Good and Bad

There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.
— Hamlet


Hamlet said everything that needs to be understood about the subject of good and bad but since some of us are still captivated by our intellects we might enjoy a bit more detail. So let us board the rollercoaster of our mind fully aware that it can be a lot of fun but doesn’t go anywhere. Even humanity’s deepest thinkers get sick and confused on this chaotic ride, so we must insist on seat belts and we also begin with some safety tips in the next paragraph to prevent brain damage.

Those who want to argue for the existence of good and evil will not be able to rely on logic. The Greek philosopher Epicurus with stunning clarity sums up what the intellect has to say about the relationship between good and bad or God and evil. “Either God wants to bet rid of evil, but he can’t; or God can, but he doesn’t want to; or God neither wants to nor can, or he both wants to and can. If God wants to, but can’t, then he’s not all-powerful. If he can, but doesn’t want to, he’s not all-loving. If he neither can nor wants to, he’s neither all-powerful nor all-loving. And if he wants to and can—then why doesn’t he remove the evils?”[i] Epicurus’ reasoning points out the limitations of the intellect in arriving at profound conclusions—it can’t. It gets stuck in illusion and will never be able to apprehend the perfection of Simple Reality which simply cuts through the fog of contradiction and reveals the non-existence of evil.

Now we come to a significant problem entertaining the relationship between religion and good and evil with theology professor Uta Ranke-Heinemann pointing out why the ups and downs of the intellect can be so nauseating. “On the question of the origin of evil, the theologians have always opted for the second possibility, that God can get rid evil, but for whatever reason he doesn’t want to. The theologians prefer to deduct points from God’s compassion rather than from his omnipotence. A powerful God finds more supporters than a compassionate God.”[ii]  This is certainly consistent with the false self-identity of the typical human being who values power more than compassion, is more afraid than awake. Oh well, such is the human condition and we now have some idea what we are up against. Hang tight, we are just getting started.

In truth, good or bad does not exist. That is to say that they have no absolute but only relative existence. Socrates said that it is “a high argument in which all things are said to be relative.”[iii]  Both good and bad as Hamlet suggested exist in the eye of the beholder or as Protagoras put it “to the sick man his food appears to be bitter, and to the healthy man the opposite of bitter.”[iv]

Seth always has a piercing clarity in his insights. “While this may seem like the sheerest Pollyanna, nevertheless there is no evil in basic terms. This does not mean that you do not meet with effects that appear evil, but as you each move individually through the dimensions of your own consciousness, you will understand that all seeming opposites are other faces of the one supreme drive toward creativity.”[v]

Let’s return to the beginning of the human narrative. The origin of good and bad was the splitting of Oneness, in particular the shattering of the human community. “The social and cultural practice of defining certain people as ‘others’ in relation to one’s own group may be, of course, as old as humanity itself. The anthropologist Robert Redfield has argued that the worldview of many peoples consists essentially of two pairs of binary oppositions: human/nonhuman and we/they. These two are often correlated, as Jonathan Z. Smith observes, so that ‘we’ equals ‘human’ and ‘they’ equals ‘not human.’”[vi]

There are no moral phenomena at all but only a moral interpretation of phenomena.
— Nietzsche

Shankara, that brilliant articulator of Vedanta philosophy weighs in on the subject of good and bad. “The absolute Reality is beyond good and evil, pleasure and pain, success and disaster. Both good and evil are aspects of Maya [the illusion of P-B]. As long as Maya exists they exist. Within Maya they are real enough.”[vii]  That is to say, good and bad seem real to the false self sensation apparatus and mind.

We can always depend on Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius to penetrate to the heart of the matter. “If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this thing which disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now.”[viii]  We will get to how to do that in a moment.

