Love and doubt: the central truth of existence

I’ve been working for a long time to arrive at the central truth of my existence.

In search of answers I’ve read extensively the works of mystics, saints, sages and great teachers from a variety of religious and spiritual traditions.

I’ve read New Age books and talked to psychics and healers.

I’ve studied philosophy in an academic context, and theology in a private one.

I’ve read various texts from psychology and psychotherapy, undergone counselling and hypnosis, examined my quest from the point of view of mental illness and personality disorders.

I’ve tried Yoga, Qigong, martial arts, reiki, and various forms of meditation and prayer.

And through all this I’ve spent more than eighteen years analysing, questioning, struggling and striving, tying myself in knots and trying to untie them again.

What have I learned?

Some parameters

I’ve learned that the pursuit of some truths is unhelpful.

It eventually became clear to me that my path was different from most other people I know. It took longer still for me to stop apologising for this.

Part of me – both for intellectual reasons and for personal ones – has sought to universalise my conclusions. If, for example, I had the thought that “all wealth comes from God”, I would immediately think of counter-examples: drug-dealers, pimps, exploitative corporations and businesses, where clearly people are making money from the exploitation and harm of others.

Is their wealth “from God”?

Well, even asking the question is departing from my original intent. I want to get to the central truth of my existence, not come up with a universalisable moral theology of economics. The counter-examples my mind produces are not a part of my experience. To even consider them in this context is to set up obstacles to what is clearly a more faithful and God-centred view: that all wealth comes from God.

In other words, you can always find excuses to shake your faith and trust in God and in love. You can always find reasons to doubt.

So I took from philosophy a parameter that we could call subjectivism, so long as we don’t get distracted by the broader (and decreasingly relevant) context of that term in philosophy.

Subjectivism in the context of my search for truth means that I am not going to accept at face value the things that are not a part of my experience.

Many bad things happen in the world, don’t they? But in my experience, these global events are just news reports. I’m not looking to call God to account for earthquakes and wars on the other side of the world, I’m looking to call Him to account for my own subjective sense of something wrong in my life, and my experience.

Charity begins at home, or as John Wyclif apparently put it in the 14th Century: Charite schuld bigyne at hem-self.

What I’m looking for is the truth of my existence, and searching for objections in what I have heard from others’ experiences is an unnecessary constraint on finding answers.

Because there are answers I will find that defy the worldly view, and it would be ridiculous to turn to the world to confirm or repudiate answers I’ve sought from God, when the whole point of these answers is that the world could not provide them!

Nothing is impossible for God.

Over time I’ve become aware that my experience is profoundly shaped by my own beliefs, choices, and emotional states. I might be conscious of real, insurmountable limitations and obstacles in the world, and yet those limitations and obstacles have simply evaporated as my belief in them, or my underlying emotional state, has changed.

Like the previous parameter, this often emerges as a conflict between faith and doubt. Love may point in directions that the world or our own experience say is impossible, implausible, or even undesirable. It helps to remember that the limitations and obstacles presented by the world or our past or current experience are at least shaped by, and sometimes wholly constructed from our beliefs and emotions.

This can be as simple as a depressed or anxious person projecting their own negative thoughts onto others, and anticipating social rejection. Or it can be as profound as admitting that the whole of space and time is known to me only as a series of impressions, and that all existence and all consciousness emanates from, and participates in, the being we call God.

God could repair the world, or end it at any moment. Don’t talk about what is and is not possible based on the limitations of your own experience, when our own existence is barely distinguishable from a dream.

Love makes room for itself.

The obstacles and limitations that present themselves in the face of love are not substantial. They subsist foremost in our own doubts and fears, and the corresponding beliefs. They are only as consequential as we allow them to be.

Hence we can choose love over doubt, trusting that the conditions that seem to validate doubt will disappear or be resolved or somehow overcome through love itself.

Otherwise we are caught in an absurd situation, with love or hope that can’t be reconciled with “the world” or our own experience, precisely when what we yearn for, and what brings us true fulfillment, must necessarily repudiate the limitations and obstacles coming from the world.

So with all these parameters in mind, I’ve found that my experience of suffering arises because of complex sets of beliefs and emotions in my own mind, which both shape my experience and are reinforced by it.

If I want to know why my experience feels always insufficient for happiness, then I only need to look at the fears, doubts, and sense of insufficiency in myself.

How do I feel about life, about myself, and about the world?

It turns out that my whole psyche is packed full of conflicted and negative beliefs and emotions.

But by tracing those chains of cause-and-effect backwards, I’ve come at last to the fundamental choice from which all the subsequent flawed efforts stem.

The fundamental choice is a choice between love and doubt. I describe it as doubt rather than fear, because doubt is much more insidious and plausible. Yet doubt originally meant fear or dread anyway. It comes originally from the same root as “two”, and implies duality, double-ness, and the uncertainty evoked by suddenly having two alternatives to consider.

