Tag Archives: pain

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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Mystical Faith and the Way to Peace

And now we began to drive through that narrow strait. On one side was Scylla and on the other Charybdis. Fear gripped the men when they saw Charybdis gulping down the sea. But as we drove by, the monster Scylla seized six of my company–the hardiest of the men who were with me. As they were lifted up in the mouths of her six heads they called to me in their agony. But I could do nothing to aid them. They were carried up to be devoured in the monster’s den. Of all the sights I have seen on the ways of the water, that sight was the most pitiful.

– Homer’s The Odyssey

S_CIn Book XII of Homer’s classic Odysseus must steer his ship through a dangerous strait, carefully threading his way between two monsters on either side. Charybdis is a whirlpool infamous for pulling vessels into its vortex and crushing them beneath the water, while Scylla, on the opposite bank, is a six-headed monster who reaches out and plucks sailors from their decks and devours them whole, if the captain should venture too close.

Beyond the strait is a beautiful island where Odysseus and his men will find peace and refreshment. But that fantasy must be suspended in the face of their present challenge. Circe had counseled the captain to not allow his panic over losing his ship to one monster drive him, by overcompensation, into the other.

And yet, that’s what happens: In their fear over falling into the swirling void of Charybdis, some of Odysseus’ men scramble to the other side of the deck, whereupon they are snatched up by Scylla and lost forever.


In my last post I offered a way of understanding yourself as driven, motivated, and inspired by the impetus of desire. Composed of a sensual, emotional, intellectual and spiritual nature, you seek different types of experiences, satisfying fundamentally distinct needs.

The pursuit of pleasure, though exploited by advertising and a slippery slope into addiction, is an evolutionary set-up designed to move you toward what your body needs to live and reproduce. Emotionally you seek happiness, which likely arose in correlation with the strong social affinity of our species. The quest for meaning compels you to construct an intellectual model of reality, called your worldview, that will orient your life inside a context of significance. Finally, your spiritual nature desires authenticity, wholeness, communion and peace – all summarized under the single term well-being.Quad

I offer the diagram to the right as an abstract representation of the artistic illustration above, from the scene out of Homer’s Odyssey. The “strait” that Odysseus – Captain Ego – must guide his ship through begins at the bottom of my diagram, which corresponds to the developmental stage of infancy and early childhood.

Pleasure and its opposite, pain, were the guides that helped you stay inside that provident niche where your basic needs could be satisfied. Spontaneous reflexes and deep unconscious drives in turn provided clues for your caretakers to know what you needed.

Through a process known as socialization, your cultural handlers (parents, teachers and other adult higher powers) exploited this natural preference for pleasure and avoidance of pain, using it to shape you into a “proper” member of the tribe.

In this way, “right and wrong” were associated, by the pairing of pleasure (reward) or pain (punishment), to your evolutionary interest in good (pleasant, tasty, nourishing) versus bad (unpleasant, disgusting, toxic). Thus the moral categories of “good” and “evil” have their roots in your natural inclinations. The moral pedagogy of your tribe first anchored into, re-coded, and then abstracted from the sensual intelligence of your body.

Because no culture is perfect and no family is without its shadows, your moral development might have gotten hooked and saddled with shame, guilt, and self-doubt. Such complications can make relationships difficult depending on whether you cling to others for security and reassurance, antagonize and push them away, or remove yourself emotionally to avoid being swamped.

This is where I see Odysseus as Captain Ego, on the narrow path between Charybdis and Scylla. In the painting above, Charybdis (the whirlpool) is on the right and Scylla (the picker) is on the left – corresponding nicely to the right and left hemispheres of your brain.

Although many functions are shared across the two hemispheres and their deeper networks, neuroscience has discovered stronger (more numerous and vibrant) connections between the so-called right brain and the body. Your early development was dominated by right-side processing, which was all about emotional formatting, making necessary attachments, and setting the general “feeling tone” of your emerging worldview.

It took a bit longer for your left brain to get involved. Left-side processing involves cognitive functions of denotative language, classification, cognitive abstraction, forming inferences, and constructing theories that explain and predict reality in meaningful ways. This world-building work picked up the deeper emotional codes of your right brain and incorporated them into a more elaborate perspective on reality.

So, whereas your emotional right brain communicates with your body and its visceral interior, your rational left brain uses the scaffolding of language to arrange and interpret your external environment.

But again, because no one gets through the gauntlet of childhood without bumps, bruises and a few psychological scars, the larger evolutionary task of steering your way between emotional engulfment and intellectual nitpicking – watch Scylla picking off Captain Ego’s crew – can be a tricky ordeal.

Perhaps, as happened to Odysseus, there is a tendency in all of us to swing our ship away from the prospect of getting overwhelmed, exhausted in emotional struggle, and pulled down into a hopeless depression. In compensation, we pick things apart, strip out the passion, and lock our life’s meaning inside small stuffy boxes of dogmatic conviction.

Either way is death: either the death of enjoyment (happiness) or the death of significance (meaning). It’s possible that an entire lifetime (or more) can be spent tacking back and forth, steering clear of suffering but dying inside our convictions, or refusing to take a stand for anything and consequently falling for (into) everything.

The real tragedy, however, is that your spiritual nature and the desire for wholeness, communion and well-being is kept from advancing to the Isle of Serenity beyond. Of course I’m not talking about paradise after you die, but the bliss that awaits your realization this very moment, on the “other side” of the challenge.

Between Scylla and Charybdis is a very narrow path indeed, one that requires focus and control, mindfulness and balance, equanimity and orientation, along with a deep internal calm and full release to the present mystery of reality. A large number probably never make it.

This mystical faith in being-itself is the only way through.


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