Seeing Things the Way They Really Are, Part 2: The Double Bind of Life
So, in our last episode, we were talking about “seeing things the way they really are.” We could also say, “Don’t see things in a deluded way.”
This is a fascinating topic, so let’s dig into it a little more.
Seeing things the way they really are includes dealing with some key existential problems, which I’ve written about before. You could call these problems the Problem of Cause and Effect, and the Problem of Impermanence. The Problem of Cause and Effect results from the fact that there are many forces in the world–other people, the weather, earthquakes, the sun, your spouse, that rocks are hard, and so on–that we have little or no control over. As a result, sometimes we don’t get what we want, or we get what we don’t want, both of which create frustration and suffering.
The Problem of Impermanence results from the fact that even if we do get what we want–either by accident or because we skillfully exercised what influence and control we do have–it eventually falls apart, is used up or, in some way, ends. And, of course, the most disturbing example of impermanence is that we eventually end, too. Everything in this world is impermanent–including us.
A thoughtful person, then, in addition to dealing with the problems of food, shelter, friends, and something meaningful and fulfilling to do, eventually asks certain questions: What’s going on here? Why is there so much suffering? Is there something I can do about it? What does all this mean? What should I do with my life? Can I do something about the fact that my body doesn’t always work right? Am I really going to die? Is there anything I can do about it? And, so on.
Our answers to these questions develop. As we become more aware, our answers change. Hopefully in each new stage our way of dealing with these problems of being human involves an increasing ability to see things the way they really are.
Because cause and effect and impermanence are so fundamental to life, we spend a great deal of our time and effort figuring out how to deal with them (even if we’re unaware that that’s what we’re doing). Most people, of course, don’t want to admit that we’re bound by these fundamental ground rules of life. In other words, most people aren’t seeing things the way they really are, and don’t want to. Instead, we want to get what we want all the time. We don’t want the people and things to which we’re attached to fall apart or end. And, we particularly don’t want our own existence to end.
A lot of what we do, then, is directed toward 1) reducing the consequences of cause and effect and impermance, or 2) denying the reality of it. Much of what we do is about getting more of what we want, less of what we don’t want, or trying to hold off the forces of impermanence. We seek money and power. We try to eat right and exercise more. We learn “people skills,” hoping that they’ll help us get what we want. We educate ourselves or learn new skills in the hope that it will help us get more of what we want. Some people think being dishonest will help them get what they want.
There are other methods. We hope that technology and medical breakthroughs will help us avoid what we don’t want. If we discover that our thoughts have effect on what happens to us, we try to develop more mental control. We go to therapy, study with Zen masters, practice positive thinking, meditate, use Holosync, take “mind-control” courses, and so forth.
And though these things can be helpful, there is a limit to what we can do. Whatever we do, whatever steps we take, there’s much about life we just can’t control. Many physical events are beyond our control. So are most of the actions of the other 6.7 billion people we live with on this planet. And though we do our best to make things last longer, or figure out ways to replace them when they end or fall apart, and we do our best to make our bodies last longer through medical and technological means, impermanence ultimately wins.
So, once we’ve done everything we can to to control the world and keep what we love–and ourselves–from ultimately falling apart, then what? I can see three possibilities.
The first is to hide your head in the sand and pretend that the problem doesn’t exist. This works, in a way, until cause and effect and impermanence ultimately bites you on the ass, as it eventually will. The second is to delude yourself into thinking that you can overcome cause and effect and impermanence–which is what most people do. The third is to embrace the fact that though you can sometimes forestall these forces, ultimately they will win–in other words, to see things the way they really are, and live from that perspective.
Let’s take a look at these last two choices.
Because cause and effect and impermanence are the source of most, if not all, of the problems of life, we cling to the hope that somehow we’ll find a way to overcome or escape from them. Let’s look at cause and effect first.