Recapitulating the fall.

Again without seeking a comprehensive theological framework: our original, fundamental choice between love and doubt reflects and recapitulates the fall of man in the garden of Eden.

In essence, human beings were at one with God and in paradise. Yet the serpent tempted them to doubt. 

In Genesis 3, the serpent essentially casts doubt on God’s command not to eat from the tree of knowledge, and defies God’s justification of the command. He presents to Eve, and by proxy to Adam, an alternative option, an option in which God – who is Love itself – has ulterior motives.

And from that moment erupts human suffering with temptation, blame-shifting, and fear dominating the human experience.

This doubt arises in our own lives continually. We have continual opportunities to choose between doubt and love. Yet for most of us the original doubt has grown and developed into a convoluted web of subordinate doubts, fears, temptations, and other psychological maneuvers, all designed to help us avoid, overcome, or shift the suffering that arose from that original doubt.

The original doubt would have been reflected back to us as it shaped our experience. In a vicious circle, our experience would have seemed to vindicate the doubt, in much the same way that a self-conscious, anxious person may act in ways that elicit negative attention from others.

The experience of doubt is painful, since it would have seemed to nullify or render-hollow the prior experience of love, just as the serpent cast doubt on the goodness of God’s motives in commanding the first humans not to touch the tree of knowledge.

To escape this pain, what can we do? Well, we can blame other people for our suffering. Or we can blame ourselves for our suffering. Either option gives us a sense that maybe we can regain the love we lost when we entertained doubt.

But both are false. And both elicit a chain of psychological “moves” that attempt to shift the pain around in the vain hope of eventually removing it.

If you blame yourself for your suffering, then yes you have the hope of changing and redeeming yourself, but you also experience an additional pain of self-blame and recrimination.

And now you must pursue self-improvement and redemption.

It is no coincidence that such a central theme of Christianity is the insufficiency of our efforts to redeem ourselves, and the depiction of Christ’s death on the cross as the one true and eternal sacrifice for our redemption.

I’ve never appreciated the idea that God required a sacrifice, rather it is we who needed to know that our attempts at redemption would never succeed.

We can’t go forward from doubt into love. We need to go back to the original choice, to our own choice and repudiate doubt at the most basic level. That’s why the centrality of God’s love is the most prominent theme in Christianity.

If you choose doubt, no amount of love can overcome it. If you choose love, no trace of doubt can shake you.

Perfect love and complete joy

What’s your emotional baseline?

As a melancholic my inner life has been characterised by anxiety, hypervigilance, doubt, struggle, and frequent dismay or despair.

Being an introvert, my inner life is essentially my entire life.

But I’ve been looking to change my life or my experience of it, and taking a cue from some familiar religious sources, I’ve set upon some emotional goals or ideals: perfect love, and complete joy.

Perfect love comes from 1 John:

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

Anxiety is a form of fear. It is triggered (however unconsciously) by beliefs about the world, myself, and the intersection of the two. I’ve spent many years analysing my fears and their source, arriving finally at a point where there is nothing more to learn from them.

There is no fear in love, therefore, wherever possible, I’m replacing fear with love. Where it isn’t possible, I try to dig a little deeper and understand what’s going on, what lies behind the fear.

Complete joy comes from John’s Gospel:

Truly, truly, I tell you, whatever you ask the Father in My name, He will give you. Until now you have not asked for anything in My name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.

Joy is the opposite of sorrow. We feel joy in response to good things, sorrow in response to bad. Complete joy implies complete goodness in life – a life so full of good things that our joy is complete.

That’s a pretty high bar to set.

Joy and love are different. We can experience love because God Himself is love, and love is the fundamental nature of reality. As children we experience love naturally. Love is, as it were, our default setting, but for various reasons it is drowned out or obscured by fear and sorrow.

We can experience joy because God is love, and love entails a desire for the good of the one loved. Put simply, when you love someone you want them to be happy.

Hence the reference to prayer, to asking God to give us things, and the assurance that He will do so. The omnipotent deity, the divine being behind and within all existence will shape that existence to our complete joy.

But why has He not already done so? Why do we have to even ask? If the ‘default’ setting is love, why is there so much evil and misery and hatred in the world?

Honestly I don’t know about “the world”, I only know my world. And with deep introspection I’ve found that every misery and hurt and fear in my life has been chosen by me.

That might sound strange or implausible, but it is true. Going back, I can recall key moments where I was threatened or terrified by some external event, and at that moment I assented to fear or anger or hurt and did not assent to love or faith or hope.

Ever since, I’ve maintained those fears and sorrows in my own inner world.

The great commandment is to love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind, and Jesus implores us to remain in His love.

