In the past I have enrolled in things I thought would create purpose and meaning in life. This is a story of enrollment and moving on in search of those things.
My enrollment in the Anglican church was inherited from my parents. They were occasional churchgoers to either St Lukes in Brisbane’s southern suburbs or, less often, to the Anglican High Church cathedral in the city. That was an enrollment that did not outlive my childhood.
As my teen years segued into early adulthood, like many of my generation I became influenced by the Eastern spiritual philosophies then coming into the West. The Beatles had much to so with this. Their time in India with Maharishi Maresh Yogi brought the practice of Trancedental Meditation to the West. Here, it retains a much smaller but continuing following of psychological value to harassed contemporary lifestyles.
Maharishi’s tradition stemmed from Vedic culture, the basis of Hinduism. It wasn’t Hinduism that attracted me, however. It was Buddhism.
The Beats, and Buddhism goes West
Like many of my contemporaries my mind had been opened to Buddhism thanks to reading The Beats. Participants in the literary and lifestyle movement of the 1950s, they were people like Jack Kerouac, the novelist best known for the book of his transcontinental wanderings, On the Road. But it was the first book of his I read that opened my mind to the reality that there could be other ways to live than that offered by mainstream society. That was The Dhamma Bums, the semi-fictional story of a coterie of friends then living in San Francisco. They included Gary Snyder, who by that time had been practicing Buddhism for some years and who would go on to influence the youth of the time in their search for purpose and meaning in life.
An early and perhaps the main influence on me, though, was another of The Beats, Alan Watts. He was a pioneer of Western Buddhism whose works intrigued and inspired a young generation in seeking life beyond the materialism and consumerism of countries then deep in the throes of economic growth.
I was attracted to Buddhism’s lack of dogma, its encouragement of questioning which gave it value as applied philosophy and its inclusiveness epitomised in comments by the Deli Llama that it was okay to follow your own spiritual path whatever that was. Buddhism was about how you lived your life. It spoke common sense, lacked the promise of the punitive punishments of Christianity for deviating from the path and offered more of a philosophical and self-analytical approach to life.
Buddhism appealed because it encouraged questioning and reasoning, or the Westernised version of it I was exposed to did. It was not attached to any of the great schools of Buddhism. For a short while later I attended the Sydney Zen Centre, then in a house in an inner suburb in Sydney’s Inner West. That was influenced by my practice of martial arts — karate and Jeet Kun Do.
This deviation from childhood’s Christian attachments to Eastern spiritual philosophy was not an unusual one at the time. Buddhism, though, turned out to be a temporary enrollment though one that continues to exert a background influence in my life.
Other spiritual systems came from Asia at that time and set up home in Western cities. Some persist although with fewer practitioners than in their heyday.
At the same time, around the late sixties and into the early seventies, Christianity took on new forms such as the Moonies, the Unification Church of Korea and Children of God (I think that was what they were known as in Australia). The Moonies, so-named after their founder, Sun Myung Moon, would fall into controversy but attracted a following in both the US and Australia, people who in their childhood might have been enrolled in Christianity but now sought more contemporary expressions of it aligned with the youth culture of the time.
My enrollment in these Eastern spiritual philosophies was temporary. They offered much of moral and psychological value and filled the mental gap that many felt with the formulaic expressions of Christianity through organised religion and the materialism of society at the time. They still offer this to many.
Seeking something more
Seeking a philosophy that can be applied to live a better life, in recent years I have found that in the ancient Greek/Roman school of thought known as Stoicism. Why Stoicism? Because it does not tell you what to believe. What it does is offer ideas for living what we might call a moral or good life.
Influenced by Roman emperor, the philosopher warrior Marcus Aeraleus‘ writings in the Meditations, Stoicism teaches courage and having confidence in yourself, in your knowledge and abilities.
Unlike organised religion it emphasises rational thought and decision making rather than being governed by emotion.
Its focus on being content, unreliant on others or on external circumstances for our happiness, and having peace of mind offers a better way of living than the anxiety and fear common in today’s stressed-out societies. For those seeking escape from the rampant consumerism propagated by our economies, Stoicism offers a more robust applied philosophy for living an authentic life.
Stoicism’s encouragement of individuals to develop a sense of justice opens a path to personal behaviors and also to social action that benefits others. Its proposal that we can become a good person encourages social responsibility, as does its emphasis on moderation and self-control.
In doing these things Stoicism implements the moral philosophy of many religions without itself becoming a religion. That, perhaps, is what we need in these times when religion has been taken over by extremists and distorters of its messages.
At a time when, here in Australia, a government inquiry has found hundreds of cases of systemic child sexual abuse by degenerate priests and clergy spanning many decades, when the Catholic archbishop has been hauled before an inquiry, the church looks tired, ragged and corrupt. Lurching into defensiveness, denial and inveigle, and lacking a present-day Martin Luther to reform it, in such circumstances philosophies that encourage questioning, that suggest good ways to live and that are free of dogma and condemnation are of greater value than organised religion.
That’s the sort of philosophy I would enroll in.
Photo: The Statue of Marcus Aurelius (detail) in the Musei Capitolini in Rome. Source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcus_Aurelius?wprov=sfti1