I used to believe that life was pointless. Sure, there were enjoyable moments in life, but the hard work life required didn’t seem worth it when I saw all the cruelty and greed at work in the world, or when I contemplated the inevitability of old age, disease, loss and death. This bleak view of the world pervaded all of my activities. It drove me to a despair that, at times, led to suicidal ideation.
All of us hold countless views that we believe are more or less true. They are views about the world in general, about the people in our lives, or about ourselves. From the Zen perspective, all views -whether optimistic, pessimistic or neutral – are at least partly wrong. This is because a view is by definition limited; it involves perception from a particular perspective and does not include the whole reality. When we believe our views and operate by them, we are actually not in touch with our whole reality.
Our goal in Zen is to be free of all views. Except in rare moments, this doesn’t mean being thoughtless. What it means is that we are free of our views: the views no longer hold us in such bondage because we no longer quite believe them.
An analogy I like is this (I heard this from someone but forget where, so if someone knows please tell me): a magician comes to town and conjures up a donkey dangling in midair above the villager’s heads. All the villagers scatter, afraid that the donkey is going to fall on them. After a while the donkey is revealed as an illusion as the magician passes a long pole through it repeatedly. The villagers still feel some apprehension walking under the donkey; they still see it. However, almost all of their reactivity and fear is gone.
Before the villagers recognized the donkey wasn’t real, I consider them to have been suffering from the delusion that there was a donkey about to fall on them. They believed their perception. Once the donkey is revealed as not real, the villagers still suffer from an illusion – there appears to be a donkey about to fall on them. However, they recognize it is merely a vision of a donkey.
Our relationship to our own views is like this. Through careful observation and testing in the laboratory of our own lives, we come to recognize the way in which our views about life have no inherent reality. They can appear very, very convincingly solid and real, but in fact they are ephemeral, relative, changing, conditional and – most significantly – entirely creations of our own minds.
For example, take my bleak view that life is pointless. I am now mostly free of that view. It still comes upon me from time to time, causing me to start sinking into a pit of overwhelm and despair, so according to our earlier analogy you could say I still see a donkey dangling above my head sometimes. Curiously, I do not free myself from the life-is-pointless view by arguing myself into a view that life is great and meaningful. (I tried that for many years and it didn’t work.) Instead, I recognize the life-is-pointless view is just a view, a creation of my own mind, which saps my energy and makes me miserable. In reality life is just what it is. When dealt with that way, directly and without the defense of views, it is sometimes lovely and sometimes terrible but overall it is enlivening and rewarding and worth it.
How do we move from delusion to illusion? How to we free ourselves from our views? We study them. We watch them and become familiar with how they manifest and affect us in the moment. We watch them over time. We question them and test them. We can’t help but notice that no matter how adamantly and passionately we hold a view, it almost always changes over the course of a day, month, year or lifetime. We notice that our views are affected by the views of people around us. We notice that our view depends on the amount of sleep we have gotten, and on the weather. We notice how incomplete and arbitrary other people’s views often are, and begin to realize our views are no different.
Another example of a view is, “I am not worthy of respect.” Someone who holds this view may believe it because it seems true almost all of the time. If he or she is lucky, another person comes along to offer some respect, proving the view is not entirely true. The believer in unworthiness may also watch how, in meditation, it is impossible to hold on to the view of unworthiness all the time. Occasionally, he or she notices moments without the view, and how nice and liberating they are. This experience of freedom from the view doesn’t change the reality that this person may need to work on her self-restraint, or may need to work on his responsibility and follow-through. It’s just that there’s no need to adopt a view of worthiness or unworthiness.
Someone who is fairly free of their views is able to identify their illusions. “Oh look,” they say, “there I go again (for example) thinking the world is out to get me. It sure seems true. Wow, it is very difficult not to get angry and defensive. But I know from past experience that this is a view that overwhelms me at times, and it passes. I know it is not the entire truth – even if it looks like it right now.”
In disbelieving that there is any inherent, unchanging, unconditional truth to our views, there is freedom.