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There is No “You”

Much of life’s problems revolve around our belief in the self. The voice in our heads reinforces on a daily basis the feeling of being a unique and separate entity- a self. We live by stories that we’ve told ourselves. We attach to descriptions of ourselves and say, “this is me” and “I am this” as if we have a unchanging essence. This attachment to identity, ego, to self, compels us to protect our selves at all costs. We get offended, guarded, feel persecuted, feel attacked, feel like something is happening to us because of the ‘self’. But what are we really protecting? I’ll suggest that the self is simply an illusion that creates a façade that gives us the feeling of self-hood.

Imagine having a loved one with dementia so severe that they no longer recognize their own children or even know how to feed themselves. Perhaps you’ve had this experience. Here is the question: What happened to the self of your loved one – from un-demented to a demented state? When family members see their loved one in a demented state, it’s common for family members to express, “This is not my Papa anymore,” or “this is just a shell of my Papa, but it’s not him.” They will often run through a litany of attributes or qualities and say, “Papa was always a gregarious and outgoing guy who loved to fish and spend time with his grand-children, and now, I don’t know who he is?” Now think, when did Papa stop being “Papa”? Was it when he stopped fishing, or was it when he couldn’t recognize his own children? Moreover, who was “Papa” when he was 7-years old? 

This is reminiscent of the ancient thought puzzle, “ship of Theseus” discussed in essays by the historian Plutarch. The dilemma proposed posits a ship that is left in Athens, and the youth of Athens slowly replace the old wooden boards of the ship with new ones. The question raised was this: is the ship the same, despite receiving new parts? Better yet, at which point did the old ship stop being the old ship? Was it when 1 wooden board is replaced, or 13 or 27?  This puzzle can also be applied to a heap of sand. When does a heap of sand officially become a “heap”? The point of the puzzle is to illustrate that we cannot ever truly locate the “ship” or the “heap” of sand. Likewise, when we speak of the “self,” “me” and “I,” it is an illusion. Life experiences changes all of us, minute-to-minute in the most minuscule of ways; thus, the self is never located.

The crux of this essay concerns identity, and the self. We all feel as though we have a self. Every day, our senses seem to reinforce that each of us is “separate” from everything else. When I walk, I walk in my shoes, not yours. When I eat, I am eating and become full, but I cannot eat and have you become full, nor vice versa. It is I who notices the new moon at dusk and shares my wonder with my wife during our walks. It is our relationship with these experiences that compels us to see ourselves as the center of our own universe.

My contention is that we have no true self, no essence, no way to honestly say this is really me. The self is not physical, it’s symbolic. There is no “I”, rather we are constantly be-coming; our identity is in constant flux. Think of the list of adjectives that describe you and then ask yourself, “am I any of these descriptions all of the time?” Nope. Rather, you have different personas that you employ to help you navigate your immediate environment. Our metaphorical ship (a.k.a. self) constantly receives additional lumber with every experience we encounter. The self is not something fixed or static (e.g., teacher, father, son, car enthusiast). You were a different person at 5-years old, and vastly different every year after that. Heck, I am not the same person I was last week! Now, let’s dive deeper into the self.

Locating Your Self

Let’s start simple. Can you locate your ‘self’? Where is the exact location of your self? When asked, most people will point to their head to indicate inside the cranium. Others will gesture their entire body and say, “all of this is me.” But this tells us nothing. The problem with this is that both mind and physical body are in constant change. Given this constant flux, how are we to pinpoint your self?

Returning to one’s demented papa, one can never go back and hit the pause button in one’s life and locate the “self”; Papa’s entire lifespan was a constant unfolding (mind/body) from birth to grave. The self is thus, illusory. Like Papa, you don’t have a “self’ or real you that you can pinpoint. The self can never be pinned down and identified with any certainty.

What is the Self

“I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.”

