Ups and downs and spiritual experience

So, in my previous post I explored how pride is an attempt to feel in ourselves the greatness that belongs to existence itself. It’s an attempt to usurp our sense of awe at reality, and feel awe about our own selves instead.

Once you realise this, you’ll experience awe. And you’ll understand for a moment that awe just happens, there’s no need to cling to a sense of self as some kind of false centre of the experience.

But that realisation will be short-lived. Almost immediately you’ll start clinging to the experience of awe as if you can store it up inside you and make it your own.

You want your own sense of self to be the object of your awe.

The moment you bring yourself into it, the awe starts to fade. This happens because your sense of self is not a real thing, it’s just an impression. Treating an impression as if it were real is delusional, and delusion is not something that inspires awe.

Bye bye, awe.

So now you’re back, stuck in your sense of self again, and whatever you do at this point is probably going to exacerbate the delusion.

You’ll most likely feel some kind of bad feeling, because you’re coming down off the awe. You might feel hollow or empty or just miserable.

You might leap head-first into some kind of distraction, hoping to escape the unpleasant feelings that come from being deluded about yourself once more.

It might be a bad distraction that offers short-term relief but makes you feel even worse about yourself later. Or it might be a constructive distraction that leads you into a project with some real benefits for yourself or others.

But whether you find a way to feel good about yourself, or end up feeling bad about yourself, either way you are stuck playing the old game of up and down with your own self-centred emotions.

I used to go through this cycle a lot when I was younger. I would read a book, delve into the wisdom of mystics from various traditions, and for a brief time it would all make sense. I would feel as if the barrier between self and reality had fallen away, and all that remained was an experience of awe.

Then the “I” would creep back in. I’d start to wonder how I could capture, define, control this experience. I’d look for a way to remain in that state of mind permanently.

It didn’t work.

I guess you could say there was no stability to the insights I was having. I only achieved them briefly, thanks to great mental effort. It wasn’t sustainable.

I’ve only just understood what was wrong: even though the experience of awe is wonderful, it is still an experience, still a thought, still an impression. So long as we cling to experiences, thoughts, or impressions we are denying the complete truth.

Saint John of the Cross described the dark night of the soul as precisely an antidote to this kind of spiritual greed. God wants us to love him for himself, not for the good feelings that come from loving God. So at some point the saint passes through a purifying process in which there is no support and no comfort from the usual sources.

Likewise, Buddhist and nondualist sources attest that bliss cannot be the final goal, because the experience of bliss still implies a subject-object division. If you cannot pass beyond bliss, then it’s as if you stand forever at the door, refusing to enter.

So the awe I’ve always pursued is, finally, an obstacle and a hindrance to finding the truth. But I had to pursue it, had to recognise it as the summit of experience, before understanding that an experience is still not enough.

What matters is the source of all “experience”.  The thoughts and impressions that make up our entire reality – where do they come from? So long as we are attached to one experience – however elevated and spiritual it might seem – we cannot go beyond experience. That’s why Christ says we must lose our life in order to save it, why the Buddhist teacher Lin Chi said to kill the Buddha if you meet him, and why the Zhuangzi is just so damn elusive:

It’s easy to walk without leaving footprints; it’s hard to walk without touching the ground. Deceit is easy when you work for men, but hard when you work for Heaven. You’ve heard of flying with wings, but you have never heard of flying without wings. You’ve heard of understanding by means of knowledge, but you have never heard of the understanding that comes from not knowing. Look into the closed room, the empty chamber where light is born. Fortune and blessings gather where there is stillness. But if you do not keep still – that is called galloping where you sit.

Getting to the bottom of pride in practice

I’m trying to get to the bottom of pride in practice.

At this stage, I think pride involves a mistaken belief that feeling good about ourselves constitutes real happiness.

Pride motivates me to pursue certain objects and avoid others on the basis of how these things make me feel about myself. It can be subtle, and sometimes it’s hard to separate how we feel about the object, from how the object makes us feel about ourselves.

For example, you enjoy someone’s care and affection, but you also enjoy how their care and affection make you feel about yourself.