Anxiety means I am not remaining in that love, and while this shouldn’t be a cause for feeling guilty or blameworthy in an emotional sense, it does mean we are responsible. It is up to us to choose love instead of fear, though it may take a lot of time and effort to discover the moment where the wrong choice was made.

That is why life is not full of joy. We made choices in favour of sorrow and fear instead of love, and we have inwardly maintained those sorrows and fears ever since.

We actively reject love, though we may not be entirely conscious of it. I guess that’s why the commandment refers to all our heart, soul, and mind. All of it. Not just “a lot”.

Jesus said in terms of prayer that:

Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

But we don’t believe, because we don’t have love. And while we might pray for things we feel we really want, I’ve found deep down that I’m divided. Praying for success when parts of you don’t really want to succeed, because they’re enmeshed in fears and sorrows. Praying for healing when parts of you are content with your disease.

The bottom line is that perfect love and complete joy are immanent, though they may not be imminent. But the more I examine myself and my own experience, the more it seems the resistance is all on my side.

Nondualism and working on yourself

The aim of contemporary nondualist teaching is to change the way we interpret our experience of reality.

I remember as a young child returning to school at the start of a new term. The teacher asked us to share with the class what we had done for the holidays.

I still recall the sudden and startling realisation that these children had all gone on with their lives while I was going on with mine. They had continued to exist even when they weren’t part of my experience. While I had been visiting relatives interstate, they each had their own experiences and adventures unfold at the same time.

This realisation represents what Joel Morwood from the Center for Sacred Sciences calls ‘reification’: turning a thought, an impression, or a form into a thing.

In that childhood moment, my friends and classmates went from being aspects of my experience, to becoming nascent things – people in their own right with their own equally subjective inner worlds.

I began to think about how I appeared in their experience, akin no doubt to how they appeared in mine.

This is the path we all take as we develop and grow in life. We form deeper conceptual representations of a reality extrapolated from the rules and regularities of our own experience. I’ve never seen inside another person’s head, but at some point, by induction, it made sense to believe that there is such a thing as the inside of other people’s heads.

This isn’t a bad or false conclusion to reach by any means. The aim of nondualism is not solipsistic, that “I alone exist”.

The problem is that our world-building, our reification of our own experiences and extrapolation into an external reality begins to overshadow the immediacy and character of our actual experience.

We start to imagine ourselves as isolated individuals operating in an objective reality of which we partake imperfectly through our senses and our consciousness.

We develop fears, cravings, anxieties, and doubts as well as hopes and dreams that all depend on what feels like our understanding of objective reality, but is functionally indistinguishable from imagination.

Our experience is dominated by rules, expectations, and doubts that are disconnected from experience itself. Like a child whose personality is shaped by early trauma, we take aspects of early experience and keep them alive as thoughts, beliefs, imagination, until they constrict and distort our present and future experience also.

What nondualism wants us to do is to step back from the reification of elements of our experience, and begin to recognise our conscious experience itself as primary.

It wants us to recognise that most of what we call ‘reality’ exists only as beliefs or imagination derived – often haphazardly – from past experience. We put too much stock in these often emotionally-loaded beliefs and imaginings, when the truth of our experience is far richer and more fulfilling.

The details get a little esoteric, but what motivates nondualism is the realisation that the true character of our experience is one of love and bliss. The relationship between our own consciousness, the forms we experience, and the creative power or God behind it all is described by the various mystics as non-dual. Yet there exists the illusion of duality, and in that illusion suffering and fear and misery all arise.

In my own life I’ve found time and time again that reifying my experience exacerbates all my problems and my struggles. It leaves me thinking and feeling that the causes of my problems are “out there” in the world, rather than in my own heart and mind.

Because on closer examination, it is always in my own heart and mind that resistance, error, fear and mistrust reside. I might see hurt and rejection coming to me from other people, but on reflection I find that any external manifestation of these painful events is preceded by my own internal embrace of hurt and rejection.

It’s as though I approach life expecting to suffer and be disappointed, and in subtle ways this expectation leads me to want things I know I can’t have, or approach people and events with unconscious resistance and defensiveness.

Viewing life first and foremost as my experience, to the extent of my field of consciousness, forces me to take responsibility for the underlying causes and influences within me.

Why do I want hurt and rejection, or disappointment and struggle to be part of my experience? In what way have I internalised and kept these elements of past experience alive into the present? What would I prefer my experience to reflect? Do I truly want love and joy as the foundation of my experience, or am I subtly resisting and rejecting them?

How would I really feel if there was no more hurt and struggle in my life? Would I be content? No, not yet. So why is that?

This is the great work of “untying knots” in our minds and hearts until the true nature of our experience can shine forth uninhibited. If you want to know why there is too much struggle and not enough love in your life, ask yourself. Don’t let rules and principles you’ve extrapolated and imagined keep you from finding the love and joy intrinsic to this experience.