The fact that we do have a small amount of control over cause and effect causes us to more easily delude ourselves into thinking that perhaps we can control it. We see that those with lots of money or power seem to have much more control than we have. We often assume that perhaps they really have solved the problem of cause and effect, and that if we can somehow become rich or powerful that we, too, can be a master of cause and effect. A mentor of mine used to say, “If you have a problem, and you have money, then you don’t have a problem.”
Relative to someone with fewer resources this is at least partially true, but money doesn’t solve all problems. If you’re stranded on a desert island, your money is worthless unless you want to use it to start a fire. If you have a terminal illness, it may be that no amount of money will help. If you want people to like you (not just suck up to you to get something from you), money isn’t going to help. People with great wealth or power, though, get used to having what they want when they want it. They, or those who envy them, can easily assume that there is a way to defeat cause and effect.
Some people delude themselves into thinking that they could have some sort of magical mental power over cause and effect or impermanence. The DVD movie, The Secret, for instance, claims that you can control cause and effect with your mind–that the universe will give you what you want, or help you avoid what you don’t want, if you just tell it what your needs and wants are.
While it’s true that thoughts and desires motivate us to act, give us ideas about what action to take, and cause us to notice resources we could use when we act, our control over cause and effect is still limited. The “magic” assumed in The Secret–that “sending your intention out to the universe” will somehow get you anything you want, regardless of the laws of nature, the actions of other people with contrary desires, or other aspects of the laws of cause and effect–is nothing more than a hopeful delusion. The “successes” of this method are either the cause-and-effect results of the actions you take (or some other way of exerting influence), or, they’re coincidental.
Some people study how to control the minds of others, or practice exotic martial arts or spiritual disciplines that supposedly convey super-normal powers. The fact that such things even exist and enjoy a certain amount of popularity with certain people is more a symptom of the lack of control we feel over cause and effect than anything else. Most of these approaches are, at worst, total bullshit or, at best, confer a small amount of control over the forces of cause and effect.
Even greater delusions exist regarding imperanence because we see it as a bigger and more ultimate problem. Humans have created many ways of denying that our personal existence will eventually end: after-lives, reincarnation, spirit-realms, astral planes, and many other explanations that provide hope that, despite the evidence, there’s a possibility that you will go on after your death.
I’ve said many times in this blog that the idea of a separate self is an illusion. What seem to be separate things and separate events are actually ideas about reality, divisions we add mentally, but which don’t exist in the real world [see other posts for a more complete explanation of this seemingly wild and crazy idea]. Everything is really one huge interconnected “thing-event.” What’s more, you are that one thing-event looking out through a certain pair of eyeballs and listening through a certain pair of ears.
When the organism you think of as that separate “you” dies, and the brain that generated those ideas about being a separate self stops working, that separate self, being nothing more than an idea, ends. The whole going on of it all, the huge “thing-event” I spoke of, does go on, of course. What you thought of as “you” was similar to a wave on the ocean. It went up, became a wave, and then went back down into the ocean–except that when the “you-wave” went up, it was aware of being a wave and had the ability to have ideas about being a separate self.
At least that’s the way I see it. Maybe there is an afterlife, or a next life, or something else. Personally, I think these things are just fervent hopes. Maybe I’ll be surprised when I die. On the other hand, maybe there won’t be anyone there to be surprised. Maybe the atoms that make up “Bill” will keep going just like the water in the wave keeps being water after the wave is gone. The whole keeps going, changing into this and then that and then something else, but what seem to be selves come and go.
Human beings (including me) don’t like this idea that the self will end. It gives us a weird feeling (or worse). It’s bad enough when something or someone you love comes to an end, but your own end is the real boogie man for human beings, which is why we’ve created so many explanations for what we hope will happen next.
So we have the suffering involved in being human (getting what we don’t want or not getting what we do want) and we have death (impermanence). These two things really bother us, and we spend a lot of time and energy trying to escape from them. But if it’s true that we can’t escape, resisting isn’t going to help. You can do something to mitigate cause and effect and or put off your inevitable end, but ultimately, cause and effect and impermanence always win.
