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Taking Leave of Reality

The principal discipline of spirituality known as meditation is the practiced skill of living mindfully in the present moment. The here-and-now, or what is sometimes perceptively called “now/here” or “nowhere” since it can’t be located or held onto, is inhabited only by a very few.

The rest of us spend our time out of touch with the Really Real – another name for reality.

Where we go when we leave reality depends on our preferred method of escape – we’ll come back to this in a bit. But why we leave reality needs to be addressed first; otherwise we won’t appreciate the importance as well as the great challenge of strengthening our ability to live mindfully in the present.

The here-and-now holds in store such experiences as pain, loss, failure, and rejection – and these are what we are seeking to avoid when we make our escape from reality.

Of course, we can dream of an alternative reality where these negative experiences have been sponged away and only an everlasting bliss remains. This happens to be one of the methods of escape, and its widespread popularity especially among the other-worldly religions testifies to the extent in which humans find “suffering” – if I can throw those four distinct varieties of negative experience just mentioned under a single label – extremely difficult to negotiate, much less accept.

As sentient beings equipped with a conscious nervous system, we sense pain and very naturally regard it as a warning that something is wrong. Pain is an indicator, a message to our brain, that we need to change our position or do something different so as to avoid injury and maybe worse.

For its part, loss converts into emotional pain as we are separated from something or someone we have come to depend on for security, intimacy, companionship, and support. Losing such anchors leaves us feeling bereft and lonely – an extremely intolerable condition for any human being.

Our failure to attain, achieve, or realize our goals and expectations in life is another form of suffering. But it needs to be acknowledged that failure makes us suffer mostly because we have tied our performance to an audience whose opinion of us matters more than anything.

Our first audience was our parents and other taller powers who weren’t necessarily, or certainly not always, provident in their care of us. Nevertheless, we needed their attention and approval, which motivated us to do everything possible to win it – and then, should we be lucky or good enough to get it, not to lose it again.

Being rejected by others whose approval we need is a second way we can lose them.

The hard fact is that real life will bring us many experiences of pain, loss, failure and rejection. Such experiences are not at all pleasant, and if we had the choice we’d prefer not to be there when they happen. This is why we take leave of reality, seeking our escape from the here-and-now.

Whenever we leave the present moment to avoid suffering, we go to one of four places.

Of course you see the obvious fact right away, don’t you? Anything we do and anywhere we may go will always be in the present moment. Even if we physically move somewhere else, or merely manage an escape in our minds only, everything is always happening in the here-and-now.

The escape, then, is purely an illusion consisting of mental false floors and angled mirrors which makes us believe we are in touch with the way things really are, when it is really nothing more than make-believe.

So where do we go? Each of the four escapes is best characterized as a type of thinking, which I will distinguish as anxious thinking, depressed thinking, wishful thinking, and dogmatic thinking. Each type of thinking effectively separates our mind from reality – or more accurately, it throws up a screen between our mind and reality.

The trick is to get us focused on the screen to the point where the present mystery of reality is concealed, dismissed, and finally forgotten.

The Shell

Anxious thinking pulls us inside a protective shell of vigilance and worry, like a spooked tortoise. If the anxiety doesn’t panic or paralyze us, its “therapy” lies in the way our worry makes us feel responsible, with a super-ability to see the future and anticipate bad things before they happen.

If and when the terrible thing comes to pass, it’s not because we foresaw the future event but rather because our anxious thinking and associated behavior conspire to bring it about.

It’s nearly impossible to convince someone in the midst of an anxiety attack that they are actually creating the experience with their thoughts, which then trigger and elicit the physiological reactions in the body that they identify with their anxiety. As strange as it sounds, worrying about the future is preferable to engaging with the present because the future is a construct of our imagination – which means that we are really in control, even when we feel like things are out of control and happening to us.

It just happens that the experience we are creating is not all that fun!

The Hole

It is well known to psychological researchers and a few therapists that anxious thinking cycles inevitably into depressed thinking, where we find ourselves in a hole. Our word depression literally refers to a place that has been “pressed down” into a concave low point. The hole is another place we go to escape reality.

Depressed thinking is where we tell ourselves things like, “What’s the use? Nothing matters. I don’t have what it takes. I’m not ______ enough. No one cares. I quit.” Depression, like anxiety, convinces us that something or someone else is doing this to us.