– Charles Horton Cooley

The “I” is a constructed entity, a collection of opinions, projections, and emotions, rather than something absolute. The “I” is like a persona that we reinforce throughout our lives that seems so real – as if we have been cast as a character in a play. The self is shaped by the reflected opinions of others around us. People shape themselves to fit other people’s perceptions, and these vary from one person to the next. Spouse, family, boss, colleagues, lover, adoring fans, and beggar in the street each hold a looking glass up to us every time we interact, and we present a different self. You don’t unfold into the world; rather, the world unfolds into you.

Think of the self as a Potemkin village. A Potemkin village is any construction (literal or figurative) whose sole purpose is to provide an external façade to a country which is faring poorly, making people believe that the country is faring better. The term has its roots from stories of fake villages built to impress Catherine II during her journeys through Russia in the late 18th century. Likewise, the self functions in the same way as a Potemkin: a façade created to show a respectable image to the world. Simply look at anyone’s Facebook feed or Twitter feed and you will see the ubiquitous attempt to show the good stuff. A constructed façade.  

Ponder this: who are you when you are with your closet friends? Now, who are you when you are in a meeting at work amongst professionals and your boss? Finally, who are you when you are by yourself? Often, I notice the drastic difference in personas between my business focused “work-self” and my “dad-self” when playing with my 3-year-old. We take on personas (e.g., work-self, social-self, alone-self) to help us navigate the world. The personas, however, are a façade. Thus, we modulate our personas, demeanor, facial expression, non-verbal cues, to best match the appropriate tenor of the situation. So, which is the real you? Well, none of these personas are “you”, they are façades that help you relate better to the world around you.

Think of the great actor, Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks knows he is not truly Captain John Miller in Saving Private Ryan or Forrest Gump. Yet, he is considered a great actor because he plays these roles, or identities, so well; his commitment and skill create convincing portraits of wildly diverse people that can genuinely move and inspire us. Further, playing these roles serves a useful purpose (in this case, communication and entertainment). Our multiple identities are much like the multiple roles that Hanks has played.

However, unlike Tom Hanks, who knows he is acting, we typically do not grasp the idea that we are constantly and continually playing roles. These roles, or identities, are relative and temporary and serve a purpose, but they are not who we are in an absolute sense. However, they are who we think we are, absolutely. Sometimes we are more self-aware of “performing” for an audience than at other times, and some roles we play are more comfortable and perhaps are more convincing and successful than others. But being a “good” actor doesn’t change the fact that we are “acting” within every interaction and every relationship, even our relationship with ourselves. In our ignorance, we don’t see and understand this; we are not in control of our actions. We are not in control of our life. It is as if our roles are playing us. We react to circumstances or our disturbed emotions without awareness and are unable to control, change, adjust, or stand up to whatever role we are compelled to play. If we are simply playing roles in life, how can we understand better the idea of the self?

Self as a Concept

The notion of self is simply a concept that we employ to help us navigate the world better. Think of “the self” as a heuristic (problem-solving technique) that helps us function and relate to the world in practical terms. The self in this context is not rational or a perfect concept, rather, it helps provide immediate and “good enough” approximations for helping one navigate in the world. The concept of love functions in the same way. Love is not rational or something that can easily investigated through empirical means, rather, it’s a concept people use in practical ways to communicate deep and profound feelings and emotions. Both self and love are illusory terms that lack a solid and fixed essence, yet they convey practical sentiments that help humans flourish. 

You (your name here) are a concept, just like the constellation Big Dipper. There is no big dipper up in the sky. “Big Dipper” is a concept. Humans looked, saw a certain pattern, and then created a concept in our collective mind to describe it: That concept is useful because it helps us recognize the constellation. But it also has another, less useful effect. By creating the concept “Big Dipper,” we separate out those stars from all the rest, and then, if we become attached to the idea of that separation, we lose the sense of the night sky’s wholeness, its oneness. Does the separation actually exist in the sky? No. We created it through the use of a concept.

Does anything change in the sky when we understand that there is no Big Dipper? No. The stars in the sky remain just the same, and the pattern of the stars remains the same. We simply see that the concept that names the pattern of stars, and that separates those particular ones from all the others, does not have any independent existence.