I’d like to suggest that the real problem isn’t cause and effect or impermancence, though. The real problem is our attempt to escape from or deny these things. A life spent hoping for an escape, a life of struggling to escape, a life pretending that you can escape–a life spent resisting what can’t be successfully resisted–is a life of chronic frustration and suffering.
Why? Because by living in this way you’ve put yourself in a double bind, where you must solve an insoluble problem. Because it is an insoluble problem, all your efforts ultimately fail.
So let’s be realistic. Because there’s no escape from cause and effect and impermanence, life contains a certain amount of built-in suffering, which you can mitigate to some degree but never entirely avoid. But here’s what you can do something about: the additional (and quite substantial) level of pain and suffering you create by trying to solve an insoluable problem, by not seeing (and accepting) things the way they really are.
Thinking that you can escape from cause and effect and impermanence is sometimes referred to as the illusion of control. The truth is that most of what goes on is beyond your control. Yes, you have some control, and if you become aware enough to exercise it you definitely can live an easier and more fulfilling life. Most of what happens in life, however, is outside your control.
This shows up in other ways, too. Because of modern medicine, technology, and communications, most of Western society now believes that all problems can be solved (if only the leaders would just get their shit together), and that they should be solved. This assumption actually causes the whole of society to suffer more–because of the disappointment when these problems aren’t solved (and, in fact, are usually made worse). In fact, whatever you can do about these problems is better done by YOU, not by the government or someone else).
There’s an underlying assumption in the West that the government can–and should–solve every human problem, no matter what it is. Behind this is the illusion that controlling life is possible, that someone knows the answer, even if you don’t–whether it’s a doctor, a scientist, a therapist, a Zen master, the President, or some other “expert.” We believe that if only we had free healthcare, our physical problems would be solved (they won’t), that if we could just create energy that doesn’t leave waste products the world be would be pristinely clean (we can’t, and it won’t be)–or, whatever the problem du jour is, it can and should be solved, and that doing so will save us from our suffering. The technical accomplishments of the last 150 years have given humans the illusion that eventually we’ll figure everything out. We won’t.
I used to believe that the leaders and experts knew something I didn’t know. I felt a certain sense of security in thinking that someone who knew what’s going on was in charge. As I’ve grown older, become more successful and respected, and have been able to know and hang out with many of these leaders and experts, I’ve changed my mind: my previous assumption (which I think most people share) that someone has life figured out, or mostly figured out, and that they know what to do, how things work, and how to solve the problems we face as humans, just isn’t true.
Doctors, therapists, scientists, professors, news anchors, politicians (particularly politicians), religious leaders, Wall Street big-wigs, Federal Reserve Governors, personal growth teachers, Zen masters, and other experts don’t know much more than you know, and are in fact much more in the dark than they let on. Sure, they know certain things, and in some ways the extent of human knowledge is incredible and extensive.
But a great deal of the time the experts, despite their promises and big talk are bungling their way through life just like the rest of us, doing the same thing everyone else is doing: trying to somehow escape from (or, in some cases, ignore) cause and effect and impermanence. Worse, most of them are telling everyone else that they have the answer, and you just need to pay them or elect them (often both), and all your problems will be solved.
Rant, rant, etc.
What would happen, though, if you acknowledged that you don’t have control over cause and effect, and that there’s nothing you can do about impermanence, and that many of the problems of being human are an inescapable part of the human condition? You’d still be able to choose to eat right, exercise, focus your mind on what you want, do your best to make more money, use the latest technology, and whatever else you do now to try to make your life better. In many ways, life would go on in the same ordinary way.
The difference would be that you’d get rid of your attempt to wrestle life to the ground in an attempt to get rid of what you can’t get rid of. You AREN’T going to get rid of cause and effect, impermanence, and suffering. You can get rid of the part of it you’re causing through your own resistance (also acknowledging, of course, that you’ll never totally stop resisting, either), but a lot of it you’ll never do anything about.
