Good works

I remember being in Amsterdam many years ago and looking at the canals and the town houses and the evidence of the growth of the industrious mindset. I was struck by the amount of activity and energy that it took to manufacture, sell, and distribute things all around the world and the wealth that was created in the process.

But it is that whole Protestant, Northern European, urge to have an impact on the world, to improve the world, that has ended up with us having a huge and damaging impact on the planet. And has it made us any happier?

I contrasted this with the efforts of an Indian swami who rather than impacting the world outside attempts to explore and change the world inside. The inward journey alters how we react to the world, how we interact with the world, and that activity, collectively, over time changes the world. But it changes it in a very different way. It is not forcing it to be any way particularly, to bend to our will. It changes through our behaviour, our actions, our relationships to each other and to nature.

We held a memorial service for my mum on Saturday (it had been delayed by COVID). Sitting in her church, with her nice, good, friends around me made think again about her inclination to be good and to do good in the world. Through her Christian faith she had a high standard to meet up to which she didn’t always achieve and I certainly didn’t. That feeling that I’ve never been good enough, that I needed to improve, was imbued in me from an early age. It is probably the single biggest bit of baggage that I have to learn to get rid off. Even after 61 years I am still trying.

A lot of the mindfulness stuff in fashion these days, mostly because it is being driven by the American culture, feels like a reinvention of the Protestant good works in the world mentality. It’s all about improvement, self improvement, improving the world.

But what is fascinating when you get into this is that the problem isn’t the improvement bit it is the self bit. It is the false self, the created self, the combination of all of our stories and should’s and shouldn’t’s and enculturated norms that we selfishly protect and that we try to make the world fit in with. That is the problem. That is the source of all of our suffering. In the absence of that false self we get to be the real us, the calm peaceful loving self that remains when you strip everything else away. And if we all manage to do that then the world becomes a better place.

2 thoughts on “Good works

  1. Goodness, so many things to explore. Can I just touch on two? How do we account for physical pain; pain from disease or toothache? Is it simply a fact of living in a creatural body? Second, will there be a self at the end of the road? I’ve always imagined that the final phase would be a dissolution of the self and some form of melding into nature or the universe, something totally the same yet totally different from anything we could imagine on the way. I’m 67 and just getting started on this stuff and it feels like the right time as opposed to about time. Thanks for the posts. I enjoy them a lot.


  2. I am glad you are enjoying the posts John.

    As to pain, it is fascinating isn’t it. I am more and more convinced that the sensory experience is only the smallest part of our experience of pain. The greatest part of that experience is how we react to the pain and our feelings that it shouldn’t be happening and wishing it would go away. I have always loved the phrase “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. The sensory pain can be dealt with by being curious about it. If I have a sore muscle or nerve and I am interested in it, explore it, and remain detached for it the better it gets. On the other hand the more I fret about it the worse it gets.

    I too believe that the final stages involve melding back into nature. In fact it is reverting to the unity, the “universe” that we have falsely separated ourselves from. I don’t believe that there is a self in the sense of the ego that experiences this, but whatever animates this whole thing, call it energy, consciousness, or just life, carries on and recycles us.

    Contrary to the prevailing culture and religious myths I take this to be a cheery thought!


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