Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
In this society, we are raised to make our way in the world. We learn to socialize, produce, and reproduce in culturally lauded ways. While there’s no doubt these tasks are important, we are seldom encouraged to examine what the conventional approach promises and whether or not it delivers. We are offered this formula: build a good life so you will feel good. But does it work?
More and more, I’m realizing the strategy is flawed. Although pleasures are many, so are displeasures. We win the promotion but lose the girl. We buy a nice car, but our house burns down. We travel to exotic locales, but obsess about problems at home. Building a good life doesn’t create security; it may stack the deck so we enjoy some good hands in life’s casino, but loss, illness, and death remain inevitable.
The jaggedness of our human terrain is familiar, and society-at-large insists we have but one option: strive toward the peaks and hope to avoid the chasms. But believing this our sole hope depends on the implicit assumption that inner feelings must inevitably track outer topography, so as life goes well or poorly, in lockstep we feel well or poorly. In my experience, bad times have–rather reliably–caused bad feelings, but good times haven’t always engendered good ones. What’s more, as I’ve grown adept at managing my mind, it has proven possible to feel rather well despite discouraging circumstances. So the widespread belief that outer conditions construct inner feelings appears mistaken.
Of course, meditative traditions of the East and contemplative ones of the West provide an alternate perspective. Wisdom practice trains us to feel less enslaved by circumstance and more empowered to take charge of our minds. We need not, it turns out, feel devastated by loss and elated by gain. It is possible to travel life’s hilly ways with equanimity.
Note that even as wisdom traditions call us to find solace inside, they also encourage us to behave helpfully and ethically outside. We might retire for long periods to develop our mental capacities, to build steadiness and faith, but sooner or later we return to teach, assist, or reform. Otherwise, we have merely escaped the growling chaos of conventional experience; we haven’t transcended it. So it isn’t about turning our backs on conventional life; rather, we live within the workaday world but relate to it differently.
My ability to remain steady–independent of circumstance–is increasing month-by-month. Although I suffered a brief (but intense) collapse two weeks ago, I learned from it. As the last post implied, I came out of that crevasse more convinced than ever that my best chance for happiness depends on my progress along wisdom paths, particularly the one mapped by Buddhism but with shadings from Yogic, Christian, and Taoist traditions. This doesn’t mean I believe the freeway of conventionality to be evil (though it paves over much beauty on this earth), but I am certain it will never lead me to peace. To find ease of mind, I must follow an offramp to the road less traveled.
What are the steps on this less trammeled path?
- First: learn to both tune and befriend consciousness. I’m finding it ever easier to adjust my levels of anxiety, sorrow, and longing. When I notice that my feeling state is agitated by fear, grief, or desire, I deliberately turn the dial toward neutrality. And if some of the angst remains, I do my best to experience it with an open heart.
There are a number of ways to tune mental tone, but the most obvious is to use imagination. Just thinking of a beautiful landscape or a beloved friend or pet can feel settling. The richer the image we develop, the more grounded and peaceful we feel. With practice, tuning experience becomes rather easy. These days, I can simply decide to settle my mind, and after a few slow breaths, it settles.
The capacity to accept, without resistance, whatever discomfort remains can be developed through mindfulness meditation. Since so much instruction in mindful practice is available, it seems superfluous to go into detail here. Let’s just stipulate that it works.
You might wonder: if it’s possible to generate neutral feelings, can we generate ecstatic ones? It certainly can be done, and sometimes that feels helpful. I’m learning, however, that a state of ecstasy feels less necessary as I feel more contented. The desire for rapture is born from dread of its opposite: the less dread, the less desire. Further, wanting rapture perpetuates the cycle of anxiety, longing, frustration, and lament.
