Who are we?
Aristotle famously wrote “knowing yourself is the beginning of all knowledge.” Buddhism teaches the idea of the “self” is an illusion and enlightenment lies just beyond the gateway of this understanding. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts growth for marriage and family counselors – much faster than average11. Online counseling sites like Better Help and Talk Space are popping up, providing more access. The Self-Help Industry is on trajectory to become a $13 billion dollar industry by 202224. Our cell phone addictions increase our anxiety disturbing our sleep, increasing social comparison (IE social media) and making it difficult to disconnect17. Millennials have experienced a 47% increase in major depression diagnoses since 2013 illustrated by a rise in deaths related to alcohol, drugs or suicide16.
Pretty fucking bleak.
We don’t seem to know who we are. We need more help than ever and many are not getting it. Lives are being destroyed.
What the hell is going on?
What is it that we want?
Ask yourself, right now. What do you want?
A donut? A new Tesla?
Let’s break it down to life dimensions: How do you want to spend your career? What kind of financial life works for you? What kind of spirituality or inner life do you want to experience? What kind of family do you want to be belong to? What do you want to do socially? What kind of physical fitness do you want to have?
Chances are, the answers to these questions doesn’t represent our current status.
I remember being younger thinking “If I only made X dollars, then I’d be happy.” I’d hit the target and soon I’d want more. This is The Hedonic Treadmill, the idea that we humans go right back to our baseline level of happiness no matter what happens to us. What a crock of shit survival mechanism!
There was a CD (remember those?) that I was very excited to buy. When it finally came out, I obsessively bought it every time I saw it. I end up with about eight copies. Why? Just to get that excited feeling that I got the first time I bought it! I was after that feeling, not the actual item.
I still do this shit, sometimes.
I am a dopamine addict. I know this about myself. At times, it manifests as a shopping problem.
When I got divorced, I remember thinking “Well, Ryan. The whole world is fucked up and you’re the only normal one. I guess this is just that hand that we’ve been dealt.” How narcissistic, self-absorbed and self-sabotaging!
Point being – I wasn’t self-aware. I didn’t know myself. How could I possibly know what I want.
But we’re not naturally good at knowing ourselves. In fact, to a degree we’re better at knowing other people than ourselves1. As wise, old Aristotle said, we’re better if we get to know ourselves. Studies show that people who are better able to reflect on their thoughts and emotions were able to make more sound decisions3.
How do we learn to know ourselves?
No easy answer, here. Most people believe they are self-aware, but only 10-15% of people rate highly in the following criteria. First, internal-awareness. This is how we see our values, passions and aspirations fit in with our environment and those in it. So, if I internally believe that I am a generous person, but I consistently pass on the opportunity to donate to a charity, I may not have internal self-awareness. Get it?
Second, external self-awareness is how we believe others see our values, passions and aspirations and how they fit with our our environment and the folks in it. So if I’m trying out for American Idol and am tone deaf, I might not understand that the judges can tell that type of thing20.
Create “space” for yourself. Pause, collect yourself and your thoughts. Go about things more slowly. Be mindful. Find your flow state25. Consider your thoughts, how you feel. Don’t become your thoughts or feelings just be aware of them. Identify where you are spending energy and focus. You can do this by meditating, journaling, running or working out22.
Listen to others with the intent to hear and learn new perspectives about yourself. The more you listen, the better you get at listening and the better you get at listening to your inner voice22.
Cultivate purpose! Read, research shows a strong correlation between adolescents who read fiction and poetry and having a stronger sense of purpose. Also, having a grateful mindset can also lead to a stronger sense of purpose. Find your people, your community and help build it. You should feel inspired by those around you. This could be a cornerstone to your purpose14.
But…There is no me…?
In his book, Why Buddhism is True, Robert Wright writes that human perception is designed to mislead and even enslave us. Our perceptions do not reflect what may actually be occurring in the world around us. Wright references the Modular Minds theory. The theory suggests that there are several modes of the mind that rotate being “in charge” driving survival dependent on the situation. Depending on the mode, the “self” changes5.
