“To challenge your misery, try science. Give it a real chance. Work at thinking rationally, sticking to reality, checking your hypothesis about yourself, about other people, and about the world. Check them against the best observations and facts that you can find. Stop being a Pollyanna. Give up pie-in-the-sky. Uproot your easy-to-come-by wishful thinking. Ruthlessly rip up your childish prayers.
Yes, rip them up! Again – and again – and again.
Will the millennium then arrive? No. Will you never again feel disturbed? I doubt it. Will you reduce your anxiety, depression, and rage to near-zero? Probably not.
But, I can, almost, promise you this: The more scientific, rational, and realistic you become, the less emotionally uptight you will be. Not zero uptight – for that is inhuman or superhuman. But a hell of a lot less. And, as your years go by, and your scientific outlook becomes more solid, less and less neurotic.
Is that a guarantee? No, but a prediction that will probably be fulfilled.”
Albert Ellis, How To Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything Yes, Anything
“These new methods present a unique opportunity to assess the origins of a fundamentally human condition: the costly yet advantageous shift from a primitive “live fast and die young” strategy to the “live slow and grow old” strategy that has helped to make us one of the most successful organisms on the planet.”
A Long Childhood is of Advantage, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
“The god I believe in isn’t short of cash, mister.”
U2, Bullet the Blue Sky
The god I believe in is not afraid of science – to crib off U2 – nor reason, psychology, or engineering. Nor does the ground of all being fear the negative way of atheists, for they too see there is a real absence, and that that too is part of the mystery. There is nothing verboten to study, though not all things are equally of benefit to the cause of liberating the student from the shackles of thinking-too-small. All the details of the elemental molecular world are just so many signatures of the all-pervading intelligence that forms the ground of our being. Does that make sense? The truth cannot be one thing in the Sangha, Mosque, Temple or Cathedral, another thing in the laboratory or counseling office, and yet another thing in the streets.
God is a term with so many different possible connotations that without careful definition it is best if we comprehend it as our pointer word; it points to truth or being directly and as such is not a noun, verb, adverb or adjective in any ordinary sense. Eastern traditions are careful to include the emptiness features of any positive assertions when talking carefully about these ultimate things. We see this in Buddhism and in the Eastern Orthodox Church’s Apophatic traditions. I mention this because for some people the thought of allowing a rational, dare I say scientific, view to guide their daily lives seems to be a threat to their faith. In my experience that is not the case. Surrendering ourselves to what is real is the Way.
We are an incredibly complex psychobiological phenomenon actively interpreting and adapting to our environments. With physical bodies always needing to be protected we also use minds to position ourselves within the greater scheme of things that we encounter within our understanding of how the world works. The complex psychobiological phenomenon has evolved in an on-going quest to open to that which nourishes and avoid that which poisons, in fulfillment of life’s primary objective: its own continuous survival obtained by maintaining mental and physical homeostasis. Steer your complex psychobiological phenomenon incorrectly and you end up mad on the one hand or feverish and without immunity on the other. The point of homeostasis in the psychological realm of daytime consciousness is rational discourse.
When we talk with others we project an expression of our character. When we talk to ourselves we do the same thing. This inner dialog that spins around in our minds every day of our lives is a very important ingredient in determining the type of life experience we will ultimately have.
What type of life do you want to look back on when the day comes to lay it down? It can be helpful to ask ourselves what sort of influence we have had so far on the world around us and assess if we could use a course correction, large or small, while we still have the chance. The time will come when the choices for how we think, feel and act will no longer be our own to make. There will come a time when all our choices will have been made, at least for this life, at least for this personality.
When the day comes to lay our bones down in the dark earth, consume them in fire, or feed them to the mountain birds, we will become the summation of our whole life. For as long as breath lasts we have the power of choice. This leaves the future open, radically open. The whole story of an individual’s life cannot be known before the whole story has been played out – but once it has, it enters the domain of humanity’s inheritance. While we live, our lives are a whole piece with the generations around it and the society in which it unfolds. After we have passed, our lives leave ripples in the webs of cause and effect. Others will enjoy, or suffer, from the inheritance we leave in the same way we have when our generation was in the ever changing spotlight of psychobiological awareness. This is the truth. It is self-evident. It is spoken to us from the witness of our senses.
