What if there’s nothing you can do to change yourself?
Almost everybody is looking for some sort of help. Let’s face it, being a person isn’t easy. There’s plenty that can go wrong. You can get sick, or injured. You can fail to make (or keep) friends and end up feeling lonely. You can make a mistake and lose money, or not make any in the first place. No matter who you are, you’re going to feel bad at least some of the time. Sometimes you have to put up with people who are annoying or hostile and who certainly don’t have your best interests at heart. You try to get what you want, but sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you get what you don’t want. And even if you get what you want, you can lose it, it changes, or it falls apart. Or, you consume it and it’s gone.
I’m not saying that life doesn’t have its joys, because it does, but everyone at some time feels helpless, alone, and confused in an unpredictable world with a lot of problems and plenty of suffering. We wonder, then, what we can do about this Problem of Life?–which, to make matters worse, includes death, since the fact that we’re going to eventually fall apart is inevitable, not only for ourselves but for those we love.
So what are we going to do? Is there any way to master this situation?
Well, there are a number of ways people try to escape from this human predicament–that of being a lonely, isolated separate self in an unpredictable world full of problems and suffering.
You could try to beat the game on a material basis by becoming wealthy or powerful. As they say, “It’s easier to be rich and miserable than poor and miserable–at least you can arrive at your problems in style.”
Or, we can resort to technology to make life easier. We can take advantage of labor-saving devices, medical miracles, and so forth, to reduce our suffering and at least put off the inevitability of death and sickness. In that sense we’re certainly better off than people were a hundred hears ago, or a thousand years ago.
Even if we do succeed in accumulating money or power, or when we take advantage of modern medicine or use technology to make life easier, we still aren’t satisfied. If you increase your income, for instance, you feel better for a few weeks or months, perhaps, but then (as you know if this has happened to you) the feeling wears off. You may stop worrying about paying your debts but you may start worrying about getting sick. If you get a better car, it’s fun for a while, but pretty soon it’s just transportation, and you instead worry about repair bills, the cost of gasoline, or something else.
In fact, if you solve any particular problem or challenge, it’s soon replaced by another one. Have you noticed that? There’s always something to worry about. If you’re wealthy or powerful you still worry about sickness and death, but you might also worry about revolution or financial collapse (which seems to be more than just a worry right now), and whether the IRS will catch you cheating on your taxes and take away your wealth. Or, you worry that somehow, through some sort of ill luck, the authorities will put you in prison for no reason. You can always find something to worry about regarding your health, your relationships, your children, your parents, your money–or something.
So, eventually, if you really go into this, you start to think that maybe your problem isn’t in your external situation, since you find yourself worrying no matter what that is, and you begin to suspect that your problem might be something in you. Maybe you could stop all this worrying if you learned to control your mind. You decide to “think positive thoughts,” to “be peaceful”–as Alan Watts once said, “To breathe slowly and hum gently,” and get yourself into a peaceful state of mind. There is an entire culture today (what most people would call the New Age culture) that assumes that positive thinking and controlling your mind is the solution to your problems.
But as anyone who has tried this knows, it doesn’t always work, because you still have this nagging feeling in the back of your mind that you’re just whistling in the dark. While you’re thinking positive thoughts, a part of you is still asking, “What if this happens? What if that happens?” I get many letters from people who wonder why their life is still full of problems even though they are spending time visualizing what they want, saying affirmations, and “putting it [what they want] out to the universe.”
After a while you realize that soothing your troubled mind is no easy undertaking. At least part of the problem, you discover, is that underneath the conscious part of your mind is a lot of unconscious stuff that affects you by coming out in unpredictable and uninvited ways. What are you going to do about that?
So, you look into various approaches for sorting out the unconscious–psychoanalysis, for instance, or getting involved with some sort of spiritual teacher. In other words, you look for someone who can act as a mirror for those unconscious aspects of yourself that you can’t otherwise get at.
Now we’re getting somewhere, you think. But as you go into becoming aware of and changing the unconscious, at some point you begin to realize that this process of getting at yourself, of improving yourself, of changing yourself, is very much like trying to bite your own teeth, or look into your own eyes, or taste your own tongue. In a very real sense you’re trying to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.
Let me put it this way: if you’re the one who needs improvement, you’re also the one who’s going to have to make it happen, and how are you going to do that? Even with the help of a teacher, it’s you who’ll have to implement his or her instructions and suggestions, and if you’re messed up in some way, how will you do that? I go into this problem quite deeply in my second online course. (I encourage you to take these online courses, which I call my Life Principles Integration Process. You can take a free preview lesson at www.centerpointe.com/life/preview.)