My next book, smoked pork, fan-mail and all-consuming inner turmoil

I haven’t posted in a while, sorry about that.

But it doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy.

My diet book is almost complete. I’m looking forward to publishing it very soon.

Yesterday I perfected my cold-smoker, and spent half the day smoking some cured pork.

Earlier in the week I had my first ever fan-mail for my novel, from a family in Canada!!!

But the bulk of my attention has been caught up in what I can only describe as deep inner turmoil.

I’d been posting recently about my eyesight – nearsightedness – and how I was exploring the causes and the limitations of it in the same way that I had previously overcome my autoimmune disease.

Well, I probably should have mentioned that taking on such a long-standing physical problem and looking for the corresponding beliefs, emotions, and stresses in one’s psyche is bound to have a big impact on your life.

How big?

I developed myopia in primary school. I’ve been wearing glasses for more than twenty years. Whatever associations, fears, or maladaptive mechanisms go with my nearsightedness are well-established and deeply ingrained.

You can’t start tearing up your deepest foundational beliefs and worldview after twenty years and expect it not to shake your whole experience of life in unanticipated ways.

So that’s what’s been going on. It turned out that the spiritual significance of how one literally sees the world has profound implications, and I’m nowhere near the end of them.

How do you see the world? Is it a good place or a bad place? Is it ruled by love or by fear? Do bad things always happen to you? Do you always expect disappointment? Is your entire experience overshadowed by the inevitability of suffering?

Are you a victim? What laws of life do you take as indomitable?

Delving into these questions with a serious intent to change your life, with the sincere faith that something like nearsightedness has a significance and a purpose and is not set in stone…That process will throw your whole world into turmoil.

That’s why you need faith and perseverance, because the rewards on the other side are truly immeasurable. When things you’ve taken for granted all your life can change in a moment – that’s miraculous.

When the fears you’ve harboured in the back of your mind are completely uprooted, your entire experience is transformed and liberated.

The past week or so has contained some of the worst moments I can remember. But by persevering in faith and honesty and a determination to arrive at the truth no matter what, those dark and painful moments have given way to an experience of love and connection in my relationships and in own self that I would never have thought possible.

I realise that’s a bit scant on details, but it’s too personal to share. My actual vision is still a work-in-progress. I’m wearing my glasses only for brief periods when driving and occasionally for TV or the computer, but I notice now that my eyes hurt from wearing them.

Without glasses, my vision actually fluctuates constantly. Sometimes it seems quite clear, but at other times it seems blurrier than ever. Like the pain from my old autoimmune problem, what seems static is actually in a constant flux.

But examining my eyesight has taken me to the very heart of my relationship with external reality, my foundational sense of being a self in and against the world. That’s why challenging this foundation has had such far-reaching consequences.

The eyes have it

So it’s day four without wearing glasses, and overall I’m really enjoying it.

But I still feel like I’m only just beginning to grasp how significant my visual impairment has been.

Yesterday a friend asked me how I would approach health issues from a psychological/spiritual perspective. Using eyesight as an example, I told her I would begin by examining the emotional impact and significance of the condition itself and its symptoms.

For instance, having poor eyesight makes me feel fearful and vulnerable in my interactions with the outside world, because I become aware of things – seeing them in their blurred form – long before I can recognise them, or in the case of humans, discern their intent from facial cues.

Poor eyesight also enhances my sense that there is a world “out there” which I imperfectly perceive. This leads to a near-constant sense of doubt about my perceptions and my judgements.

I feel as though other people are quicker or more astute than me, because they see things and recognise them before I do.

Overall I’m left with the sense that I am better able to deal with things in close proximity to myself. That means I have a tendency toward introversion and introspection, as well as activities like reading and writing.

Inversion

So that’s a brief summary of the apparent psychological side-effects of this illness or impairment. The trick now would be to invert cause and effect, to consider the magnitude and depth of these psychological phenomena as potential causes of the physical condition.

The heuristic approach is that our physical impairments are by and large a reflection of suppressed or ignored psychological conflicts and suffering.

Let’s say you feel afraid, but for various social and cultural reasons you can’t express that fear. Being unable to express it, the fear cannot be resolved.

Eventually a physical problem emerges that demands your attention, demands a resolution. In the case of myopia, short-sightedness emulates and reflects the suppressed emotional conflict or suffering.

We try to address the physical impairment with medical interventions including corrective lenses. But in the case of corrective lenses the intervention is merely a crutch.

The lenses don’t overcome the underlying fear, they actually help suppress it further. The glasses become a necessary object, they become imbued with protective power. You can’t get by without them, and when they break or you lose them…you feel afraid and vulnerable once more.