Or rather I should say that depression and anxiety are perpetuated so long as we can convince ourselves that this is so.

As anxious thinking characteristically looks to the future, depressed thinking gets hung up on the past, regretting what we may once have had but no longer do. But these scenarios of the past are actually reconstructed memories, fashioned for the purpose of making the present seem less interesting or even meaningless by comparison. This gives us the excuse not to engage with what’s really going on, and thus protects us from the risk of being rejected since we said “No” first.

The Bubble

Wishful thinking fixes attention on an alternative reality to the way things really are, where suffering – at least our own – is absent and everything is as it should be. This can have a future orientation, but not necessarily. In our fantasy we can make ourselves into avatars of pleasure, wealth, success, and fame – the perfected opposites of the pain, loss, failure and rejection we are hoping to escape.

Wishful thinking persists so long as these ideals can float high enough above the way things really are, in order to avoid a closer analysis that might otherwise expose their lack of substance.

This distance between our fantasy and reality is critical to its therapeutic effect, which is to distract our attention away from the here-and-now and into some other there-and-then. Our suffering now is endurable in light of our anticipated salvation then; the persistent ambiguity of life here is bearable as we contemplate its final resolution there.

We are familiar with this line of thinking from religions that train the focus of devotees away from this world and into the next; but wishful thinking is not peculiar to religion.

The Box

Also in religion but not limited to it is the dogmatic thinking that puts us in a box. Inside the box the persistent ambiguity of life is resolved into a binary logic of black-and-white; better yet, into black-or-white or black-versus-white. Religion is also notorious for dogmatic thinking, where an orthodoxy of absolute truths is imposed upon believers. But as in the case of wishful thinking, dogmatic thinking isn’t only a religious preference for taking leave of reality.

My returning reader will be familiar with my paradoxical intolerance of conviction, which is where dogmatic thinking irresistibly leads. As the word implies, conviction takes our mind prisoner (like a convict) to beliefs that must be true because so much hangs on them. The certainty they provide translates deeper down into a security we crave but can never have enough of – since life itself is not all that secure.

It is not sound logic, clear evidence, or direct experience that gives a conviction its strength, but rather our desperate need that it be true. We can be ready to die and even kill in its defense, which reveals just how far out of touch with reality dogmatic thinking can put us.

Some religions (and probably all cults) turn this unfalsifiable character of convictions into a virtue, as the faith upon which our salvation (the ultimate escape) is said to depend.


In my description of the four methods for taking leave of reality you should have identified your preference (mine is wishful thinking). The point is not to feel badly or guilty for what we’re doing, but rather to take it as an invitation back to the here-and-now, to live mindfully in the present moment.

Instead of resisting life as it comes, with all the pain and loss and failure and rejection it may bring, we can open ourselves to the present mystery of reality, relax into being, and accept the universe – just as it is.

 

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Narratives of Terror and the Courage to Be

fear-chainThere are a lot of highly concerned and rational people today who are being held back from stepping out, speaking up, and taking the lead into a better future for our planet. It’s not exactly that someone else is holding them back, even though that’s how many would try to rationalize their current situation. We’d like to think there is someone over there who is keeping us in our frozen state, and that if only they will leave us alone we will be happy.

This turns out to be little more than an excuse, however, because the real cause of our paralysis is internal to ourselves, not out there somewhere else.

I propose the existence of something I’ll call “the fear chain,” which gets forged especially during those critical years of our early conditioning. Parents, teachers, coaches, and other handlers conspired in teaching us that certain things (and people) are dangerous – or potentially so. When we were very young we were cautioned against talking with strangers – along with playing in the street, running with scissors, and touching hot stoves. Such things were “dangerous,” and engaging with them would likely put us at significant risk.

Whether or not they consciously realized it, these influential adults were servo-mechanisms in our socialization, whereby the animal nature of our body was trained to behave according to the rules and rhythms of cultural life. Already programmed by millions of years of evolution, our body came equipped with some basic instincts, the most persistent of which is our drive for self-preservation.

In some form or fashion, all the other instincts – for attachment, food, shelter, sex, and reproductive success – are variations of our primal commitment to staying alive.

