The Buddha never said, “Thou shalt” do this or not do that. His teachings were a series of suggestions, take it or leave it folks, don’t mind me. So he would say, “Do what makes you happy, avoid what makes you suffer,” without attaching any sanctions to non-compliance. As it happens, the sanctions apply themselves. In addition, it seems so obvious that it does not require any injunctions. And yet it is easier said than done, or everybody would be happy all the time.
One of the most reliable ways to promote your own happiness is to desist from wanting things you can’t have, or from desperately hanging on to temporary things. Clinging to, craving these things, together with the denial or withdrawal of these things, is a well-beaten path to great suffering. And everything that lives within the realm of time is by its very nature temporary. “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away”.[i] Of course there is another realm of timeless love, and it lives in the back of our heads somewhere, waiting for us to rejoin it.
Anita Moorjani,[ii] who had a near death experience (NDE), came back from a coma to tell us that in the ‘afterlife’ one becomes pure consciousness. She concluded that heaven actually happens on earth, whether we are aware of it or not. This aligns well with the Hindu notion that we are all God, disaggregated for the purposes of fun and games (‘play’ in its myriad meanings, including the play you see in the theatre).
But what about suffering? And why do people die ‘before their time’, having lived such inchoate lives? Having a somewhat limited perspective we might answer that suffering is sent to teach us something, it may for example be designed to instruct us that we are on the wrong path. A premature death is the ultimate signal that you have been on the wrong path. Or one has learnt everything that one needed to learn.
Perhaps when we send ourself from the realm of pure consciousness, we design a life path that has particular milestones, lessons and accomplishments. Our choices are ‘wrong’ when they do not accord with the goals we have set ourself, and our inner Self will disrupt the erroneous path.
As an example, I had taken a misguided vow to ‘serve the state’ at age 19 and to forsake all else. I could hardly have known what I was talking about. And yet, 19 years later, I was serving the state, forsaking all else. And then I received a gift from the universe in the form of a fist in the face, which woke me up, made me realise in an instant just how dispensable I was to the state, and that the path I was on was unsustainable or perhaps ‘not the right one’ anymore.
Combining a number of different wisdoms, we could consider the following: Be yourself. Love yourself. Forget yourself.
Be yourself, mainly because it is the easiest option. When we start to live in the world, we absorb the idea that we must be a certain way in order to gain approval, to be loved. To feel loved is an ordinary human desire, and a very powerful one, and we often change vast dimensions of ourselves in order to please others. This creates stress, because we are so often acting against our inclination, perhaps even against our deeply held beliefs.
Our beliefs can also be problematic, partly because we almost invariably inherited them from someone else. It possible or even likely that they are ‘bad programmes’[iii] that with a little effort can be shaken off. All the bad programmes, such as the inferiority of women or the wickedness of homosexuality, are unfortunately repeated and reinforced by people who have unthinkingly adopted them and unthinkingly propagate and enforce them.
We, like they, come to associate these beliefs with ourselves, we identify with them, feel that they are somehow an intrinsic part of us and who we are. But we are just like a smartphone that has been loaded with Apps; the phone exists regardless and does not require any Apps to receive calls. We might usefully reflect on what our bad programmes may be – generally anything that denigrates us at the instance of others – and consciously to shed them, just let them go.[iv]
“I am no good at drawing” may have come from a scarring moment with your Grade 2 teacher, who said something contemptuous or dismissive in passing about your artwork, puncturing your confidence and effectively dissuading you from expressing yourself in that way again, not to mention saying over and over in different situations that “I am no good at drawing” until it becomes part of your identity.
Such bad programmes do not have to run forever. You can simply move them to the trash. And get out paper and a pencil and draw. Because we are all creative, not just artists and poets. Giving time and attention to your own creativity is one of the traits of a person who is living life “wholeheartedly”, to use Brené Brown’s expression.[v]
It’s sometimes hard to be yourself, but it is still the best option, because to the extent that you are not, your inner Self will bite you in the bum. You will also be pulled up by your ego’s dark side, which Jung calls the shadow, those things about you that you would rather keep hidden, nasty habits and anti-social tendencies. The trick about these is to be aware of them, then you can manage them better. If you have repressed them, projected them or run away from them, they will take you by surprise and embarrass you in the most unpleasant ways. Don’t hide them in the cupboard, don’t necessarily advertise them either, just accept them as you do the rest of yourself, be aware of them and manage them creatively.
The main wisdom about loving yourself is that you can’t love anyone else an iota more than you love yourself. Self-love and self-care are not selfish, but the best things that you can do for yourself and everyone else. There is often a misperception that the ego is a bad thing, that we must curb it or transcend it. Transcending it is something we can leave for the other realm, but in this world we need our ego to function normally – if by your passivity you ask to be trampled over, the world will happily oblige, because it’s the easiest thing for the world to do, the path of least resistance. Similarly when you have a poor self-image and constantly talk yourself down, it is easiest for everyone simply to take you at your word.
Love yourself abundantly. Invariably your parents’ love will be conditional, and to learn to love others unconditionally we must begin by loving ourselves. I am convinced now that unconditional love, which asks nothing in return, is the only kind of love, and we are only being truly loving when we give in a natural flow of love that does not seek a reward of any kind. I am also convinced that this is our natural, original state, that the Self is timeless and loving. The ego is super-imposed to kit us out to ‘play’ the game of life.
