Watts: “To understand that there is no security is far more than to agree with the theory that all things change, more even than to observe the transitoriness of life. The notion of security is based on the feeling that there is something within us which is permanent, something which endures through all the days and changes of life. We are struggling to make sure of the permanence, continuity, and safety of this enduring core, this center and soul of our being which we call ‘I’. For this we think to be the real [self] – the thinker of our thoughts, the feeler of our feelings, and the knower of our knowledge. We do not actually understand that there is no security until we realize that this ‘I’ does not exist.”
Insecurity is a fact of existence. When this fact breaks into our consciousness it can take us over as a feeling that nothing is certain, nothing matters, and that there’s no point in going on. Of my three conversation partners, Watts is the one who examines the psychology of insecurity to help me understand its causes and consequences.
At any given moment I can feel secure or insecure. But what is this “I” that feels one way or the other? Western psychology began as a study of the soul (psyche), but at some point it made the fateful mistake of identifying soul as the center of our individual personality, later called ego. (It’s probably more accurate to say that ego had assumed this position much earlier in history, and that modern psychology made it scientifically acceptable.) Now, what had earlier been only intimations of immortality, coming up from that spiritual center of awareness where my existence opens up to the larger mystery of reality, became a personal belief: “I (ego) am immortal.”
But ego and soul are not the same, or merely two names for the same thing. Soul (along with body) is primary, whereas ego is secondary. I am body and soul, I don’t have these. Body is my animal nature; it is informed by an intelligence called instinct, and both its internal urgencies and peripheral sense receptors resonate to the greater rhythm of Life. Soul is my spiritual nature and is informed by an intelligence called wisdom. While the drives and reflexes of body are dedicated to my survival, the insights and intuitions of soul cultivate a sense of participation in a mystery that transcends my individual needs and concerns.
The irony here is that this “I” (ego) which has assumed possession rights over body and soul, is really nothing but a social construct – something put together and given shape through countless interactions with others. As I learned the skills of language and internalized the worldview of my tribe, I gradually took on multiple facets of identity.
I belong to this group. I work hard for these things. I prefer this sort of company. I don’t trust those people. I believe in this god. All these lines of attachment correspond to facets (faces, masks or roles) of my identity. As long as the many facets fit and hold together, I have an illusion of solidity. I like that illusion. It helps me feel secure.
When I take a closer look, however, it becomes obvious that this illusion of security is not secure at all. Every one of those lines of identity is very tenuous and fragile; it’s the cumulative effect of their considerable number that gives the illusion of permanence. Just watch how annoyed, disturbed and panic-stricken (the predictable progression) I become when just one of them gets stretched out of shape. And if it should snap – watch out!
Yet every line that attaches to the social landscape of my tribe and forms a corresponding facet of my ego identity is only a construct – put together, made up, a role-play, a pretense … and inherently unreal. When I learn to hold these more loosely, I discover something rather unexpected. Life is moving and changing. Nothing is certain, maybe nothing really matters. And that’s perfectly okay.
So is there a point to going on?
As a young man, I believed that one day I would accomplish something worthwhile and lasting. I would leave a mark and make my life count. Now I’m beginning to understand that my most important work is to wake up from this trance and move deeper into life.
New motto: Be real, live fully, love well.