Likewise, realizing that “self” is a concept revolutionizes our understanding by revealing how things have always been. Each one of us is a constellation of mental-physical processes. We recognize the familiar pattern, name it, and then become so identified with the concept that we fall into the great illusion of believing that some being is ultimately there. (Your name here) is just the same as “Big Dipper.” (Your name here) is a concept, a name given to a certain pattern of elements, just as Big Dipper is a name given to a pattern of stars.

The Self is like an Oasis

To be clear, saying the self is an illusion doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist at all, but rather that it’s akin to a mirage in the middle of the desert. The vision of the oasis is real, but the oasis itself isn’t. In this same way, the image of the self is real, but when we look at the image, we find it is simply that, an image and nothing more. The image of both, the oasis and the self, is really just another idea or thought and only the moment it is being thought of.

Now ask yourself: Who is feeling the feelings? Who is thinking the thoughts? Once again, when I refer to the “self,” I am referring to the idea or concept we hold of an unchanging essence to who experience is happening. Thus, when you feel or think, your experience does not refer back to anyone. There is no “self” or “I,” feeling the feelings and thinking the thoughts. The “self” or “I” in this context is the oasis in the middle of the dessert. 

The Dissolving of Self During Meditation

Here is another thought experiment: who are you when there are zero thoughts in your mind? Think about it. During meditation, especially the Buddhist practice of Vipassana (clear insight) meditation, meditators will experience gaps between thoughts. These gaps are an experience of absolutely (and literally) nothing, devoid of thoughts and emotion. Again, the question I raise is this: who are you within these gaps?

It is precisely thoughts, thinking, and feelings that build the façade of ‘you’. Each thought reinforces a sense of ownership of your body and actions, giving you a sense of control and responsibility. However, without thoughts, thinking and feelings, who are “you”? These gaps remove the façade, the ego, and the protective shell to reveal what we may call bare consciousness. I’m speaking of a mental space where you are simply be-ing, with no judgment, and a steady calm. In these gaps, you possess no adjectives, no descriptions and no roles to perform because all of the personas you regularly employ have dissolved.

I experience the gaps of no-self routinely, via meditation. I describe it as an absolute form of freedom because within those gaps I am not attached to anything or anyone. The ego and all of my defenses have vanished because there is no self to protect. However, as soon as a thought arises, I am back to performing in life: What am I going to eat for lunch? I need to call Mike. Do I have any meetings tomorrow? Desires have arisen and now I am compelled to feed my ego, my self.

Conclusion

The benefit of realizing that your idea of self-hood is an illusion is that you can end the bottomless pit of self-mortification. You know, the voice in your head that negatively critiques everything you do and reminds you of all your imperfections. The inner critic loses its power with a dissolved self. Let’s take an example whereby we may all relate. Imagine eating dinner with a small group of people and telling a joke that falls completely flat. Within seconds, humiliation and regret set in. The voice in your head begins, “what the Hell is wrong with me?”… “you’re so stupid!” Now let’s put things into perspective.

You just experienced what everyone experiences at some point in life: a well-intentioned joke that garnered an unexpected reaction. Any negative mental ruminations that follow are as ridiculous and unhelpful as tripping over oneself in public or spilling your drink in front of everyone. At no point is such a momentary lapse in judgement or glitch in motor skills a valid indictment to your self. This illustration extends to every kind of life event, really. Rather than allowing your self to be flooded with shame or self-denigration, imagine if you simply shrugged your shoulders and smile. Perhaps you reign in your thoughts by reminding yourself, hey, it happens to all of us. No suffering is needed. No need to attach your self to a facade you have created. Life moments are like clouds passing by; they roll in and then dissipate into thin air. The world is truly born anew in the very next moment, if you will just let it be. Realizing the self as illusory helps us to observe the clouds rolling by, rather than identifying with them, which is always the beginning of suffering.

