Life is here to be enjoyed

Life is here to be enjoyed, I am here to enjoy life.

That is such a difficult thing for me to write.

I know it sounds strange, but I’ve spent more than twenty years explicitly thinking that enjoyment is a superficial distraction from the real meaning of life.

With a childhood in which enjoyment was scarce and a temperament prone to sensitivity and idealism, I accepted at face value that “enjoying life” was something that other people did, and to the detriment of finding meaning or purpose.

I looked critically at mainstream sanguine and choleric expressions of enjoyment, and let these stand for “enjoying life” and “having fun”. It didn’t occur to me that I might find my own forms of fun and enjoyment in life.

And anyway, there was a slew of mystics, sages and saints to reassure me that enjoyment and fun were vain, pointless adventures that would leave me empty and full of regrets.

Religious deprogramming

There’s a familiar trope of people who rebel against their childhood religious indoctrination, and need to search out for themselves valid and fulfilling beliefs about life, happiness, and their own identity and value.

I’m doing that now, but the terrain I’m covering is a little more varied and eclectic due to my own early search for deeper meaning and purpose.

I can’t remember all the books I read, and my mistaken beliefs are an amalgamation of many different sources, because I adhered to no single creed or set of teachings.

For example, I’ve gone back and reread parts of Awareness by Anthony de Mello, and I can see how I took that text and interpreted it in my own way, oblivious to my own idiosyncrasies or those of the author.

Yesterday I reread a little about Bede Griffiths, and reading between the lines, the guy had a difficult life and his own fair share of problems. Would the answers that he found really be appropriate for me, two generations later, in completely different circumstances of life?

Just now I’ve taken a quick look back at the writings of Jiddu Krishnamurti, and I can see immediately that his work is decidedly not for me. Wrong temperament, maybe even the wrong teaching, and something that clearly contributed to my sense of needing to battle against an internal enemy, whether it be called Ego or Thought.

In recent years I’ve come to respect my desire to arrive at my own conclusions and my reluctance to invest in anyone else’s point of view. But it was not always the case, and I feel it’s now time to let go of these authorities I discovered and appointed for myself.

Perhaps in a sweeping clean of my past willingness to believe, I can say that: only what speaks to me is of value to me. It doesn’t matter that a person is a saint or a sage or a seer; their inscrutable or obscure insights are their own and not mine, and it’s for me to test them and apply them, not take them on faith and try to force myself to fit.

Do I deserve to enjoy life?

At the heart of this is a question of whether I myself deserve to enjoy life, or whether I must instead change myself, become better, be transformed. Transformation is what I sought in the writings of these mystics. But no matter how hard I tried to change myself, all I found was more and more dissatisfaction with my life, my self, and the whole of reality.

When I looked for answers I hoped those answers would show me the way out, out of unhappiness and suffering, out of the mundane world, out of my mundane self.

And in part that simply reflected the confusion and unhappiness of my early life, but it also reflected a sense that I wasn’t good enough as I was, did not deserve to enjoy life or be happy.

When I think about how we create our own reality through the filter of our thoughts and expectations and feelings, I can see how fitting it was that “enjoyment” looked crass and empty to me, and the things I would have truly enjoyed seemed too distant or ethereal or unachievable.

And my memories of feeling deeply insecure and unworthy when good things did happen completes the picture.

Because there were always good things there, I just didn’t think I deserved to have them, and feeling undeserving I sought to change myself to become worthy of the freedom, love and happiness I wanted.

That is why my prayers went unanswered – I was praying to not be me. Or I prayed to be rid of unwanted conditions, all the while clinging to the thoughts and feelings that exacerbated and created those conditions.

Feeling better is unconditional

Lately I’ve discovered that I do not need conditions to change in order for me to feel better.

That includes the internal conditions I have set such stock in: solving problems, finding answers, understanding, engaging with negative emotions, making progress.

I don’t need to do any of that to feel better, because feeling better is intrinsic to our nature. It is only the conditions we set upon it that keep us from naturally feeling better.

So when I ask whether I deserve to enjoy life, I think the question must be flawed, because feeling better is unconditional and enjoying life is something that flows naturally from feeling better.

If I can naturally feel better simply by not placing any conditions on it, then what is the relevance of desert? Why do I have to deserve to feel better, in addition to simply being able to feel better?

It’s actually exciting to know that enjoying life will flow naturally from feeling better, which in turn flows naturally from not placing conditions on it.

And feeling excited about life is a very good place to be!

Rethinking a spiritual quest

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?