Off the Deep End
Have I gone off the deep end in writing about social mood and some of what has been going on in the world? Does any of this have any connection to the rest of my writings about personal and spiritual growth?
Some of you have criticized me for not writing “strictly” about what you see as personal or spiritual growth. My contention, however, is that everything I’ve written IS about personal and spiritual growth. (If you’re new here, welcome—and, please consider reading the entire archive of posts from the beginning—I know, it’s a lot. You’ll be glad you did.)
If you’ve read my three most recent posts, you know that I’ve suggested that social mood swings from positive to negative and back again in definable waves. (Google “socionomy” for more info, or read my posts.)
Around 2000, one of the largest waves of positive social mood in recorded history peaked. Since then we have entered a time of increasingly negative social mood. This negative social mood will be (and already has been) interrupted by shorter periods of temporarily more positive mood just as the positive social mood that began around the time of the American Revolution was interrupted by intervals of negative social mood. The American Civil War and depression and war of the 1930s and 1940s were such times, as was the strife and chaos of the 1970s.
During times of negative social mood certain unfortunate/unpleasant things tend to happen. These include:
Polarization between every social, racial, ethnic, political, gender, and national group.
Radicalization of political thought and action.
A decline in civilized behavior; an increase in rudeness, demonization, blaming, violence, and cruelty.
Less order, more chaos.
Increased fear, anger, confusion, discord, and destructiveness.
Avoidance of effort; a decline in motivation.
Increasing pessimism; a decline in optimism.
Less trust; more suspicion of others.
Increased belief in magic, lowered trust in science and rationality.
Increased authoritarianism and centralized control (including public requests for more of it).
A decrease in personal freedom.
Popularity of conspiracy theories.
Public demonstrations against almost everything—and an outcry for the authorities to “do something”.
Strange and destructive weather phenomena.
Increasing negativity in movies, art, music, and other expressions of pop culture.
A proliferation of scandals.
Demonization of those who were previously societal heroes (the successful, for instance).
Hero worshiping of outlaws, pirates, and gangsters in popular culture.
And a lot more.
Unless you live in a cave, you have to have noticed that these things are, indeed, already happening.
Eventually, of course, things will turn positive again. The studies I follow indicate, however, that the overall trend will be negative for quite some time, especially given that the previous wave of positive mood lasted more than 200 years.
Major times of negative social mood (and this looks to be the biggest so far since the 13th century) almost always end in major wars. For instance, the Panic of 1837 led to the American Civil War. The depression of the 1930s led to World War II. I could give many other examples, but a full discussion of social mood is not my intention in this post. For more information, read my last three posts.
So let me get to my point. Many have asked (often in a less-than polite way) why I’ve written about social mood and its many socio-political-economic consequences. It isn’t “spiritual”. It isn’t about “personal growth.” It seems “too political.” It’s “too negative”.
Is there a connection between this information about social mood and my usual topics of personal and spiritual growth? Do I have a political agenda? Am I being negative or increasing the negative mood by bringing up all of this?
Unfortunately, many people have what I think is a narrow view of spiritual and personal growth. I would contend that in a larger, “big picture” sense spirituality isn’t about finding God, being grateful, quieting the mind, raising your kundalini, jumping off the wheel of life and death, learning to be good, following rules a spiritual leader has laid down, and so forth.
All these things are fine, and many are good for you. I’m not against them. I’ve done them myself (and still do some of them). Let’s ask a bigger question, though: Why do human beings do such things? What is the purpose behind them, the motivation?
I think human beings do these things because they are caught in a very interesting situation over which they have little (and sometimes no) control.
Life contains many suffering-inducing double binds (in other words, “you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t”). One of those binds is that much of the juice of life is in being attached to something: people, situations, outcomes, possessions, and certainly to ourselves. Even a quest for God or enlightenment involves an attachment.
But to the degree you’re attached to something, you open yourself up to suffering. Why? Two reasons: 1) You often fail to get that to which you’re attached, and 2) Even if you get what you want, it is impermanent and eventually ends, falls apart, dies, etc. Of course this also applies to your most prized attachment, your own existence.
