After years of being in the field of helping people and 32 years of human life experience (at least in this life), I have come to believe that there are 4 main pillars supporting the very painful, heavy load of human suffering.
I have written about failure before. We think in black and white terms of right vs wrong. Winning vs losing. We are social beings with an innate need to compare ourselves to others. Our happiness, misery, sense of self, sense of success, status, etc are relative to whom we compare ourselves to. We want to be on the “right side of things”. We want to be “winning” or associating with winners. No one wants to discover they are wrong. No one wants to come to the realization they are nothing but a loser. A quote from Gary North comes to mind “Do you really believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, plans to be a loser in history?”
We learn very early on that the more we win the more power we have. The more right we are the more in control we feel. And human beings fiend on power and control. We also learn that winning and losing is up to us as individuals. As Vince Lombardi puts it “All right Mister, let me tell you what winning means … you’re willing to go longer, work harder, give more than anyone else.” But what if you work harder, longer and sacrifice more than anyone else but are STILL losing? Well, then there must be something else wrong with you.
Isn’t this what the American dream was built on? And what predominates today’s political debate?
Let me ask you. What happens to you when you realize you are wrong? Do you have a hard time admitting you are wrong? Are you willing to change your mind if you have to sacrifice your Ego and admit that you have been wrong all along? Do you often feel right yet still going insane?
I have found that the way we treat others who disagree with us determines a lot of our suffering, on a personal, small scale AND on a larger world-wide scale.
Kathryn Schultz says that our attachment to being right leads to treating others, who disagree with us, badly. She talks about what happens when others disagree with us, by listing “a series of unfortunate assumptions”:
- We think they are ignorant: they don’t have all the information and we are quick to provide it to them thinking once they have the information they will change their minds.
- We think they are stupid: they have all the information but somehow can’t put it together.
And when we find out that people who disagree with us have all the information and are actually smart, we resort to the most dangerous assumption of all:
- We think they are evil: and they are deliberately distorting the truth for their own malevolent purposes
My client last night asked a very poignant question about this as she was trying to decide which category her father falls into.
“Do I have to put him in one of these categories?”
” Not if your purpose is to work on your relationship with him. But yes if your purpose is to prove you are right and winning.”
And I added
“What if you are both right and both wrong?”
Some days I struggle with this too. People who know me well describe me as stubborn and opinionated. One of them once got me this card that read “Let’s save us both some time and agree that I’m always right”. My need to be right has caused me a lot of anxiety, anger, resentment and a general sense of inadequacy and impending doom that is hard to shake off. But when I get in such a state of righteousness I resort to making fun of myself. Of how I use the words steal, still and stale inappropriately and misspell steak (stake) almost 100% of the time. And reminding myself of screwing up in one major area of my life with no clue of how to make it right…And I keep this quote on my desk “Charlie Brown is the one person I identify with. C.B. is such a loser. He wasn’t even the star of his own Halloween special. “ Chris Rock.
Fear is a natural emotion, which means it comes with our DNA and is not manufactured by society. This is because we need fear to survive. Without fear we wouldn’t be able to recognize danger and prepare to fight or flight. Without fear humans would not survive as a species or evolve. Fear lives in a very primitive part of our brain, the Amygdala. The Amygdala doesn’t care who you are, rich, poor, handsome, ugly, smart, dumb, winning, losing, aware or unaware. But it’s what saves us if we are faced with a tiger or a lion. When it senses danger it releases powerful neurotransmitters that sound the alarm in your frontal cortex (which is your thinking/feeling brain) hence initiating a chemical chain reaction in the body known as the fight or flight response. Your heart starts to beat fast as it pumps more blood in your extremities, legs and arms so you can fight or run. It takes blood away from your internal organs producing a “kicked in the stomach” sensation, it slows down digestion and other unnecessary functions for immediate survival. Adrenaline is pumped through your body transforming you into Hulk who can lift a car to save a life (true story). A powerful aggressive beast we become. Or a pathetic, helpless creature who runs or hides because he realizes the enemy is more powerful. When danger dissipates, the body feels relieved, relaxed and things go back to normal. So far so good.
