Monday, October 17, 2011

Inner vs. Natural Resources

From the fourth century B.C. to the 15th century, it was practically a given in the Western World that the best life for a person was the life of contemplation.  And that was even more so in the East.  In the modern world, however, the idea that the life of contemplation is the best of all lives can hardly be contemplated by the average person (bad pun). 

Were the ancients just plain wrong about this belief, or are the moderns perhaps wrong?  It certainly isn’t an either/or matter.  Without question the modern world has provided wonderful benefits, and those benefits are very tangible and easy to quantify.  But the life of contemplation also offers tremendous benefits, though they are not so easy to quantify.  (Fortunately, we don't have to choose one or the other, we can have some of both.)

A key to the value of the life of contemplation is what I call “joy for free.”   It is the rather amazing fact, reported by people throughout the ages and across the lands, that when by our inner effort we bring our life into focus and equilibrium, we find our self in a state of simple, pervasive joy.  We need no other natural resource to obtain this joy than what is necessary for our basic metabolism.

Unfortunately, it is no simple ability to bring our life into equilibrium.  We live in a world thoroughly out of equilibrium -- Koyaanisqatsi to use the Hopi term.  There are few people around who can help us toward inner peace and equilibrium, but there is a massive army of marketers and advertisers out there whose singular goal is to arouse our desires so we feel a need for their product.

I have no interest in being evangelical, but I feel a kind of desire to keep the ancient notion alive: that the life of contemplation is the highest calling for humans.  Partly because I would hope everyone could have share in "joy for free" and partly because we need to wean ourselves from our insatiable consumption of natural resources. 
There is a notion in economics that new technologies will keep providing us with the means of maintaining our “lifestyle” even as we exhaust older forms of natural resources.  But maybe the ultimate technology toward this end is the ancient one – relying on inner rather than natural resources.


  1. Excellent post :)
    Yes, I think the inner technologies of True Happiness are what we must rediscover as a people. Right now, all of our economics, politics, and system are based on false assumptions and faulty priorities. Thanks for this and best wishes for your blog!

    DT Strain

  2. Wow, as I was reading this I was going to suggest you show it to DT Strain - and here he's already found it and commented!

    "Joy for free" - so true. That really is the marvel of it. It reminds me of the story from India of the prince who wanted to cover the whole earth in leather so that he would never hurt his feet, but the yogi said "Why cover the earth in leather, when all you have to do is cover your own two feet?"

    I wonder if the contemplative life has lost its lustre today because we are so much more skeptical of grand narratives (like Plato's world of forms, or the Stoic vision of the Cosmos, which might otherwise motivate contemplation if we weren't so skeptical).

    Also, I wonder if the notion of a "highest calling" is even coherent anymore in our democratic, pluralist society. What could make one calling higher than another? If higher means better, then isn't it necessary now to ask better for what? Better for achieving lasting happiness, I would say. But not necessarily better in general, without qualification.