A Spiritual Reality

Ours is a spiritual reality.

We are spiritual beings, and though we inhabit bodies our bodies do not describe our limits.

Spirit is obvious, yet so obvious it can be denied if we fixate only on the material aspect of our experience.

Like watching a movie and forgetting there’s a whole film crew just out of view. We suspend disbelief and convince ourselves that the objects of our senses are all that matter.

When he tries to extend his power over objects, those objects gain control of him. He who is controlled by objects loses possession of his inner self.

Zhuangzi

A spiritual reality doesn’t follow the laws we have ascribed to life, the conventions and limitations of “the world”.

Spiritual reality inverts the relationship between inner world and outer: our innermost being is one with the creative power behind all things.

We might spend our days struggling to arrange things to our liking, but the deeper part of us is united with the singular being that created all those things, holds them in existence, and governs them.

There are effectively two “selves” within us: the self who experiences reality as a limited, physical being, and the self who is one with the creator.

Our goal is to reconcile or align the two; bring peace, love, and joy to the smaller “self” who has suffered so long under the illusion of separateness, powerlessness, and mortality in an uncaring world.

Our innermost being feels only love and joy, suffers no fear or anxiety, sees eternity and knows the pure, endless sufficiency of the creative power.

Our spiritual work is to relinquish the falsehoods accrued by our outer self and seek refuge in the abundance of our inner being.

Don’t go outside your house to see the flowers.
My friend, don’t bother with that excursion.
Inside your body there are flowers.
One flower has a thousand petals.
That will do for a place to sit.
Sitting there you will have a glimpse of beauty
inside the body and out of it,
before gardens and after gardens.

– Kabir

And then what?

This is where I used to get stuck.

Withdraw from the outer self and enjoy the vision of your innermost being…but then what?

Even though I knew the theory, in practice I couldn’t help but return to the limited, constrained, and conventional view of reality.

I clung to a polarised view of spiritual vs physical, contemplation vs action.

I devalued the physical world in order to focus more on the spiritual, and yet that polarisation proved unstable.

And illogical: if the spiritual is all, how can the physical undermine or confound it? If the outer self is so much less than the inner self, why does it dominate?

I might enjoy a wonderful vision of spiritual reality, but then it was time to return to the real world.

And the whole time I thought I was being impractical, but it turned out I wasn’t being radical enough.

When Peter walked on the water, it was his fears that sank him.

In my case, the very question of “what now?” shows I still had fears, and a kind of faith in the physical world, even though I professed to believe in a spiritual one.

Does happiness come from outside, or from within?

Is this a spiritual world or a material one?

Did God create everything, or did everything create God?

In the end I discovered that my negative expectations about “physical reality” had spiritual ramifications.

I persevered under the mistaken premise that physical reality represented a “problem” for which spiritual insight was the solution.

I kept searching for answers, by unwittingly reiterating the question, over and over again.

And so the true answer is to stop asking the wrong question. Ours is a spiritual reality – it just is.

Not in contrast to how everyone thinks the world works; why should I care (and how would I know?) what everyone thinks?

The point, a spiritual point, is what I think: and embracing a spiritual reality means no longer affirming a physical reality as the problem I have to solve, or the prison I need to escape.

Spiritual reality is not an instead of, or in contrast to. It just is, and is all that is.

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What do you really want?

When working out my approach to diet, I arrived at a very strange and powerful moment.

I knew that losing weight was objectively simple: eat substantially less food, and your body will consume more of its own reserves.

And I was under the impression that I really wanted to lose weight.

So why didn’t I follow that objectively simple path?

Cognitive dissonance

I remember this powerful moment so clearly, the feeling of astonishment at uncovering a deeper level of my psyche, and the self-deception at play.

It seemed that my strong desire to lose weight was not as strong as I thought…or that it might be more accurately described as “a strong desire to be thinner without changing any of my behaviour”.

At that time I resolved the tension in my own mind by redefining “want” or “desire”.

A want or desire is an intentional state. It motivates us to action. Therefore if no action occurs it is not accurate to say we “want” or “desire”.

I like that idea

To make sense of my behaviour I changed my story:

I really like the idea of being lean, but I enjoy the pleasure of eating too much to change my behaviour and actually lose weight.

Do you see how powerful that is? It might sound like admitting defeat, but the alternative wasn’t “victory” but self-deception.

I had been telling myself “I want to lose weight, but it’s really hard”. Changing the story showed that I didn’t really want to lose weight in the sense of having the necessary motivation to change my behaviour.