Against Hope

This essay was written over a two day period, and inspired by a conversation with a good friend. He is inspired by the philosophy from the book ‘The Secret.’ Hope is, now more than ever, an important pillar in his life.  However, hope is a pillar in the lives of most people I know. But I wonder if hope can actually lead to more pain than peace?

Hope: The religious need it for refuge, because they cannot cope with death; the weak depend on it because they lack the strength to look at suffering in the eye; the fearful beg for it because a fantasy is better than now;  but it’s the courageous who live without it.  – Wes Fornès

j['opimI wrote this essay to show that if we want to understand life and ourselves more clearly, we ought to abandon hope and cultivate self-awareness, acceptance and optimism into our lives.

What do we tend to think of hope?

Hope tends to be a looked upon as a virtue held in high esteem. I’m reminded of Jesse Jackson’s 1992 speech on which he encouraged the public to “keep hope alive.” Psychologist and researcher, Dr. Anthony Scioli, describes hope as not just the belief that a better future is possible, but that we have the power to make it so. Hope inspires us to do better. When you’re hopeful, you take action to create something better because you believe that you have the capability to do so. There is always a path to healing. We need to believe that healing is possible. The alternative is to quit, to stand still, to believe that we’re doomed. Hope is viewed as good and needed in life. After all, when caught in despair and tragedy, hope is what frees us from the muck and mire of life. Hope serves as an oasis in the distance that provides the destination of where we ought to go for refuge.

To be honest, I think this picture of hope is misleading and leads to more disillusionment than happiness. I believe that hope is more about creating a fictitious future world in order to get one unstuck from their present misery. Hope is a refuge for the timid. I believe we can take action and have optimism about the future; without hope.

Hopelessness

My argument is for hopelessness. I contend that if we want to understand life and ourselves more clearly, we ought to abandon hope and cultivate self-awareness, acceptance and optimism. Hope is simply an escape from our present experience as we create a future of how our life ought to be. The problem is that the future is an illusion of our own creation, of which, we simply have such limited control. Furthermore, hope often serves as a mechanism for denial. By keeping our present dissatisfaction and suffering at bay, we deny it, while creating “the perfect” future which never leads to fulfillment. My point is this: hope is often the obstacle to people experiencing peace and happiness. Let’s get down to the bare bones of hope.

oioHope arises out of a desire or need for a better future. Hope is a kind of wanting, wishing, and frustration with our present situation. It is a desire for our life to be different or better somehow. It is wanting to be there instead of here. It is the old “grass is greener on the other side” in action. Think about it like this, if you were truly happy and satisfied, would you really need to lean on hope? Well, you might say, “I would hope that this satisfaction I feel now continues for much longer!” Okay, but even that is rooted in a dissatisfaction of the way things were before. Hope provides the escape plan for our present misery and unhappiness.

Because hope is rooted in our dissatisfaction with the present, we can rightly say hope is an emotionally generated desire. It’s an emotionally generated desire by which we wish for something in the future, because we are dissatisfied with the present. Imagine a child just about to undo the wrapping paper on his birthday present. He might close his eyes really tightly and say, “I hope, I hope, I hope.” It is a kind of magic incantation which is consistent with a child’s mind. When we invest our well-being in the very hope we create, we are doing just what the child does.

Deconstructing Hope

First, hope distorts reality. Many who hope, implicitly believe their thoughts or feelings can directly impact reality; as if, they, and external reality are one. To paraphrase from the best-selling book ‘The Secret’, if you think it you can be it. This is similar to the above statement of the child unwrapping his present all the while hoping for a particular item – as if his hoping will make his expectation come true. What’s the problem with making up our reality? Well, it’s just that: made up. Thus, we set ourselves up for dashed hopes and disillusionment when we soon realize our own false reality. Even if we get to the hoped-for destination, we realize that ultimate happiness isn’t waiting for us. Discontentment remains, or we simply want more.

hhSecond, hope is intertwined with fear. We hope because we fear. If it weren’t for fear, there wouldn’t be a need for hope. This was encapsulated long ago by the well-known Stoic named Seneca (4 BCE-65 ACE) when he wrote,

“[t]hey [hope and fear] are bound up with one another, unconnected as they may seem. Widely different though they are, the two of them march in unison like a prisoner and the escort he is handcuffed to. Fear keeps pace with hope. Nor does their so moving together surprise me; both belong to a mind in suspense, to a mind in a state of anxiety through looking into the future. Both are mainly due to projecting our thoughts far ahead of us instead of adapting ourselves to the present.”

