How To Become Enlightened…my journey with anxiety
I recall going through a steady, low bottom depression. It could only be described as a chronic malcontent that produced a constant throb like a poolside horsefly.
I just couldn’t escape apart from drugs and/or other intense and heightened emotional states.
I was consistently bombarded with a feeling of disconnection, arguably the worst of all possibly feelings. The loneliness was unbearable.
I branded life as meaningless; it certainly felt that way.
In hindsight, the constant cravings for drugs and altered states of consciousness suggest I was always a seeker, a believer that I wasn’t doomed to that persistent-gut-wrenching-impending-doomism.
It did something for me that I couldn’t do for myself, this in a sense made me a believer that life offered something more (ironically Huxleyan).
Eventually, injecting all this artificial meaning into my life waned in its power, and the darkness and demoralization was ineffable.
In addiction recovery circles they call this “hitting rock bottom” and I suppose the term does suffice.
Nevertheless, I wasn’t prepared to give up. I was a seeker and seekers always find what they’re looking for, I figured I was purely looking for the wrong thing!
One author described it as such,
One day, in a moment of spontaneous insight – a venerated ah-ha moment – I realized that I analyzed the problem so intimately and to such an extent that I only knew large volumes of what I didn’t want and what created discomfort.
I was in a toxic relationship with my pain and discomfort, then wondered why I felt so at dis-easel
I knew that emotional health was innate and was discovered organically, it wasn’t something that I could acquire through adventure and intrigue.
Thus, with only the slightest bit of meaning and hope, I began my search.
I started my search with religion, for faith, for something to provide meaning in the brokenness around me.
Well, I found myself in good company with a host of companions.
St John of the Cross called such seasons the ‘Dark Night of the Soul.` He noted, “If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.”
He hinted at this darkness I was experiencing as the birth of an awakening.
It felt bizarrely counterintuitive yet still resonated with me.
It went against my standard-issue rationalization.
I interpreted his words as “to find the light I must first identify the darkness,” but can this be done without light?
I thought I knew the darkness so intimately, but I was more familiar with my resistance to it.
This pursuit of religion in desperation can miss the mark. John of The Cross emphatically declared that I could not begin to move in the right direction until I first truly learned where I was.
Running from where I stood could provide no benefit, at least in the spiritual sense. In fact, it’s back to square one.
I resisted the darkness and paradoxically it grew and grew until I needed to alter my state of mind artificially to find some relief.
Maybe this is why folks begin to search for religion, it seems like an easy way out – but it’s closer to avoidance, it’s still not accepting where you are.
It’s doubly flawed trying to capture religion in a systematized, organized framework, especially during such times.
Sure, it helps.
But it’s like equating anthropology with actual culture. Life can never be so dispassionately categorized.
I found that one out the hard way as well.
Life is found groping in the dark, not compartmentalizing it into neat scientific categories detached from passion.
But this still left me stranded.
What possible meaning can exist in the darkness!
Nietzsche And The Lion
Here we arrive at the age-old question of whether there is some underlying plan or if life is just entirely meaningless; this is usually what the in-search-for-religion-dilemma entails.
But whether we think meaning is predestined, such as the Greeks ‘fate’ or whether we create our own meaning as suggested by existentialist, at the end of the day the very concept of “meaning” is probably as close to God – as real religion – as we’ll ever get.
Even to assert that life has no meaning is a statement loaded with meaning.
For example, look at resentment; it’s simply another way of saying:
1. I don’t like the meaning
2. I don’t deserve the meaning
3. Or my meaning has been stifled by another person or group
I started to ask myself who determined the meaning though? Was I married to a specific interpretation? If I said “x makes me angry” was not the more accurate way to articulate this proposition that “my interpretation of x makes me angry.” The implications of this were life-changing.
I think this is what Nietzsche had in mind when he argued that the child mindset was a preferable to the lion mindset, even if the lion mindset is incredibly powerful and somewhat seductive.
Because the child is willing to explore and “create” meaning.
Mental health is defined for me as the construction of concepts and meaning creation.
My bitter heart cried aloud, “I’m not a child looking for meaning, there is no meaning. I’m a lion, looking to do what lions do, but afraid of the consequences. Therein lies my problem.”