According to Anita Moorjani,[vi] when we die we become complete awareness, and when we are born we have awareness and ego ‘knobs’ both turned up. The awareness knob (and the ego knob to an extent) get turned down by bad programmes and other ways in which the world’s expectations impact on us. So we shouldn’t throw the ego out entirely, but we should consider ways of keeping our awareness knob turned up as well. Your ego and its shadow can both be unruly if you’re not aware of them. Your inner Self, the final arbiter, will continue to point you in the right direction, if only you would listen to it.
How do you listen to your inner Self? For one thing if you are in a mad dash you are not listening to anything, instead you need some peace and quiet, but it doesn’t need to be three weeks of silence in a monastic retreat. A few minutes first thing in the morning, or at any other time, will help you get in touch with yourself. I am advocating meditation without being a practitioner myself, as I experience times of peace and quiet principally as loneliness, and avoid them as far as possible. However, yoga is a form of meditation that offers me the right mix of exercise and calming of the mind and soothing of the soul.
‘Forgetting yourself’ I borrow from Dōgen Zenji, a 13th century Zen Buddhist priest, who said “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualised by myriad things. When actualised by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the minds and bodies of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”[vii]
The best-expressed contemporary example I have come across is from Michel Houellebecq:
“Since Duchamp, the artist no longer contents himself with putting forward a world view, he seeks to create his own world; he is very precisely the rival of God. I am God in my basement. I have chosen a small, easy world where you only encounter happiness. I am perfectly conscious of the regressive nature of my work; I know that it can be compared to the attitude of adolescents who, instead of confronting the problems of adolescence, dive headfirst into their stamp collection, their herbarium or whatever other glittering, limited, multicoloured little world they choose.”[viii]
Forget yourself. Whatever absorbs us, makes us forget time and space, helps us be fully in the moment, worrying neither about past or future, and focused on a particular task, which is often creative. If you are lucky, you will feel a desire for both indoor and outdoor pastimes, because one can do too much of the former. Wide open spaces, mountains and the sea have a way of opening our minds and hearts to the possibilities that life has to offer, and to process every day issues, sometimes to resolve them, allowing us to emerge from our reverie with a clear idea regarding ways in which to take certain situations forward and a firm resolution to desist from others.
If you can be yourself and love yourself and forget yourself in the world, you have a better chance at happiness. But there may be many obstacles: discrimination, prejudice, intolerance are unfortunately always with us. In effect, people projecting their own shadow. Such sentiments in yourself and in others are simply bad programmes. If you believe in God, that is your affair, but if you say your God has a view on the way in which I should behave, I have a problem with that. There is great wisdom in tolerance – at the very least it improves your chances of others being tolerant of your foibles. Tolerance is promoted by a universal respect for certain guaranteed human rights and freedoms, in particular the right to equality.
It is precisely where some people become more equal than others that societies begin to go wrong. There have been elites as long as there have been societies, and they have always been more insulated from the slings and arrows than the rest of us, but if there is a sense that the elite is a law unto itself, that it feels no obligation to obey the laws applicable to the rest of us, it may prompt the ordinary people to seek redress for the injustice. When the elite retaliates, the society potentially becomes totalitarian. Is America heading in that direction? Certainly National Socialist and Communist leaders made that mistake, with awful consequences. Empires down the centuries have become corrupt and degenerate.
Another important way in which a society can go wrong is by preventing freedom of expression through repressive laws. As soon as people are told ‘what to think’, as soon as they must nod at a fool and bow to a buffoon, they must surely be under a great deal of stress. Can you imagine, standing in endless lines, parading with pink pom-poms, smiling and waving, knowing that your sisters and nephews are being tortured and killed by the state. Societies that have been extremely successful in the world have had milder forms of this. One should insist on being able to say what is on your mind, to think your own thoughts, to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.[ix]
Religions and ideologies that would tell us who we ought to be, what we ought to feel and say, that treat human beings differently, based on belief, gender, class, race, sexual orientation, or whatever ‘otherness’, must be resisted. Be yourself, love yourself and forget yourself – to exercise these capabilities should not be regarded as a luxury, but a basic human right.
[i] “Time, like an ever rolling stream, / Bears all its sons away; / They fly, forgotten, as a dream /
Dies at the opening day.” From “Our God in Ages Past”, by Isaac Watts.
[ii] Author of Dying to be Me, 2012 and What If This Is Heaven?, 2016
[iii] One of many useful ideas contained in David R Hawkins, Letting Go: The Pathway of Surrender, 2014, which I downloaded from audible.co.uk.
[v] Brené Brown, The Power of Vulnerability, 2013, downloaded from audible.co.uk.
[vi] What If This Is Heaven?, 2016, downloaded from audible.co.uk.
[vii] http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/397181-to-study-the-buddha-way-is-to-study-the-self. I encountered this Dōgen Zenji quote in David Whyte’s Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Love and the Self, which I downloaded from audible.co.uk (and acquired hardcopy, Riverhead Books, 2009).
[viii] Michel Houellebecq, The Possibility of an Island, 2005, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, translation by Gavin Bowd.