"The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away." - Pablo Picasso
Ten years ago during my final year of medical school I was doing a bit of thinking. Not so much about medicine. Mainly about other things. The problem was that I was not sure how to live; sure I could go through the motions, but what was it all about? What was the point? I know that many people reading this have pondered these same questions at one time or another. Solutions vary. My solution was simple, but lacking in detail. It also relied upon reason, which is not infallible. Despite these limitations, I thought my solution was ok, so I lived it as best I could.
I decided that life was fundamentally an interaction between the mind and the world. Amazing insight, I know - hey, I stayed up entire nights thinking and writing about this stuff. Maybe I should have slept instead you say? Point taken. Just hear me out. Anyhow, the mind could only interact with the world through the medium of the body. The body had a lot of muscles and bones attached to limbs like arms and legs. Limbs allowed the mind to do things in the world, and whenever an action was performed, the world changed a little bit. Something had been done. The body also had sense organs like eyes and ears. Sense organs allowed the mind to learn about the world, and whenever a new thing about the world was learned, the mind changed a little bit. Something had been learned. A perpetual interaction by which both mind and body changed over time.
Clearly the longer this mind-body interaction continued, the more things the mind did in the world, and the more things the mind learned about the world, and both changed in the process. However, the mind changed more - a lot more. It had to, or it might cease to exist. First, the mind could not do any old thing it wanted. It had to survive the mind-body interaction. Like running off a high cliff. Could be done once, but interaction terminated. Can't keep doing that without innovations, like wings. Second, the mind could not learn any old thing it wanted. Again, it had to take survival into account. Like standing in fire. Hard to learn that standing in fire is pleasant. Could imagine it, but not the same. So the mind had to do things in the world and learn things about the world that enhanced its survival in the mind-world interaction. Skipping over much of the reasoning, I reckoned that the best way to do this was to interact with the world in a proactive manner that always weighed the benefits and costs of doing or learning something against the mind's survival.
I called this proactive manner of doing things accomplishment - a process dedicated to successfully achieving goals that enhanced the mind's survival. It seemed to me that accomplishment was the only ethical absolute, that all behaviours should be oriented towards accomplishing things. Acting towards set goals that enhanced survival was good. Having no goals, or acting towards goals that negatively impacted survival, was bad.
In complimentary contrast, I called the proactive manner of learning things awareness - a process dedicated to enhancing the mind's understanding of the mind itself, the world, and the mind-world interaction. Both in the now and in the predictive future. I reckoned that awareness was the only absolute moral dictate, the only true measure of what was right or wrong. If learning something increased awareness of the world, it was good. If it reduced awareness, bad.
I reasoned that accomplishment and awareness occurred in a perpetual and cyclical manner. The more that one accomplished, the more aware they became by observing the outcomes of those accomplishments. In turn, the increased awareness allowed one to set better goals and accomplish even more the next time around. A perpetual cycle. One that enabled the actualization of dreams. Given enough proactive effort and time, the cycle would allow one to discover their passions, the passions that define the true self. The realization of self. Given even more effort and time, it would become clear that maximum expression of the cycle could only be done in a way that benefits as many people as possible. The emergence of compassion. Culminating in one actualized, realized, and compassionate individual. The One that hopes and acts in each of us.
There was one problem though. I had theorized that pursuing accomplishment and awareness was the best way to live, but I had not really outlined a method for doing so. Plus I had patients to see. So I wrote the whole thing up and tucked it away. Yet deep down it felt right, so like I said earlier, I lived it best I could. The pursuit of accomplishment and awareness. Which led me to explore numerous ideas, trying to find the best way to do so. Two methodologies stood out. One was the concept of libertarianism, a method for accomplishment. The other was the concept of enlightenment, a method for awareness.
Old ideas. Way older than me. Not sure they were ever combined though. Which to my mind is the key. Which is what we are going to talk about.
Consider the brain as a cup. We are born with an empty brain, an empty cup. If we don't fill it, it will stay empty. Some might say this is ideal, but I don't. It needs to be filled. Perhaps the Irish playwright and poet Oscar Wilde said it best through the character of Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1):
"The aim of life is self-development. To realise one's nature perfectly - that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to one's self. Of course they are charitable. They feed the hungry, and clothe the beggar. But their own souls starve, and are naked."
Lord Henry was clearly not a fan of empty, selfless brains. However, he might have been a fan of libertarianism, a way of living that focuses on the freedom of the individual over the state, as long as that individual does not hurt others (2). Libertarianism emphasizes the value of the self; every individual is unique and nobody should tell anybody else how to live their life. Libertarianism originated during the Age of Enlightenment; William Belsham may have been the first person to write down the word "libertarian" in 1789 (3).