A good alternative to hope is to cultivate courage for the present, rather than escaping the present with a future fantasy rooted in hope. It’s important to cross-examine hope because fear is the subtle nuance that gets lost. Perhaps when we feel like hope is creeping in, we should examine what fear is accompanying the hope.

Second, hope causes us to mistake our inner (hopeful) feeling for an action-producing energy or medium. Hope is a mind-based future reality that we’ve created, it has absolutely nothing to do with action. One can hope that they can escape their abusive relationship, but hope has nothing to do with the steps needed to take right now in order to get to a safer environment. Instead, the abused should ask themselves, “What can I do right now to improve my environment?” This way, we remain in the present, and begin taking action towards a better tomorrow. Keep in mind, you don’t need hope to take action, or improve your future.

Third, hope involves certainty. And with certainty comes dashed hopes and disillusionment. To borrow from Vaclav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic, “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It [hope] is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Hope involves the belief that whatever that’s hoped for, is the way it ought to be. In other words, our dissatisfied desire propels us to construct and concretize a future world. The problem with certainty is that nothing is certain, and nothing is guaranteed. When we begin making demands from the universe, we will be in for a rude awakening. The world simply doesn’t care about your demands.

Fourth, hope can paralyze. It’s common to hope for something to happen, yet do nothing in the present to actualize anything in our lives. It’s the person hoping for financial bliss in the future, but doing little now to save. It’s the person hoping for a job promotion, but not taking action now to make it happen. It’s the religious who hope for an afterlife because they’re too scared to make the most out of their current life. This is the danger of hope: we make so many investments for the future, that we remain paralyzed in the present.

Fifth, hope cultivates self-belief rather than self-awareness.  Self-belief has to do with what we believe we deserve and what we think should be intrinsically ours. Unlike other countries, Americans have enculturated the term “American Dream” to serve as a belief in the intrinsic rightness of our cause. As author Karen Krett puts it, “to grow up in America today is to be inculcated with the sensibility that we are innately smarter, more able, and somehow fated to be more successful than people who grow up in other countries. The American Dream has become corrupted and recalibrated to measure superficial and valueless excesses or material acquisitions.” Thus, hope is seen through the filter of what we think should be our reality – because we deserve it.

Where self-belief solidifies expectations of the outside world, self-awareness looks inside and seeks “to know thyself.” Self-awareness cultivates our emotional intelligence in which we seek to understand our internal states, preferences, resources and intuitions. Self-awareness keeps one present, so we can see and understand our surroundings more clearly. With self-awareness, we are not focused on the future, rather, we look inward to so we can more accurately understand ourselves in the present.

Why is this important? Because self-awareness (1) helps us to be mindful of ourselves and others, (2) it helps us to have healthy (and realistic!) perspectives on life, (3) we pay closer attention to the feelings and desires that arise in ourselves so that we can notice when we are unbalanced or craving things that are not good for our well-being, and (4) when we look to the future, we don’t see it as what we deserve, rather, we cultivate acceptance and adapt to whatever comes our way.

knlknSelf-Awareness, Acceptance and Optimism

In arguing against hope, it begs the question: what’s the alternative to hope? Hopelessness sounds bad enough to most people. It conjures thoughts of a life of disillusionment and meaninglessness. It’s like the Greek myth of Sisyphus eternally pushing his boulder up a mountain, only to have it fall back down the mountain just before he reaches the summit. How can hopelessness be good?! The good news is that there is a realistic alternative to hope that make happiness and peace more attainable. In doing away with hope, I am advocating for self-awareness, acceptance and optimism. What does this look like?