Because of this bind, we have to choose between being attached and the inevitable suffering it contains, or living a dry life without attachments (which probably isn’t really attainable, though some spiritual groups think it is). This, however, is itself a type of suffering. In other words, to put it bluntly, there is no escape from suffering.
Another double bind: We’re constantly told to do things, though effort, that have no value unless they happen without effort, naturally and spontaneously. You can’t decide love someone. You can’t decide to love God. You either do or you don’t. Love is something that happens spontaneously and naturally. Otherwise, it isn’t really love. You also can’t try to relax, go to sleep, be spontaneous, or be natural. These things either happen or they don’t. But we’ve been told to do these things and we experience a great deal of anxiety in trying to do what can happen, but cannot be accomplished through effort.
Then there is the fact that we are fragile. There are many ways we can be hurt, and without a certain mixture of gases to breathe, a certain temperature range, water and food, etc., we die.
And, of course, there is the fact that all those other people (and there are so many of them) just won’t do what you want them to do (I find this very frustrating, don’t you?).
Face it, life is full of problems, and they never stop. A fan once ran into Tom Hanks in an elevator and gushingly asked him “What’s it like at the top of the heap?” He replied, “Lady, wherever you are on the heap, it’s one thing after another.”
Don’t get me wrong. Life is also tremendously beautiful. It isn’t all problems. That’s not what I’m saying. But there isn’t a single person in this world who couldn’t tell you a tale of suffering and challenge. We’ve all been there. And, I can tell you, as I live my 63rd year, with an increasingly wider perspective of the entire span of life (which no doubt will seem partial to me in ten or twenty years, but is much wider than used to be), I am increasingly aware of the end of my existence coming over the horizon. This makes one, for want of a better word, quite thoughtful.
Some, of course, avoid thinking about any of this, as doing so gives us an uneasy feeling. I certainly didn’t think that much about this sort of thing when I was younger. Somehow, though, all thoughtful humans notice at some point that we’re all stuck in a pretty darned interesting (and often quite uncomfortable) situation.
When we’re young it doesn’t seem that bad, or that real. To the extent that it does seem bad, the young, especially, tend to believe those who say, “Don’t worry, there is a way out. You can find ‘salvation.’” (Keep looking.) Several times in my life I thought I’d “found it”, that I had the solution. It’s meditation! It’s Christianity! It’s not having a religion! It’s wealth! It’s power! It’s love! It’s rationality! It’s A Course in Miracles! It’s healthy eating! It’s Guru Suchabanana! It’s __________! (fill in the blank).
This is usually followed by: “If only other people could realize what I’ve realized! Why can’t they see it?” Always, though, what I thought was salvation eventually turned out to not quite be it.
So what is your current salvation? Have you had others you thought were real but turned to dust?
Something to think about, huh?
One thing I’ve tried to get across in my thirty-five or so years of teaching is that there is no ultimate salvation. There’s no escape from the human condition. The double bind is real. Yes, there are things you can do to make life better. You can mitigate the effects of the bind we’re all in. Ultimately, though, we’re stuck. If you eat right, exercise, meditate, accumulate money or power, be a good person, learn to control your mind, gather a lot of knowledge (plus several other things), yes, your life will be better. But you’ll still be subject to the vicissitudes of the human condition.
If you review centuries of writings of the wisest people in history, you’ll notice that much of it is about this very subject. Most philosophy, knowledge, science, religion, and art is either directly or indirectly about this fix we’re in.
So, what to do?
You may have heard the Zen advice about life: When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep. Or the more famous Zen phrase: Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. (Is this the same as “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”?)
These Zen masters are describing what they call ordinary mind, a result (partially) of realizing what I’ve described above. We’re caught in the human predicament, so what is there to do but live each day, do what you need to do, attend the needs of your body, and enjoy the ride?
Let me mention one other idea from Zen (I hate to put it that way, as Zen is not about ideas—it’s really my idea, as a result of Zen training—or maybe not enough Zen training). In Zen you do certain spiritual practices (though they don’t call them that) until, hopefully, you see that there is nothing to attain (though they don’t tell you that, and in most cases if you asked they wouldn’t admit that this is what is going on).
