I had a pretty unhappy childhood, but found refuge and escape in fantasy books.
After a while I realised all my friends were growing up, and I was left still wishing I could escape into one of the fantasy worlds from my novels.
I hid my interest in fantasy stories for fear of being ridiculed, and did my best to fit in, all the time wishing there was more to life than the mundane world I saw around me.
Eventually I discovered mysticism, through the writings of a Jesuit named Anthony De Mello. I followed up all the quotations and references in his books, searching for more traces of the “Golden String” described by the Christian monk and interpreter of Hindu and Buddhist teaching, Bede Griffiths.
In the world’s religious and spiritual traditions I found a cast of real characters who most closely resembled the sorcerers, wizards, and adventurers of my fantasy novels. The sages, saints, shamans, and seers had found the pinnacle of meaning in life, many of them even exhibiting mysterious and supernatural powers.
I plunged into every text I could find, interpreting it to the best of my ability.
I was convinced that the suffering in my life, the mundanity I sought to escape, was a manifestation of the universal suffering and dissatisfaction attested by the world’s religions. My problem was a universal problem.
What I got right was that there is a source of divine, transcendent love, goodness, truth, and light within us and accessible to us.
What I got right was that depending on external circumstances for our happiness was like building a house upon the sand.
But what I got wrong was my conclusion that all of life, the whole material world, was therefore a shipwreck or a pit of fire, something wholly negative and insubstantial and best to just escape from.
I depreciated and devalued every scrap of happiness and meaning in life, thinking that if I rejected the world with enough totality I would have only the truth left to support me.
That didn’t work out too well.
The net effect was that I continued to live a relatively “normal” life, but accentuated and concentrated my sense that ordinary life was devoid of meaning and full of unhappiness.
I conflated my personal unhappiness with the spiritual teaching that life is suffering.
Looking back, I would have been better off focusing on whatever made me feel better, softening the self-critical and anxious thoughts that led me to abandon my interests.
Instead I developed the strong belief that I must urgently find “the answer” that would help me transcend the world of suffering and turmoil and find the peace and happiness I was searching for.
Teenagers probably shouldn’t be reading about “dying to self” and “letting go of the ego”. In a formative stage of life it is too easy for spiritual teachings to be conflated with adaptive and maladaptive coping mechanisms, and there’s a danger that legitimately powerful teachings become familiar and lose their impact when we are not ready to receive them.
It reminds me of this Koan from the Gateless Gate:
Gutei raised his finger whenever he was asked a question about Zen. A boy attendant began to imitate him in this way. When anyone asked the boy what his master had preached about, the boy would raise his finger.
Gutei heard about the boy’s mischief. He seized him and cut off his finger. The boy cried and ran away. Gutei called and stopped him. When the boy turned his head to Gutei, Gutei raised up his own finger. In that instant the boy was enlightened.
Or another line that I can’t recall the origin of: If the world sends people to hell, Buddhism can save them. But if Buddhism sends people to hell, what will save them?
But the biggest weakness of my spiritual quest is that it didn’t bring me to happiness. Instead of liberating me from harmful beliefs it reinforced them, and I delved deeper into depression and anxiety, convinced that the solution lay in closer embrace of the problem.
I want to start rethinking aspects of this quest. Appreciating the things I got right in light of the things I got wrong. It’s been long enough that my attempt to find a solution has itself become a part of the problem, an obstacle rather than a source of relief.
For one thing, why assume that the world is intrinsically unsatisfying on the basis of a teenager’s experience and worldview?
Why assume that my negative experiences are the final word on so-called “mundane” life?
I would be happier if life were going better for me; that’s not a weakness or a failing, that’s just normal.
How do I reconcile this normal attitude with the deeper truth that happiness comes from within?