First, we abandon hope because self-awareness grounds us in the present. Selfawareness is having a clear perception of your personality, including strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, beliefs, motivation, and emotions. When your mind starts dreaming and scheming of an illuminated future world, self-awareness interjects and says, “time-out, what is it that I am needing right now?” “what is it that I am not getting in life right now?” “What is the root cause of my dissatisfaction right now?” “What changes can I make right now for my personal well-being?” This approach brings you to the present moment, and it gets you thinking of what nourishment you need in the present. No future fantasies needed here.

I am willing to argue that every time we begin creating a future hope, peace can actually be found in the present. There’s nothing wrong with looking to the future, but we need to make our investments in the here and now. That being said, we hold the future very lightly, knowing we possess so little control and nothing is guaranteed.

Next, we abandon hope and begin accepting what our present realities are. Repressing, denying and keeping our present sufferings at bay are only temporary solutions that eventually come back to haunt us. So, we ought to cultivate acceptance. Why?

First, acceptance means we can give up never relaxing with where we are or who we are. With acceptance, there no need to get angst about the fictitious ‘you’ you’ve created. Second, acceptance means you can relax in the ambiguity and uncertainty of life. When you accept the fact that everyone’s footing is on marshy soil, you begin cultivating courage in your life. Abandoning hope means that you can integrate the virtue of courage in order to face present misery and chaos with a strong spine. Third, without the illusory life-preserver that hope gives, abandoning hope means you can stand up to suffering and grow from it. Hope often provides an escape option from our present misery because we can dampen the misery with a nugget of hope. This, however, is wishful thinking. Abandoning hope means we can see that there is wisdom and maturation through suffering and disillusionment. Lastly, giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself, to make friends with yourself, to not run away from yourself, to return to the bare bones of the problem, no matter what’s going on.

skcxsxOptimism

Finally, optimism is the lens from which we view life. Even though I embrace hopelessness, what keeps me striving is optimism. While hope describes [unreasonably and irrationally] what the world should be, optimism is merely an attitude. Optimism is a positive attitude that welcomes whatever happiness or misery comes knocking on the door. Optimism says that things are pretty good right now, at least if you are willing to see the silver linings, make lemonade out of lemons, etc. Optimism is much different than hope. Hope is an emotion and optimism is an attitude. Hope is wishful thinking that involves false beliefs, whereas optimism is an attitude that does necessarily involve beliefs. Hope tries to move mountains, and optimism merely brightens the picture.

Final Reflections

Peace resides in cultivating self-awareness so we become comfortable with ourselves. Peace resides in accepting life as it comes. And peace resides in an optimistic outlook that sees the good or a lesson to be learned in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in. Hope, on the other hand, is a way to self-medicate ourselves from our present distress.

It was Nikos Kazantzakis who said,

“leave the heart and the mind behind you, go forward … Free yourself from the simple complacency of the mind that thinks to put all things in order and hopes to subdue phenomena. Free yourself from the terror of the heart that seeks and hopes to find the essence of things. Conquer the last, the greatest temptation of all: Hope.”

Conquering hope is the first step toward courage. Courage to seek and strive, even if our efforts are in vain. We abandon hope for good outcomes, or understanding, or meaning, but ascend and move forward. We are tempted by hope, but the courageous live without it, carrying on in its absence.

It’s the courageous who live without hope.

~ Wes Fornes

 

Suffering: Where Humanism Fails

Written over two days and completed at Starbucks in Willow Glen, San Jose with The Killers on Pandora blasting in my ears.

Where Humanism Fails

Thesis: Humanism fails because it has no sufficient answer for suffering.

Problem: There’s no philosophy of suffering within humanism that provides a reasonable framework and perspective that speaks to the human heart.

imagesghghWhat does the humanist say with respect to suffering? Most humanists immediately become reactionary and defensive to the question. For the humanist, the topic of suffering is often understood only in the context of ‘How could a loving and all-powerful God allow suffering?’ It’s as if the humanist finds it impossible to speak about – and open up about – intersubjective issues of suffering within themselves. I’m not interested in any pivot towards the dilemmatic subject of suffering within Christianity. What captivates me is the intersubjectivity of the question. When the humanist’s life is falling apart, how can he or she put the suffering into perspective and persevere?

