After writing yesterday’s entry, I came across the following quote from Alan Watts, in a chapter on “creative morality”, which summarizes quite beautifully some of my essential points:
Where there is to be creative action, it is quite beside the point to discuss what we should or should not do in order to be right or good. A mind that is single and sincere is not interested in being good, in conducting relations with other people so as to live up to a rule. Nor, on the other hand, is it interested in being free, in acting perversely just to prove its independence. Its interest is not in itself, but in the people and problems of which it is aware; these are “itself.” It acts, not according to the rules, but according to the circumstances of the moment, and the “well” it wishes to others is not security but liberty.
Nothing is really more inhuman than human relations based on morals [i.e., duty]. When a man gives bread in order to be charitable, lives with a woman in order to be faithful, eats with a Negro in order to be unprejudiced, and refuses to kill in order to be peaceful, he is as cold as a clam. He does not actually see the other person. Only a little less chilly is the benevolence springing from pity, which acts to remove suffering because it finds the sight of it disgusting.
But there is no formula for generating the authentic warmth of love. It cannot be copied. You cannot talk yourself into it or rouse it by straining at the emotions or by dedicating yourself solemnly to the service of mankind. Everyone has love, but it can only come out when he is convinced of the impossibility and the frustration of trying to love himself. This conviction will not come through condemnations, through hating oneself, through calling self-love all the bad names in the universe. It comes only in the awareness that one has no self to love.
Reading this made me realize that only the self cares whether it is “good” or “dutiful”. For the soul, there is only what exists in the present, and the actions it calls for. That is life, rather than what life should be. A soul acts well because it chooses this, and not because it wishes its actions to be named “well”.
Further, I came to realize through this that God also does not care what our actions are. Why would He? Why would a Being of infinite power care what I choose to do with myself? Instead, I think He cares only that we grow up well and happy, since He is our Creator. To this end He gave us laws; not because our following those laws, in itself, makes any difference to Him.
When we choose to live out of duty to these laws, we create a null loop: we base our lives on the idea that He wants us to act a certain way, when in fact He does not care at all. The purpose of moral action is to benefit life. It is we who should care about how we act. It is we who must choose to live, and not live for the sake of any idea. In the same way that a well-constructed building will stand tall and long, a well-lived life is something to be happy about. This becomes a sincere basis for action, rather than duty to the thought that anyone – even God – wants us to live a certain way. He has our best interest at heart, not which virtues we come to emulate.
As an example of this, there is no such thing as becoming humble. Humility is a response to the presence of something seen as greater than ourselves. When we have that perception, we experience humility. “Being humble” is not possible. Perhaps if there were a constant perception of each moment as awesome in its potential, a man could experience such a thing perpetually. But it never becomes an attribute adhering to part of the individual. The belief that it might is exactly what the self is: the thought that in choosing to act a certain way, we accumulate virtues which endure beyond the present.
This scheme of cultivating virtue seems to me like a perversion of what spiritual teachings are intended to convey. In teaching about humility, they shows us how to know when reality is being perceived truly, because such a perception would produce the response of humility. But to take it as an abstract quality, that devotion can acquire for us? That feel like the self perverting religion to its own ends, and not the soul choosing to fulfill its potential.