Healing

Looking at an illness or impairment in this light is instructive. But we also need to consider the age of onset, the severity of the condition, how long it has been endured, and so on. All of this information offers potential clues to identifying the psychological cause.

I assume this approach doesn’t hold the answer to every single illness and impairment. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that every such impairment or illness will be reversed. But at the very least, it can help us to identify and resolve the psychological and emotional conflict that lies behind it.

If I had laser eye surgery tomorrow, my vision might be perfect. But that would still leave me having to adjust to a new experience, a new way of being in the world. It would be a little like becoming a new self, and if you think the psychological landscape behind it would just quietly reform, I think you’d be disappointed.

As for me, I’ll have to examine the nature and origin of the fear and vulnerability that accompanies this impairment in my vision.

To that end, the impairment itself can always provide further clues, not only in terms of how we feel about it, but the significance of its effects. It is significant, for example, that myopia would prevent me from seeing certain things. For all that short-sightedness impairs our vision, it also protects us by creating distance from the external world.

Symbolism of posture

I’ve known for a while that there’s something wrong with my posture, but it’s only in the last year that I’ve resorted to learning basic functional anatomy to troubleshoot the problems for myself.

I’ve been learning about extension and flexion of the various joints, bony landmarks, specific muscles and their antagonists, as well as common postural deficiencies like forward head posture, excessive lordosis of the lumbar spine, kyphosis of the thoracic spine, pelvic tilt, rib flare, and so on.

There are lots of variables to examine and many of them are inter-dependent. For example: I started with the issue of rounded shoulders, which is really about protraction of the scapulae. I worked on trying to fix that for a while, but with limited success. Eventually I realised I was flaring out my ribs too much, which is really an issue of excessive extension at the thoraco-lumbar spine – the middle of the spine.

To correct the rib flare requires engaging abdominal muscles to pull the ribs down, but this in turn is not feasible unless the pelvis is correctly aligned. Anterior pelvic tilt tends to weaken the abdominals and the gluteals, while shortening the lower back muscles and the hip flexors.

By the time I’d worked all this out I’d forgotten about the shoulder protraction issue, so it’s come full-circle again.

Beyond anatomy

I think there’s also a symbolic or psychological aspect to these postural issues.

Posture is directly linked to the psyche in two main ways: first, we use posture to communicate with others. Defensive and submissive postures indicate to others that we wish to avoid confrontation. Hunching or rounding the shoulders, dropping the head, collapsing the chest all communicate submission by making us appear physically smaller and weaker.

Second, bad posture feels awful. It makes us irritable and stressed, takes more energy to maintain, and discourages us from the physical exertion required to accomplish daily activities and meaningful projects.

Forward head posture

So let’s take forward head posture as an example.

There’s a simple behavioural component, in that we spend a lot of time sitting at computers or staring at mobile phones or tablets. These activities tend to encourage forward movement of the head.

But moving your head forward to stare at the computer screen isn’t necessary. Perhaps it’s a by-product of intense focus, or maybe it’s a result of the conflict between a sedentary seating position combined with active visual attention.

Even before I began looking into posture I knew I had problems with my neck. It feels incredibly stiff at times, and occasionally it would ache from the tension. Symbolically, I used to relate this tension to my analytical and overly-intellectual approach to life.

I think a lot. I think about everything, all the time. 80-90% of my waking hours involve thinking about something, and this hasn’t changed in over a decade.

I’ve tried a lot of things to let go of this excessive intellection, but I’ve never found a simple solution. The complex solution has been to keep thinking about it, or at least try to improve the efficiency of my thinking in hopes that I’d eventually find the answer.

Trying to think of a solution to excessive thinking may sound counter-intuitive. As Maslow wrote:

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

But if the only tool you have is a hammer, it’s not too outrageous to prioritise all your hammering tasks…maybe see how far hammering alone will get you.

Nonetheless, I can’t ignore the symbolism of forward head posture as a psychosomatic effort to lead with one’s head – putting one’s mind out in front.

And compared to what?

Well if I try to correct my head position, I immediately feel that my throat, chest, and whole torso are more open and exposed. That’s why dropping the head is a defensive position: better to get hit in the chin than in the throat.

If the head is associated with thinking, the chest or the heart is associated with feeling. Perhaps the symbolism of forward head posture is an attempt to use thinking, intellect, and analysis, to get out in front of feeling?

Melancholics are, after all, feeling-oriented. The effort to analyse life rather than feeling it directly is an established trope or cliche, and it makes sense that a feeling-oriented person would compromise their posture through such an effort. Feeling can be a confusing and seemingly ineffectual function. It gives long, slow answers when what we might prefer are short, convenient, and maybe conventional solutions. Feeling often points a direction with no hint as to the final destination.

