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Our Relationship with Ideas – by Jorge Waxemberg
How do we find meaning in the events of our lives? What do our individual lives signify in our conception of the universe?
When we are searching for answers to the questions we face in life, we tend to look, first of all, to our previous experiences. We understand what is happening to us now in reference to what happened to us before.
Often, too, we look to our religious beliefs and those ideas we were taught when we were young. We try to understand what we are experiencing within the framework of what we learned about the nature of life, death, God and eternity.
Likewise, we look to history and to the ideas and interpretations that we have received from our culture—accumulated human knowledge, science and philosophy. The study of history and the sciences is fundamental for understanding the unfolding of human development and our part within it. Our vision of life is integral when it is incorporated into existing knowledge.
The interpretation that each of us makes of life determines what we do with our lives—it is the reference that we use to choose our goals and the way we will fulfill them. Thus, to have a universal perspective and to find meaning in life, we need to know how we relate with ideas.
Within the context of this chapter, we use the word “ideas” to mean those thoughts which are more elevated than our usual ones, those which promote our unfolding and enable us to participate with all aspects of reality.
In general, people tend to adopt a conceptual panorama through which they understand life and society. Our relationship with that panorama generally follows certain patterns that, to a great extent, indicate the degree to which each of us will be able to expand by means of our experiences.
Three types of relationship with ideas can be distinguished in this process: the emotional, the dogmatic-argumentative, and the relationship of silence-experimentation. These three patterns of relationship usually coexist in us in varying proportions. It could be said that we follow one or another of these three patterns of relationship depending on which one predominates in us.
When we relate emotionally with ideas, we are moved by concepts we believe to be true, but we do not really practice them. We imagine we are living these ideas because we are affected emotionally when we first hear about them, and we sincerely believe in them. But since we don’t recognize any contradiction between what we believe and how we are living, we interpret our experiences in terms of our desires, according to our convenience, and we always find arguments to justify our behavior. We stubbornly defend our beliefs while, at the same time, we often deny them with our actions. In this state of consciousness, one could even come to the point of forgetting one’s sacred principles: to love one’s neighbor, to forgive, not to kill; justifying hatred and revenge.
In an emotional relationship, the reactions of attraction and rejection have a powerful influence on our interpretation of experiences and ideas. It is easy to generalize an opinion solely on what we like or don’t like, labeling something as good or bad according to our own preference. As attraction and rejection form a large part of our upbringing and our habits, the emotional relationship with ideas also tends to be dogmatic.
A dogmatic relationship with ideas reduces our vision of life to a single point of view. We think our beliefs are the only truth and we do not accept any other. We might even project all that is wrong with society on to those who have opinions different from ours, thinking that they are the cause of all existing problems. Sadly, such an attitude is all-too-common in the world, evidenced by much separativity and hostility.
A dogmatic relationship with ideas causes conflicts and confrontations and, no matter how much one may argue, never leads to resolution or greater understanding. When we are all convinced of our own opinions, we are not seeking the truth. We want, instead, to prove that others are wrong. Here, of course, we are referring to a certain kind of arguing, not to those dialogues which produce an intellectual interchange, with each member really listening to different points of view.
An argumentative relationship with ideas is another aspect of dogmatism and, if we were at this level, we would tend to criticize everything that we hear. We would think we already knew everything, and we would hold on to the pre-established ideas we once adopted but never really analyzed. If new knowledge coincides with our ideas, we might readily accept it; if not, we would tend to argue about it and automatically reject it. Our dogmatic beliefs are like a prism through which we interpret life. All information is filtered through our belief system and serves to confirm our own vision of reality, supporting our certainty that we are always right.
We are not always conscious of our own dogmatism; interpretations are so limiting that they can make us believe our way of thinking is universal and that different approaches to reality do not even exist. As long as we have this attitude, we systematically reject all that does not agree with our ideas and we lose the possibility of expanding our way of thinking.
A different vision from our own is not necessarily mistaken, but simply another way of focusing the question. It is good to compare our opinions with those of others, not with the purpose of arguing for or against them, but so as to better understand our own position and that of other points of view.
The third kind of relationship with new points of view is that of silence–experimentation. In this relationship, we become open to new ideas, to different points of view. Our relationship with ideas goes beyond agreement versus rejection. Otherwise, instead of learning something new, we would see the context of those ideas only in opposition to our own fixed ideas. Rather, we now strive to learn something new.
It is not necessary to “believe” in new points of view, new concepts, new possibilities, even though they may open up new avenues of experience and knowledge. But we do need to consider and study them. The teachings that surround any experience give good results when we approach them as an investigator, open and free of prejudices. With silence-experimentation we learn to listen, to open up to a panorama wider than dogma. To listen and become informed without deciding beforehand what we will think is an excellent way to expand our understanding and to renew ourselves within.
When we discover an idea that is clearly useful, we need to look for a way to apply it in everyday life, so that it does not become just a passing idea. Even the simplest understanding requires an interior method of work if it is to become part of our lives. To practice what we learn for a while might be very satisfying; but to make that new understanding our way of being we need to maintain an attitude of observation, experimentation and fidelity. If we persevere in that effort, we begin to acquire wisdom.
An attitude of observation allows us to understand inner processes without distorting them with subjective interpretations. In this way we can identify what we need to change or improve and what concepts we need to apply in each case so our new understanding becomes a permanent conquest.
There are no set solutions for the challenges of life, nor are there fool-proof recipes to apply at each moment of human unfolding. The fundamental concepts of spiritual life have to be experienced by each person according to circumstances and individual characteristics. True spiritual principles are not in opposition to the results of analysis and experimentation. On the contrary, evident truths prove the validity of spiritual principles and these in turn teach us to use well the power that comes with knowledge.
To experiment is, first of all, to discern which concepts or points of view we need to explore to expand our horizons; second, to choose the way to apply those concepts in our lives; third, to evaluate the results obtained and, finally, to continue correcting and adapting our actions as needed to obtain the best results possible.
An attitude of openness protects us from the tendency to evaluate the consequences of our efforts as triumphs or failures. An undesirable outcome is not a failure but new knowledge which, if applied well, helps us to avoid making the same mistake again.
If we want ideas and experiences to really teach us, we have to always be ready to expand our point of view. Not all points of view are equally valid, since an impartial opinion is broader than a selfish one. To tell the difference between one and the other, we need to universalize the way we think and to learn how to resolve differences through continually expanding our interpretations.
We can, step by step, assimilate the teaching of life by maintaining an open and receptive attitude. Whoever wishes to cultivate the art of living is not waiting for a great teaching to come along, because life is like an open book. When we know how to read it, it shows us how to understand our experiences and to know ourselves.