But I digress. This problem–how to change yourself when the one needing the change is also the one who must bring it about–has been around for thousands of years. The problem could be stated in this way: can change really be self-generated, or–as some religions say–is it a matter of grace? There are adherents to both points of view.
Grace is supposedly freely offered to all, but some people seem to “get it” while others don’t. Why is that, you wonder? Perhaps some people resist grace. The question becomes, then, “How do I get grace? And, if I’m resisting grace, how do I stop doing that?” If, however, there was some method you could follow in order to experience grace, or to stop resisting it, it wouldn’t be grace.
Certain things in life are innately spontaneous, by definition. It’s like saying to someone, “You MUST relax. You MUST be peaceful.” Relaxing, or being peaceful, by definition, can’t happen by force of will. Exerting your will is the opposite of relaxing or being peaceful. Or, someone might say to you, “Please be spontaneous. Be totally un-self-conscious, right now.” But how can you intend to be spontaneous?
So let’s take this a little further. Can you intend to love someone? Love, if it’s really love, is a spontaneous happening. In fact, many, if not all, highly valued human sentiments are real and valuable only if they happen without intention, without will. Being spontaneous, loving, or relaxed either happen or they don’t. One of the reasons we’re so charmed by children is that, up to a certain age at least, they are spontaneous and un-self-conscious.
So changing yourself is a lot like trying to do something that only has value if it happens without trying. It’s like the old joke: sincerity is the most important thing, and once you can fake that you’ve got it made.
Everyone has had the experience of wanting to be a certain way but somehow being unable to pull it off. “I try to be kind, but I get angry anyway.” “I try to motivate myself, but I end up playing video games instead.” “I want to feel close to my children, but for some reason I just don’t feel it a lot of the time.”
So what do we do? If the changer is the one who must be changed, we end up chasing our own tail. So who changes the changer? This has been the unacknowledged elephant in the room in spiritual and personal growth for several thousand years. And, it’s been a problem for such a long time because it’s an insoluble problem, along the same lines as “Who guards the guards?” or “Who governs the government?”
In some types of yoga, Eastern philosophy, or New Age thinking, this problem is approached by saying that there is a lower self, often called the ego, and a higher, or spiritual, self. The job of the higher self, then, is to transform the lower self. Sometimes this transformation happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. So, we wonder, why do some people’s higher selves fail to get through to their naughty lower selves? Are some peoples’ lower selves too strong? If so, who will weaken these too-strong lower selves? Or, maybe it’s that some peoples’ higher selves are too weak, and again we can ask, who will strengthen them? This has been a problem of spiritual awakening and self improvement since time immemorial.
So, here we are, trying to get better, seeking the positive, the good, and the desirable in ourselves, and trying to get away from the negative, the evil, and the undesirable. (And, since I’ve written about this extensively in other posts, I’m not even going to get into the fact that good and evil, positive and negative, desirable and undesirable are all mental, not real, distinctions–which means they aren’t intrinsic to the things and situations we assign them to–and each side of these polarities only makes sense in terms of each other. What’s more, it’s impossible to get rid of one side of the polarity–for instance, get rid of “bad”–without getting rid of the other side.)
Let me approach this problem in still another way. You meet a Buddhist teacher, and he tells you about Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. The first Noble Truth is that all life is suffering. This is really what I was describing in the beginning of this article. Life is full of frustrations and problems, and even if we solve some of them, others pop up to take their place. We get what we don’t want, we don’t get what we do want, and even if we get what we want it eventually goes away or falls apart.
The second Noble Truth is that this suffering, this chronic frustration, is caused by clinging, or desire. And, the third Noble Truth is that suffering can be ended by giving up desire. (The fourth is the Buddhist method, which I’m going to skip for now.) So the teacher tells you to work on giving up your desires. Do that and you’ll end your suffering and your frustrations about life.
So, you go off to work on ending desire. When later on the teacher asks you how it’s going you tell him that getting rid of desire is turning out to be more difficult than you thought. Then the teacher really throws you a curve. “I’m just curious,” he says. “Isn’t your wanting to get rid of desire another desire?”
Uh oh. Now what? How do you get rid of desire when wanting to get rid of it is just another desire? This is just like trying to be spontaneous on command, or willing yourself to love someone–or, trying to change yourself. It’s also like trying to get good to win over evil, heads to win over tails, or desirable to win over undesirable–or to get any side of a polarity to win over the other side.