The problem is that pride – how we feel about ourselves – is empty. It consists of the most transitory, fleeting thoughts and impressions that temporarily binds together our experience of reality with our self-image, conflating the two for one intoxicating moment.

This passing alignment of subject, self-image, and object is impossible to maintain, and chasing it becomes an exhausting pursuit.

Look at it this way: to be with someone you care about, you only have to be with them. But to hold onto the good feeling about yourself that comes from that person’s care and affection, you need to keep actively thinking about it – and about yourself.

But the more you think about it, the more accustomed to it your mind becomes. It stops feeling special. You need to enhance the stimulus. Worse still, the very nature of the original special event is that it took your mind away from thoughts of yourself. You cannot self-consciously lose yourself.

It’s like experiencing a wonderful surprise, and then trying to relive the moment of surprise again and again, because you self-consciously like how “being surprised” felt.

When it comes to pride, we’re dealing with a set of beliefs or cognitions that induce an emotional response in us, which we then seek to reproduce again and again. It’s as if we’ve short-circuited a cognitive function that was designed to help us survive and thrive in the real world.

Pride entails a positive emotional response to beliefs that imply in some way “I am great”. As various spiritual traditions have taught, the cognitive component rests on a subject “I”, and an object “greatness”. The emotional component is a natural response to the object “greatness” albeit mistakenly attributed to the subject “I”.

As we have discussed in previous posts, pride is all about seeking to be in control of our own happiness, and to take credit for our own greatness, or to try to own greatness in ourselves. Spiritual traditions invariably decry this as a delusion or a sin, and seek to strip us of a false and ultimately destructive sense of being in control, or being responsible for our own existence, happiness, and so on.

In other words, they seek both to devalue the subject “I” and correctly attribute the object “greatness” to God, or the void, or whatever you would like to call it.

The end result is that the human being releases their obsession with the subject “I”, and experiences the corresponding emotion of awe as a natural response to the greatness of existence according to the divine order of which they themselves are an expression.

The nature of our deluded state is that the preoccupation with “I” inhibits our experience of awe at creation. Our momentary experiences of awe break through the limitations of the “I”, but we immediately seek to take control of them once more. We end up trying to make ourselves, through the lens of “I”, the object of awe.

In everyday life this quickly degenerates from the pursuit of awe to the pursuit of relative happiness.

The antidote to Pride

Some people think the antidote to pride is humility. Others claim that the antidote to pride is actually love.

I’m going to go with humility, but it depends on your interpretation.

I suspect what’s going on here is that there are two components to the spiritual path: love and truth. Some people are more drawn to truth than love, some more drawn to love than truth.

God is both, which means that love and truth are – in their essence – inseparable. But human beings approach God from different directions, which is why some are more moved by truth, and others are more moved by love.

Regardless of the path, the obstacle is the same: pride. Pride is the desire for control, the desire to be the author of our own existence, our own success, our own conclusion.

That’s why both love and humility can overcome pride. Love overcomes pride because the devotee loses himself in love of God and others. Love, by its very nature, softens the artificial barriers our pride has constructed.

Humility, in its more profound form, is truth. It comes from the Latin for “ground” and implies lowliness but also an understanding of our relationship to God as creatures. That is, we were formed out of clay.

Humility overcomes pride because the truth is that all pride is delusional. We cannot exercise self-control because we are entirely at the disposal of our creator. We can’t be the author of our own existence, because that role is already filled.

True humility sees through the facade of pride. Love overwhelms it.

I’m told that you can’t pursue truth without love developing, and you can’t develop love without learning the truth at some point. The two are inseparable, it’s really more a matter of emphasis.

 

When suffering is good for you

Suffering is a key theme of all religious traditions. They tend to treat suffering as something inevitable, but not intrinsic. That is, we all suffer, but only because something has gone wrong in us, the world, or reality itself.

Christianity and Buddhism (and everything in between) attest that true peace and contentment cannot be found in worldly things, or in the satisfaction of our desires.  From a religious point of view, we are all suffering whether we realise it or not. The first step is to realise it.

But it is possible, with sufficient wealth and self-delusion, to distract ourselves from suffering. We can run headlong into distractions – career, relationships, experiences, whatever will feed our pride and fill us with the promise of self-sufficiency.