What’s more, it doesn’t matter if you know that there’s nothing to attain. Knowing isn’t helpful, any more than knowing about old age is the same as actually being old. You have to be experientially convinced that there’s nothing to attain, in your bones—convinced because you’ve tried EVERTHING, to the point where you really, really get it that there’s nothing to attain. Once that happens, the motivation to keep looking disappears (which isn’t the same as losing your motivation because you’re discouraged, or lazy, or you’re on to the next cool thing that caught your attention).
So, here we are, caught in the human condition—you, me, and everyone else. We’re each doing our best to deal with the dilemma we’re in. Some use this strategy, some use that strategy. Some (most) still think or hope that there’s a way out. Some are strongly convinced there’s a way out—and that they’ve found it.
And, some, like me, think it’s best to do what you can to make things better and to just chop wood and carry water (or make breakfast, go to work). And, of course, love the people in your life.
So, when I mention what’s happening in the human drama—including waves of social mood, positive or negative—to me it IS about spiritual and personal growth because it’s all about navigating our way, through our lives, in THIS world.
Yes, we can talk about enlightenment, getting rid of bad habits, getting the relationship of your dreams, being a success, or what happens when you get to Purification Level 3, etc., etc. Whatever you do, you still have to live in and deal with the real world.
And, quite frankly, I find that a lot of people who are interested in spiritual growth are really trying to escape from the real world, or avoid looking at it—especially when it’s in such a negative state. I understand that impulse, believe me. I DO watch what’s happening in the world, very carefully, in all its corrupt and crappy glory. Keeping an eye on what’s happening, especially as much as I do, requires a strong stomach. It’s very disheartening to see the basest qualities of human beings on full display. But that’s what happens in times of negative social mood.
And, I think it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better, as I’ve detailed in the previous three posts. In fact, I think a new wave of “worse” is commencing right now after an intervening period of slightly better positive social mood and a slight temporary increase in optimism over the last year.
And, I’m sorry, but I don’t agree that pointing this out creates more negativity. Social mood is a giant world-wide herd-instinct sort of thing. Believe me, if I had that much influence, I would wave my magic wand and change social mood to positive. The mood of society is beyond my control, or yours, and is driven by something much bigger than what you and I think about. I get it, though, that some of you don’t agree. With enough awareness I can create my own mood, and you could create yours, but I am not omnipotent enough to effect the big picture.
Am I being political? Probably. “Political” really means “about the people.” Is the current state of politics distasteful, corrupt, and negative? Yes it is. That’s what happens in times of negative social mood. Do I have a political point of view? Certainly. For the record, I am not in favor of centralized control. I think it robs us of freedom of choice, and ultimately destroys civilization. If you study history this becomes luminously clear.
You may think that if we only had more centralized control, from well-intentioned, good people, we could solve all our problems. You are welcome to your opinion, whatever it is. I see no evidence, however, that this has ever happened, or ever will. Good intentions, when forced on others, have terrible and unintended consequences.
Certain problems are inherent in the human condition. It’s a wonderful hope to think they will be solved. By all means, do whatever you can to make things better. I certainly have and will continue to do so myself. Ultimately, however, the problems of being human can’t be solved, only mitigated. You should be very skeptical of those who tempt you with, “Turn things over to me and everything will be fine.” There is no evidence that this has ever turned out well.
I think it’s important to know what’s happening in the world, as distasteful as it is (at least right now) to look at it, and to prepare yourself as best you can for whatever might happen. That means being prepared mentally, emotionally, and materially. If you lived in Europe in the 1930s, a warning to prepare might have saved your life. I don’t know exactly what is coming, but I don’t think it’s going to be pleasant, and I think it’s going to happen on a scale even larger than what happened in the 1930s and 1940s.
Some of you (probably most of you) would be well-served to learn a bit more about history, so as to see the patterns I’m seeing, and to realize what sorts of things happen at such times.
My purpose, then, is not to be negative, but to be realistic and to be as prepared as possible. Yes, it isn’t pleasant to look certain things in the eye, whether they’re inside you or outside of you. Doing so, however, is the essence of spiritual and personal growth. Ironically, only when you have looked the negative reality in the eye can you truly see the positive, the beauty, and the love all around you.
I hope you’re willing to look—and act. If not, good luck.
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