Faith, what does it mean?
In modern society, we’re educated in trusting our rational minds. We’re taught that emotions are unreliable, that dreams are just childish fantasies, and that important life decisions need to be made by carefully weighing all the logical arguments in favour of everything.
Now, right on top of that, we’re taught that to “have faith” (in the religious sense) means blindly believing someone else’s story about something they don’t actually know for themselves, but which they’ve chosen to blindly believe from someone else. In other words, we’re taught a version of faith that’s one fancy telephone game.
But no, this won’t do. If we’re going to blindly believe someone else’s opinions about existence, then we’re merely allowing ourselves to be brainwashed by other humans. I may seem a little harsh here, but think about it: how many different interpretations are there of God’s words, all so conflictual we’d be willing to go to war based on them?
It’s all just one giant multi-branched telephone game.
The One Almighty Truth: I Don’t Know
If God’s words are to be absolute, then anything relative and conflictual can’t be God’s words — unless of course you’ve chosen to believe that one of these outputs of the telephone game is righter than the other, then by all means go right ahead (but you can stop reading now). There’s definitely no point in us talking if you’ve already decided you know everything about everything.
For anyone who’s still reading, I’d like to propose an alternative definition to the word faith: that faith, real faith, is based on stuff we don’t know. That pretending we know what happens after we die, whether there’s a heaven or a hell or a karmic calculator for each of us, is just a way of escaping the anxiety of not actually knowing.
The version of faith I’m proposing is one which, rather than being based on predicting the future, consists in accepting the present. Rather than determining our present actions based on how we think they’ll affect the future (i.e. acting good in order to go to heaven), we act according to our intuitive values in the present and trust (i.e. have faith) that the future will be in accord with how we choose to live in the present moment.
Perhaps the biggest argument in favour of this view on faith, is that — wowzers — we can’t actually predict the future. This means, by extension, that we can’t actually really know what constitutes a good versus a bad action in the bigger picture. If I’m going to make a rather bold, exaggerated example (because I like to do that), say someone murdered a baby. Evil, right? But what if that baby had been Hitler?
Ok, let’s make it clear: it’s pretty evil to murder babies — unless you can predict the future, which you can’t. So don’t murder babies.
Karma: The Principle of Not Knowing
Now, this is where the idea of karma comes in. Karma is often thought to be a sort of cosmic calculator whereby one may go to nirvana if the calculator equates to zero, but gets stuck in the existential loop if the counter is anything else. If that sounds familiar to Santa’s goodie-good list or Saint Peter’s who-gets-in VIP list for the Gates of Heaven nightclub, then it should — because they’re all equally nonsense. (I’m hoping anyone massively disagreeing with this proposition already stopped reading a long time ago, otherwise I’m expecting a real flame war, ugh...)
But no, karma isn’t a magical formula for going to heaven — that’s just another one of these things the rational mind comes up with in order to try to cheat its way into hopes of eternal happiness. Karma is a principle of the universe, it says that everything is connected and that, no matter what, we can’t know anything about the future. It goes further to say that trying to cheat our way to happiness, by acting good with expectations of future returns, is just likely to make us bitter and disappointed when things don’t work out the way we thought they would (and they usually don’t, unless you’re really lucky — which of course isn’t impossible).
When we behave in such a way that we expect future returns, we try to control our lives. We try to control the future. We try to control the uncontrollable. There goes the conundrum of existential anxiety — the whole thing Buddha set out to fix for us. Buddha’s solution was pretty simple: stop clinging to judgment (good versus bad), stop attaching yourself to expectations (acting a certain way in order to get a certain result), stop trying to predict the future and control everything that happens. In other words, stop making yourself the bitch of unpredictability — a victim of circumstances.
Act according to your values, here and now. Whatever happens as a result is the right thing. There are no mistakes — because mistakes imply hindsight, and hindsight is basically a wish for time travel (which, as far as I know, is still impossible — but hey, who knows). There will be successes and sometimes failures. There will be pain, and there will be joy. There is always pain as well as joy in life — no matter what we do. Accepting that, deeply and profoundly, is the real path to liberation.
Of course it’s important to learn from past experiences, to adjust our values and our present course based on those learnings — but hopeful or wishful thinking only serves to create regret, just another form of mental anguish.
Stop Trying So Hard and You’ll Be Free
A life lived with faith, then, is not about pleasure and fun. It’s not about the avoidance of pain. It’s about having faith in me, and in my decisions being the right ones at the time I’m making them. It’s acting without a need or expectation for a specific result, because results are largely out of my control anyway. We set things in motion, we set out with the right intentions, and then trust that whatever happens happens. This is the principle of karma. There’s just way too much shit happening all the time in the universe to guarantee that a good action equals good results.
On average, of course, what we put out there in terms of intentions ends up modelling the world roughly in the shape of those intentions. This is also karma: that if everyone acts according to their present values, non-judgmentally and unconditionally, without trying to constantly manipulate outcomes based on hopeful attempts at predicting the future — then we might all, with a bit of luck, create a world of freedom and bliss in the present moment. Not in the thereafter, but in the here and now.
This, of course, requires a large leap of faith: an abandonment of the constant need for outsmarting the system through knowing or predicting our own fate. It’s acceptance that things may or may not go the way of pleasuring or satisfying this body or this ego.
Thus conceived, faith equates to making ourselves ok with the idea that control is merely an illusion. It is the complete acceptance of the uncontrollability and unpredictability of existence. It is trust in not knowing. It is being ok with not knowing.