We can let suffering feel like our opponent in the private drama of achieving success, personal validation, vindication, of finally making it. We can attribute our suffering to not being busy enough, or rich enough, on not having enough holidays, not having the right friends, not having the right distractions.

But these efforts will only intensify our suffering in the long-run. They will turn us into the kind of person who doesn’t know how to suffer, or more importantly, doesn’t know how to let go of the roots of suffering.

Because the roots of suffering lie in our false sense of autonomy, our desire to be in control. At the deepest level of our being there is no “me” to exercise this control, there is no interior agent behind our choices and decisions. Our efforts to feel in control are vain in light of the actual causes and determinants of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

The mind is very powerful.

It creates an impression of our reality – both the external and internal components. It also makes decisions in accordance with the reality it creates.

But the mind makes these decisions automatically. It weighs the evidence, arrives at a judgment, and thus the decision is made.

It does not require there to be a further arbiter of these decisions, yet we nonetheless have the strong impression that there is a “me” who guides these judgments and makes these decisions.

This is the crux of the problem: the mind creates all our impressions, yet we have an impression of a self, a “me”, who controls the mind. This means that the mind feels bound and controlled by the very impressions it has created.

The mind treats this impression of a self as if it is an actual self. It treats it with care. Like a spoiled child it caters to its whims. It factors this impression of a self into its decision-making so that its decisions are consistent with the illusion of this self being in control.

It creates a center where none exists, and then acts as though that center is vulnerable yet powerful, in control yet susceptible to losing control.

This is the delusion of self that the mind suffers – a delusion the mind itself has created. This is likewise the sin of pride, the root of all sin that seeks to make us the authors of our own glory.

As Isaiah wrote:

You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?
Shall the thing made say of its maker,
“He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,
“He has no understanding”?

But what makes pride so difficult to be rid of, and enlightenment so hard to achieve, is that this delusion of a self persists even when we seek to let go of it.

That is why Christianity invokes grace so strongly – the free gift of holiness and redemption that comes from God in spite of our own efforts. If it came via our efforts it would only increase our pride.

Likewise, the point of enlightenment in Buddhism is that there is no enlightenment once the delusion of an agent, a self who is in control, is erased.

But the mind does exist. And there is, in essence, no difference between the deluded mind and the enlightened mind. It’s the same mind all along.

That’s why suffering can be a gift, when it encourages the mind to stop investing in the false impression of a self. Suffering is, after all, something that makes sense only in the context of a self who suffers, desires, strives and fails.

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.

On being conceited, arrogant, proud and vain.

A friend accused me of being conceited.

I won’t deny it. Actually I can’t deny it because I’m not sure what it means.

People use conceited to mean arrogant and self-absorbed.

By that definition I am indeed conceited.

But I know for a fact that a conceit is also a literary device – an extended metaphor, often whimsical or hyperbolic.

I also know that a conceit is an idea formed in the mind, a notion, such that someone in a nineteenth century novel might say “I have this conceit about…” in the same way that we would say “I have an idea about…”

Conceit, conceive, concept, they are all related.

So how did conceit end up describing arrogance?

The missing link appears to be the self. Self-conceit was eventually shortened to conceit, and self-conceited to simply conceited.

A self-conceited person has conceits about himself. He’s formed hyperbolic and fanciful notions of his own qualities.

Arrogance

Arrogance comes from the Latin arrogare meaning “to claim for oneself, assume”.

We tend to think of arrogance and conceit as basically the same, but the etymology shows that they describe slightly different characteristics.

An arrogant person is too quick to ask for things, too presumptuous, too keen to claim privileges and benefits for themselves.

Where self-conceit implies an inward-looking vanity, arrogance implies an overbearing relation to others.

Pride

I’ve been writing about pride a lot lately and giving very specific religious definitions. But what about the etymology?

Pride, or rather proud is an interesting one.

It comes from the Old French for brave or valiant, without the negative connotations it carries today.

One theory is that the negative connotations of arrogance and haughtiness were attributed to the word as it entered the English language – reflecting the English disdain for their French rulers.