Think about the things you want in life. I want to go to the bathroom -> so go. I want a glass of water -> so get one. I want to lose weight -> so eat less. I want to play the piano -> so practice.

If I want to play the piano but I don’t practice, then it’s probably more accurate to say “I wish I could play the piano, but I don’t want to do the requisite practice”, or “I wish I magically knew how to play the piano without having to go through the trouble of actually learning.”

The paradox

Paradoxically, changing my story to more accurately describe how I felt gave me more motivation to change my behaviour.

Realising that I didn’t want to lose weight made me want to lose weight, because I saw quite clearly that the path I was on did not lead to a good place.

If losing weight is easy, why does it feel so hard? Because we don’t really want to change our behaviour. Why would we?

Changing my story again

Redefining “want” to mean a motivational state that leads to action is a bit extreme. It could be equally true to say we have numerous conflicting wants or desires of varying strengths and intensities.

The real value in that story I told was the clarity, seeing myself clearly and seeing through my self-deception.

It was so empowering to realise that the path was not hard, I was just deeply ambivalent about walking it.

Do I want to be profoundly happy?

I’ve arrived at another powerful and momentous question, this time not about food and body weight, but my ability to be profoundly happy, feel profoundly good in this very moment.

My forays into mysticism and spiritual practice have shown me time and again that we have the ability to find true love and joy deep within us. The only thing that stands in our way is…our own reluctance to embrace it.

Admittedly there’s a lot of confusion and conflicting messages out there about spiritual practice, just as there is about weight loss and diet.

But I’ve studied enough to be satisfied that the path is actually very simple for me.

All that remains is the mysterious fact that I’m so reluctant to walk the path.

Facing our own resistance

The question is why?

Why would I not want to feel profoundly good right now?

So far the answers are

“That’s not what life is about”

“I need to face reality”

…and the ingrained sense that struggle is somehow more rewarding or necessary or unavoidable so you might as well face it.

This struggle is captured in various traditions, but the one that comes to mind is:

If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.

Clarity will yield desire

As with the weight-loss example, seeing clearly my own reluctance – that the path is simple, I’m just reluctant to walk it – will gradually build my desire.

After all, feeling profoundly good right now would be…profoundly good. And realising that the only obstacle is my own obstinacy is the quickest way to wear it down, change my mind, and soften my heart.

Going with the flow

The lamp of the body is the eye: if thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.

Some contemplatives look outward and see the underlying flow, the pattern, the mystery governing all that is.

Some contemplatives look inward and find the divine being-itself within.

Whether inside or outside, they approach a unity of vision. Perhaps it’s just a case of where they first notice it, or where they are most at home returning to it.

Synthesis

I’m different from the contemplatives, mystics, and sages whose words I’ve read, because I’ve read all their words and put them alongside one another in my own mind.

Reading into different traditions from outside those traditions and looking for the underlying commonalities and themes, my perspective remains an individual one, not belonging to any single set of teachings.

I’ve tried to see “the way” described in Daoist and East Asian Buddhist literature, the mysterious unity dynamically at play behind all phenomena.

I’ve also tried to see the divine essence in my innermost being, either there, or near there, a presence of love and light and transcendent joy that is our true identity, whether it is described as a union with God that occurs through grace when we turn toward Him, or as a pre-existing unity with the divine that has been obscured by ignorance and illusion.

Finding God within themselves, they look out and see God in everything, just as the sages who saw everything following “the way” then knew to look within for their own intimate connection with it.

Reconciling the external and the internal

When I looked outward I could see the mysterious patterns of “the way” but it did nothing to change me.

When I looked within I felt the love and joy of the divine in my innermost being, but “the world” remained impassive and impervious.

I had a strong sense of the divide between myself and “the world”.

But through slowly improving my mood, recognising the legitimacy of desire and how my experience reflects my beliefs and expectations, I’ve found that I can bridge that divide.

By both turning toward the divine in my innermost being and then looking for the mysterious pattern in the external world, I’ve found that they are one and the same thing, mutually reinforcing, and unifying my whole experience.

I have to actively do both. Actively turn toward the spark of love and joy that resides deep within us, and, when secure in that, look to the sense of pattern and connection and flow in the outside world.

Go with the flow

The flow is difficult to describe. I get it by paying attention to my field of experience as a whole. For example, when driving we can pay attention to any number of things but we ought to be aware of the other users of the road around us.

If we were sitting by the side of the road at a busy intersection we might be able to look at the many vehicles as taking part in the greater flow of traffic. We could get a feel for the flow that transcends but is present in the multitude of vehicles and drivers and passengers and their individual actions and behaviours.

Can you do that while you yourself are part of the traffic?

