We assume that things we are attracted to will relieve our suffering and raise our happiness. My brain says, “Get famous.” It also says, “Unhappiness is lousy.” I conflate the two, getting, “Get famous and you’ll be less unhappy.”
But that is Mother Nature’s cruel hoax. She doesn’t really care either way whether you are unhappy — she just wants you to want to pass on your genetic material. If you conflate intergenerational survival with well-being, that’s your problem, not nature’s. And matters are hardly helped by nature’s useful idiots in society, who propagate a popular piece of life-ruining advice: “If it feels good, do it.” Unless you share the same existential goals as protozoa, this is often flat-out wrong.
toothlesshag , in a post that is unfortunately locked, posited (rightly, I think) that you probably have more control over your life than you think. greymaiden added that while you may not be able to control everything, what you can always control is your attitude. This got me thinking about attitude adjustment.
There is nothing groundbreaking about the idea that you control your own attitude and reactions; it’s the foundational idea of most of the pop self-help advice out there. Most people acknowledge the principle with a sage nod of agreement. Unless, of course, you bring it up while they are in the grip of anger or fear or stress, in which case they will inform you in no uncertain terms that it is so much bullshit. How can they be expected to just modify their feelings like flipping a switch? To someone in the midst of strong emotion, the idea is absurd to the point of insult.
In some traditions, the answer to changing attitudes lies in meditation. When I first started studying meditation, this seemed like one of the more dubious applications of the technique. What, in the middle of a rage I’m supposed to plop down and start visualizing myself as a peaceful flower? New-age hogwash.
I think this is the picture a lot of people have of meditation. It was a minor revelation to me when I first heard Thich Nhat Hanh speaking about meditating on anger. Unlike some other teachers, he does not teach the student to try to calm themselves with soothing visualizations or repeated self-affirmations (lies) that "I am at peace, I am full of love" etc. Instead, he asks them simply to exist within the emotion: Breathing in, I am angry. Breathing out, anger is in me now.
For some reason – perhaps my lack of imagination – this approach took me completely by surprise. It was so different from my stereotype of meditation. And in my experience, it works. By not asking the afflicted person to deny their own sensations, but simply to feel them, without guilt but also without immediately acting on them, that person is enabled to self-validate. And once the feelings are truly acknowledged, they can slowly begin to tease apart the feelings themselves, from the event that triggered them, and from the actions which those feelings seem to dictate.
As with all such things, your mileage may vary. But I’ve had some success with this technique.
I read We by Robert Johnson yesterday. It provided some excellent food for thought and some much needed perspective.
We is a Jungian reading of the Tristan and Iseult myth, with the aim of explaining the phenomena of romantic love in modern Western society. Johnson begins by pointing out that the focus on romantic love, as understood and practiced in the West, is an enormous and unprecedented development of the last thousand years. No other culture places the importance on romance that we in the West do, nor do they make it a precondition of marriage. Love and marriage in eastern societies, and in all the world prior to the last millenia, is and was a quieter affair. No epic passions, no “sparks”, no quasi-religious ecstasies of adoration. No pursuit of “the one”. Just friendship, relatedness, mutual respect, and commitment.
The origins of the modern notion of romantic love, Johnson believes, lie in the medieval idea of “courtly love”, which in turn had it’s roots in Catharist Manichiesm. The courtly model help that knight would give his heart to a Lady. To him, she would represent all that is good and pure and high in the world. She would inspire him to acts of bravery and chivalry; to nobility; to graciousness and selflessness. In her service all the better parts of his personality would be drawn out. They would pine for each other, always – but they would never be physically united. Courtly love was a strictly spiritual ideal. The Lady would always remain unattainable. She might even be some other noble’s wife. But the image of her in the knight’s mind, the epitome of the eternal angelic feminine, would forever inflame his heart with ecstatic passion and impel him onwards to greater and greater deeds.
In this we can already see glimpses of Johnson’s central thesis: that romantic love, in the heart of a man, is in actuality a religious experience.
Over time, courtly love evolved into what we now know as romantic love. And as reason became the dominant factor in Western life, religion became codified and ossified, and mankind’s religious function was consigned more and more to a dusty closet, the importance of romance grew and grew. Until the present day, where romance is the prevailing preoccupation of the majority of adults. As spirituality was pushed out of Western’s man’s thoughts, it manifested itself in the form of romantic love.
Consider the symptoms. A man newly in love suffers all the ecstasies of a religious convert. In the beloved he sees all that is good and pure. He sees someone who will complete him. He sees his salvation, a new factor that will give meaning to his life.
Johnson sees this state as a projection of the anima – the soul, the goddess within, the intermediary between the ego and the realms ot the unconscious. The man is not truly in love with the woman at all; he is in love with a projection of his own unconscious. He sees in her the answer to his need for connectedness, for relatedness, gor higher meaning – all the things that religion once provided. She is the blessed virgin, she is the Great Mother, she is Shakti.
Because it is not truly the woman herself that he sees, but an anima-projection, his love is doomed from the start. It is “love and death, mixed together”, in the words of the myth. No human being can bear the burden of a goddess for very long. And because he does not truly see her, the person, he cannot truly be a friend to her. Before long the enchantment will wear off. Then the projection will move on to a new human host, and our ill-starred lover will feel that unless he forsakes his partner to be with the new, he will be forever incomplete. It is a dream-world, and it’s tragic dissolution is only a matter of time.
We are all inculcated into this paradigm in the west. There is no avoiding it; it is in the stories we read, the fairy-tales we hear as children, the songs on the radio, and in the movies and shows that we watch. It is in our blood, at this point.
But Johnson doesn’t recommend that we somehow escape the romantic mindset. He suggests only that we be conscious of it, and that we try to separate our religious lives from the ordinary, comfortable, day-to-day relationship we have with a partner. He points out something I found intriguing, although not surprising – if the way remained open, Jung would send his patients back to the religion of of their ancestors as quickly as possible. The need for soul, for anima, cannot be ignored. But it is found within, not in the form of another human. Only when we give our soul the affection and attention she is due can we relate to another simply, and profoundly, as a human being.