In my last entry I described how emotional healing proceeds by means of Ten Steps Forward, Nine Steps Back. That essay grew out of my recent mood profile: for the last year or so I’ve enjoyed long stretches of expansive ease punctuated by short runs of contractive neurosis. During sunny times, I feel love for all beings and worry little about my personal fate. But during darker days, I hear myself recite a litany of self-focused woes.
It’s embarrassing to witness. After all, I’m capable of writing from a place that sounds centered and mature. Yet I’m also prone to obsessing about personal injuries, setbacks, and shortcomings. My lament always sounds more or less the same: so much has gone wrong in my life, happiness lies forever beyond reach. Yet this toxic mantra makes no sense, since when freed from the grip of self-concern, I’m pretty pleased with my time on this planet.
Well, I am now a few days out from the last contraction, and for some reason it seems more understandable to me than earlier episodes. It seems obvious that the entire problem is one of caring.
That sounds harsh, doesn’t it? I mean, isn’t it humane to care? After all, I recently launched a new website (MindfulBiology.org) to advance a program of compassionate tenderness toward the human body and the earth that gave it birth.
The issue comes down to what we choose to care about. Concern for one’s personal preferences leads to trouble; caring about other beings leads to health and freedom. If one desires liberation from distress, one must break free from caring about what the self craves, accumulates, or dislikes. The Buddha offers us a very clear description of the problem. As long as we construct our well-being on a foundation of personal gratification, personal aggrandizement, and personal protection, we are doomed to suffer.
Well, I don’t consider myself a Buddhist (I’ve learned from many traditions), but the man had a point. How could we hope to find lasting happiness through caring so much about pleasures that fade, attainments that get overshadowed, and safety that eludes? There is nothing durable in anything we can claim as personal. Not only that, but if we look closely we see that one being’s enjoyment often comes at the price of another’s suffering. For instance, if we ask how much misery our modern consuming lifestyle inflicts upon the earth’s non-human inhabitants, we are confronted with the obvious answer: quite a lot. Can we truly be happy knowing our entertainments are purchased at such cost?
All this is well-understood by those who read about mindfulness, attend meditation retreats, etc. I have known these facts for a long time. But knowing the truth conceptually and using it to release personal concerns are two very different things.
Yet right now, as I sit here, it seems like my personality is finally tired of playing the game.
It’s like facing up to a gambling addiction. One recognizes that a casino is designed in a specific way: if you place bets in it long enough, you lose. The odds are against you. There might be brief runs of success–the slot machine’s aces will line up from time to time. But the house always wins in the end.
Seeking satisfaction through self-focus is equally futile. The body ages. The ones we love disappoint us or die. Whatever we achieve gets forgotten or is used as the springboard for the next generation’s leap into the future, as we get left behind. We’re destined to feel wounded and bereft.
Or are we? In truth, these facts are only painful when viewed from a personal perspective. In the bigger picture, how can it matter if one body ages or another dies when new bodies are born all the time? And isn’t advancement a good thing, even if it means older generations grow obsolete? It’s only our own individual sense of affront that makes reality feel so punishing.
At the same time, one sees injustice and misery on all sides.
So what’s the answer? To attend to the happiness of others. To serve. This doesn’t mean one must move to Haiti and build dwellings, although it might. Good works are important, but salvation comes from recognizing common cause. By understanding life as a great unified mass, one finds equanimity.
Which brings us to one of the central points of my work on Mindful Biology: Life is the great equalizer: we are all equally embedded within its seething, growing form. No one is exempt from the rules of living, which impose loss and decay on us all, sooner or later. Our only hope is to accept evolution’s vast scope and momentum on its own thundering terms. With that opening to awe, we discover our true place in the world, where we are at once inconsequential and pivotal in life’s unceasing story.
This organic world has a way of working things out. It always has and it always will. There might be some big upheavals in the process–remember the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs? And yes, humanity appears to be heading toward some difficult times. But solving all of society’s problems is not our task, nor is it within our powers. We must only do our best, as the future finds its way. Some of us effect substantial change. Others simply disregard their own worries and preferences in order to focus on the needs of those nearby. Either way, we feel freer when we attend to the wellbeing of others rather than ourselves.
This doesn’t mean we don’t take care of our health. Despite the interconnection of brain and body, the human mind feels separate from the soma that gives it life. The body is in some sense ‘other,’ and as a living, sensitive organism is deserving of care. It enters our sphere of concern, but we don’t treat it as a possession. We minister to the body’s needs because it is part of the world, and it is the world (not ourselves) we do well to serve.
To paraphrase JFK: We quit asking Life: what can you do do for me? Instead, we inquire: what can I do for you? The answer to that second question will depend on our resources and capabilities. We need only do our part.
This is the key to ease. It sounds easy, but of course it’s not. Or at least it isn’t at first. But as we tire of entering the casino with full pockets and walking out drained, we begin to find our way. We realize that life is directing us, pain by pain, to downplay our personal concerns in favor of universal ones.
Emotional healing will continue to punctuate itself with collapse until the mind is ready, once and for all, to let go it’s petty obsessions with its own self-interests. The poor little thing can’t find satisfaction that way and yet keeps rolling the dice hoping its luck will change. In time, it begins to see that even a run of good fortune fails to satisfy, and it slowly accepts the fact of its own unimportance.
And with that surrender into insignificance, human consciousness at last approaches its great potential. It becomes a wise parent to the world, heedless of individual concern and committed to the common good. Ah, what a goal! How could we strive for anything less?
That’s how things look to me today, this moment. History has proven me capable of writing this way one week, only to cringe in frustration the next. But I feel more weary of the game than before, and more prepared to abandon my self-seeking. I am ready to cease caring so much about my personal preferences. I sense the ease relinquishment brings, and it leads me onward.