Plato believed learning to be a process of reminiscing, whereby you remember knowledge that you’ve always possessed through reflection and study. Thinking about learning using this sort of language directs the attention inward. Much of what people say about education and learning today directs the attention outward— it’s about jobs, society, growth, progress, invention and disruption. The goal for many great (albeit misguided) 21st-century minds is to be constantly shattering boundaries and changing things. Rhetoric like, “be the change you wish to see in the world,” is valued above all else. Beneath the West’s scrambling towards chaos and destruction is a desire among every individual to make a difference. This desire to make a difference more often than not leads to faulty complications.
Lao Tzu said, “The world is won by those who let it go.” Those who are always trying to change things are stuck in the world of externals. They won’t believe they have a purpose in the world until they can observe some sort of tangible effect they’ve had on it. And yet this is such backwards thinking from the perspective of nature. Every creature has a place, not a purpose. Existence is the given! We’re not part of a world that gives every human life a meaning, but we work with what we’re given.
Imagine being at a dinner party with a bunch of people who can’t wait for dessert. They just keep talking about how they’re going to revolutionize their dining experience so that they can really make the most of dessert. Once dessert comes, they keep talking about how they’re going to really make the most of their coffee. Once coffee comes, they’re going to completely take full advantage of the evening entertainment. This is how the modern mind functions. People politicize their personal lives at the detriment of the people they love. They preach progress while neglecting the present. They obsess over their future contributions to the world so much that they don’t accomplish anything of lasting value. Best case scenario is that they accomplish everything and still feel dissatisfied— why? Because they are always setting their sights on the next thing. We’re all chasing the carrot on the stick.
What I just described could collectively spell the end of human civilization. The Onion once published a bleakly funny critique of America that said, “Where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are hunted down at all costs— including life, liberty, and happiness.” We are in a deeply dark ironic period of human civilization. We’re fixated on a future that we’ve engineered to collapse. It’s like we collectively forgot that we lit our own house on fire. This is the modern world, a world that’s resulted from a fixation upon the material at the expense of the spiritual, a world with values so self-contradictory that they barely count as values. When humans became civilized, they had all of nature at their disposal. They shortly began spending thousands of years doing just that— disposing of it. Most of our modern problems result from an arrogant denial of natural truths.
And so, we end where we began. There’s no easy solution to this charade. On an individual level, all we can do is learn to redirect our attention from the external to the internal. Doing so symbolically represents the ideal change that would need to reverse mankind’s destructive path. Focus on revealing to yourself the wisdom you already possess. Observe nature. Observe yourself. The closest truths you’re going to find are already floating around in your head. They’re covered by layers and layers of cultural and political garbage. If you sit and reflect for long enough, you’ll find them.
Individuals who do this are rare but important in a world where everyone needs to see to believe. Those who discover the inner-truths of spiritual practice understand the limitations of the material world, while those who focus only on the material world seem to think it is limitless. This false perception is what collectively leads us towards every tragedy and travesty. I ask that you look within and cultivate strength of spirit in yourself before you go out trying to change the world or preach progress. We’re on a train we can no longer control; it’s traveling too fast. There’s no reason to keep pushing the throttle if we don’t know how to deal with the consequences.