Vanity

Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Which doesn’t make much sense if we’re talking about narcissistic obsession with one’s appearance or self-image.

But that’s not what vain originally meant.

Vain means “empty”, from the Latin vanus meaning….empty.

Vain could be used to describe any enterprise or quality that lacked substance and true merit: vain efforts, vain struggle, vain wealth, vain self-regard.

We often describe people as vain, but originally it would have been their actions.

What use is it to tell people they have a high opinion of themselves?

You’re so vain, I bet you think this post is about you. 

Vanity is a more powerful accusation than that – it shows up the futility and emptiness of our self-conceit and pride. That’s where it is truly cutting.

Glory to God in the Lowest

Because of the things I’ve read, I take for granted now that there are two levels of reality.

There’s the world we’re used to, and there’s a deeper reality that is comprised of a different kind of being described universally as divine.

The mystics in every religion claim to have formed a relationship with this divine reality that somehow puts right the deficiencies and apparent failings of the world.

In other words, though this divine reality is hidden from view, in truth it overshadows the world.

Christmas celebrates the time when this divine reality entered into the world, and theologians have grappled for an appropriate depiction of how this transcendent, perfect, being can possibly have participated in a mundane, imperfect reality.

The incarnation itself tells us something about the nature of God. In case we struggled to work it out, that message was reiterated in the story of his birth – the lowliness of his condition, the humility of his circumstances.

In case we missed it, this message was repeated again in the works he performed, the people he travelled with and taught, or treated as friends.

If the message still didn’t get through, he said it himself as clearly as possible: the first shall be last and the last shall be first; he who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.

In his betrayal and death, both the fact that he did die and the humiliating manner of his execution, the message was repeated, corresponding to the words of the prophet before him.

The whole journey from beginning to end expands like a fractal, repeating itself on every scale to reveal the nature of the divine being.

It’s a theme, a motif picked up and presaged by prophets, sages, wise men and holy men and women of all nations: that the truth is not found in the empty greatness and glory that the world offers, that the path to God is opposed to our own self-aggrandisement, whether it be in the outright arrogance of wanting to look down on others, or the more subtle craving for autonomy, self-control, the illusion of our own dominion.

Gloria in Profundis
by G.K. CHESTERTON

There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land
He has strayed like a thief or a lover,
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendour is spilt on the sand.

Who is proud when the heavens are humble,
Who mounts if the mountains fall,
If the fixed stars topple and tumble
And a deluge of love drowns all-
Who rears up his head for a crown,
Who holds up his will for a warrant,
Who strives with the starry torrent,
When all that is good goes down?

For in dread of such falling and failing
The fallen angels fell
Inverted in insolence, scaling
The hanging mountain of hell:
But unmeasured of plummet and rod
Too deep for their sight to scan,
Outrushing the fall of man
Is the height of the fall of God.

Glory to God in the Lowest
The spout of the stars in spate-
Where thunderbolt thinks to be slowest
And the lightning fears to be late:
As men dive for sunken gem
Pursuing, we hunt and hound it,
The fallen star has found it
In the cavern of Bethlehem.

Unpacking Pride

I’ve been quoting an excerpt from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica in which he describes precisely how Lucifer wished to be “like God” and so fell from grace:

he desired resemblance with God in this respect–by desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature

What exactly does this mean? It is a very Thomistic statement, and the language could do with some elaboration for a contemporary audience.

His Last End

An end is a goal. It is the intended conclusion or outcome of an action, or the use or purpose or action of an object.

This sense of the word is retained in the phrase “to what end?”

The end of a coffee machine is to make coffee. The end of drinking the coffee is enjoyment, stimulation, quenching of thirst, or social connection.

The last end is the ultimate purpose or action. When it comes to human beings, our last end is something we have been trying to figure out for millennia, usually through philosophy and religion.

In orthodox Christianity the last end of humanity is to know and to love God.

Beatitude

Aquinas tells us what he means by beatitude in a section dealing with the beatitude (or blessedness) of God:

nothing else is understood to be meant by the term beatitude than the perfect good of an intellectual nature; which is capable of knowing that it has a sufficiency of the good which it possesses, to which it is competent that good or ill may befall, and which can control its own actions.