These are examples of the double-bind of life, my friends, and what are we going to do about it? No matter where you turn, it seems that when you really get down to it, there’s nothing you can do! I once heard Alan Watts describe this dilemma by saying, “It’s as if someone put molasses in one of your hands and feathers in the other, clapped them together, and then said, ‘Now, pick off the feathers.'”
“So, Bill,” you say, “are you telling me that there’s nothing I can do to change myself or improve myself? That’s pretty negative. Maybe I’ll just go to someone who’ll be more encouraging.”
But I’m here to tell you that it’s not negative, and you don’t need to be discouraged by it. And, of course you’re welcome to go to someone who will tell you what you want to hear. In fact, you probably will, until you’ve exhausted every possibility. By going into this, I’m trying to save you the trouble of doing that.
I described the problem: We suffer, we worry, we get old, we die. I described some of the ways we try to solve the problem: We try to solve it on the material level, with money, power, or technology. When that doesn’t really solve the problem, we try to control our mind in order to stop worrying about everything. But that doesn’t always work, either, so we try to get at the unconscious part of us, hoping that if we fix that we’ll be okay.
Finally we begin to realize that our biggest problem is that the one who is trying to fix things needs fixing, and that this is a real bind. We’re trapped, like a stupid person trying to teach himself how to be smart.
So this sounds pretty discouraging. There’s nothing you can do to change yourself. But, you see, this doesn’t mean that change can’t happen. Change obviously happens all the time–all you have to do is look around. It does, however, mean that you can’t bring it about.
So why is this true? The reason YOU can’t change yourself is that YOU don’t exist. “You” is an idea, a concept, an abstraction–despite the feeling we have that there is a “you”–and just as “3” (another concept) can’t do anything, or the border between the US and Canada can’t do anything, “you” can’t doing anything.
You could say it this way: doing happens, but there is no doer, or at least no individual doer. The real doer is the whole, the entire going on of it all. It just seems as if there are lots of separate doers who could take independent action (action independent of the infinite matrix of connections that include the whole) and therefore change themselves. The separate self is just a way of thinking, not a solid reality–in the same way that the border between the US and Canada is a way of thinking, but not a tangible, real line. It’s just that we are so used to this way of thinking that independent separate things and doers seem incredibly real.
But here’s the most amazing thing about all of this: the fact that you can’t do anything is GOOD news, not bad. The truth is that the realization that what you thought was “you” is a hallucination–and therefore can’t do anything–creates incredible freedom and peace. That realization is the spiritual awakening everyone is searching for–except that when it happens, part of the realization is that there’s no separate self there to have it!
Thinking about this idea that there’s no separate doer gives us a weird feeling. “What do you mean, there’s no me? I can feel it!” But the existence of a separate self is completely unsupported by the facts of nature. Not only is there no separate you, there’s no separate anything. Nothing has any separate essence, by itself.
Why am I making this outrageous assertion? What do I mean?
If you really look around, you can see that nothing exists separately. Everything exists in relation to its environment, and you can’t describe a thing unless you also describe its environment. Bees need flowers, and flowers need bees. They’re really one interconnected system. And both of them need a certain kind of atmosphere containing certain gases. They also need certain minerals and microorganisms in the soil. They also need a certain temperature, caused by being a certain distance from a certain kind of star, in a certain kind of galaxy, in a certain kind of universe. And, pretty soon you realize that to adequately describe a flower or a bee, you’ve included EVERYTHING.
There really is no way to describe anything, including yourself, without describing, at the same time, the environment. And all of these aspects of the environment act together, as a unit, in the same way that all the water molecules in a river flow together, or all the parts of a mobile hanging above a child’s crib move in response whenever one of the parts is touched.
There’s no getting around it: everything is connected. Nothing exists in isolation. Everything, taken together, constitutes what scientists would call a unified field, an integrated, interconnected system. In Chinese thought they would say that the universe behaves as a single organism. The truth is that you go with your environment in the same way that your head goes with your body.
Most people, though, don’t see themselves this way–or rather, they don’t feel themselves this way. Most of us feel separate from the world. We feel at odds with the environment, and think we have to conquer it or control it in some way. The poet A.E. Houseman described it this way: “I, a stranger and afraid, in a world I never made.”
We say that we “came into the world,” as if we were that stranger, popped into an alien world, when really, if you think about it, people come out of the world, in the same way that apples come out of apple trees. We’re an expression of the universe, and therefore a part of it. In fact, not only is everything an expression of the universe, it’s also true that everything depends upon everything else. The entire universe depends upon you. Even before you were born, the universe depended upon the fact that you would someday be here, and after you’re gone, it will still depend upon the fact that you once were here.