Therefore, in P-A there is no good or bad. Pleasure is not different from pain—both can cause a reaction and take us out of the present moment. As one of our related pairs it is important to understand what that relationship is in both P-B and P-A. From Shakespeare’s wonderful phrase “nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so,” to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus we have a challenging view of the power of the mind and our conditioning in P-B to keep us in a state of reaction. Epictetus noted that “it’s not the suffering of the world that afflict us, it’s our response [reaction] to them [it].”[ix]

The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.
— Shakespeare in All’s Well That Ends Well

Why should we bother to resolve this contradiction between good and bad? Why do we need to know that the origin of “bad” exists only in our mind and manifests as false-self behavior, and that it is an illusion of the fragmentation of Oneness, a non-existent “split?”

As an interpreter of the material in A Course in Miracles, Marianne Williamson explains why we should begin the healing process. “It is a false belief about ourselves, a lie about who and what we really are. Even though that lie is our neurosis, and living that lie is a terrible anxiety, it’s amazing how resistant we are to healing the split. Since that sense of separateness is who we think we are, we feel like we’ll die without it. What’s dying is the frightened mind, so the love inside us can get a chance to breathe.”[x]  We are so paralyzed by fear that most of us live our lives holding our breath. That might work for a short rollercoaster ride but makes for a nightmarish ride for our life as a whole.

The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a heaven of hell, and a hell of heaven.
— John Milton

The heart of resolving the illusion of good and bad is internalizing the principle of impermanence. The world of form must be ultimately experienced as having no substantial existence and is therefore essentially an illusion. “The entire phenomenal universe exists because of the tension between the opposites. Hot and cold, growth and decay, gain and loss, success and failure, the polarities that are part of existence, and of course, part of every relationship.”[xi]  After having said that, Eckhart Tolle in his Buddhist-oriented teaching emphasizes that human suffering originates in taking the pairs of opposites as reality. The uniting of the pairs of opposites according to Edward Edinger “is not generally a pleasant process. More often it is felt as a crucifixion.”[xii]

Without your wounds, where would your power be.
— Thornton Wilder

And even more difficult for most of us to accept than the “pain” of Edinger’s crucifixion is the realization that we create that pain. The good news is that even our pain, the “bad” in life has an upside according to Nisargadatta Maharaj. “The essence of pleasure is acceptance. Whatever may be the situation, if it is acceptable it is pleasant, if it is not acceptable it is painful.”[xiii]

After a questioner on Guy Armstrong’s audio tape said, “But pain is not acceptable.” Nisargadatta replied, “Why not, do you ever try? [Do you ever choose response?] Do try and you will find in pain a joy which pleasure cannot yield for the simple reason that acceptance of pain takes you much deeper than pleasure does. The personal self by its very nature is constantly pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. The ending of this pattern is the ending of the self. The ending of the self with its desires and fears enables you to return to your real nature, the source of all happiness and peace.”[xiv]

We just heard from an Eastern sage about our perfection and now Thomas Troward represents the wisdom of the West. “For God (the good) to will any of the ‘evil’ that is in the world would be for Life to act with the purpose of diminishing itself, which is a contradiction in terms to the very idea of Life. God is life, and Life is, by its very nature, Affirmative.”[xv]

“To extinguish evil we must learn not to fear it, and that means to cease recognizing it as having any power of its own, and so our salvation comes from realizing in truth there is nothing but the good.”[xvi]

Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine;
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
— William Blake[xvii]

No person, thing or event is either good or bad until we create a fear-driven story around what happened in relation to that person, thing or event. We are all-powerful in making the choice as to how to handle our experience and we create the experience of good or bad which otherwise does not exist.

All Nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, in spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear: Whatever IS, IS RIGHT.
— Alexander Pope[xviii]

Marcus Aurelius realized that neither good nor bad existed. “But death certainly, and life, honor and dishonor, pain and pleasure, all these things equally happen; [things] which make us neither better nor worse. Therefore they are neither good nor evil.”[xix]

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.
Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
— Kahlil Gibran[xx]

Why do bad things happen to good people? They don’t unless we are identified with the body, mind and emotions. They don’t unless as Gibran says in his poem, we “cling” to the illusion of P-B. We have also learned that freedom comes with a price. After choosing a significantly different paradigm as our context and a new identity, we must begin The Point of Power Practice to recondition our behavior and stop feeding the flames of afflictive emotion.