We can easily blame behaviour for bad posture, and it certainly plays a role. But our psychology also makes us more susceptible to particular behaviours. Maintaining a postural deficiency takes constant effort, and trying to explain it as merely the outcome of certain behaviours like staring at a computer screen is question-begging. Why, after all, am I spending so much time happily staring at a computer screen if it is damaging my posture?

Looking at a postural problem in the broader context of one’s behaviours, psychology, and temperament can reveal symbolic relationships and even solutions.

Not that I found the solution by examining the symbolism, mind you. It’s eight to ten years since I first thought my neck trouble might be linked to my intellectual outlook, but the more I hammered away at that question, the more ingrained my intellectual efforts became.

It’s taken life experience, grudging and sometimes grueling lessons to reveal the real meaning and importance of feeling in my life, and how this mysterious function is to be embraced.

So now my old speculations about the symbolism of posture have come to mind, more like a memory or a realisation than a solution. The solution has happened on a deeper level, and now the recognition of it comes like an afterword, tying up loose ends when the real story is done.

 

On being special

We all want to feel special.

Special in this context means “marked off from others by some distinguishing quality”.

So to be precise, we all want to be special in a good way.

Maybe we won’t admit it to ourselves or to others, maybe we prefer a different form of words, or a different kind of specialness. Maybe we’d rather say loved, respected, admired, important, powerful, rich, talented, and so on.

But these are, I would argue, just different ways of being special.

Some people may have found the special status they are looking for, but for most of us the desire to be special brings to light the inverse: we don’t feel special, or loved, or respected, etc.

In my experience and study, our search for some means of becoming special is ultimately futile because it is based on a misapprehension. We take “not special” as the default reality and seek to change that reality.

But “not special” is, according to various mystics, sages, philosophers and other observers of the human psyche, a false belief or fear, hence any attempt to remedy it by becoming more special is bound to fail.

The desire to feel special is part of a natural desire for wholeness, peace, joy, and other good things. But we have misdiagnosed the problem, the obstacle to experiencing these very positive emotions.

It seems that the obstacle is reality. I’m not special enough, that’s why I don’t experience these positive emotions. Therefore I need to find a way to become more special.

But the true obstacle is a false self-image, a self-image that contains gaps and holes and knots.

The self-image is false because we built it when we were children, on the assumption that we could take other people’s reactions to us at face-value.

In other words, if your siblings always treated you like a little prince or princess, you would accept at face value that this is how you deserved to be treated. You would assume that something about you was causing this response in them, as surely as good food elicits hunger and ends in satiety.

But if your siblings treated you like a perpetual nuisance, a wearisome annoyance, or an unwanted competitor for parental attention, then likewise, you would assume these reactions followed naturally from some aspect of yourself.

Young children do not understand that the minds of their elders are clouded and confused by a variety of motives: fears, desires, anxieties, and their own flawed self-images.

Children grow up, unwittingly cultivating these false selves. Expecting everyone to treat them like a prince and becoming angry and resentful when others don’t. Or expecting everyone to resent and despise them, and denying opportunities to experience something better.

A large part of our spiritual path lies in recognising that people’s responses to us when we were children were governed by forces and themes much bigger than we could have understood at the time. We come to understand the motives of our parents and siblings. We recognise that the way they treated us was not about us at all, or only minimally.

But the flawed self-image we carry around is hard to shake. It’s like being raised in a cult, and then having to relearn everything about how the world really works. Learning that the government isn’t out to get you, or that aliens aren’t coming to rescue you. Or that your leader wasn’t a prophet but a narcissistic manipulator.

That’s why genuine religion both depreciates and transforms the self. The theme of death and rebirth is ubiquitous because so is the mechanism of our flawed self-image.

In practical terms, what can we do about it?

In a religious context there are devotional and meditative practices designed to lower the protective barriers of this false self. These include practices like trying to feel the presence of God rather than focusing always on your selfish fears and desires, or trying to recognise the fragility of the self in metaphysical terms.

At present I’m just trying to remind myself that I don’t actually know who I am, and to then try to be conscious of the subtle traces of my false self-image where relevant – usually in the midst of fears and desires.

In the context of wanting to feel special, what we seek is not to be found by adding something to ourselves, but by letting go of, or seeing through the illusion of this false self-image. The reason we don’t feel peace and joy and contentment is that we have learned to expect much less from life. We can’t accept whatever peace and joy and contentment are available to us in the present, because our self-image is too tightly wound  to accept it.

We’ve been inculcated with a false requirement to change ourselves, improve ourselves, achieve something in order to be content, to be happy. We’re primed to view everything in life with respect to how it advances or impedes our desire to be more special.

Saving our best advice for others

A friend is worried about 4th year med, stressing out about the changing circumstances and expectations, afraid of failing.

I offered lots of advice, but none of it seemed truly satisfactory.