Our senses provide us with the gates through which our complex psychobiological phenomenon participates in reality. Our perceptual apparatus maintains an on-going physiological communion between our characters and their unique expression of the will to live and the worlds they find themselves participating in. They teach us there is no isolated self. They also teach that there cannot be a unitary self, for how could one compare the input of sound to that of sight or touch to that of smell? These are fundamentally different data streams, wholly unlike one another so that cannot be simply summed. Things are more subtle and complex than a simple summation. It is in the orchestration of many different parts that the on-going maintenance of our being takes place.
In Tibetan Buddhism the mind is considered a sense just like vision or taste. It too has the function of adapting ourselves to the environments in which we find our lives unfolding. It too has a data stream, one not of scent or color but one of thought. The words and images of the mind are the intimate arena where our choice making is most clearly expressed, for to some degree we choose what it is we will spend time thinking about. This is hardly the whole story however, as anyone who has spent any time minding the mind will know; things pop into our heads for often the most obscure of reasons. It is part of being a complex psychobiological phenomenon. Sometimes those winds of thought larger than our ego are pleasant and inspiring and other times they are terrifying and bring fear. However these bully thoughts appear, the power to make choices in the mental realm remains. This is an important point. When the bully thoughts arise our freedom to choose is not expressing itself in choosing what to think about but in how we will think about what has, quite literally, captured our attention.
Those things that capture us most deeply typically involve the interpersonal hopes and fears, loves and losses, and the most profound regrets and traumas we have experienced. We ruminate on these things in the process of adapting ourselves to our environment. For us social primates there is no environmental feature more dominate than our interactions with other human beings. Our complex psychobiological inheritance has seen to it that this is so, beginning with our long childhood and extending into our most intimate thoughts which are of necessity couched in a language we inherited and did not make ourselves. The result is that we have the images of the society’s roles and expectations within us. It is as if the mind sets up semi-automated puppets as stand-ins for the people we have met and the various roles they have played in the development of our psyche. We must deal with this internalized community just as surely as we must deal with the people we meet with each day. Most of them are quick to judge us and tell us what we must do at all times if we are not to be no-good bums tossed out of the tribe. Many of them cause exaggerated emotionally driven reactions in us before we even recognize our buttons are being pushed.
The start of wisdom in matters of mind seems to be when we fully recognize that our own thoughts might be wrong. It becomes possible to sit as a judge over one’s own thinking only when we lose the narcissism that fails to question our own cognitions with the same skepticism with which we greet other’s ideas. Some of what passes through the ever-changing thought streams is hardly worthy of entertaining at all and other bits are useful but packaged all wrong. In order not to get lost in the tides it is imperative that there be a place of reliable reference back to the real world associations the thoughts are involved with. This ability to stay grounded happens when the person’s innermost is able to trust reason as the rudder of the psyche. Reason is not the devil’s tool to trick us out of our faith in a good creation; reason is the expression of that faith by trusting in that which is.
The poetic turn of phrase, the emotionally colored perception of beauty, these and so many more of our cognitive experiences are obviously entwined with our emotional natures. In moments of emotional distress this harmony of heart and head is disrupted. The mind, as we say, gets carried away. Exaggeration and irrational conclusions can lead each other into loops that can spiral out of control until what the internal dialog is telling a person leaves them incapacitated for dealing skillfully with whatever is troubling them. Things in the mind will bully you around if you let them by causing you to tell yourself all kinds of things about your sense of worth that just do not stand up to a rational examination.
“Oh I never do anything right!” or “People always take advantage of me!” are typical of the kind of thoughts that might accompany an emotional outburst or period of emotional pain. Peace of mind can be reclaimed to the degree we learn to recognize when our thinking is going off the rails like this. Looked at with a calm, cool and collected mind it is obvious that all of us have done some things right and other things wrong. The statistical odds against “I never doing anything right” are beyond astronomical. Additionally the definition of what is right for you implied by that first sentence is likely not at all what would actually express your true will but is nothing more than the mores of your family and culture. These are valuable but not the last word for you as you seek to work your way through the adventure of your own life. The second sentence is no less insane than the first. It is a willful blindness to all those other times when people extended compassion and aid to you in your struggles or celebrated with you your life’s sweet victories.
Perhaps a simple example will drive the point home. I hit my thumb with a hammer as I try to drive a nail. On some days I respond with a quick ‘Ouch!’ and carry on a bit more carefully. Other days, however, that same event might lead me to tears. On those days it is as if the pain found in this moment of working with the world has been lumped together with every disappointment and pain the world has ever inflicted on me. The world for me seems a mean and dangerous place which doesn’t really give a hoot about me at all. My mind echoes the sentiment that no one cares if I live or die or what it is like to experience things the way I do. This cognitive and emotional attack aims directly at our self-worth.
