There are two ways to live a life. We can live the life of an animal or that of a human being. Human beings are surprisingly rare.
The life of an animal is easily defined – all our efforts, aspirations and dreams are geared toward one thing – survival and procreation. That the activity of most of us is concerned exclusively with this is easy to show – earning money, seeking approval from the herd, achieving some level of dominance, establishing shelter, acquiring food, and so on. There is no judgement here since we need to do these things to survive. Animals do all these things too and when survival prospects are enhanced we feel good, and when they are diminished we suffer.
The vast majority live the life of an animal and cannot imagine any other way of living. They suffer the pains of animal existence and it’s pleasures. Some people however are not satisfied by the animal life – they feel that something is missing. And so a quest begins. This might involve religion, spiritual traditions, self-help, philosophy or psychology. The common factor in all of these pursuits is the desire to understand (with the exception of unquestioning belief). To make efforts to understand is to live the life of a human being. This does not mean we can ignore our animal nature or become immune to its pleasures and sufferings, but it does mean that something else can grow within us.
The quest for understanding is not without its dangers however. As soon as we abandon reason we are prey for every snake oil salesman and charlatan. There is also a widespread belief that someone out there has “the answers”. To live like a human being is to make efforts to understand using our sane reason. The only answers that count are those we find ourselves. We strive to understand ourselves, the world, and what might lie outside the conceptual and sensory prison we find ourselves in. It is a journey with no pathways and no destination and is not for the timid.
The animal always seeks gratification – to do something and be rewarded for the effort. A human being knows that the effort to understand is the reward. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Few people will understand why a person makes efforts to understand with no concrete objective in mind. As Krishna said to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, the role of a human being is to work with no expectation of reward. The animal does not understand this.
It might sound as if the quest for understanding is a purely intellectual activity – some kind of hobby we have running in the background. It is not. Understanding comes when our emotions, mind and body are all engaged in the activity. To understand ourselves requires brutal honesty and unflinching courage. If there is no skin in the game there is no game, and this is the only game worth playing. To live as an animal is to die as an animal. To live like a human being offers up something wholly different. Each person has to find out what that is for themselves, but at some point they will have to put all their chips on the table – real skin in the game.