The self-protective mode causes fear and anger, fosters defensive reactions. When being chased by a lion, we run! This is the protective mode is in charge. On the other hand, we aren’t feeling lust as we might when the sexy music is playing and we are seeing the bare skin of our partner. This would occur when the reproductive mode was in charge.
Other examples of modes may include mate-selection, mate-retention and cheater-detection. No consensus on how many. Yet, this suggests that our perception of reality is always changing and not consistent or reliable.
Our emotions are designed to steer us towards activities that are conducive to survival23. The thoughts and feelings filling our minds helped our ancestors survive. But they’re not always helping us.
We get deluded by our experiences. We may love and crave donuts. But once we eat one, the craving is gone and we feel … worse. Blood sugar spikes and now it’s nap time. This is where we run into problems. The craving for sugary foods evolved in an environment, very much unlike our own. This craving is so powerful because it had to drive us for long enough to get to food! This now plays out in our lives in a new evolutionary scenario. Donuts are abundant, there is no longer a need for such a powerful craving. But still, because of the intensity, we binge. And … we regret.
A Tibetan Monk and mediation teacher, Mingyor Rinpoche, teaches that happiness is choosing to become “aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them”5. Understanding that thoughts and feelings occur outside of our control, mindfulness meditation is a tool to become aware of and let go of them. Thoughts and feelings are the part of “self” that secular buddhism’s philosophy teaches to chip away at. This principle is called the “no self”, the idea that thoughts and feelings are part of the self, but not in our control . When we fully recognize and exert control over our thoughts and feelings, we achieve – “no self“.
Neurologists and psychologists have identified the Default Network Mode. This is the voice inside your head. Let’s prove its existence…
Don’t have one thought.
The thoughts just pop in there. This is the Default Network Mode. Essentially focusing on anything but the “now”, the DNM is associated with depression, anxiety and schizophrenia26. A 2010 study on happiness found that when the mind is free to wander, we’re less happy25. So we return to the concept of flow – your optimal state of consciousness. During activities that bring flow, your dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex – your inner critic– turns off. You are left feeling free of yourself, levels of creativity and risk taking increase26.
The Dark Side
Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for those 10-34. Depression is the number one reason for disability worldwide and the economic impact is estimated to be $210 billion per year. A recent CDC survey found that as income levels rise, depression levels decrease13. Many people report money and finances as a significant stress. For the last 50 years, wages have stagnated while purchasing power has declined 13%, for the middle class. But, it’s more than money. “They [jobs] are the basis for the rituals, customs and routines of working-class life”29.
Health care costs have risen from $2000 per year in 1999 to $6896 per year in 2017, for the average person29. Researchers believe that if more people had access to “high-quality, evidence based physical and mental health care” the rise of deaths of despair could be curbed30. A third of adults that need treatment for depression, don’t get it13.
This paints a shitty painting of life. Reading these very facts is enough to leave you feeling hopeless. I’m sorry I brought it up…
It’s important to start with yourself. Ask the hard questions – Why do all my relationships end so terribly? Why don’t I have any close relationships? Why am I so unmotivated?
Or, they might be something like Why am I always being dumped? Why does everyone owe me money? Why do I keep spending so much money on useless things? Why do I feel like an imposter at work?
The answer to these questions, though daunting to face, could be a life changer. Who we are now, has much to do with our past experiences. However, we might not often make the connection to how it influences our behavior today. In our relationships is often how we encounter many of these questions. We may be frightened to face some of these things, but being vulnerable is how we can make the most meaningful relationships21. Open up in your relationships. Meaningful relationships increase emotional, physical and mental health in a very positive way31.
Find your way of getting into flow. For me it’s writing this blog that (you may be the only one) you’re reading. For you it may be yoga. Confront yourself, use what you’ve been taught from your relationships and use it to improve yourself. Self-reflection can be a very powerful tool. Learn to not be governed by your thoughts and emotions. Answer those questions that I posed at the beginning and celebrate when the answers are completely different a week, year or month from now.
An idea similarly share by Alan Watts, famous British writer and speaker, and Eckart Tolle, spiritual teacher, we are the universe perceiving itself in all of its chaotic, mysterious, terrifying and beautiful ways.
It really does sound like what’s going on in my mind.
What about you?
5. Why Buddhism is real – Book – Mind Modules