Trying to explain Aquinas using Aquinas is a bit recursive, so lets quickly note that “the perfect good of” means a perfected, complete state of being. “An intellectual nature” means a being with intellectual faculties, ie. “capable of knowing”. “Competent” just means suitable or fitting.

In other words, beatitude for a human means our most perfect and fulfilled state of being, a state in which we lack nothing that is good for us. This includes knowing that we lack nothing that is good for us.

This is paradise. To want for nothing, and have no doubts about being in true paradise.

The Virtue of His Own Nature

“Nature” here means essence. When we say something is “not in my nature” we are describing ourselves in our most intimate and essential being. Forget “mother nature”, this nature is the essence of who and what you are.

“Virtue” is a little tricky. We use the phrase “by virtue of” to mean “because of” or “caused by”. Virtue comes from the Latin vir meaning ‘man’. A virtuous man is, in a manner of speaking, a manly man. In other words, to be virtuous is to have all the qualities of an ideal human being.

But the term can be applied to anything. The virtue of a knife is its ability to cut things. the virtue of a coffee machine is its capacity to make good coffee. So when we say “by virtue of”, we mean “thanks to this quality”.

Defining Pride

Paraphrasing Aquinas our own pride consists in desiring, as our last end of beatitude, something which we can attain by the virtue of our own nature.

Thanks to our quick dip into Thomistic terminology we can say that pride means wanting our most complete state of perfection to be something that can be attained through our own qualities.

The orthodox Christian idea of perfection cannot be attained without God. To know and love God requires a relationship with God that is beyond our natural capacities. So perfection, paradise, cannot be attained through our own qualities.

The Irony of Pride’s Perfection

The irony is that our pride causes us to settle for a much lesser perfection. Hence Milton’s Lucifer deciding it was better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

While we still desire happiness, insisting that we attain it by ourselves immediately lowers our aim. Our last end becomes whatever trace of perfection we can strive for, though in reality it mostly devolves into endless striving.

In pride, our last end of beatitude becomes a distant promise of perfection towards which we can only ever struggle in the hope that we will find it fulfilling.

In other words, our struggle for happiness in this broken and frustrating world is already the perfection we obtain by our own powers. This is the dismal paradise that our feeble nature built, and the only consolation is the impression that we built it all by ourselves, and the hope that things will get better before the end.

As God said to Jeremiah:

my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.

Yet the promise of the Gospel is that God is ready with his grace at every moment to restore His relationship with us, to bring us to a blessed state entirely beyond our own nature and capacity.

The only obstacle is the one we ourselves present, in our recusant desire to do it on our own, for ourselves, and in our own way.

Two Birds on a Tree: different models of selflessness

Discussing the illusion of self control with a friend the other day, it became clear that the idea of self as an illusion is not for everyone.

Is self truly an illusion?

It depends on what you mean by ‘self’, what you mean by ‘truly’, and what you mean by ‘illusion’. Heck, while we’re at it: it depends on what you mean by ‘is’ as well.

But before we worry too much about precise definitions of terms, it might be worth considering some of the other ways this central phenomenon of selflessness is framed.

I’ve been focusing mainly on the analogy between the illusion of a self who is in control from a Buddhist perspective, and Christian perspective of pride as the desire to be like God in the sense of (paraphrasing Aquinas) desiring, as our last end of beatitude, something which we can attain by the virtue of our own nature.

But there are other models or frameworks that attempt to describe the same phenomenon of selflessness. One notable example is found in the Upanishads, a Hindu scripture, where the individual human being is shown to contain two ‘selves’: one that is involved in the world, and the other that is conscious but not involved.

two birds of golden plumage, inseparable companions, are perched on a branch of the same tree. One of them tastes the sweet and bitter fruits of the tree; the other, tasting neither, calmly looks on.

On the same tree, the individual self (jiva), deluded by forgetfulness of his identity with the divine Self, bewildered by his ego, grieves and is sad. But when he recognizes the other as the Lord worshipped by all and His glory, he becomes free from grief.

