financial situation, or this particular political state of affairs is really for the good of ourselves and others, or actually presents a hostile, threatening situation? Is there some criterion we can use to evaluate each particular situation, or do we have to rely solely on our (sometimes fallible) first impressions? Merely to make the generalization that reality is a mixture of good and bad does not help us to interpret the concrete particular events of our lives, nor does it give us any guidelines for how to feel or how to respond in any particular situation.
Or maybe reality is simply neutral — maybe it has no intrinsic value at all. Maybe the goodness or badness of any particular situation is simply what we make of it, how we interpret it. But does that mean that our decision about what to believe is completely arbitrary? Maybe even our decision to believe in the neutrality of the world is itself an arbitrary choice. Are some decisions about meaning more true or valuable or useful than others? Wouldn't the choice to affirm the neutrality of the world at the same time be a choice to deny any possible intrinsic goodness or badness? Insofar as it was a denial, wouldn't it also run the risk of blindness and prejudice?
One possible alternative that is very popular in today's New Age literature is the theory that thought creates reality. From this perspective, it makes no sense to ask questions like, "What's really going on out there? Is the world really spiritual, or is it really only material and mechanistic? Is the world really purposeful and benevolent, or it really only random (or even hostile)?"
According to the thought-creates-reality model, there is no reality out there apart from what is created by our thoughts. In some mysterious way, our thoughts create all of the things and circumstances and relationships and values of our world. Reality is only what we, quite literally, make it to be. At first glance, this theory seems to solve all of our dilemmas about the nature of reality in one bold stroke. From this perspective, we don't need to torture ourselves with questions such as, "what is really going on out there?" because nothing exists besides our thoughts, in their various mental and materialized forms — there is no "what's really going on" apart from what is being created by our thoughts.
Several years ago, I attended a personal growth workshop, which explored how we could use tools like creative visualization and positive affirmations to improve the quality of our lives. The metaphysical presupposition and foundation for this whole workshop was the thought-creates-reality theory. At one point, I was feeling somewhat desperate and unsure of myself, and I found myself doubting everything — including even the claim that thought creates reality. But I knew that without this foundation, much of the rest of the positive and inspiring content of the workshop would not have a theoretical leg to stand on.
I privately asked the workshop leader how I should best deal with my doubts about this matter. I assumed that he could provide some kind of proof, or at least a few convincing arguments, that this model was true. I assumed that the only reason he had not already covered that topic was that he thought it was much too elementary for our group. But when I asked, I was told that I simply had to accept the basic truth that thought creates reality. There was no way to prove it, any more than we can prove that the grass is green or that birds can fly — it's simply how things are. The bare assertion that it was true, however, did not really answer my doubts and questions.
The thought-creates-reality model does have the advantage that it gives us an active role in the process of our lives — we are no longer victims of some external, fixed reality. Thus it can provide a framework of hope. I am never just stuck with my life I can always think new thoughts and believe new beliefs, and rebuild my reality from the ground up. But the cost of admission to this bright promise seems to be the dogmatic acceptance of an essentially unverifiable metaphysical presupposition — another metaphysical leap of faith.
It seems to me that the only way I could possibly verify this theory for myself would be to somehow get outside my experience, in order to see the process of my thoughts in the midst of actually creating reality — to somehow catch the still unreal pre-reality (that nebulous, unstructured, and unexperiencable stuff) in the very process of becoming "real-ified" by my thoughts. Thus, for all of its power and efficacy to psychologically motivate us to think positively and to try harder, the thought-creates-reality model is really not a satisfactory answer to our dilemma — at least, not for me. It merely trades in one metaphysical absolute (e.g., reality consists of material atoms out there) for another (e.g., reality consists of materialized thoughts), without providing any proof.
(For all I know, the thought-creates-reality model may be entirely true. Many well-respected teachers and deeply revered spiritual authorities claim that this is exactly what's going on. But for me. the real question is, can I accept a belief just because it is inspiring and just because someone else tells me it's true?)
I believe that the questions we ask ourselves about the nature and meaning and value of reality are fundamentally important. The answers we discover and create in response to these questions form the basis of all of our life decisions. They affect every area and aspect of our lives, including how we feel, what we say and do, our relationships with each other, and our relationship with Nature — they play an important role in determining the content and quality of our life experience.
But many people, when confronted with the bewildering variety of competing metaphysical dogmas, none of which can be conclusively proved or verified, decide to simply give up asking such questions at all — decide to simply live their lives, without really thinking too much about it. At other times in our history, there have been generally accepted religious and metaphysical beliefs about the nature and value of reality — beliefs that everyone simply took for granted without question. Even now, there are some cultures and sub-cultures in the world that share unquestioned religious or metaphysical presuppositions.
In our modern culture of rational, independent thinkers, however, we have no commonly accepted metaphysical foundation. But simply not thinking about questions of the nature and value of reality does not make them go away. Our day-to-day choices about what to think and say and do, about how to respond and what to feel — all of these simply living-our-lives choices presuppose some overall context of belief and meaning.
To merely ignore questions about the nature and value of reality is, in effect, to choose to live a life based on whatever hodgepodge of beliefs you have simply inherited from your childhood, your parents, and your culture. It is not that you have no beliefs, but merely that you are unaware of your beliefs. By not consciously and deliberately choosing your beliefs, you choose by default you choose to live a life on automatic pilot.
This is the dilemma that a rational, reflective person faces in our modern culture. He is caught between a rock and a hard spot — either choosing a sleepwalking life of unexamined beliefs, or choosing some arbitrary metaphysical dogma; either not thinking about his life at all, or fruitlessly and frustratingly thinking about questions that seem to have no answers.
These are more than just theoretical questions that you might ask yourself if you happen to have a taste for philosophizing. How you answer and resolve such questions and dilemmas for yourself will profoundly affect the content and meaning and quality of every moment of your life experience.
This article was excerpted from the book:
Lighted Clearings for the Soul: Reclaiming the Joy of Living
by William R. Yoder.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Alight Publications. ©2004.www.alightpublications.com
William Yoder has doctorates in both philosophy and chiropractic. He has taught Eastern and Western philosophy and religion at major universities. His studies personal study with the Option Institute, and with such teachers as Ram Dass, Michael Hatncr, Gail Straub and David Gershon, Wallace Black Elk, David Spangler, Brant Secunda, and Thich Nhat Hanh. He and his wife have taught workshops in both the private and the corporate sectors on the topics of health and healing, human potential, self-actualization, and spirituality.