The hammers that really hurt are swung by tongues. We need to understand how hurt and frightened people strive very hard to control other people. To do so they develop a range of psychological manipulation techniques. These include the injection of guilt and threats of violence if the injection process is pointed out. It happens in families and it happens in nations. This temptation towards manufactured consent remains the dark underbelly of human interactions: ‘I am here to be satisfied’, this impulse runs, ‘you are here to be used.’. Ask yourself how often your speech involves getting others to change what they do and how they do what they do or otherwise dismisses their own style or character? Do you place the whole world into your personal boot camp and sergeant-over all you meet? Anyone who continues to look to others for a confirmation of their self-worth exposes themselves to these dark manipulations. It is in our resistance to their crazy-making that we come to find the path to our own personal best.
Once someone really understands that this is the lay of the land psychologically, they become capable of taking a-hold of the rudder for themselves. In every step we make towards that trusting in our own ability to live our own lives well, we become a more genuine human being. Instead of being little more than a spokesman for an institution, or a holy book, or a dead relative, we become a voice speaking up for our real selves and their real needs. These are needs for love and respect as much as they are needs for food and shelter. We can tear each other’s dignity to shreds by calling one another heretics and apostates, the lost and damned, populating our world with the anti-Christs and devils of our angry damnations but this will not change our need to be understood one whit. Each of us wants to be loved by those we love, though many a tragedy is rooted in the fact that we cannot force someone to love us. Love is a gift that can only be accepted, we can only yield if we are to know another’s loving-kindness, but to yield is to open oneself up to their rejection. These are the issues we confront in the judgment of the heart and the on-going dialog with our conscience it provokes. Our loved ones, as they say, live in our hearts forever. They are trying to teach us the lesson of compassion. At times it is a very hard lesson.
If we had to tackle the whole psychological meaning and biological substratum of these things at once we would be overwhelmed. Instead the psyche unrolls these things in its own good time. What we experience is the tip of the ice berg where thoughts haunted by exaggerations and irrationality come into our conscious awareness. When they arise in these forms we can be sure that under the surface some of these heart-issues are stirring. What is downright liberating is when we understand that our conscious minds are meant to be the guiding light for all these semi-conscious aspects of our dreaming and transcendent self. The daylight mind with its ability to reason can teach the irrational and exaggerated thoughts just where they have lost their way. It is a cop out to expect your dreams to reveal to you what you should do. Harry Wilmer in Understandable Jung captures what we are discussing quite succinctly: “By accepting our fate, that is, our present reality, we take the first step to change our destiny. Our destination is another matter. Dreams do not tell us what to do or where to go. If one attributes such knowledge to the dream, one abdicates responsibility.”
Peace of mind comes, in part, from recognizing how comforting it is to encounter the same molecular world each and every morning when we awake. Though the evening’s psychic experiences may be all over the map, the powers of conscious awareness return to greet a grand continuity when we wake up. Because the environment we find ourselves in is always there much as it was the day before, the daylight world offers us a chance to improve our skills in living the one life we have as it unfolds here and now. If the daylight world followed the same a-causal associations we find in the nighttime world this would not be the case. Here is the human middle way, difficult to find, but once found it cannot be perturbed by either gods or devils. The day consciousness learns to ride on the deep of the night consciousness as a talented jockey rides their great and powerful horse. The day consciousness can become wise and loving only with the cooperation of the denizens of the deep, if the wisdom and love are to be more than a thin veneer over a raging beast inside just waiting for a chance to attack others for the painful self-abnegation it has been subjected to. Force your ego into the straitjacket of a saint and you only invoke the beast. If instead you work with the spirit that moves across these deep waters in a patient alchemy ruled by gentleness, then, it is taught, another type of wholeness – holiness becomes possible. Not one that would castrate humans and turn them into angels who are forever gazing at visions of gods but instead a holiness born within our most genuine humanity.
We are here to carry on the mission of art, the art of living. This is the clay we are each working with for as long as we draw breath. In the slow leavening of the daily contemplative discipline we pursue a more spiritual life, yet hope to obtain, in the end, one that is more genuinely human. We are training not to fear what this entails as we come to recognize we are beings with cosmic roots dwelling in a sacred land.