Given that everything is really one thing, one process, “you” is just a way of thinking. And it’s a way of thinking we’re so familiar with that if feels strange to contemplate that it’s nothing more than that, but still, “you” is an idea. And, like all ideas, it can’t do anything. The universe is flowing along, changing all the time, and many of these changes seem as if “you” are initiating them, but this is an illusion created by identification with the mind.
So a great part of the reason we don’t feel that it’s all one thing is that we experience the universe to a large degree through our rational mind. That mind, though, is very limited in the way it perceives things. Our linear mind is a kind of scanning device, where we tend to look at things in lines (which is why they call it the linear mind), one part at a time, kind of like moving the beam of a flashlight around a darkened room, where we see one part of the room at a time. This is why it takes so long to “become educated”–we have to scan miles and miles of lines of information, which takes years.
But the world doesn’t come at us in lines, one thing at a time. It comes at us all at once in a multi-dimensional way. Our limited minds, though, can’t take all of this in, so we bite off one piece at a time (or, at most, a few pieces) and in doing so we find it difficult to see how everything goes together. (There is another part of the mind that does this, but it is obscured by the linear mind until something happens that gets the linear mind out of the way.)
This failure to see how everything goes together makes different aspects of the whole appear to be separate items, with their own individual essence, when in truth they all go together, in the same way that up and down go together, or two ends of a stick go together.
Then, seeing ourselves as one of those separate items, we feel, as Houseman said, “A stranger and afraid, in a world I never made.” In this kind of world (a product of the mind dividing everything into separate things and events) it’s difficult to relax. It’s difficult to feel at peace.
When your perspective shifts, however, to one where you see how everything goes together, everything changes (notice that I didn’t say, “When you shift your perspective.”). From this new perspective, this new way of looking, you feel integrated with the rest of the universe (since you are). You stop worrying about how this or that might “get you.”
The sensation, if I can call it that, of being it all, is one of being an aperture through which the whole looks out on itself. But let me clarify something. This doesn’t mean you don’t still have a separate self, because you do. It’s just that it’s now quite obvious that this separate self is an idea, a way of thinking. Instead of being fooled by your mind into thinking that you are a separate self, you now have a separate self, in the same way you could have an idea, or a theory, or a plan to do something.
Ideas, theories, and plans are strictly mental events. In that sense you have ideas, theories, or representations about reality (and especially about who you are), but there’s nothing solid about them. You can’t touch them or put them in a wheelbarrow. And they can’t DO anything. They’re a handy way to navigate around, but these ideas and representations about reality and about who you are aren’t the same as the realities they represent.
Seeing this, you also see that what you thought was going around doing things (the separate doer), is really a multidimensional doing, a response to and an interaction with everything else. When this happens you stop feeling as if your center is inside the body. Instead, it feels as if it is everywhere.
There’s still another reason why the problems we discussed at the beginning of this article can’t be solved, and it has to do with the fact that everything in this universe is impermanent. As the universe changes, things and events continually come into being and then eventually pass away. There’s nothing anyone can do to change this.
So when the mind chops the universe into separate things, it’s an attempt to freeze things the way they are–a vain attempt to stop impermanence. We take something that is a continual, ever-changing flow and try to make it into a collection of solid, unchanging things. And, of course, the main impermanent “thing” we’re concerned about making into a solid thing is “me” (and, secondarily, those things or persons we’re attached to). Since what you think of as you is just as impermanent as everything else, if you think of yourself (and, feel yourself) as that separate self, you’ll see impermanence as a threat. Then you feel anxious and afraid.
But if you see–and feel–that you’re the going on of it all, what is there to worry about? What difference does it make what form the whole takes?
So what does this have to do with all the problems I outlined at the beginning of this article? Certainly all of them still can happen, but who, then, are they happening to? If the separate self is just an idea, they must be happening to the whole. And they must be a doing of the whole. In fact, all the attempts to “solve” them are also a doing of the whole.
An awakened person has two perspectives. One is that of the being the whole. The other is the separate-self perspective created by the linear mind. The linear mind’s job is to divide the universe into separate things and events, and to make representations of reality. And, though this isn’t reality, it’s a handy thing to do. Inches and centimeters aren’t reality, either (you can’t hand me a couple of centimeters, or tie up a package with them), but they are very useful. The awakened person knows that in an ultimate sense the separate self is a game and the representations of reality created by the mind are, though useful, just ideas.
On the other hand, unless you play this game, life is pretty boring. To a great extent, life IS this game, so the awakened person plays but also knows that the playing isn’t serious. Paradoxically, though, the more you really play, the more juice there is to life. So in an awakened person these two perspectives are integrated. Ken Wilber would say that the awakened person has transcended and included both.