The Zen monk Takuan Soho described this aspect of the way like so:

“When facing a single tree, if you look at a single one of its red leaves, you will not see all the others. When the eye is not set on one leaf, and you face the tree with nothing at all in mind, any number of leaves are visible to the eye without limit. But if a single leaf holds the eye, it will be as if the remaining leaves were not there.”

Creation unfolds moment by moment, and there’s a correlation across all things in the one moment, just as much as there is continuity of one thing across many moments.

Attending to this correlation or flow points us intuitively towards the invisible “way” that governs the flow.

This “way” is the proper object of attention externally, just as the divine spark within us is the proper object of attention internally.

In other traditions this flow or way might be described as God’s will, or the sense of God’s presence in all things. Perhaps it takes different forms for different people.

It still takes practice. I find that fears and worries and grasping for certain outcomes obscures my sense of the flow. At the same time, there’s an inner reluctance to turn toward the love and joy within me, which is puzzling but points to the various traditions’ interpretation of torpor or sloth or an unwillingness to embrace the joy that is available to us right now.

Yet there is also immense consolation in the direct experience of union as the sounds of traffic, my baby daughter wriggling in her bouncer, the tweeting of birds, and the pulsing of my own heart-beat converge with the deep and mysterious sense of love and joy within me.

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.

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.

Are you perfect?

People think they desire to possess things (objects, status, accomplishments, the affection of others) because of some intrinsic quality of those things.  We think this object is unique or significant, this woman or man is special or wonderful, these accomplishments or status are important.

But mostly it is we who make them desirable. That is, we are already looking for things to which we can pin our special labels, to make them “worthy” objects of desire.

Once we have established these objects of desire, we live and die by them. We order our lives by their attainment. If I can just afford it… If she just smiles at me… If I can just win their vote…

We believe that once we have gained possession of these things, we will at last experience a deep, lasting, and secure happiness. We will transpose to ourselves the glory of the office, the grandeur of the home, or the grace and beauty of the beloved.

And then we will be truly happy.

But even if we obtain these things, the happiness doesn’t last. And if, as usually happens, we fail to obtain them, then we remain mired in our usual unhappy state.

Why do we do this?

Well, if those things were truly desirable then the answer would be obvious: we pursue love, property, and power because they will make our lives wonderful.

But if these things are not truly desirable – if instead we bestow desirability upon those things in the first place, then the answer is more complex, more mysterious than we realise.

I believe the latter is the case, because I have read and confirmed through my own experience that the apparent desirability of these supposedly wonderful things is not real. The possessions we once craved lose their allure. The people we once deeply admired eventually lose their glow. Status and accomplishments are soon forgotten. We move from one “wonder” on to a fresh one.

So why subject ourselves to this strange ritual?

The answer is itself a little strange.

We do it because we cannot justify being content with what we are.

What do dreaming about the perfect home, wishing for the affection of a beautiful woman or man, and imagining oneself in a position of power and respect have in common?

They all consist of mental projections of ourselves in a state that justifies feeling wonderful.

Their content is less significant than the emotional narrative they share: if I have that, I will be happy, overjoyed, resplendent.

And by implication: I can’t be happy, overjoyed, or resplendent because I don’t have that.

Whatever that is, the feelings associated with it are a kind of negative image of how you see yourself.

If that is the affection of a person, then I’m willing to bet that the qualities you think you see in that person are the qualities you most feel you lack in yourself, or the qualities you feel would redeem whatever faults you might think you have.

The same applies a little less directly to homes, possessions, status and accomplishments but in general how you feel about those things mirrors qualities you wish you had right now.

About twenty years ago I read all of this, and I reached the conclusion that if I could short-circuit this delusional dynamic I could enjoy all the wonderful feelings exactly as I am. In other words, the things I sought in external reality were just proxies for self-acceptance.

I had thought that I could only accept myself if I obtained these proxies. But if I could accept myself directly, then I could feel joy and happiness directly too?

The problem is that I took for granted that the joy and happiness were real, that I should be feeling those feelings, and if I didn’t feel those feelings then I clearly hadn’t accepted myself fully.

In other words, I turned “self-acceptance” into another proxie, something I had to obtain in order to feel joy and happiness.

I’ve come to see that as a really bad move, because if you have to chase self-acceptance it isn’t really self-acceptance. But if you call it by the same name you might not recognise the difference.

So forget about finding joy and happiness. Forget about trying to attain a state that is different from the one you currently inhabit. It’s a paradox, but don’t fall for it.