But that is the point!
The camel mindset, said Nietzsche, represents the burdens of society, which some simply take willingly – we all know the camels.
The lion mindset represents those who eat the damn camels, they don’t want to deal with the societal hogwash.
But both are the same thing.
Either a happy or unhappy camel.
At the end of the day, the child mindset operates outside the nonsense, which is what makes it so remarkable (see the growth mindset)
Kill or be killed (camel/lion) – the same thing.
Fortunately, those aren’t the only parameters…
I apologize if my interpretation butchered Nietzsche!
The Judgement Machine
A dear friend of mine once mentioned to me, “The meaning of life I’ve come to find is forgiving the world for representing what hasn’t occurred.”
Profound, right? This is simply the child forgiving the lion and camel for believing they somehow are no longer children.
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
I reckoned that becoming childlike was less an analysis of conditions and more an adventurous interaction with the environment.
Yet, those conditions needed to be removed. That’s the inside job I was discussing early, that’s the path to organic mental health.
But what conditions? The ones that inhibit our ability to come out and play with the world around us.
For example, if I ask my three-year-old to be silly and dance with me, she won’t skip a beat. Hell, if I asked her to stop whatever she is doing and race me around that house, in a blink she’d be gone!
What about my eight-year-old though? She’s not as enthusiastic about spontaneity. Somehow, someway, these conditions crept in and some unknown criteria was used to determine whether something was “cool” or not.
No longer can she just interact with her environment, instead her judgement set parameters on what she could do and if she went against these conditions she felt “stupid.”
I call this mechanism the Judgement Machine.
Now, tack on twenty years of adding to the list of conditions and it’s easy to see why I needed heroin and host of other drugs and behaviors to simply allow me to come out and play.
I soon learned that to find wellness the judgement machine needed to be surrended. No easy task, I promise you.
I liken the child mindset to the philosopher who escaped Plato’s cave.
Plato’s Allegory Of The Cave
The following summary of the Allegory Of The Cave was taken from Andrew Lynn’s “Classic Philosophy For Modern Man”
We are first to imagine human beings living in an underground den. Their legs and necks have been chained so that they cannot move and can only see what is in front of them. Behind these prisoners – at a distance – a fire is blazing. Between the fire and the prisoners is a low wall. Across the top of the wall, men carry vessels, statues, and figures of animals. Some of these men are talking and their voices echo off the cave walls.
What, then, would be the experience of these prisoners and how would they understand their own world? Of themselves, they would see nothing but their own shadows cast against the cave wall. Of the objects carried along the wall, they would likewise see merely shadowed forms. And of the talk of the men in the cave, they would hear only the echo, which to them would seem to emanate from the shadows on the wall. Their whole truth and reality would be nothing but this shadowy puppet-show.
Now imagine one of the prisoners is released and is able to make an escape. He will be pained and distressed by the brightness of the natural light flowing in from the mouth of the cave. He will still believe that the shadows that he formerly saw are truer than the objects he is being shown now. At first, he will stay with the shadows and reflections. Then he will venture out at night-time. Only at the end will he be able to behold the sun as the source of all that is.
Finally, imagine what would happen if the released man decided to liberate his fellow prisoners. He would have to return to the cave below to do that. Now, though, his sight would be unaccustomed to the darkness. To the prisoners below – who have been busy conferring honours upon those who were ‘quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after’ – the returned man with his ineffective vision would seem ridiculous. Better not to even think of ascending, they would conclude. And, should anyone think of releasing another – well, let him be killed.
The individual who left the cave is the “creator of meaning” as alluded to earlier. He’s the child per Nietzsche’s narrative, content with leaving the arena of the senses and departing for the land of ideas, of concepts, of abstracts; namely, uncertainty.
Or, to put it another way, he can leap outside the societal parameters and operate beyond the B.S.
It’s also why carrying the message it’s so immensely difficult – people don’t want to hear it.
At any rate, the whole ordeal is no easy feat.
Because it is here that rationality in its positivistic sense cannot dwell – the darkness to which John of The Cross refers.