In the end, I asked what she would tell me, if I were in her situation.

We both knew the answer: stop whining. Just do what you need to do. Do your best, try your hardest, if you pass you pass, if you fail you fail.

It’s a comfort because there’s no ambiguity. Either you have what it takes to pass, or you don’t. Passing is either dependent on your efforts or it isn’t.

But what intrigued me is how clear the answer is when we’re looking at other people’s circumstances. Call it ‘the clarity of not caring’ if you like.

Not that we don’t care about others, but we don’t care in a way that obscures the obvious course of action.

When it comes to our own lives, we’re blinded by worries and possibilities. We lose the clarity that lets us be frank with others.

It reminds me of a passage from Zhuangzi:

When an archer is shooting for nothing
He has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind
Or sees two targets –
He is out of his mind.

His skill has not changed, But the prize
Divides him. He cares,
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting –
And the need to win
Drains him of power.

It’s not easy, but when we’re struggling with a problem we can sometimes benefit by imagining someone else in that situation and what we would then advise them.

I once read a book by a psychologist that suggested we have greater insight into ourselves when we look at our objective behaviour rather than using introspection.

These methods aren’t foolproof, nor are they necessarily always the right approach. After all, our advice to others isn’t exactly omniscient, is it?

But it can at least help us gain clarity, temporary respite from fears and desires that otherwise cloud our assessment of the situation.

There is a crack in everything

Years ago a friend gave me a ‘page-a-day’ calendar of quotations and sayings that were meant to evoke a kind of Zen-like wisdom.

At first I loved it. I trawled through and accumulated a set of my favourites.

Years later I hated it. I wondered who had picked the quotations, and what mercantile interest had crafted this bizarre interplay of culture and commercialism.

But the inspiration was genuine, and the care of my friend was sincere. So over time I’ve come back to appreciating the meaning behind it.

One of the quotations I remembered well was a verse from a song by Leonard Cohen.

I subsequently came to admire Cohen, and have been listening to his music in the wake of his death this year.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

That crack in everything – the gaps we feel in our own existence – our instinct is to fill the gap, to seek immersion in pleasure, power, or profit. We want to distract ourselves from the emptiness at the edges of our existence.

The heart of all vices, compulsions, and evil lies in our impulse – part fear and part desire – to consolidate our grip on life. We fear our limits, we fear the holes life punches through our veil of self-control.

If we could only become something better, achieve something more, cover over the gaps, then life would feel complete.

But completion lies in the opposite direction.

It’s not the holes that are the problem, it’s the rest of the veil. It’s the thin layer of pride that we try to stretch across the whole of our existence.

We fear losing control, but the control itself was always an illusion. Even our fear is an illusion within an illusion, because we can’t control that either.

So when the holes are getting bigger, as the veil begins to thin, our fear might even increase.

‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom.’

People interpret this to mean that we should fear God, as if that’s a smart choice. But wisdom in Christianity is not just a state of having knowledge, it is an aspect of God. Wisdom is divine. We could just as well say that fear accompanies God’s presence, because our pride cannot abide Him.

The holes in our pride, the gaps and limits of our self-control are reality shining through a delusion we keep alive only through our own mistaken efforts.

The delusion, the mistaken efforts, we don’t really know where they began or what drives them. It isn’t our self-control, since that does not exist.

It’s a terrifying thought, when all that is left is our desire to hang on to control against what looks like darkness, emptiness and death.

But at some point that veil will be torn in two, and we will realise that what seemed like darkness was a light too bright for us to see.

Paypal gay picnic threat: a symbolic masterpiece in disguise

When I first saw this image on Paypal’s front page I just assumed it was a homophobic depiction of a small child fleeing in terror from a gay couple out for a picnic in the park.

gay picnic

Nice one Paypal, I thought, That’ll set the cause of sexual diversity back a couple of decades.

But then I took a closer look, and suddenly it struck me that the two men were uncannily similar in appearance. So similar, in fact, that they could be the same person.

ghost of parenting

That’s when I realised the true depth of meaning behind this otherwise totally innocuous image.

Imagine there’s only one man, the man in the beige shorts, and what do you have? Just a father happily taking his daughter out for a picnic lunch in the park. He’s nicely and colourfully dressed. He has a fond and amiable expression on his face. He’s hoisting a picnic basket, a mat and other picnic paraphenalia in somewhat jaunty fashion, with another bag slung over his left shoulder but hidden from view.

What about the daughter? In one sense she’s the perfect image of a happy child playing on her obviously new and expensive scooter with a kind of stock photo abandon. Yet her eyes are fixed, uncaring, straight ahead, belying her otherwise excited expression. There’s a callous tone to her excitement. She’s happy to be riding, but in truth she’s riding away from her father. She knows he can’t keep up, and this points to a deeper tension in the entire scene, a tension embodied in the man in the red shorts.