- Second: enlarge your perspective. One of the surest methods for sidestepping angst is to focus on the Big Picture. We are products of long histories, both evolutionary and cultural. The prior two essays on this site discuss how genetic and historical factors determine our behaviors, and how we are offered only occasional choice points. Plus, even when we seem to make decisions, our selections remain strongly conditioned. Contrary to widespread belief, life trajectories are not constructed by personalities; they’re imposed by history and circumstance. Rather than individuals acting in the world, humans look more like world processes proffering illusions of individuality. Recognizing this, we feel less judgmental of ourselves and others.
We can also consider that multicellular life has been evolving for hundreds of millions of years in a cosmos that’s been expanding for billions. The scale of the universe truly defies visualization. No matter how tiny you imagine yourself in the face of that expanse, you’re tinier. It simply isn’t possible to grasp the full scope of our situation. But it seems obvious that our individuality must be less important than we imagine, adrift as we are in all that space. Hardly more secure than our ancestors on some forgotten African Landscape, five thousand generations ago, we do well to huddle together for warmth and support.
What’s more, suffering is all around us. We aren’t alone in our pain. Many people are struggling, and it’s likely that our situation, however bad, would be preferred by someone, somewhere, who lives in worse circumstances.
Enlarging the perspective in all these ways tends to keep us from contracting in our loneliness, grief, and worry. We feel less guilty, less serious, and less alone.
- Third: help other beings. Note that the term ‘other beings’ actually includes one’s own body and mind. After all, we routinely judge the soma and psyche as if we stand apart from them. We bemoan bodily ‘defects’ and berate ourselves for past ‘mistakes.’ If it makes sense to criticize the the body-mind complex as other, then it is equally (or more) sensible to help this other by eating well, exercising, and meditating. But just as it would be unwise to devote all our efforts to helping only one family member, it is not optimal to focus on personal bodily and mental wellbeing without also also nurturing the wellbeing of those around us.
At the same time, people differ in their capacities. If we’ve been badly traumatized, we may feel so exhausted that we are able to do only a bit, here and there, to help out. Maybe watering houseplants and feeding pets is all we can manage. That’s okay. There’s nothing to be gained by judging our limitations harshly. Yet as we spend more time situated in a broad outlook, with affective tone tuned toward neutrality, we waste less energy climbing up and down emotional hills. This frees up resources that can be used to assist others; we gradually–and automatically–take on more.
In many of my writings I’ve made the point that transcendent states of consciousness tend to be flavored with three qualities: Rightness, Unity, and Love.
- The sense of Rightness is expressed by this line of The Desiderata: “Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the Universe is unfolding as it should.” Neutrality, the first step listed above, is a natural outgrowth. Why get entangled in rises and falls, pleasures and pains, gains and losses, etc., when these are small and transient fluctuations on the surface of a thriving ocean of life? Rightness gives us license to tune our consciousness independent of externals.
- Unity is obvious from many perspectives, not least the scientific. Considering the broad perspective outlined above, it seems obvious that we are not isolated individuals in any meaningful sense. We arise from the whole and we return to it; what’s more, our life story isn’t our own, but is merely a subplot in a much larger tome written by forces beyond our control. Whether we see those forces as blind contingencies or guiding hands is irrelevant.
- Helpfulness grows organically from Love, which rises automatically from the sense of unity. If we recognize the dilemma faced by other beings, their vulnerability and suffering, connection with all other beings, we feel called to altruism. What’s more, the quality of choosing to assist drops away; we do so without deliberation, without striving (provided we don’t force our system beyond its capacities).
Thus, the three steps to ease follow directly from the three qualities of elevated states of awareness. Those higher states, in turn, blossom (in varying profusion) inside any mind that chooses to move toward freedom while abandoning self-seeking. It’s a healthful positive feedback cycle that leads to fulfillment. All we need do is quit judging, grasping, and resisting while simply living with openness and curiosity. Of course, this is easier said than done. But it is possible, and the wisdom traditions (including some recently devised Western psychologies) offer advice on how to proceed. We can take heart and follow the reliable trails they have mapped.