So the awakened person still has problems, but he (or she) doesn’t take them with the same grim seriousness as other people. He also doesn’t dismiss them as illusory, either. In other words, this transcending and including contains the fact that living from both perspectives, yet neither, is a paradox. It’s a mystery. It’s ungraspable and unexplainable (yet here I am, doing my best to explain it).
The one big difference is that the awakened person, as I have said before, chooses how he will play this game. He choose what aspects of life to become attached to. He sees the consequences of attachment and of playing as a separate self, and enters into life knowing the consequences. He plays at being separate, while knowing he isn’t, because as long as the mind is one of our main interfaces with the rest of the universe, the sensation of being a separate self will be there.
On the other hand, the unawake person’s attachment to certain things or events–and his experience of being a separate self–happens unconsciously, without choice. He isn’t playing when he becomes attached to people, things, and events being a certain way, or when he resists impermanence.
So, here you are, using Holosync, and possibly many of the other methods I described above, in an attempt to solve your problems. Am I saying that it’s useless, and why bother? No. I’m merely saying that “you” aren’t the one that is “deciding” to do these things, even though it feels that way. When you do these things, that decision isn’t an impulse coming from a separate agentic being, deciding in isolation. It’s an impulse coming from all the interactions “you” have with the rest of the universe. Though it seems like an impulse from you, it’s really an impulse of the whole. It feels like an individual impulse, an individual doing, but that is an illusion created by the mind.
So change may happen to the supposed separate self you’ve always thought you were, but that change is really a happening of the whole. This goes back to the grace versus self-change paradox. Some “parts” of the whole end up “awake” while others don’t. Why? This is like asking why some water molecules in the ocean end up near Russia while others end up near Mexico and still others end up in a sludgy puddle. That’s just what happens.
So when the mind inside your organism relaxes because of the multidimensional influences of the rest of the whole (which may appear as “you” meditating with Holosync, or doing some other spiritual practice), that part of the universe feels better. It stops resisting impermanence, and it stops feeling separate and alone. And even if it does feel separate and alone from time to time (since that’s what the mind creates), it just flows with it and lets it be the way it is.
So the secret to the Problem of Life isn’t in somehow solving it. The awakened person hasn’t solved anything (the ultimate cosmic joke is that there’s nothing to solve). And though the play of trying to solve The Problem of Life can be fun–just as being chased in a dream can be fun–the secret is in treating life as play. When you see all attempts to solve the Problem of Life as non-serious, you can still work on solving it, as if that could be accomplished, but you play the problem-solving game with a deep sense of peace–and know that any solution is temporary. You surrender to the way things are, knowing that everything eventually passes away.
I realize that from a “common sense” perspective this doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s a paradox, a mystery–a mystery that will never be solved. And, that Mystery is who you are.
Now, before you go, I have a few recommendations that may interest you.
First of all, my good friend Stewart Emery, who is known as one of THE fathers of the human potential movement and is one of the most amazing thinkers and teachers I know, has a new book, and I think you might want to get a copy. This book is getting rave reviews. It’s called Do You Matter? Stewart wrote this book with Apple Computer’s former industrial design manager, Robert Brunner (instigator of many of the cool design ideas built into Apple’s products, and their relationship with Apple users).
Though Do You Matter? was written as a way of helping businesses design not only their products, but also their relationship with customers, many people are saying (as I did when I read it) that everything in it applies to how a person designs his or her life, including how to design your relationships with others, your career, your goals, and a lot more. This makes the book of great benefit to anyone. Many people have been saying that it’s too bad this book has to go in the business section in the bookstore.
I’ll just say that if you knew Stewart the way I do (he was the best man at my wedding), you would immediately go to Amazon and buy this book. I highly recommend it. Here are the Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble links to read about and get this cool book;
Next, I was recently a guest on a podcast called The New Man: Beyond the Macho Jerk and the New Age Wimp, and I think you might enjoy checking them out. First of all, to hear my contribution, just click here: http://personallifemedia.com/podcasts/238-the-new-man
Then, scroll down and you’ll see “Latest Podcast Episodes,” and I am #30.
This podcast was created by some Intergral Institute/Ken Wilber types, and targets 20 and 30-something men, though they tell me that quite a few women listen, too. I think they do a great job of looking at a lot of issues that people of that age face, from an integral perspective. These guys are pretty together, so go check it out. There are quite a lot of other podcasts, on all kinds of subjects, on this same site, so take a look:
So, with that, I’ll say goodbye, and be well.
(click the player above to listen to this post)
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