Practicing happiness 28

Contra mundum with a vengeance.

So it turns out I’m a villain.

In anime there’s the trope (presumably informed by Shinto beliefs) of a creature or spirit that becomes warped through suffering or injustice or its own negative emotion and becomes evil.

It always struck me as a little unfair, but it makes sense. Like the boar spirit at the beginning of Princess Mononoke, or any number of unhappy yokai in Natsume Yuujinchou. These spirits are often victims themselves, yet their bitterness or wrath turns them into something dangerous to others.

In the Abraham-Hicks teachings the cause of our suffering is our own resistance. When we focus on unwanted aspects of reality we experience friction or going against the flow of our own inner being, because our inner being only ever focuses on the wanted aspects of life.

Our negative emotions are our experience of this friction.

I’ve been working on letting go of resistance and feeling better. But it turns out my resistance was more extreme than I realised.

At some point in my life I got turned around. I took my negative experiences and extrapolated to life in general, the whole world, and existence itself.

I decided that life was not worth living, the world was pointless and broken, and existence was burdensome and futile.

Treating all of existence as unwanted felt pretty bad. But in a way it was a relief to reach that sweeping conclusion. It was more satisfying to turn against life than to try to find redeeming features amidst the misery.

It was also a form of vengeance against everyone and everything responsible for making life so burdensome in the first place. Like playing a game where the odds are stacked against you and the cost always outweighs the rewards, the obvious answer was to refuse to play.

Ironically that’s how I finally interpreted spiritual teachings too. Life is being crushed beneath the wheel of samsara, and it’s only refusing to buy-in that brings us true freedom.

If our thoughts and attitudes create our reality, what kind of reality does this contra mundum attitude create? Not the best.

If resisting the flow of life causes suffering and negative emotion, how about turning defiantly against the stream and saying “f*** you”?

Change of heart

My spiritual search was an attempt to find a way out or transformation of this hated reality. But the answer I have finally arrived at is that my hate is itself the problem.

If I want to feel better I have to learn to love the reality I’m in. If I love the reality I’m creating, then it will change to reflect this positive and satisfying and delightful attitude.

I can’t hate my way into a better-feeling life. No matter how justified my resentment might seem, or how comforting my scorn might feel, if I’d rather enjoy life then it’s time for them to go.

It’s the pride, stupid.

The other day I wrote about resentment in melancholics.

One of the problems with the melancholic temperament is that it can be hard to know exactly what you’re feeling. Resentment might appear as a kind of miserable heaviness hanging over everything all the time. It won’t necessarily come with little tags telling you the type, origin, and nature of the mood.

This is especially the case when the resentment becomes habitual – so deeply ingrained that it feels normal. I’m not talking about small resentments (though small ones are part of it). I’m talking about big, life-shaping and character-forming resentments. Resentments so formative that they don’t even feel like resentments anymore, just a part of your own story.

Stories like: being bad at everything, always having to move away from friends, having no sense of purpose, being unpopular, failing, poor, being clumsy or unathletic, or slow-witted or never getting the joke.

These common themes can translate into self-pity, bitterness, and resentment.

So what now?  Assuming you don’t actually want to live mired in a bitter and angry reaction to all the things that didn’t go your way, how do you find another way?

Resentment doesn’t hang in thin air. It has a very particular source.

I said last time that it comes from a perceived injustice – motivating anger, fear and disappointment. Anger is defined as a desire for vengeance or vindication, the desire to set right a perceived injustice, to ensure we get what we deserve, whether it be material wealth, opportunity, or due respect from others.

We get angry when someone cuts us off in traffic because we believe deep down that we deserve special consideration from others. We deserve to have a clean run to our destination. We interpret obstacles and inconveniences as slights – signs of disrespect.

At the heart of this anger, and hence resentment, is an inflated sense of what we are owed, what we deserve. This inflated sense of self-worth is called pride, and is defined as a love of one’s own excellence, real or imagined.

People resent life, their families, God, the universe, society, reality itself because these things have failed to meet the standards they feel they deserve.

Resentful people are proud people.

But the good news is that pride is itself a choice. And when you finally arrive at the point where your many resentments are making life unbearable, you might then be able to choose against pride.

At the moment I’m viewing it as an addictive substance – pride as a state of mind we indulge in for escapist pleasure. You don’t have to learn humility per se; in fact in seeking to be humble there’s a risk of merely turning ‘humility’ into a new goal or power-play for your proud self to accomplish. Instead I think it’s easier just to notice the delusion of pride whenever it arises. Noticing it will detract from its strength. Noticing it is implicitly a refusal to fully endorse it; and in that careful approach lies, I think, a way to simply desist from embracing pride any further.