Gunaratana Henepola agrees that attaining Simple Reality is a “learnable skill.”  “[The] mind does not try to freeze time, where we do not grasp onto our experience as it flows by, where we do not try to block things out and ignore them. It is a level of experience beyond good and bad, beyond pleasure and pain. It is a lovely way to perceive the world, and it is a learnable skill. You can learn to control your mind, to step outside of this endless cycle of desire and aversion [reactions]. You can learn not to want what you want, to recognize desires but not be controlled by them.”[xxi]

In the gnostic Gospel of Philip, Elaine Pagels found that: “Philip teaches that within each person lies hidden the ‘root of evil’ [the false self] … it is powerful; but when it is recognized, it is destroyed.”[xxii]  Realizing that we have a false self and taking responsibility for our choices will free us from the slavery inherent in our unconscious conditioning. Until then “we do what we do not want, and what we do not want to do, we do.” (Rom. 7:14-15)

“Our task in healing work is neither to wrestle with hidden causes nor to pretend they don’t exist. Our task is to appreciate their irrelevance as we honor the Spirit [True self] that shines through them.”[xxiii]  John Niendorff expresses the central realization necessary to transcend the illusion of the good and bad “pair of opposites.”

One of the most harmful questions that occurs to every person on the planet at some time or other is Why do bad things happen to good people? Psychologically, believing in the existence of “bad things” can cause anxiety, depression, guilt and pessimism. Physiologically it can cause cancer, heart disease and numerous neuroses. “If we look to ourselves as the cause of our troubles, we can either take responsibility for our actions in a way that leads to insight and growth, or we can engage in self-blame.”[xxiv]  With The Point of Power Practice we are holding ourselves responsible for our experience of life: we are no longer helpless but in truth have attained an authentic and an infinite power over the illusion of P-B when we choose response instead of reaction.

In the context of Simple Reality, what Rollo May calls being transcends precepts and conventional social morality. “It is, to use Nietzsche’s phrase, ‘beyond good and evil’ [and] compulsive and rigid moralism arises in given persons precisely as the result of a lack of a sense of being.”[xxv]

Not only is context crucial for a profound sense of “being” but so is identity. “Rigid moralism is a compensatory mechanism by which the individual persuades himself to take over the external sanctions because he has no fundamental assurance that his own choices have any sanction of their own.”[xxvi]  In other words the unconscious person lacks self-reliance, a sense of a True self. True self-esteem does not come from the opinions of others, by conforming to what others expect of you, but from the experience of and our expression of living in the present moment.

I did the best I could with what I had.
— Joe Louis

Obviously then, the goal of our practice is to transcend the illusion existing in the mind having to do with what we like and what we don’t like; to recognize, as Buddha did, that craving and aversion are the source of not only all of our suffering, but all of our self-destructive behavior as well. It wasn’t anything Adam or Eve did that caused their eviction from the Garden of Eden—there was no culpable serpent either—only the content of the minds of the first humans. They surrendered to their respective false selves and “fell” into unconsciousness choosing to react in what they mistakenly believed to be an unfriendly universe.

Joseph Campbell, the mythologist is always a breath of fresh air with his insightful wisdom. “Taken as referring not to any geographical scene, but to a landscape of the soul, that Garden of Eden would have to be within us. Yet our conscious minds are unable to enter it and enjoy there the taste of eternal life [the Now], since we have already tasted of the knowledge of good and evil. That, in fact, must then be the knowledge that has thrown us out of the garden, pitched us away from our own center, so that we now judge things in those terms and experience only good and evil instead of eternal life—which, since the enclosed garden is within us, must already be ours.”[xxvii]

It could have been otherwise. The ultimate good is to manifest our True self to express our true identity in the context of Simple Reality. “The moral ideal of classical Greek culture has been captured in Pindar’s phrase ‘Become what you already are.’  The moral person, therefore, was one who followed the finality of his or her essence.”[xxviii]

That puts the ball in our court and we have just the racket with which to whack it—The Point of Power Practice choosing response over reaction—in the NOW. Our innate power to transcend the illusion of good and bad is intuitively “felt” and is vividly “real.” Kant said that, “whatever is above all value, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity [True self]—not a merely relative [false self] worth, but an intrinsic worth.”[xxix]

Philosophers such as Aristotle and Mill speak of the goal inherent in Simple Reality, what they call the summum bonum, “that good which is not a means in any respect, but entirely an end, the supreme or highest good for which all else is sought.  [The] sum of all good things which, when possessed, leaves nothing to be desired.”[xxx]  To transcend desire, as we know, is to find happiness, peace, freedom, joy and the compassion of the present moment.