Red-shorts-man is clearly an older version of the father. Like the ghost of picnics-future his hair is grayed and his whole appearance is faded and wan. Even his shoes have been drained of their colour.

His face is weary, pale, and full of apprehension. He watches his daughter through heavily-lidded eyes, his mouth open on the verge of an exhausted cry, his head tipped back as if he can hardly find the strength to keep it upright.

What is he? Is he a ghost? A photographic negative? Or is he an image of the subconscious mind, the hidden depths of the father’s soul in which lie all manner of anxieties and stress, in which the burden of keeping up the appearance of a picture-perfect picnicking parent is just too much to bear? To fully understand we must look to the symbols that attend the man in red shorts.

On his left hand he wears a watch, symbolising awareness of time and heightening our sense of urgency. Yet the watch dial is hidden from view, pressed against his shoulder by the burden he carries. Yes, time is a burden and the burdens we bear warp our perception of time. How long have they travelled? How soon must they return? These thoughts are both brought into being and simultaneously crushed by the increasing distance between father and daughter and his secret apprehension of what lies in wait further down the path.

Red-shorts-man is on the father’s left side, representing the introspective, introverted aspect of our psyche. While the father’s right hand (extroverted, conscious mind) is preoccupied with the picnic-materials, his ghostly companion clings desperately to the left. He expands the father’s hidden burden – the bag on the left shoulder. At the same time the father shrugs his shoulder against the ghostly presence, as if to deny its existence.

Red-shorts-man is in the midst of a powerful stride. He marches ahead, pulling the father forward, urging haste.  And yet at the same time he is somehow insubstantial. Like a balloon about to take flight he threatens to hover, incorporeal, as fears and anxieties draw us away too from our enjoyment of the present moment.

Red-shorts-man’s shoulders are equally weighted with baggage, he is fully laden not only with life’s present burdens but with the accumulated cares and concerns of the past. Is he truly older? No, his age, like his faded appearance represent the toll these cares and worries take on us all.

Why then the red shorts?

Red is a primal colour, a colour of fear and of blood, the two elements that bind father and daughter. Blood is family, heredity, relation. The fear, the terror of separation and loss echo through the father’s subconscious mind. But why shorts? Shorts are metaphorically at “the bottom”. They tie into a deep history of biological allusions not only to reproduction (the father as father) but also to our rich vocabulary of intestinal profanities: Crap! S***! Bugger!

They also point to the upper legs, the thighs, the powerful quadriceps muscles and the fight-or-flight response that has him set to run, to take off in pursuit of the daughter at the first sign of danger.

And what is this danger?

In a word: nature. Mother nature, human nature, the world beneath and beyond the limits of human civilisation.

The father, the man in red shorts, are safely on the path. The bold clear lines of concrete cut a swathe through the terrifying darkness of the wild. But it is into this wild that the daughter now careers headlong.

To the left of the image nature dominates. It is the unknown territory Paypal would have us ‘unleash’ and ‘explore’.

And yet…just where the trees should be at their thickest we see the edge of another path and even a glimmer of a fence or railing, more vestiges of civilisation.

In the end Paypal leaves us with a puzzle. It tells us “New Money takes you on new adventures” and extols a “sense of wonder”. But the world it offers us to explore is already bounded and fenced-in. It is safe. The only danger is an appearance of danger, the only fear is failing to have enough New Money to be happy.

At this final point the entire project is cast into doubt. What is there to fear if everything is mapped out, paved, and fenced-in?

The tantalising answer suggests itself: this very incongruity, the call to adventure in the midst of a fully bounded and stagnant landscape, is itself the instigator of an existential dread.

Yes, this is the true nature of the father’s subconscious fear. It is not fear for his daughter’s safety, but fear of the future she represents. The bulk of the red-shorts-man’s burdens are not on his right (extroversion, the real world), but on his left (introversion, the inner world). His anxiety is not for real-world incidents but an anxiety of meaning and purpose.

Westerners read from left to right and our interpretation of compositions is coloured by this influence. Yet the people in this composition are traversing from right to left across the screen. They are moving back into the past, to a place where the father at least has already been, where there is no adventure, no uncertainty, no possibilities. The daughter represents the future, but even she is returning to the past, and the circularity of the path suggests an endless loop of generations and of experience.

There is nothing new under the sun, Paypal cries, echoing Ecclesiastes. The father’s fond amiability, the daughter’s naive excitement, they spin together in a fixed orbit while red-shorts-man goes along, the only clue to something awry in this happy spectacle of endless and repetitive consumption. “Trip of a lifetime!” the caption mocks, as if to shock us from our complacence, its irony a stinging rebuke to the public perception of online shopping as the sine qua non of a brighter tomorrow.