This drive to stay alive might also be characterized as an innate fear of death, of avoiding or seeking escape from anything that threatens survival – particularly predators, venom, toxins and tainted food; along with genuinely high-risk situations of exposure, violence, or unstable and precarious environments. While not as primal, perhaps, anything that represented the possibility of injury was linked to our fear of death, since, if serious enough, an injury might very well result in our loss of life.

In this linking fashion, numerous secondary associations were forged and anchored to our compulsive need to live – and not die.

Such association-by-linking should make you think of links in a chain, and this is exactly how I am proposing that the fear chain comes into existence. A primal (and mostly unconscious) fear of death got linked out to situations, objects, and other people who presented a risk of injury to us. And just like that, the primitive energy dedicated to staying alive was channeled into attitudes and behaviors of avoidance, suspicion, and self-defense. From that point on, the possibility of injury started to drive what we did, where we went, and with whom.

This concept of a fear chain suggests that the paralysis many people feel today is a complication of how we have been socialized – not just when we were children but even now under the tutelage of the politicians, preachers, journalists, and jihadists who spin our collective perceptions of reality. In this case, those deeper fears of injury and death get linked to the more normal experiences of loss.

Almost as much as we fear losing our lives or losing our minds, we dread the loss of wealth and opportunity, of time and freedom, of the way we were, or what we thought we could accomplish and become.

Socialization is largely dedicated to the project of constructing our identity – not what we are as human beings, but who we are as members of cultures, nations, classes, and tribes. This project is carried out through a process of forming attachments to the people, places, things, and beliefs that define us and form our horizon of meaning. Identity and attachment, then, are simply two sides of the same coin, with one (identity) the product of the other (attachment).

If we return to our natural and socially conditioned fear of injury, we can see how threats to our attachments amount to a kind of assault on our person. This is how the fear chain is forged with still another link: the (threatened or real) loss of an attachment is experienced as an injury to our identity, which anchors still farther down into our instinctual fear of death.

The stronger the attachment – that is, the more central it is to who (we think) we are – the more we fear losing it.

I wonder if the fragile construct of our identity – so many attachments, so much dependency – is what makes us so afraid of failure these days; of not being ‘successful’ or ‘good enough’. If we should try but fail, we run the risk of losing some aspect of who (we think) we are, suffering injury to our personal identity and (we irrationally believe) putting ourselves in peril of death itself. When a desired outcome isn’t achieved or we can’t get something perfect the first (or fiftieth) time, who we are and our place in the world is called into question. It’s best not to try, which allows us to keep the fantasy of identity safely above and ahead of us without the risk of being proven wrong.

Those who seek to generate an anxious urgency in us will typically use a narrative of terror to motivate us in the direction they want us to go. Such rhetoric is common from fundamentalist pulpits and during political campaigns, not to mention from those extremist wack jobs who seek to panic, disrupt, and destroy the life routines of innocent citizens. They are all united in their determination to unsettle us, tapping our amygdalas with messages of panic, outrage, and paralysis – the flight, fight and freeze responses hardwired into our brain circuitry.

For the relatively disengaged citizenry of liberal democracies, freezing is the majority option: we stop, stare, hold our breath and shake our heads, waiting for the stupor to pass before crawling back into our rut of life-as-usual.

My theory is that these narratives of terror are the sociocultural counterpart of the fear chain, one shaping the environment of our collective life and the other priming our nervous system for survival in ‘dangerous’ times. Even though a drive to survive and the fear of death may be instinctual, our chronic anxiety over losing ourselves – of losing who (we think) we are, along with the illusion of security and control that holds us together – is entirely conditioned and not natural at all.

Indeed, the intentional release of this bundle of nerves and dogmatic convictions is the Path of Liberation as taught in the wisdom traditions of higher culture.

The question remains as to how we might effectively transform our Age of Anxiety into a Kindom (sic) of Peace, where we love and honor the whole community of life on Earth. Years ago Paul Tillich coined “the courage to be” as the high calling of our human adventure. In defiance of the narratives of terror and breaking free of the fear chain, we can step out and speak up, investing our creative authority in the New Reality we want to see.

It will take more than just a few brave souls. And it will require that we move out of complacency, through protest, into a very different narrative.

 

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