Thursday, April 01, 2004

Generic Mind

So Duckling asked about "the horror of the ordinary," and what Eastern religions had to say about it. (First of all, a correction to what I said earlier: C.S. Lewis's phrase was "the horror of the obvious." Closely related, but not identical.)

We all want to be special, I'm sure. All human beings. Not something the modern West invented. But I think it's something we've become peculiarly addicted to -- that it's the version of "self-cherishing" that is in the ascendant over us. We have an ideology that supports it -- self-actualization -- and we promote it quite shamelessly. Elementary-school teachers tell kids relentlessly that they are special and they ought to prize being special. Parents are urged to tell their kids they're special, and they do. We're all just terribly special and unique, we're told, and that's what makes us valuable.

The dark converse is lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce. There are six billion of us now, going on seven, and it doesn't take long for the doubt to percolate up to consciousness. Am I really special? In what way? When you try to pin one of these elementary-school teachers or parents down -- just what is unique about me? The sure signs of gobblydegook appear: there is no evidence. There is no content. The uniqueness is just insisted upon again, with increasing shrillness. And behind it is the dread that it is not true.

And it is dreadful, because we've been told one big fat lie: that it's our uniqueness -- and only our uniqueness -- that makes us valuable. If we are not unique, then, we are worthless.

Well, what Buddhism has to say about it, is that this is precisely backwards. Mind is precious and enduring because it is "luminous, empty, and unimpeded" -- which is to say, really, that it's generic. Obscurations may be unique, but the luminous mind beneath them is just -- mind. Common or garden-variety mind. Yours is no different from mine. It may not even be distinct from mine. We are only valuable, and only free, insofar as we are utterly ordinary.

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