I’m not saying this, by the way, from some sort of hopeless or despondent perspective, in case that’s what you’re thinking. In fact, something quite remarkable happens when you step out of the normal human double-bind.
When you drop your end of the rope in the tug-of-war of life–when you decide to see things the way they really are–you’ll finally be at peace. You’ll be free. Not free of cause and effect, and not free of suffering, but free of YOURSELF, free of a huge load of self-imposed suffering caused by the deluded idea that you have control.
Alan Watts used to say that from the moment we’re born, we’re in free-fall (ain’t it the truth). Clutching at the other things falling along side of you isn’t going to help. When you stop fighting against the fact that life is the way it is something remarkable happens. You suddenly come alive! Everything–even the most ordinary things, or things you thought were “bad”–sparkle with aliveness. The world, in every way, becomes awe-inspiring, remarkable. Everything becomes ordinary, and yet absolutely amazing.
Letting go of the illusion of control and seeing things the way they really are throws you into the now moment in a way that would make Ekhart Tolle blush. When you allow being human to be what it is, without resisting the parts that can’t be resisted or trying to wish away the parts of life that can’t be wished away, all that’s left is now. That doesn’t mean you can’t plan for tomorrow, but you won’t do it as part of a desperate plan to somehow escape from the inescapable.
Since you won’t be fighting against life, your stress level will go way down. You’ll feel more connected to others–more “at one” with the world. You’ll be more compassionate. You’ll appreciate why other people are the way they are, without being triggered by their attempts to deal with life. And, your mind will be clear and razor-sharp.
How do you do all this? By becoming more aware. The more aware you are, the more you see things the way they really are. That makes sense, doesn’t it? How, then, do you become more aware? Meditate. Use Holosync if you’re in a hurry. Watch. Pay attention. Be mindful. Examine your beliefs and realize that all of them are just mental bullshit. Find out how you create your life and your reality by watching the part of you that creates it: your mind.
Awareness is the solution to everything that has a solution. It’s also the solution to knowing what has a solution–and what doesn’t.
It’s your life. Wake up.
Wait. Don’t go yet. I have a couple of recommendations for you.
**First Recommendation: If you are a Holosync user, go to www.centerpointe.com/participants to view a video I recently made for you. Sorry, but you can’t access this part of our website unless you are in our database as a customer. This video, though, is very much worth seeing if you are at all interested in the “problem of being a human being.”
**Second Recommendation: I recently was interviewed by the folks at Integral Life, part of Ken Wilber’s Integral Institute, and I think this interview will be of great interest to you. Though many topics are discussed, this is the only time I’ve ever described in detail my own spiritual path on camera (or in writing, for that matter), starting from my childhood right up through some of my amazing, intense, private work with Zen master Genpo Roshi. They’ve split the interview into 4 parts, 3 of which are online now, with the 4th to be posted soon.
To watch these videos you have to be a subscriber to IntergralLife.com, but the first month is free (plus, I’ve arranged for the first 50 people who sign up for the free month to get a copy of the Integral Institute book, Integral Life, which I highly recommend).
From the website: “IntegralLife.com features hundreds of hours of audio and video discussions with today’s greatest thinkers, leaders, artists, and visionaries. It is a portal into the many facets of the 21st Century’s cultural renaissance—including spirituality, sexuality, psychology, ecology, art, business, and politics. Through this rich diversity of subject matter runs the single thread of our mission: to weave together the many strands of our modern lives into a deeply meaningful whole.”
To get your free month, use this link: http://integrallife.com/landing/gia/gia.html?utm_source=Bill%2BHarris&utm_medium=Blog&utm_campaign=seeing%2Bthings
Then, after you’re logged onto the Intergral Life site, use this link to find my interview:
At the bottom of the page you’ll see links to the three parts of the interview that have been posted already. After you watch, I’d be interested to hear your comments, which you can post on this site. Do check out the other content they have on this site while you’re there.
(click the player above to listen to this post)
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