At the very deepest level life is desire. Because organisms are open systems – not closed and self-sufficient, but dependent on their environments for what they need to survive and prosper – desire is active even at the cellular level. As our focus moves upwards to higher levels of organizational complexity and consciousness, desire becomes appetite, interest, longing, curiosity, aspiration and quest.
While your life at the individual and daily level may seem hopelessly complicated at times, the truth is that as a human being you seek just four things. Well, they are not really “things” in the straightforward sense, but rather distinct kinds of experience. It’s not really a successful career, a large social network, lots of money, or even everlasting life in heaven after you die that you really want.
What are these four types of experience, the pursuit of which makes you just like every other human being on this planet? Very simply, you want pleasure, happiness, meaning, and well-being. The present arrangement of your life, as well as the ambitions that get you out of bed in the morning and keep you awake at night, is fulfilling to the degree that you have managed to keep these four pursuits in a healthy balance.
Let’s look at each one briefly, and then explore how we human beings can lose this balance – and consequently lose our way in life.
You are a sensual being (there, I said it). What I mean is, you are wired and connected to reality by sensory pathways that deliver signals to your brain and body, spontaneously eliciting reflexes that move you toward what you need to survive and away from what might be harmful or dangerous. Pleasure is the lure that gets you to reach out for the big juicy apple. Your cells require its vitamins, fructose and fiber to do their thing, but you need incentive to pick it off the tree and take a bite. Apples are delicious and pleasing because they contain the raw energy your body needs.
Once in a while the apple turns out to be spoiled rotten inside, and your bite into it brings not pleasure but disgust – a signal that it is not gustatory, not tasty and edible, not good for you. Pain (disgust in this case) is the sibling to pleasure, and its purpose is to keep you from doing that for too long, which could result in sickness; or in other situations, in injury and death.
Your body is keyed into pleasure and the pursuit of it because organic evolution has made powerful pairings between the requirements of physical health and the numerous “delivery systems” (like the apple) in your environment that carry the goods. Pleasure feels good, and you typically want more of it. Until you get too full of apples; then the opposite signal of pain kicks in and you start to feel uncomfortable and nauseated.
The advertising industry has devised many clever ways of associating (the promise of) pleasure with purchases that really have nothing to do with what your body needs. A beautiful human model slunk over the hood of the latest model car excites our desire for sex and romance, and then anchors this feeling to the automobile. So we rush out to the dealership to find our beckoning lover. Sixty months of financing beyond our means is not too much (at least at first) to have the pleasure we’ve been promised.
In addition to pleasure, however, you also want happiness. This is because you are an emotional being as well as one that’s wired up for the pursuit of pleasure. Being happy – feeling positive, content, cheerful and optimistic in life – is another enticing payoff for getting into arrangements that (again, promise to) provide the support you need.
Happiness is a very attractive experience, and people spend gobs and gobs of their money, effort, and time in pursuit of it. Thomas Jefferson believed that everyone has an “inalienable right” to chase it down, though he probably didn’t foresee the reckless extent to which later generations would go at it.
Quite often – probably most often; okay, all the time – people seek professional help to find happiness. They want desperately to feel better emotionally about their lives, their relationships, their past, or themselves. This will usually involve a delivery system more complicated than an apple, along with a probability of complications and side-effects that carry some risk as well. But the risks are worth it – or so we are willing to believe.
What else do you want? Meaning. This is because you are an intellectual being equipped with a cognitive intelligence that picks up patterns out of the whirligig of reality, or makes them up where they may be missing. Patterns are rhythms and designs, constellations and correlations that connect things and suggest other orders of significance. The root-word sign in significance names something that points beyond itself and “translates” the mind into a cross-referencing system where its meaning is revealed.
Your mind is a factory of signs. The language you learned from your tribe established the basic conceptual building-blocks of your world. By nature your mind is never content with a closed box of meaning, but soon itches with curiosity to know what’s “outside the box” and around the corner of the latest theory. Of course this natural curiosity can be discouraged by your tribe (and often is), to the point where asking questions is tantamount to doubting authority and opening the box becomes a punishable sin.
The social construction of identity, of what we call the ego, involves the methods by which your tribe exploited your natural desire for pleasure, happiness, and meaning. Especially in the early years, your sense of self was powerfully defined by the preferences, attachments and convictions conditioned into you by your cultural handlers (parents and teachers). Through the early stages of ego formation, a human being was made into “one of us” – an insider, a good boy or girl, a believer.
But the ego itself is an illusion, fronting a persuasive charade of reality while being nothing more than a rather sophisticated role play. This appearance of solidity is tested in times of doubt and disillusionment, but like a frantic little spider, the ego rushes out to the rupture and weaves a story that will restore security. If it doesn’t take too long, the trance can go on without serious interruption.
But the web does break, predictably. This is because you are a living, growing, and evolving being. The tight suspension that supports your identity, your world, and all the things that impinge on your happiness cannot keep you from growing up and out of your current disguise. It’s not just that you want more happiness and more meaning – although, again, the advertising industry is ready to accommodate your fantasy. Flip the channel and you’ll see what I mean.
Something else is going on.
You are also a spiritual being – not a soul inside a body, but a being that engages reality with a spiritual intelligence. What are you looking for in this case? What qualitatively distinct type of experience is your soul after? Not pleasure, not happiness, and not even meaning, but well-being.
What is well-being? At first blush, it is about being well, which is linguistically derived from being whole. This is not an experience to be achieved, and it’s not about clutching more things and people into your life to make it complete. It is a realization that all is one and you are a participant in something very much larger than your little ego and its meticulously managed world. Something profoundly mysterious and beyond words.
You are inwardly grounded in this mystery as well as outwardly connected, directly or indirectly, to every other existing thing.
The mystical traditions call this experience communion, from com (with, together) and union (one). Your spiritual intelligence as a human being gives you the ability to be conscious of this mystery, even if you can’t describe it and make it finally (once and for all) meaningful. Soul is that standpoint in reality where you can touch the unity of all things and release your conscious self to the deep grace of being-itself.
And then – ploop! just like that – your mind wants to put labels on it, get a box around it, and convert the experience into a belief. Spirituality is made into a religion, mystery collapses into meaning, liberty is turned into obligation, and what was once a life-changing insight gets pinned like a butterfly to the rigid board of orthodoxy.
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat fall into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
To experience well-being, you need to let go of the attachments and convictions that define you. Like the hard shell of the seed which must relax, let go, and open up to allow the green fuse to emerge, ego-identity and the little world you manage must surrender to the soul’s desire.
Until you can give yourself over to the mystery of life in this moment, your human fulfillment is postponed. Let go of fear. Let go of pain, and even of pleasure. Let go of doubt – and let go of certainty, too. Let go of what you think you need to be happy or have a meaningful life. Let go of “me, myself and I.”
Just let go. All is one. The provident mystery of reality will gently catch you. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.