We are complicated animals. In everyday life we can’t always tell who or what the tiger really is. What we fear, what sends our Amygdala into overdrive sometimes is something seemingly non-threatening like traffic, the news, people who are different from us, unexpected events, illness, our own bodies or minds, our life partner, our children, our parents, loss of control, change, a drink or a drug, the object of our desire, our fantasies, and so on. Why? We have learned to associate these things/people/events with threat, physical or emotional threat. And we prepare to fight. We get all worked up. Or run and hide often in our depression or addictions. For a moment there we start to feel safer and stronger by implying various techniques like avoidance, assertiveness, playing dead, running and hiding, fighting, arguing, punishing, lying…
But the sense of safety is fleeting at best. If these people/things/events are there to stay our Amygdala is continuously in overdrive and we live in a constant state of fear. You may try to think your fear through, argue with it, bully it, numb it, hide it. But none of these things will work. The only thing that will is breathing through it. It’s that simple.
When I first came to the U.S, I was 21 and had been on a plane once. A very small one. I had no idea what to expect from a 12 hour plane ride over the Atlantic. It was very scary. Airports were scary, unknown places. I once tried to go up a downward escalator and when I had to take a bus to my terminal I think I had a small panic attack. I remember forgetting to breathe. I have no idea how I got through the experience. But I didn’t stop.
So don’t stop to face the tiger. Walk right by it. And breathe.
So much of human suffering comes from grief and loss. Especially the unspoken, unrecognized loss we grieve in the loneliness of our heart and bones. No one has to die for us to grieve. We grieve all kinds of different losses, the loss of a partner, friend, house, job, money and other material things, the loss of health, our body or mind functions, the loss of freedom and control and so on.
But what we don’t realize is that there would be no grief without attachment. In psychology attachment is defined as a bond.
“The emotional bond that typically forms between infant and caregiver, usually a parent, not only stimulates brain growth but affects personality development and lifelong ability to form stable relationships. Neuroscientists now believe that attachment is such a primal need that there are networks of neurons in the brain dedicated to it, and the process of forming lasting bonds is powered in part by the hormone oxytocin.”
But I’m not talking about that kind of attachment, although I believe that a similar brain process may be at work in it’s formation. What I’m referring to here is something very, very different. What Buddhism defines as
Exaggerated not wanting to be separated from someone or something. (Exact opposite of Aversion) Because the label of “pleasant” is very relative and based upon limited information, Attachment includes an aspect of exaggeration or “projection”.
I think anyone can relate to this. I don’t need to describe it or explain it. If you’ve ever felt attached to anything or anyone you know how wonderful it feels to have them, the ecstasy, the happiness, the comfort, the sense of well-being and security. And you know how devastating it feels to lose them, the grief is crippling, you feel empty inside, all is dead and gone and there is no more beauty in the world. Because of the exaggeration innate in attachments we often feel ashamed, guilty, inadequate or weak for having them. And we often grieve in silence.
Your object of attachment determines your happiness. Or misery. If you are attached you are doomed to pain and misery because eventually everything dies and everyone leaves or changes. Don’t hold on. Recognize your attachments, tell them you love them and then let go.
I don’t mean the law of moral causation, “you get what you deserve”. Although that is somewhat implied. Karma is the “deed” or “action” that causes a whole cycle of cause and effect. I think of Karma as a pattern of repeating the same mistake over and over again. Doing the same thing over and over again although it leads to the exact same effect. If you have a victim life script going on for you “why does this always happen to me?” you may want to look at your Karma, you pattern of causality. Anyone who is addicted to something will understand this. You fall pray of the same old patterns and that determines your life story via a complicated vicious cycle of cause and effect.
If we were given a chance to live life over what would we do differently? It turns out, nothing. That is our Karma.
“My dear friend,” he says, “this trap is called life. . . . You must realize that you yourself can change nothing and that you must seek help. . . . And to live with this realization means to sacrifice something big for it. … A man can be given only what he can use; and he can use only that for which he has sacrificed something. . . . This is the law of human nature.” – The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin
But as Elizabeth Gilbert puts it “When the karma of a relationship is done, only love remains. It’s safe. Let go.”
The only way to stop Karma and get to love is to develop spirituality. I don’t mean religion. I mean the ability to get out of your head and see the big picture and realize that we are all connected. That the universe repeats itself just like we do. Karma is safe, you know the result before you start. We don’t mind bad Karma either, it’s predictable, it’s controllable. Without Karma we would feel out of control. We don’t like to try anything new and uncomfortable. It’s because we don’t realize that sometimes doing something new and different is more than just a scary experiment. Doing something new, as small and insignificant as it may seem at the moment, could be what breaks your Karmic pattern forever, what leads to a different effect which becomes the cause for something else greater than you, greater than before, greater than anyone could have ever imagined.
You are not alone. All is connected. All comes full circle.
Ultimately we can’t avoid suffering. Why would we want to? But there are four words I repeat to myself as a mantra when I am in pain, one for each pain God.