Humans have been seeking happiness ever since self-consciousness threw us out of the garden of simple need satisfaction and into the quest for personal fulfillment. Inside the garden, reality was experienced as a provident web of support. Outside, we are on our own – or so it feels. Our human condition – separate, self-conscious, and profoundly alone – drives us to seek after whatever might resolve our insecurity and make everything all right again.
The spiritual wisdom traditions have been telling us for a long time that our real problem is not that we are alone, but that we are not at peace in our aloneness.
If we could find our center and dwell there in mindful presence, the crosswinds of life wouldn’t push us off-balance as easily as they do when we’re reaching outside ourselves for whatever we hope can save us. Wisdom’s counsel is about discovering, in the literal sense of ‘taking away a cover’ – a veil, an illusion, a misunderstanding, a mistaken belief, a false story – that is obscuring the truth of what we are.
This truth is not something we can render in words, definitions, and doctrines, for in essence it is an experience. To know yourself in this deeper sense is not a matter of possessing factual information about yourself, but rather of being grounded in your own life and living mindfully from its center.
Because spiritual wisdom eschews propositional truth in favor of experiential truth, its worldwide and perennial mystical-ethical tradition is often at odds with dogmatic forms of religion – really with orthodoxy of any kind.
It should be the most natural thing for us to live life from our own true center, so why is it so rare? Why do a vast majority of us get stuck on the restless Wheel of Suffering, and why do such a large number of these get pulled into clinical unhappiness?
The answer as to why we get stuck probably is as variable as our individual identities are unique, and it quickly loses revelatory power as it deteriorates into reasons and excuses.
On the other hand, how we get stuck on the Wheel of Suffering is much more simple and straightforward. There are certain things we have to do, once we’ve forsaken our center, in order to get hooked on the Wheel. And there are things we have to do, once we’ve gotten hooked, to keep ourselves there.
In a sense, I’m going to tell you what you already know.Our true center is where we are mindfully present to life, where we are in touch with what’s really real (aka reality). To abandon our center and get hooked on the Wheel of Suffering, it’s necessary to tell ourselves a story. At the center there are no stories, only the experience of being alive and its deeper invitation to inner peace.
Almost always we jump out to the rim of the Wheel when we tell ourselves a What if? story: “What if it goes wrong?” – “it” standing for whatever we believe is a key to happiness, or at least to our feeling less unhappy.
In the diagram above I have color-coded this story yellow, which represents the energy of anxiety. We typically abandon the present moment by jumping into the future – or rather, into a story about something that might or might not happen. We take this future scenario as critical to the security, happiness, or meaning of our life. For it to ‘go wrong’, the thing we feel we can’t live or be happy without must be imagined as slipping away, breaking apart, failing to arrive, or just falling short of our need.
When we are anxious, we are living in the future. The more we fixate on the worrisome thing, the more helpless we feel – and for good reason, since the future is beyond our control and doesn’t exist anyway. Many of us get stuck here, in chronic anxiety that keeps us trapped inside our What if? story – or is it that we are stuck inside our What if? story which keeps us trapped in chronic anxiety?
But then there may come a breakthrough – or at least that’s how it can feel – motivating us to take control. So we grip a little tighter, set forth our ultimatums, manage every detail, and buy more insurance against the likely disaster. This part of the narrative is color-coded red, as its energy is aggressive. And because we are trying to control something we cannot actually control, we soon come to realize that it’s not working.
So what do we do? We redouble our efforts and try harder!
Here the energy on the Wheel starts to shift again, from red/aggression to blue/disappointment. The expected outcome hasn’t come about. We are growing exhausted and cynical, struggling just to stay engaged or even interested in what we had earlier believed was the key to happiness. The cost is proving to outweigh the gains.
Many of us simply give up at this point. Our story becomes a judgment on life itself, or on whomever or whatever has let us down. Life feels like it’s circling the drain and we are sinking fast. When we are depressed, we are living in the past, rehearsing – therapists call it ‘ruminating’, like how a cow burps up food to chew it some more – what went wrong, where and when it went wrong, and who’s to blame.
What we don’t realize is how our anxious efforts at control actually fulfilled the prophecy of our What if? story.
Both of the spiraling whirlpools we’ve looked at, one tightening in anxiety and the other pulling us down into depression, are, in the language of medicine, ‘comorbid’ (presenting simultaneously or in mutually reinforcing cycles).
Back in the nineteenth century psychopathology had given the name neurasthenia (“nervous exhaustion”) to a condition that appeared to cycle between anxiety (nervousness) and depression (exhaustion). Later in the twentieth century this common condition would be analyzed into two presumably separate disorders, with each one further differentiated into dozens of distinct subtypes, which justified the proliferation of psychotropic drugs as treatment.
We shouldn’t be surprised to learn, however, that such protocols, along with the multi-billion-dollar industry they now support, are statistically ineffective and dangerous in their side-effects. They produce just enough of a positive ‘bump’ – although the effect is not due to the drugs themselves but rather to the patient’s belief in their efficacy, called the placebo effect – to keep us on the Wheel.
The beliefs that “There’s nothing I can do” (the story of anxiety) and that “Life has let me down” (the story of depression) are at once places on the Wheel where we can get pulled into clinical unhappiness and revelations of genuine wisdom, in the way they clarify foundational truths of the liberated life. Indeed, the liberated life is not an outcome of what we do, but more about being present and letting be. And in fact life is not designed to fall in line with our expectations, so learning how to live more in touch with the way things really are, in radical acceptance, is how we get back to our center.
Sadly however, many of us don’t listen to anxiety and depression in this way. Instead we use distractions, medications, and rationalization to mask or move through our unhappiness as quickly as possible. Whether it’s just the mercy of time passing, or the respite from worry that depression affords us, eventually something shiny will catch our eye: the key to the door of our way out.
This one will be our salvation; or so we believe. And yet, this is only another story, or a new turn of an old story. It is another hook that will keep us on the Wheel of Suffering for another revolution, at least.
While spirituality is the art of getting off.