The need to make a change. The search to find ‘that thing’ which will really make the difference, giving my life purpose and meaning, has haunted me the whole of adult life. Coming home late, earning a wage just to live; It doesn’t, often, feel like enough. I remember cycling home late one night from the restaurant I was working at as a cook listening to Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the dark’. Every word, like balm, as it so perfectly confirmed my experience;
“I ain’t nothing but tired..ain’t nothing but tired and bored of myself..”
It was okay, at the start, when we were just setting up. The challenge of getting on in the world and standing on our own two feet excited us. But very quickly, once we’re up and pedalling we have this thought that we try not to let in, that we just might be pedalling for the rest of our life, at best, on the plateau, at worst, a lot of it up hill. We start thinking of solutions, to volunteer in Africa, train as a psychotherapist, or at very least change relationship or job.
In these times, where institutions we once believed in have been wholly discredited in the public eye, we are tasked with the responsibility to create our own sense of meaning and purpose. There are, now, no structures or systems of meaning from which to draw the necessary strength and inspiration to carry on trying to be the best we can. We are not so hemmed in anymore by power structures, we have greater freedom of autonomy, that can to be questioned. But, just what should we use it to do with ourselves?
We are now tasked with finding a reason for being the best version of ourselves we possibly can be. There is no ostensible encouragement currently from the outside to just try and be and live as decently as we know we could. I may be an optimist, or overtly a pragmatic rationalist in my feeling, but I get a sense we have an innate sense of dignity, basic decency, within the individual. But this needs to be endorsed, cultivated, indeed practiced at.
However, when nothing matters anymore, there’s nothing to believe in, why bother trying? This notion is confirmed everywhere we turn, most especially when we do make the effort. Forget a disillusionment with government and democracy, when even our smaller, everyday choices to do good seem to be constantly undermined. Buying an organic product, it turns out flown from Uganda and ends up potentially worse than one grown in greenhouses from the Netherlands. Drinking almond milk instead of cow’s milk feels good, until we find it’s causing draught and forest fires in California, who produce the highest proportion of the almonds grown worldwide.
The examples go on and on, we start to feel like there isn’t a choice that isn’t harming someone or something. The vegan shoes I was so proud of end up taking such a great amount of energy to produce from plastics.
Secondly, the notion of having faith in any ideal, whatsoever, now seem naive, vaguely embarrassing, outdated, even dogmatic and cultish. These days holding a considered opinion is quite often seen as a bad thing. Rather, we should have no point of view, all points of view being equal, to have ones’ own, and really believe it, is the exclusion and discrediting of someone else’s. in order to avoid being labelled narrow minded, or worse, we can only have an opinion as long as we don’t really believe in it.
Society sinks into the complacency of just living, getting by, so as not to offend anybody, or apparently deny their rights. I’m guessing, like me, this doesn’t feel good for most, but it’s a kind of numbness that is somehow easier to bear than the confusion of trying to figure out how best to act, and then cope with the fact that now people quite often react very harshly to an opinion or ideal, however, respectfully it’s presented.
The modern Western world accommodates and aids us with well in this somnambulism. The suffering of many is still very real, but, unless we do the mental leg work we never need come into full contact with it. It’s a parcel exchanged at your door, or a minute on the telephone or online. It’s not passing the leper on the streets anymore, it really takes joining the dots up. What we are missing is something to commit to, to believe in, to give us hope again and the motivation to keep trying to choose the better of the two choices.
A pragmatic and workable conclusion can still be found in the nature of developing and sustaining a daily practice. It’s been offered throughout the ages; in any culture we care to analyse, there is a personal voice, small as it may be, offering guidance on the task of how to relate to life with meaning and it always centres around a personal daily practice.
Exactly what it consists of, seems to matter less than that it entails the following attributes. First, that it occurs regularly, regardless of inclination and circumstance. The individual must practice, whether they feel like it or not, preferably at a similar time of day too. Second, it needs an element of ritual or repetition. There may be small variations, but essentially, consistency is key. Finally, more controversially, perhaps, it should have an element of relational respect, let’s say. In other words, devotion or faith are imperative to this process.
These qualities aid the individual in what is usually, rather sanctimoniously I feel, referred to as the process of ‘purification’. I will, for now, call it the effort at ‘seeing more clearly’. The aim of the practice is more concerned with a stripping away, than actively seeking to add beliefs, or further knowledge. After all, if confusion and doubt are essentially the problem, how could we be sure of the intention and goal of practice as we start out? In time, it becomes clearer, with the stable backdrop practice lends, what is and what is not an innate and intrinsic quality of what we are.
It is imperative that we get to see something behind the constant emotional turbulence and changing thoughts and opinions that we take to be our regular self. A quality unchanging, that is other than our most rudimentary operating system based as it is on attraction and aversion; getting more of what we want and avoiding what we didn’t, which is all that nowadays is acknowledged in our general game plans.
Practise prescribes that we commit to something outside of this, something we do for the sake of itself, regardless of whether we feel like it or not. It’s the same as true prayer, it’s not in the asking, the desire of a destination, that the culmination of practice take place. Instead, it’s in the doing, the discipline and devotion to something other than ourselves is liberating in a way that the relentless need to satisfy our passing inclinations keeps us enslaved to something other than ourselves.
Here we are learning to take back our very selves from the trap we’ve discovered we were born into. It is only by non-thinking, paradoxically, a diligent attempt at not trying we discover that we ourselves are the very reason for our discomfort. We have gone in building up so much excess baggage, we are encumbered but it from entering into an honest and present relationship with reality as it occurs moment to moment.
Practically, this consists of notions of who we are and what we need that create a hard and rigid shell around us. This leaves us unable to participate with a truly natural life that demands fluidity, having constant flux and change as its one given. We have, unknowingly, built up something against the grain of our very existence. Most usefully practice is characterised then, by an attempt at self-softening. The escape from a kind of self-assurance, which actually blocks us from the only living reality we can ever experience, which is a naked relationship with ourselves in relation to the outside world. A softening into more vulnerability, allowing more uncertainty, in fact, allowing more of the other person to actually touch us.
This is, a very risky proposition to take up, yet the only way we can escape our self-made isolation. We have spent all our lives creating a solid framework, a scaffolding around us out of the chaos which is primordial nature. We find we are imperilled between the opposing poles of rigidity and chaos.
One solution, then is to erect a temporary ‘holding structure’ in the commitment to repetition, or ritual which is practice. It’s absolutely critical we feel supported, as what we termed the process of ‘seeing clearly’, stripping away unnecessary and confusing appendages is a drastic destruction of everything which we previously took to be known.
The practice could then be a kind of dress rehearsal in propitious circumstances for the gradual ability for us to shed our suffocating costumes whilst at the same time not degenerating into absolute chaos and ensuing madness. However, ultimately, practice finally becomes constant and inseparable from the very daily living. Everything is subsumed into the continuous thread of practice. A giving away of ourselves to the only thing that will satisfy, so simple in itself, immediacy of experience.
But it is only in this extremely strenuous, sometimes frightening and painful endeavour, that we can thaw out our calcified sense of being to some kind of tenderness again. To get back to a living relationship with life isn’t such a small endeavour, but it’s the only way we will find any sense of meaning. As the problem is always us, not what is insufficient, deemed lacking on the outside.
The responsibility is ours, but the tools are there. As Aldus Huxley, the great 20th Century (Western) pioneer into further consciousness said;
‘When the doors of perception are cleansed, everything will appear to us as it is, infinite..’.