The site where I found these excerpts from the Svetasvatara Upanishad contains a much better commentary than I could produce. The following explains the meaning of the two birds:

The form of every sentient being has two indwellers–the two Selves just like the two birds. However, they do not have the same experience of the tree. The individual self, the jiva, tastes the fruit of the tree in the form of the inner and outer senses, and according to the quality of that experience is made happy, unhappy, contented, discontented–and so forth. The individual thus undergoes experience sometimes laughing and some times weeping, immersed in thought and bewildered by his own helplessness.

The Supreme Self, on the other hand, tasting neither [sweet or bitter experiences], calmly observes. God also experiences because He is an indweller of all and is aware of all that the individual spirit experiences, yet, He looks on without eating–without being affected or conditioned by such experiences. But He does know exactly the effect and conditioning that accrues to the individual Self. He is experiencing right along with us, but unlike us is not pulled into a mistaken identity with the body-mind and its experiences.

We are drowned, submerged, in the deadly ocean of samsara, of continual birth, death, pain and pleasure. Sankara points out that the individual self is overwhelmed with confusion because it cannot understand what is really happening to it, and why. Just like a piece of driftwood on the heaving sea, it is lifted up and down, thrown onto the shore and then pulled out to sea again. So it grieves at its helplessness and hopelessness.

All is changed, though, when the individual sees, right in the core of his being, the very God he has been hitherto worshipping as separate from himself. Experiencing within his own being the presence and the glory of God–and thereby realizing that glory as his own–the individual becomes liberated from sorrow.

There are other models, other methods, and other attempts to explain the central phenomenon. These efforts have their own historical and social contexts. For example, one might view the Buddhist insistence on no-self or anatman as, in part, a refreshing reaction against the Hindu doctrine of atman – the inner self or soul, the ‘Supreme Self’ depicted in the Upanishad above.

The startling idea that we have an inner self that is divine can, over time, be taken for granted and fall far short of the reality depicted in the Upanishads. The Buddhist response reframes that reality in newly-startling terms: there is no atman, there is no enduring, divine, inner self. The nature of all phenomena is sunyata – emptiness.

When you grapple with a problem

In the previous post on sickness and pride I suggested that we should view our frustration with the common cold as pointing to the deeper problem of our pride, or the illusion of a self that is in control.

This false sense of control and the often accompanying sense of frustration is everywhere in life. But it is usually at its worst when we face obstacles and challenges, when we are struggling and feel like life is not unfolding as we’d like it to.

That’s why suffering has special value in religious traditions – when things are going well for us our pride and illusion of self are unassailable. It takes inevitable suffering and disappointment to reveal the sharp edges of these faults.

So we can treat all problems as we may treat the cold: recognise the struggle, the sense of control, and the frustration as illusory. The impression of a self at the center of these feelings is just an impression, not an actual self, so our suffering and struggle can become perfect reminders that we are in the grip of delusion and pride.

A moment of change occurs, in which we see through the illusion, if only briefly.

With this change comes the recognition that it was not brought about through “my” efforts, because the me who feels responsible for those efforts has temporarily vanished.

When it vanishes, so do the problems and the struggles that hitherto seemed so distressing.

I think this is the secret to the Daoist concept of wu wei – acting without acting:

The way never acts, yet nothing is left undone.
Should lords and princes be able to hold fast to it,
The myriad creatures will be transformed of their own accord.
After they are transformed, should desire raise its head,
I shall press it down with the weight of the nameless uncarved block.
The nameless uncarved block
Is but freedom from desire,
And if I cease to desire and remain still,
The empire will be at peace of its own accord.

Acting without acting is another way of saying that the illusion of a self who is in control becomes transparent.

The illusion of a self who is in control is like thinking that you can manipulate the weather with your thoughts. If you really believed that, your life would be full of pointless struggle and frustration, illusory successes and inevitable failures.

But then there’s the paradox once more: that whether you believe it or not is also something not under the control of an illusory self.

Nonetheless, this insight can unfold throughout your life. Maybe it happens suddenly for some. For me it is unfolding slowly, one area of life at a time as I seem to remember or realise that it is applicable in this aspect of life or in that struggle also.