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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Cause and Effect, and Consequences (3)

I continue to grapple with this advice from Bhavagad Gita. It seems completely unnatural to act without regards to the outcome. "Victory and defeat are the same." I have to keep reminding myself this line because it goes against everything we take for granted, yet there is something in the claim that pulls one out of the span of the next day, week and year and forces one to look down at the length of a life or a millennium. In the end everyone dies. If that is true, how can we argue with the statement that, at least on some level, victory and defeat are the same?

On the other hand, consequences are the main way we learn to interact with this world. If you touch fire, you get burned and learn to avoid it the next time. It is the consequence of pain that dictates your choices. This is how we infer cause and effect and subsequently avoid everything that is painful or unpleasant. This may also be why we become more fearful and set in our ways in mid-life. If I do this thing, bad things may result, and I should therefore refrain from action to be safe. And so it goes.

And this learning goes beyond our own experience. We watch the consequences of others' choices and distill lessons into rules of conduct for ourselves. This is how social norms and laws are formed. Do not kill another human, or you will be punished with your own death. Do not steal from another, or you will get your hands cut off. Do help your neighbors, so that you will be awarded with their help when you are in need. How else do we influence people's behaviors if not through the threat or promise of consequences? Aren't we ALL trained by reward and punishment?

Yet now you are telling me to forget about consequences, to go forth and do what I need to do without concerns for outcome, because victory and defeat ARE THE SAME.

Deep down I know there is something valuable in this advice that could cure mid-life malaise and fear-induced paralysis. But it does not come easily. Once I let go of the rules of conduct built upon decades of the reward-and-punishment system, what do I have left? I would have to make decisions and behave according to, uh, not dharma (whatever it means), but rather the motivations and desires and intentions coming from nowhere but within. That is a tall order.


Eugene Xia said...

If we have a calling and truly love and care about what we do, then attachment and concern about reward and results are impediments. This is how I read it.

Jun Yan said...

Well that is the problem. The need for decisions are many and often, but the conviction that a particular choice is a calling that we believe in is rare. Even Arjuna did not feel the certainty and conviction of his cause on the field of Kurukshetra. Most of the time we are full of doubts like he did over what we are about to do, for things ranging from "Should I marry him?" to "Should I go to University A or B?" It is natural and human to have attachments to consequences, despite the impediments. It's not something one can turn off.

Eugene Xia said...

Yeah, Krishna's idea can be very dangerous. Ajurn ended up killing a lot of people.

Gita is relatively popular among the Western intellectuals. I can identify with it because my line of work requires extreme focus and single-mindedness in order to achieve anything. Most of the time, I am not getting anywhere for months and even years. That is when I remember the Gita: you gotta keep going.

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