Sense-experience, the primary constructor of culture, receives here it’s death sentence – at least in terms of being able to make claims of certitude.
This is, as the Zen kōan suggests, where one can hear the sound of one hand clapping.
So, to return to the earlier theme, I had to ‘close my eyes and walk in the dark’ to figure out where I stood.
My toxic relationship with pain was in reality a shadowy existence. Everything I thought was true, wasn’t so.
Permit me to give a more practical illustration of this principle.
All the things I valued (e.g. social status, image, materialism, prestige, etc.) were actually a misrepresentation of the truth. They were the conditions that barred my entry into happiness.
I looked at someone with prestige and thought “yes, that’s what I want!!”
Yet, when prompted to give a firm reason why, I was left with uncertainty.
I was usually more reasonable and candid with a response such as “because it feels good.”
However, this resort to feeling, not only implies the limitations of rational knowledge but demonstrates my poor understanding.
What it presents is what we do not know (moving in the right direction, recall the taxi analogy!).
This was the goal, or at least so it seems, of Socrates. To bring us to an impasse. This impasse represents John of the Cross’s darkness. At this impasse, I believe true meaning is embraced.
Meaning Is Found In The Lack Of Meaning?
Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.
Now, I’m not saying I agree with Sartre that life is without meaning until you stencil it with purpose; but it certainly appears that way. In an ontological sense (the nature of things) we never can make that claim with certainty.
This is an ascent from the shadows to the land of ideas and abstract concepts. It is a dance with uncertainty, and grasping at the limitations of rational analysis.
This was a momentous shift for me. I always sought escape from the pain, I never considering seeking an experience with health – it’s odd, but it’s true.
Anywho, this is the impasse to awakening!
From the anxious pen Kierkegaard,
“Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down. Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself.
Freedom succumbs to dizziness. Further than this, psychology cannot and will not go. In that very moment everything is changed, and freedom, when it again rises, sees that it is guilty. Between these two moments lies the leap, which no science has explained and which no science can explain. He who becomes guilty in anxiety becomes as ambiguously guilty as it is possible to become.”
Kierkegaard can be the most confusing to read; it’s one of those “read ten times and pretend to understand it because an eleventh read would be superfluous.”
But let’s take a shot at this and see whether is encompasses John of the Cross’s “darkness,” Nietzsche’s “child,” and Satre’s “freedom.”
Looking down into the yawning abyss is the equivalent of “darkness.” This is that anxious low-level depression I opened this article with – it’s dizzy and laden with guilt.
Why is it laden with guilt?
Because it’s options are unlimited yet one is “supposed” to know and choose the right one! Those conditions again!
No wonder I sought escape!
This is Sartre’s imprisoning freedom, it chains you to the “what ifs, should have’s, musts, and if only’s.”
Yet, viewed from a certain angle this is the jumping off place where Nietzsche’s child leaps past the end of knowledge and into the beginning of wisdom.
Concepts Manufacture Meaning
Love. Courage. Friendship. Justice. Bravery.
We recognize these abstract concepts by exceeding the limits of rational knowledge and embracing a deeper understanding. “Where the rational mind hits a wall, enlightenment can emerge.”
In the words of philosopher Maria deVenze Tillmann,
“Wisdom reaches our grasp deeper into the world. It sometimes seems as though we have tried to replace thinking with knowledge. The more I know, the less I have to think. I have the answers, so I do not have to live in a world of uncertainty, ambiguity, feeling perplexed or ‘at a loss’, even though this uncertainty is exactly the place where true thinking begins as we suddenly have to ask ourselves, “now what?”. It is the place where understanding develops through a deeper sense of connectedness.
It’s as though our ability to explain the world resembles the tip of the iceberg, and what we understand but don’t have words for exists below the surface. What’s below the surface is certainly as real as what exists above it, but we cannot explain it in the same way, so we need metaphors, analogies, poetry, music; or sometimes scientific ideas, such as spacetime, or gravity, or the Higgs boson. But we know gravity when we drop a shoe to the ground; we know love when we read the Song of Songs; we know courage when we read in the Iliad about Hector’s bravery.”
Can I make a recommendation?