The unexamined life is not worth living
Most of our mental life is dialectical, a duality through which our relationships, travails, turmoil, fears, inadequacies, loves and hatreds and other psychological problems occur. Our mental life is indeed run through the pleasure principle, pursuing what is pleasant and avoiding what is painful. In all relationships, it is this principle which is responsible for our calculating nature, planning with strategies and tactics. In all of them, there is a seeking of the self, attempt to assert oneself either overtly or subtly and covertly. In all of them, I am not only at the center of my world, but through my relationships and activities I attempt to assert and maintain myself. And when things go awry, or don’t go my way, at any rate, I struggle to restore the mental balance, dissolve conflicts, fight my way through by complaining about others, excusing or justifying myself, or explaining my behavior and so forth, the object always being getting my way, getting what I want, making up for my inadequacies and passing moral judgments on others, thereby feeling righteous or superior. In this life, there is no peace, no true happiness. For the happiness I seek can only result from my mind not seeking any further goals. But unfortunately, even when I attain a state of peace, I turn that into a goal in itself, thus frustrating myself at every turn through this contradictory self-defeating process of perpetual striving for state in which there is no further striving.
Check your premises: This is an advice I gave sometimes to my students, as I found this to be true in my own life. Here is an example: I was frustrated in my love life more than once. The first time which lasted more than a decade ended only by my moving to the US when I had no further opportunity to pursue the matter. In the US, I ran into another crisis, primarily of unrequited love, in which one day the person involved would hang up on me 21 times, when I finally had the rude awakening that that was a dead end. That night I would put my head on the pillow on my bed and moan and groan and complain about my life, saying to myself something to the effect: “Someone, somewhere must love me; life without love is not worth living.” Then suddenly I had an awakening: “Why should anyone love me?” The premise upon which my crisis was built, namely, “Life without love is not worth living,” was exposed in my consciousness, and, at that moment, as I would describe it later to others, my problem simply dropped itself out of me as a handkerchief would drop itself out of my pocket.
A second example: At my work, when there some problem in the workplace, especially concerned with authorities, or students, I would sometimes worry. One of those times, it occurred to me that if I am not so attached to my job, worrying about what I would do if I lost it, if I would accept the possibility of losing it, I wouldn’t have any of those problems. The mere awareness of the hang-up about my job was enough to free me from my worries.
Here is another example: Today I was lying on my bed trying to take a nap listening to some beautiful music on the cello by Yo-Yo Ma on the YouTube. I was pretty relaxed, but my consciousness was somewhat tinged with some mild disappointment or depression. I looked at it. It became clear to me that I was expecting something a bit interesting in life which wasn’t happening. That expectation at the moment was my self, which I became aware of in reflection. Then there is nothing clouding my consciousness. It became quite clear. There was an air of total peace. You can say I entered the realm of nothingness. Because there was no special interest, even the interest of listening to the music, which was still playing in the background that was engaging my attention.
In my opinion, it’s always such baggage we carry on our backs, of course stemming from our past experience, which creates the duality and hence the lack of peace or mental turmoil. When the particular past becomes the focus of our attention, there is not any specific action that we need to take to become free from the background. The mere awareness is the action.
Although I have been talking about specific problems, this is perhaps true about life in general. At least in moments when we are not involved in any specific thing, and when nothing is bothering our mind, we can be in this realm of peace.
Passivity and Activity: At times, with no volition on my part, I could ‘drop out’ of a situation, an involvement or entanglement of any sort, and remain passive, merely watching. One could feel this physically, as attention which has been active so far, using the thought mechanisms to assess or react to a situation, turns passive. You no longer ‘care’. Maybe prior to this moment, I was just tired to struggling with someone or something over an issue, and suddenly I perhaps just ‘give up’.
This passivity could also be a preamble for a moment of peace within ourselves and with our surrounds or other people.
The one problem with any of these solutions is that we tend to turn them into formulas and try to apply them mechanically. There are no mechanical solutions, because the sooner we try to apply them, the sooner we find that we generate another conflict, another duality, instead of solving the one we were already involved in. The application is an attempt to change the given situation. Any such attempt is bound to backfire. What I am suggesting here is a non-doing, just being and just being aware, and let the problem tell its story.
Self, Meaning and Fulfillment: The self derives its meaning in life through movement toward goals or aims. I am not hear talking about meaning of life in general, which is a generalized and abstract notion which we apply to our entire life, past, present and future, but meaning in the sense of self-worth. The assumed goal of life may in to gain God’s grace, to attain moksha, to be the richest or most famous or most powerful man in the world, to be the greatest author, and so on. More specific goals are also things we identify with for which we strive. Without the striving, moving toward the goals, and measuring our progress from time to time in our achievement of the goals, we might not only feel unfulfilled, but also worthless. And to add to this, if we are serving no useful purpose in society, and are looked upon as worthless, that’s double damage. We feel wasted. And we struggle to find some goal which is worth pursuing. What’s interesting is that the goal may be very trivial or artificial, such as winning a scrabble or card game; it’s OK as long as we keep gaining points. If we lose, we get discouraged, disappointed, or even depressed. Any striving toward goals gives us a sense of purpose.
Release: Release in the atmosphere of the above discussion is not some kind of mokhsa which would turn us into some kind of liberated person, a jivanmukta, as he or she is called in Indian philosophy. It’s just a process of releasing ourselves from duality, or dissolving it, as it were, as and when it arises.
Perhaps we all experience moments of total peace at times, where nothing seems too important, nothing seems to bother us, where we are in love with life, just being and living. Things are neither easy nor difficult. But to ask for a permanent life of that sort is plain greed and is bound to frustrate us. As UG would say our misery is primarily due to wanting to be permanently happy without a moment of pain.
There is no permanence in any release that I can see because of external and internal changes that constantly keep happening in and around us. For one thing, circumstances change, and new challenges present themselves. Someone’s dear one has died, someone contracted Covid-19, or you yourself have, and such. And internally, the past pleasures and pains, as well as conditionings keep popping up willy-nilly, creating new pressures. There is no way one could permanently be rid of them. Same with pleasure-seeking or pain-avoidance. No matter what we tell ourselves these are bound to happen. The challenge is always coping with these new challenges as and when they arise.
There are several possibilities here: 1) the previous release we had experienced remains in our memory. And the memory of it is enough to question our present entanglements. 2) Also, desires and motivations that have been previously hidden or unconscious can thrust themselves into our consciousness and create fresh conflict. But the memory of what happened before can certainly help us to stay afloat in the present situation. 3) Or the present situation demands a fresh inquiry into what our present entanglements are. And this might hopefully help us release ourselves from them, i.e. what we hold on to. 4) Find practical solutions to problems, such as for example, offering an apology, do what the other person needs you to do, and so forth. The point of any of this is to find a way to diffuse the conflict or duality.
No permanence: All this goes to show that there is and can be no permanence to any state of mind, let alone permanent peace or release. The only possibility is the possibility of dissolution of duality when and where it occurs.