Instead, let’s ask again why we saw it necessary to seek perfection externally in the first place. How did we reach the conclusion that we need to redeem ourselves?

For a long time I didn’t really understand how the Crucifixion and death of Jesus was supposed to have redeemed anyone. People offer various theological explanations, but I’m especially leery of the argument that God required a sacrifice. At least not in a strong sense of ‘required’.

It makes more sense if we didn’t need to be redeemed, but didn’t know that we didn’t need it.

We can argue the theology but that’s the net effect of Christianity: we can’t redeem ourselves, nor ever could, so please stop trying.

If you want to go sacrificial: here’s one eternal sacrifice, the sacrifice to end all sacrifice.

This strange ‘happiness’ dynamic we’re looking at is just another attempt at redeeming ourselves. Maybe not with God, but at least privately. We believe we’re not good enough, not right, not whole, not perfect. We reject our flaws and faults, because at face value they’re unacceptable to us.

But we’re only unacceptable to us. In Matthew’s Gospel, in the “love your enemies” section, Jesus says:

He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

And just a bit later he concludes:

Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.

What kind of perfection is this? It’s a perfection that does not discriminate between the evil and the good, or the righteous and the unrighteous.

If this strikes a chord, you might see how it links in to themes I’ve raised in other posts.

In Taking what is offered I look at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the suggestion that our refusal to accept our reality is what separates us from God, and how the path back to paradise is demonstrated in Christ’s acceptance of God’s will over his own measure of good and evil.

In Pride and the delusion of self I touch on Pride as both the cause of the devil’s fall from Heaven according to tradition, and synonymous with our own delusion of authority and control in our own lives.

Finally, in Better to reign in hell? I examine how we wrongly seek to take responsibility both for our faults and flaws and for our redemption. This sense of responsibility is linked to agency, authority, and control as described in the earlier post on pride.

Bringing this final post to bear on the current theme, it is clear that the faults and flaws for which we seek to take responsibility are the same faults and flaws that motivate the ‘happiness’ dynamic I’ve described here.

It is because we refuse to accept our own faults and flaws, we refuse to let the sun shine on the good and evil in us, or let the rain fall on the righteous and unrighteous parts of ourselves, that we seek redemption and righteousness in external things.

We promise ourselves overwhelming joy and happiness, but only if we can win this battle between good and evil within us. We imagine ourselves in ‘paradise’ if only we can achieve or obtain something to outweigh our flaws.

At whatever point in our lives we first became conscious of having flaws, our reality was ripped in two. Our knowledge of good and evil came into effect, and we were bewildered and ashamed to find that the line between the two ran through our own selves.

We still refuse to accept ourselves fully, accept our reality completely. We hold out, seeking to manage, mitigate, and mend ourselves where we can. How could we ever accept the unacceptable? How could we ever accept the parts of us our own minds condemn as faults?

This is why Christianity is called the Way of the Cross, why Christ urged us to “take up your cross and follow me”, and why, in love with God, so many of the saints endured tremendous hardship and suffering.

The cross is not only the suffering imposed on us by the external world, but the suffering and fear we hold for our own hated faults. God wants us to accept our faults.

This is not a superficial message, but a radical one. It doesn’t mean persisting with bad habits, because ultimately bad habits are attempts to hide from or compensate for our hated faults anyway. This is where the Christian motif of dying and being reborn comes into its own. Christ didn’t say “pretend to die so that you could keep on living in pretty much the same way as before”.

On the level of free will and our sense of self, this means recognising that you are not responsible for your faults anymore than you are responsible for your merits. You did not create yourself, and if you get right down to it, your sense of self is just something your mind produces from various thoughts and impressions. To treat it as a separate thing, like a little god ruling over its dominion, is at the heart of what we call pride.

 

 

If thine eye offend thee…

My latest piece on MercatorNet looks at the extremely sad case of a woman who intentionally blinded herself with drain cleaner, and goes on to suggest that “transableism” and transgenderism alike are just the latest symptoms of an increasingly irreligious world that believes in the possibility and the proximity of worldly happiness:

Our society is increasingly devoid of the scepticism toward worldly goals embodied in the major religious traditions. We no longer have people telling us that the world is an illusion, a shipwreck, a “vanity of vanities”. We are lacking the kind of unwavering clarity that pours cold water not only on the outer-reaches of our struggles for worldly fulfilment, but the inner-reaches as well: wealth, career, social esteem, fashion, passion, and pride.

Our religious traditions are united in wishing to dispel the illusion that the world can grant us real happiness, whether it be through the accumulation of possessions or being called by the “correct” pronouns.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/a-new-identity-will-not-make-you-happy