Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Wandering in the Wilderness

"Into the Wild"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

In a very thought provoking article in yesterday's New York Times, Columnist David Brooks posed an  interesting question about where and how people in today's society find their moral compass. In years gone by many people affiliated with some sort of a religious organization where they received various forms of guidance about the ultimate issues of life - how to live a meaningful life, how to treat others, what is right and what is wrong. 

But, nowadays less and less people attend church or even believe in "God," and even for those who do believe, external religious moral guidance is fast becoming extinct with fewer and fewer people inclined to "obey authority" when it comes to moral issues. Moreover, there are few if any places today where people can come together to talk about the deeper meaning of what it means to lead a "good life." 

Brooks observes:

There is less moral conversation in the public square. I doubt that people behave worse than  before, but we are less articulate about the inner life. There are fewer places in public where people are talking about the things that matter most.

As a result many feel lost or overwhelmed. They feel a hunger to live meaningfully, but they don't know the right questions to ask, the right vocabulary to use, the right places to look or even if there are ultimate answers at all. 

I think about that iconic story of the "exodus" in the ancient Hebrew Scriptures. In the story, having been freed from Egyptian slavery, the people of Israel are now on their way to the Promised Land. But first they must make their way across a barren and daunting desert. They are feeling "lost and overwhelmed" as they wander around in the wilderness not sure of what direction they should be traveling or how to reach their final destination.  

According to the Exodus story, Moses goes up on a high mountain and asks God for direction, whereupon he is given two basic principles for the people to follow if they hope to make it through the wilderness and find their way to the Promised Land:  First, they are told to trust in God's abiding presence to be with them as they walk the way. Secondly they are told:  "love one another as you love your self." They are told that no one will find a way by wandering off on their own, so take good care of one another and pay special attention to those who have a harder time traveling, the sick or weak or older or more feeble. 

It seems to me as if these traveling directions given to the ancient Hebrews actually provide great wisdom for any one of us who to this very day make our own way in the vast wilderness of our human existence: "Don't travel alone,  and take good care of one another along the way, paying special attention to those who have a harder time on the journey."

The Dalai Lama has suggested that human beings innately know the traveling directions given to those ancient Hebrews- we already have this innate moral compass in our very DNA:

There is a reasonably substantial body of evidence in evolutionary biology and neuroscience suggesting that, even from the most rigorous scientific perspective, unselfishness and concern for others are innate to our biological nature. Interdependence is a key feature of human reality.

As human beings we can survive and thrive only in an environment of concern, affection and warmheartedness - or in a single word, compassion. The essence of compassion is a desire to alleviate the suffering of others and to promote their well-being.

In a time when more and more people wander through life "lost and overwhelmed," when we talk less and less about the things that really matter in our human existence, it seems to me that human beings need to be constantly reminded of this iconic lesson: we will not survive, we will not make it through life's wilderness unless the compass of our lives points to "concern, warmheartedness, affection, in a single word, compassion." 

Listen to my podcast: "Desert Wisdom"

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