Just one look

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I came across this website recently where a guy put forward what we might call a quasi-spiritual theory and practice.

His theory is that all our psychological unease and strife is caused by a subconscious “fear of life”. This fear of life is linked into a desire to know ourselves as we are. I don’t know which comes first, the fear or the desire. It doesn’t really matter at this point.

We go looking for this ‘self’ everywhere…here we insert the usual spiritual story of seeking peace and happiness in material possessions or power or self-image.

The usual spiritual story would encourage us to look within to find our true self, and find in that all the happiness and peace we wrongly sought outside ourselves.

The problem with this approach is that instead of just looking inside and going “oh, there I am”, we implicitly reason that given how desperately we pursue happiness and avoid suffering in life, this ‘self’ we need to find must be pretty spectacular. It must be magnificent and intoxicating and profound in direct proportion to our desire for happiness and our aversion to suffering.

That’s where this “Just One Look” idea comes in. The guy who runs the site claims firstly that this “find your self” theme is not meant to be a mystical spiritual quest. It would probably be better presented as a simple psychological method. In fact he refers to the “fear of life” problem as a “psychological auto-immune disease” for which the act of looking within is simply “medicine”.

His method is, first, to recognise that you can move your attention around at will. Second, that you have a feeling of what it is to be “me”, a feeling that you can either discover directly just by looking for it, or indirectly by going to a normal childhood memory and remembering what it felt like to be you at that time.

This feeling of “me” is not mysterious or esoteric. It’s pretty straightforward and we typically take it for granted, chasing after emotions and external or internal stimuli.

But according to the theory, this “me” feeling is what we actually desire. It’s something that never really changes, and once we look at it with our attention (intentionally, I presume), it sets in motion a gradual but more thorough psychological change.

As far as I can tell, what happens is that when we look at that feeling of “me” while understanding that this “me” is the antidote to the fear of life, all our fear-based psychological habits become superfluous. They don’t vanish overnight, but their motive force – the fear – no longer has such power because you now know that this “me” is your unchanging and consistent internal reference-point.

Anyway, that’s how I see it. It has a great deal in common with elements of spiritual practice in Vedanta and Buddhism. And to be fair to the ‘spiritual’ side of it, spirit and soul are proto-scientific terms. Psychology is, after all, the logic of the soul.

In Vedantan or Buddhist terms, I think this little method is picking up on the theme of misidentification: that we wrongly identify with impermanent or illusory things, whether they be ‘external’ like reputation, career, etc., or ‘internal’ like positive or negative emotions, thoughts, intellectual process, etc.

Some methods teach us to disidentify or ‘see through’ those objects, those false selves or idols. Others focus on finding the ‘true self’ within. But as the author notes, this has accrued a great deal of spiritual baggage along the way.

It is my experience that there is one desire that drives us all and that is the desire to know what I am. This desire, in most lives, for most of the time, is wrongly understood and projected upon objects of acquisition or aversion. It is projected upon objects of acquisition like relationships, power, money, position in the herd, education, and understanding. The seeking after understanding as a way of quenching the thirst of this desire to know what I am is a huge mistake. The nature of this desire is denied, is unrecognized. It is not recognized to be the desire to know what I am but it is easy to see it in operation, as we are continuously trying to understand our story, to put it in a good context, to fix it, to shape it, to get rid of the things that cannot be if I am to be what I must be, in order to accept myself.

The endless effort to run the memory tape of my life, so I have a consistent and coherent structure that I can call “me,” which, of course, always fails. Moment to moment, it fails. This story about what I am, the story that entails and incorporates all of my emotions and feelings, unconscious urges, the things that I do in the world, the things that I have done, even the thoughts that come to my mind, this is an endless backbreaking doomed-to-failure effort to provide a structure, a face, a shape that is stable and safe, and that I can say, “That is me.” There are always these things about me popping up, that I have to say “It’s not me.” But that is the desire that drives it all and the culture is porous to this reality. It shows up all the time. “Be all that you can be.” “That is not who I am.” “Let me be who I am.” It is porous to the understanding of what is really driving us.

Even so, it’s very easy for people to pick up this non-spiritual theory and turn it into another spiritualised practice. I can see traces of it already, where people grab hold of key phrases and imbue them with significance that says implicitly “If I can just follow this practice, then I will be happy”. It’s entirely possible to fall into the trap of thinking “If I can only realise that happiness is not contingent on anything, then I’ll be happy!”

It helps that the guy putting forward this theory does not have the usual trappings of a guru or cult-leader. It’s very easy to not be invested in something I’ve just read on a website written by some American guy I’ll never meet.

Maybe that’s why it worked: there’s no implication that this “me” you need to look at is esoteric or religious or whatever. It’s just a psychological base that, when identified, provides stability and a frame of reference to undercut our hyperactive and otherwise all-absorbing emotional and cognitive states.

It’s like discovering that you don’t drink enough water…and then a bunch of other issues and behaviours turn out to be caused by moderate dehydration.

I would say that “fear of life” is likely derived from the sense that life’s fluidity and unexpected changes can profoundly effect us. The sense of “me” is like a built-in safety-mechanism that prevents us from being totally overwhelmed or overrun or changed. But like any safety-mechanism, it can’t reassure you if you don’t know it’s there.

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More to life

Melancholics are motivated by a sense that there must be more to life.

More than what is on offer, more than what is accepted within the range of ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ life.  For me this sense translated into a fascination with mysticism, and I spent my late teenage years and my early years at university reading every strange philosophical and esoteric religious text I could get my hands on.  I steadily worked my way through the relevant section of the university library: Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Daoism, Vedanta, Sikhism, Sufism, Christian mysticism – Orthodox, Catholic and Heterodox.

I was looking for something particular in each of these books, and found in them the outlines of a methodology or set of guidelines that promised – in varying terminology – a better way of being, a solution to life’s existential conflicts, and freedom from the oppressive weight of everyday reality.

These texts each pointed to an objective albeit transcendent reality;  something beyond mundane human experience, yet immanent everywhere just beneath the surface.

The consistent message of these various mystics is that this transcendent reality is more real, more true, than our daily lives, and that to find true virtue, peace, and happiness we ought to turn our attention to this transcendent reality and diminish our reliance on and preoccupation with mundane reality.

Ethics and morality fits into this schema largely because excessive desires for worldly things are incompatible with an appreciation for the transcendent reality.  At the same time, there is a salutary aspect to this transcendent reality, suggesting a relationship between it and a balanced, virtuous life.

But the problem with this transcendent reality is that it is, from a worldly perspective, utterly useless; more useless than the virtue with which it is associated; more useless than the sages, philosophers and saints who devoted themselves to it.  It is too great to be useful, too rich to meet any particular human need.  In that sense, you can get by without it. It won’t make you money, it won’t help you find food, it won’t convince others to lavish you with praise and adulation.

It is precisely because of its uselessness, its being beyond use, that it is worth attending to.  We cannot employ it for a purpose, in fact it takes away our purpose and makes our worldly aims seem utterly petty and trivial, yet because of this it is worthy to shape and develop us.  In a world that is overwhelmed with utility, purpose, and occupation, this transcendent reality seems as empty and clear as the sky.  That is why it ought to be our foundation and our goal, that is why it alone can be the burden that enlightens rather than weighing down.