Libertarianism is a method, a way to live. It is dedicated to maximizing the freedom of the individual by removing as many external barriers as possible. There is a flip side to freedom though, one that many people don't consider. Freedom means responsibility; individuals are free to act however they want as long as it does not hurt others, but they also have to wear the consequences of their actions, good or bad. If an action results in an undesirable outcome there should be no security from that outcome, no bail-out by a third party such as government; the moment that happens, true freedom is lost. People have to be free to enjoy the rewards of their successes. That's positive feedback. But they also have to be free to feel the pain from screwing up. That's negative feedback. Negative feedback is extremely valuable; it's how one improves. So freedom isn't just about doing what one wants, it's also about holding one's self accountable to one's actions. At all times. This is crucial. One cannot have freedom and security both. Ever. They exist on opposite ends of a spectrum. Perhaps the polymath Benjamin Franklin best encapsulated this when he said that "Those that sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither."
Libertarianism is not a political ideology, although it can be used as such since it places the rights of the individual over the powers of the government. Some of the more extreme libertarians think that there should be no government. They are called anarchists. Hard to get more apolitical than that. However, most libertarians believe that a small government is a good thing, one that maintains a simple set of laws but does not interfere in the life of the individual. Libertarians contest that big governments inevitably fail under the weight of their own bureaucracy, and as they do so they take the citizens with them through wealth confiscation via inflation, higher taxes, asset confiscation, and other official tricks. Big governments are therefore bad. It doesn't matter whether they are left wing or right wing. Big is bad.
Generally, libertarians oppose war and support a free market economy. Some libertarians argue that opposing state war and nuclear weapons is the core commitment of libertarianism (4). War can only be justifiable as a defensive practice against the aggression of another, or when the exercise of violence is rigorously limited to individual criminals (5). Libertarians also think that the state should stay out of the way or have minimal involvement in the economy, which should consist of a free market in which the prices of goods are set by the vendors and consumers so that both parties benefit in any transaction, as opposed to state centralized planning and economic privilege for the business class. Libertarians maintain that when the state gets overly involved in the economy it enforces numerous political privileges to the business class which are to the ultimate detriment of the people (6). This is undemocratic as it imposes the will of the minority upon the majority, leading to social injustice and even totalitarianism (7). However, this is not to say that the state should ignore the economy; many libertarians argue that the state ought to be modestly involved in it through some kind of welfare provision (7).
By emphasizing individual freedom, including responsibility for one's actions, libertarianism allows for the maximum actualization of dreams and realization of self. It provides a methodology for accomplishment. Libertarianism fills the brain's cup.
Let us return to the brain as a cup. Fill it enough and it will eventually overflow. Some might argue that's ideal, but I don't. The cup needs to be emptied after it is filled. A full cup can't hold anything else so it is no longer useful. However, an empty cup is always useful. In the translated words of the Chinese philosopher and poet Lao-Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching (8):
"Mix clay to create a container. In its emptiness, there is the function of a container."
Lao-Tzu founded Taoism, an eastern way of living. Taoism has much in common with another eastern way of living, Buddhism, which focuses on how to walk the path of enlightenment, a method for awakening the mind by freeing it from its own suffering so that it can see the truth of the world (9,10). The concept of enlightenment probably originated somewhere around the 5th century BC after Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha or "enlightened one," realized the source of suffering and how to eliminate it. He did this by identifying the Four Noble Truths that need to be addressed for this to happen - first, to understand the reality of suffering; second, to let go of its origin, which is desire; third, to realize its cessation; and fourth, to constantly cultivate the path of its elimination (9,10).
The central thesis of enlightenment is that suffering results from a desire for life to be other than what it is. The person who is not enlightened is a prisoner of their own desires, and as such will always be chasing them. Tormented by what they think they want, and what they think they cannot obtain. Never free. However, as soon as this is realized and acted upon, the path of enlightenment begins. This can happen at any stage in life.
Buddha's enlightenment is a method, a way to live. Buddhism is not a religion, although it is commonly perceived as such. But it lacks several essential characteristics of a religion, which necessarily involves one god or several gods, a belief system that is valid for all time, and a group of priests to regulate it (9). Buddhism makes no claim of any god. No belief required. No priests. Buddha just created a method, one which he challenged others to investigate and try out for themselves so as to understand suffering and eliminate it. Ultimately enlightenment is agnostic; it takes one to the limits of their reason. Beyond those limits, the enlightened individual simply states "I do not know."
Enlightened people understand the value of emptiness. In 1397 the Tibetan philosopher Tsongkhapa said that "Emptiness is the track on which the centered person moves." An empty mind is a mind that can see clearly and move freely. To experience emptiness is to experience the shocking absence of the ego, which is the totality of those impressions from the world that normally determine the sense of who one is (9). The ego is not the real, passionate self discovered within. The ego is a false sense of self, imposed externally. Emptiness provides the enlightened individual the freedom to create who they are by abandoning the ego, rather than be bewitched by it.