I think in the past I tried to deal with pride by lowering my expectations relative to the norm. I knew the definition of humility was to see oneself truly, but I thought that meant I simply had to beat my pride down to size. But if pride is a love of your own excellence, it doesn’t really matter how excellent that excellence is relative to others. “I just want a normal life” can still be tremendously proud when the subtext is “…and I think I deserve it.”

We need instead to take questions of desert off the table completely, and that can be done by recognising pride as a mental function and refusing to assent to it.

Melancholic resentment

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One of the drawbacks of studying religion at an early age is lacking the maturity or the intelligence to distinguish between personal conditions and universal ones.

For instance, all the religious traditions of which I am aware are pessimistic about worldly goals and prospects. Whether it’s being crushed beneath the wheel of samsara or being dashed to pieces in the shipwreck of worldly desires and cares, our religious traditions use pessimism to encourage us to find the permanent, unchanging spiritual centre of all existence.

We are not supposed to take this pessimistic view as a justification for resentment, a sardonic defence against feeling let-down by life or the people in it.

Resentment is a particular risk for Melancholics. As Conrad Hock writes:

The melancholic who gives way to sad moods, falls into many faults against charity and becomes a real burden to his fellow men.

a) He easily loses confidence in his fellow men, (especially Superiors, Confessors), because of slight defects which he discovers in them, or on account of corrections in small matters.

b) He is vehemently exasperated and provoked by disorder or injustice. The cause of his exasperation is often justifiable, but rarely to the degree felt.

c) He can hardly forgive offences. The first offense he ignores quite easily. But renewed offenses penetrate deeply into the soul and can hardly be forgotten. Strong aversion easily takes root in his heart against persons from whom he has suffered, or in whom he finds this or that fault. This aversion becomes so strong that he can hardly see these persons without new excitement, that he does not want to speak to them and is exasperated by the very thought of them. Usually this aversion is abandoned only after the melancholic is separated from persons who incurred his displeasure and at times only after months or even years.

d) He is very suspicious. He rarely trusts people and is always afraid that others have a grudge against him. Thus he often and without cause entertains uncharitable and unjust suspicion about his neighbor, conjectures evil intentions, and fears dangers which do not exist at all.

e) He sees everything from the dark side. He is peevish, always draws attention to the serious side of affairs, complains regularly about the perversion of people, bad times, downfall of morals, etc. His motto is: things grow worse all along. Offenses, mishaps, obstacles he always considers much worse than they really are. The consequence is often excessive sadness, unfounded vexation about others, brooding for weeks and weeks on account of real or imaginary insults. Melancholic persons who give way to this disposition to look at everything through a dark glass, gradually become pessimists, that is, persons who always expect a bad result; hypochondriacs, that is, persons who complain continually of insignificant ailments and constantly fear grave sickness; misanthropes, that is, persons who suffer from fear and hatred of men.

I’ve been looking into resentment recently and the definition I like best so far is that:

Resentment is a mixture of disappointment, anger, and fear.

At times any one element of the mixture might predominate, but the heart of the resentment is ultimately a sense of injustice – persistent and far-reaching enough to cause not only anger but disappointment and fear.

Failure breeds resentment when it not only feels unjust but also has implications for future hopes and prospects. Failure makes us angry at ourselves or others, it also disappoints us when we realise that the hoped-for success will not come, and it makes us afraid of future failures, or of the missed opportunity to succeed. It’s much harder to feel resentment if the failure doesn’t really hurt our future prospects.

The danger in becoming a pessimist is that we may roll all our small resentments into one big resentment against the world, God, or life itself. This is problematic partly because such a large and all-encompassing resentment is hard to bear and hard to escape or forget. But also because pessimism is often couched as a ‘realist’ perspective. Believing that one’s large, all-encompassing resentment is objectively valid only makes it harder to let go.

So what can we do about this resentment?

The best advice I have found so far (and it came easily, despite my pessimism) is that we need to recognise resentment as a form of addiction, that is, a compulsive activity we indulge in order to escape other feelings or experiences.

Resentment is addictive because it gives us a cheap sense of self-righteousness and vindication, or as the article puts it, an illusion of strength. After all, the anger component of resentment is classically defined as a desire for vengeance: that is, a desire to set right the perceived injustice perpetrated against us.

So long as we hold on to either anger or resentment, we feel that our cause is not lost. The perceived injustice might be decades old, but we can still feel that we are achieving some measure of vindication by remaining angry, where ‘forgive and forget’ feels too much like letting the guilty party off the hook.

Yet for that same reason, resentment is incredibly weak. It’s like saying to your oppressor “See? I’m still suffering for what you did to me!”  The emotional logic is childish: you made me feel bad, and I shall keep feeling bad until you realise your mistake. Naturally, it’s childish because most of us begin resenting people and situations in childhood, the same place we learn all our primary emotional responses.

It’s hard to remain resentful when you realise that you’re engaging in an adult form of sulking.