I watched a recent Jordan Peterson interview on the Joe Rogan show:
Other than agreeing with the common sense stuff that he’s saying, I found one particular issue that bothers me.
Essentially, what Dr. Peterson says is that life is full of suffering, but one needs to find a positive purpose to dedicate one’s life to, that will outweigh the cumulative burden of suffering contained in one’s life, and make it subjectively worthwhile.
My problem with this is that it starts with the first noble truth of Buddhism, that life is wrought with suffering, but then comes to the opposite conclusion, basically that one needs to invest even more energy into his relationship with the world, not noticing the causal relationship between the investment of spiritual energy into the world, and suffering.
So, what was Buddha’s answer to this problem, if we put aside the four noble truths thing, which nobody seems to understand properly? Buddha’s answer is, basically, that there are several components to the human experience, and the result of their interaction is suffering. First component is the world as such – it exists in a way that is extremely conducive to suffering if you get entangled in it. Second component is misunderstanding, where the world is seen as something that will give you desirable results; this is also known as projection of one’s spirit and goals into the world. Third component is inertia, where you tend to repeat the same mistakes that got you entangled in this mess in the first place; essentially, you react to painful experiences by investing more energy into the world, in attempts to make it all better, the way a gambler tries to cover his past gambling debts by making increasingly larger and more dangerous bets.
And this is why Dr. Peterson’s argument bothers me, because it sounds like very dangerous advice, from my perspective, and I think Buddha would agree. He’s not the first one who came up with this idea – it’s the main mechanism that increases spiritual entanglement and increases harm to the point of total spiritual exhaustion and destruction. Essentially, the people who are totally desperate because of suffering already tried investing increasingly more into the world, to the point where they are left with nothing but humiliations, pain and karmic debt. So what do you say to such a person – oh, you should try and project more energy into the world, invest more, make another high stakes bet that will make it all good? I don’t think it’s a good idea.
I know that non-Buddhists, and non-Hindus for that matter, will find my argument unconvincing, because the workings of karma and energy-investment will be foreign to them, but in that case I will refer to Christianity. It was Jesus’ opinion that the worldly battle is already lost and that one should not even attempt to play it – let the dead bury their dead. Build on solid rock, not on sand. Don’t gather wealth of the kind that is consumed by rust and moth. Put your faith in God, make God your goal, project your fulfillment into the kingdom of God, not into the kingdom of man. Don’t try to keep this life, because you will lose it; give it up, and get true life in eternity. You see my point?
Both Śakyamuni and Jesus start with the same basic assumption as Dr. Peterson, that this life is wrought with suffering, and that this can break one’s spirit quite easily. It’s the solutions that differ. Jesus says, put your faith in God, not in this world, because this place will kill you. Don’t resist evil, don’t strike back, carry your cross calmly to the place of execution, follow me. Buddha says, follow the path of renunciation and detachment. Release, don’t hold. Don’t retaliate. Feel the pain, allow it to flow through you, and release your hold over the world, because it will poke and prod you to increase your grip, to invest more, to try to fix problems, to try to cover pain with pleasure, and it doesn’t work, because the solution doesn’t exist in this world, the solution is nirvana, the calm ocean of spirit that is indifferent to anything this world has to offer or threaten with.
Sure, it’s quite easy to follow this advice all the way to despondency and depression. If you don’t strike back at injustice, you will feel hurt, helpless, worthless. If you don’t try to do good in response to evil, what will you do? Choose emptiness? Those are valid arguments. One would think Buddha and Jesus thought of them, but surprisingly they haven’t, and you know why? Because you might think and feel that this world is the only one, or the best one, or the real one, but they knew better. Their advice wasn’t for people who live in a real world, it was for video game addicts, who will moan and bitch about their scores and levels and virtual gadgets going to waste, and the advice of the enlightened ones is, in the immortal words of Queen Elsa of Arendelle, “let it go”. Just let it go, let it die, don’t retaliate, don’t try to invest in yet another round of bets that will cover your prior losses. Turn around and leave. It’s not the real world, in fact you are more real than the world. The world isn’t giving you anything, in fact you are keeping it alive with your investment of energy. Withdraw, become aware, remember God, enter nirvana, regain your inner equilibrium, realize that the fulfillment you seek is beyond the confines of this place and is possible only in God. That’s what they are telling you, and that’s what I kept telling everybody until I bored myself to tears with repetition. So that’s my issue with Dr. Peterson’s roadmap for humanity – it doesn’t see past the confines of this world, and if you apply it as recommended, it is more likely to doom you than to rescue you, because the solution to being stuck in a hole isn’t to start digging more vigorously. At least if you’re not smart enough to start cutting a staircase into the walls of the well.