By providing a way for freeing the mind from its own desires and abandoning the ego, enlightenment frees the passions of the self so that they may be expressed in a compassionate manner, given away for the benefit of others. It provides a methodology for awareness. Enlightenment empties the brain's cup.
One Meaning, One Purpose
At first glance, libertarianism and enlightenment seem to contradict each other. Libertarianism originated in the west and involves freeing the individual from the constraints of the world, which allows the self to be discovered. Enlightenment originated in the east and involves freeing the mind from its own desires and ego, which allows the self to be expressed and given away. They oppose each other. But it is exactly this polarity that creates a balanced approach to life - it just has to be timed right.
We are born with a brain devoid of ideas, and nothing yet done. Libertarianism provides a method for filling one's brain. It works best early in life, when an empty brain needs to be filled. The problem with libertarianism is that in actualizing dreams and realizing the self, the ego is invariably constructed. Even if one discovers the true self, it is often so wrapped up in walls of ego that it can be hard to differentiate the two from each other. It is especially difficult to tell what is self and what is ego when one examines those aspects of ego that were erected during the early years of one's life. Those walls are strong and without close scrutiny might appear to be part of one's self.
Thus if one pursues libertarianism long enough, the brain becomes full of desires and ideas. Many of which are no longer important. Some of which are harmful, particularly those of the ego. So now it is important to clear the attic. Everything must go, except for the passions of the self. Enlightenment provides a method for emptying the brain of desires and ego. It works best later in life, when a full brain needs to be emptied. There is no point in pursuing enlightenment too early in life; there is no point in trying to empty something that is already empty. Once emptied, the passionate self is free to be released.
By this reasoning, the best way to live is not to pursue libertarianism or enlightenment separately but through a combined approach, a sort of libertarian enlightenment that shifts from the former to the latter as one ages. Meaning must be pursued earlier in life, through a path of libertarianism. When in doubt, act. Define self. Ego will be defined too, but that's unavoidable. When enough dreams have been actualized and the passions that define one's self, one's gifts, have been realized, one has found meaning. Purpose must be pursued later in life, through a path of enlightenment. When in doubt, do not act. Let go of ego. The self will gradually be freed from the ego. When the passions of self are freed from desire and ego, they can be compassionately given away for the benefit of others, and one has found purpose.
The west and east face opposite problems. In the west, there is an excess of self. Libertarianism has many adherents. I believe that the younger libertarians are in good stead. The older libertarians, not so much. They are rich in wealth and freedom in the world, but many are enslaved by desire and ego. The result is that many older libertarians have actualized dreams and realized who they are, but lack compassion. In the east, there is a lack of self. Lots of enlightened people. I reckon that the older enlightened generation is in good stead. The younger enlightened generation, not so much. They are educated in Buddhist teachings and relatively free from desire and ego, but lack a sense of who they are and have limited wealth and freedom in the world. The result is that many younger enlightened people have compassion, but have not actualized dreams or realized who they are.
The obvious approach here is to combine the western and eastern approaches. It's not a case of one is right and one is not. The best approach to life is a temporally dynamic path of libertarian enlightenment that combines western and eastern philosophies. This is not only possible, it is necessary, for while they contradict each other in several ways, libertarianism and enlightenment have one major thing in common - ultimately, each is about freedom. Libertarianism advocates freedom of the mind in the world. Enlightenment advocates freedom of the mind from itself. It is only right that they should be combined.
Using a libertarian enlightenment approach, I have contended that meaning is discovered in the passionate gifts of self, and purpose is discovered in giving those gifts away. What happens next? I think that Patanjali, author of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, said it best:
“When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds: Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”
This means you! The One that hopes and acts. Anything is possible.
Solace (inspired by Oul-Oh).
References (1) Wilde O. 1890. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. (2) Boaz D. 1997. Libertarianism: A Primer. Free Press. (3) Belsham W. 1789. Essays, Philosophical, Historical, and Literary. (4) Rothbard MN. 1982. War, Peace and the State, a Libertarian Analysis. The Libertarian Forum. (5) Mises Institute website. 2015. https://mises.org/library/libertarian-theory-war. (6) Chartier G. 2011. Markets Not Capitalism: Individualist Anarchism Against Bosses, Inequality, Corporate Power, and Structural Poverty. Minor Compositions. (7) Hayek F. 1944. The Road To Serfdom. Routledge Press. (8) Stenudd S. 2011. Tao Te Ching: The Taoism of Lao Tzu Explained. Arriba. (9) Batchelor S. 1997. Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide To Awakening. Penguin Group Inc. (10) Mingyur Y. 2014. Turning Confusion Into Clarity: A Guide To The Foundation Practices of Tibetan Buddhism. Snow Lion.