Our lives can be a search for the answer to the question posed by Albert Einstein—Is the Universe friendly? How we answer that question it turns out is up to us. In other words, we can choose to live in a friendly or in an unfriendly Universe. The choice made by most of humanity thus far has been to live in an unfriendly Universe. We have consistently chosen to see reality as threatening, ourselves as powerless and our behaviors as a desperate struggle for survival. It is not too late to re-think that most fundamental of choices and begin to see the universe as friendly, ourselves as all-powerful and our behaviors as a joy-filled expression of compassion and beauty. It would be a good idea to do so as soon as possible.

Well, that wasn’t so bad after all!

Good and Bad

[i]     Ranke-Heinemann, Uta. Putting Away Childish Things. New York: Harper/Collins, 1994, p. 60.

[ii]     Ibid., p. 61.

[iii]    Hutchins, Robert Maynard [ed.]. Great Books of the Western World, The Great Ideas:  A Syntopicon Vol 1. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. 1952, p. 606.

[iv]    Ibid.

[v]     Roberts, Jane. The Nature of Personal Reality. New York: Bantam, 1974, p. 253.

[vi]    Pagels, Elaine. The Origin of Satan. New York. Random House, 1995, p. xviii.

[vii]   Shankara, Adi Sankaracharya (788-820 CE), translated by John Richards.  The Crest-Jewel of Discrimination. New York: New American Library, 1947, p. 26.

[viii]   Hutchins, op. cit., p. 610.

[ix]    Iyer, Pico. “Whatever Way the Wind Blows.” Shambhala Sun. Boulder, Colorado, July 2006, p. 23.

[x]     Williamson, Marianne. A Return to Love. New York: Harper Collins, 1992, p. 32.

[xi]    Tolle, Eckhart.

[xii]   Edinger, Edward. The Creation of Consciousness: Jung’s Myth for Modern Man. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books, 1984, p. 20.

[xiii]   Armstrong, Guy. “Noble 8-Fold Path.” Dharma Seed Tape Library, no date.

[xiv]   Ibid.

[xv]    Troward, Thomas. Collected Essays of Thomas Troward. Marina Del Rey, CA: De Vorss and Company, 1921, p. 42.

[xvi]    Troward, Thomas. Bible Mystery and Bible Meaning. New York: Dodd, 1913, p. 38.

[xvii]    Trevelyan, George, A Tent in Which to Pass a Summer Night. Walpole, New Hampshire: Stillpoint Publishing, 1985, p. 37.

[xviii]    Magill, Frank N. [ed.]. Masterpieces of World Literature. New York: Harper, 1989, p. 116.

[xix]    Aurelius, Marcus. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. New York: Avon, 1993, p. 13.

[xx]    Gibran, Kahlil. The Prophet. New York: Knopf, 1923, p. 11.

[xxi]   Gunaratana, Henepola. Mindfulness in Plain English. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1991, pp. 12-13.

[xxii]    Pagels, op. cit., p. 174.

[xxiii]    Niendorff, John. “Back to Basics.” Science of Mind. December 1996, p. 106.

[xxiv]    Borysenko, Joan. Guilt Is the Teacher, Love Is the Lesson. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1990, p. 141. 

[xxv]     May, Rollo. The Discovery of Being. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1983, p. 102.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii]      Campbell, Joseph. Myths To Live By. New York: Bantam, 1973, p. 25.

[xxviii]     Sheehan, Thomas. The First Coming. New York: Random House, 1986, p. 62.

[xxix]     Hutchins, op. cit., p. 611.

[xxx]     Ibid.

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