I am specifically talking about dealing with suffering in a very personal way. The perspective I am inquiring concerns the existential human condition. This is where the rubber meets the road in life, in which your spouse hands you the divorce papers out of the blue, or your child is suddenly killed in an accident and now your world feels like it’s falling apart. These are very dramatic examples, but even so-called ‘first-world problems’ involve suffering. For instance, a downward spiral into depression due to losing your job or feeling isolated in life due to possessing no close friendships.

downloadrtrtThe answer I am looking for is a pragmatic one. One in which is imbued with a reasonable framework that gives direction and guidance to those suffering. Even though it defies reason, a large part of the success of religion is that it provides answers to the dilemmas of suffering. People flock to churches, mosques, temples and synagogues to find order to the chaos of life. Religions provide its members with a framework and foundation to put suffering into perspective. But what does the humanist have? What framework does the humanist lean on to find perspective? This is precisely why humanism fails: The humanist has no reasonable pragmatic framework to address suffering in a personal way.

Sterile Answers Do Not Suffice

To the humanist, I want to say this: stop dolling out sterile answers to deep existential questions! When it comes to suffering, humanist’s address the question like a scientist looking through her microscope at bacteria. The humanist speaks about suffering from a distance, using demonstrable analysis. “Well,” says the atheist, “suffering is part of life, and we need to take responsibility for our actions and choices in the midst of suffering.” Even worse is the humanist who will inject Darwin and say, “It’s part of nature, it’s survival of the fittest, that’s life.” These answers are not necessarily untrue, however, they are not helpful when one is in deep crises. It’s like telling someone who has just been told they have stage 4 cancer, “hey, it’s part of life, everyone suffers.” Sterile answers do not suffice, and this is where humanism reveals its utter impotency.

imagesnmnmPerhaps the humanist will interject and appeal to some naturalistic coping method one has during crises. Humanists do indeed have non-supernatural ‘methods’ of coping through friends, family, worthwhile activities, love, a personal project, a legacy, etc. Granted, these are helpful ways of approaching suffering, however, these are nevertheless band-aid approaches. In other words, they bring only temporary relief. Your friends and family cannot always be there when it’s 3 a.m. and dark thoughts are permeating your mind. Worthwhile activities and projects can distract us for so long before we realize how unsettling the ground is beneath our feet.

In fact, I would say that reliance on friends, family, and worthwhile activities are equivalent to the theist’s dependency on a church family, prayer, and worship. True, one is rooted in the supernatural and the other in reality; however, both are strategies that afford a type of escapism. Just as God acts as an ultimate Xanax (an anti-depressant drug) for the theist, so do the friends, family, love, projects, worthwhile activities, concern for a legacy, etc. for the humanist. I’m not interested in surface level escapism, I’m targeting something much deeper. When your life feels like a dark abyss of meaningless triviality. When every day is a Sisyphean trek up the mountain pushing your heavy boulder, only to have it roll back down over you as you near the summit. It is at this juncture in which the humanist simply shrugs his shoulders and appeals to some empty platitude: “it is what it is.”

A Solution

imagesnnnnWhat would a reasonable secular perspective look like? Moreover, what kind of perspective can we adopt that cuts deep into our worldview, and provides the proper spectacles to understand suffering? For sake of brevity, I will bullet point key points that provide a reasonable (secular) framework to understand and view suffering. I’ll call it, “The 10 Commandments to Suffering”

First Commandment : Limit your attachments, and limit your suffering

All suffering comes from being attached to something or someone. We attach ourselves thinking that “it” will bring us lasting happiness. But nothing lasts forever.

Second Commandment : Everything is impermanent

At any given moment, no matter how pleasurable or unpleasurable your experience may be, it will not last. One must begin that process by appreciating the impermanent, transient nature of our existence. All things, events, phenomena are dynamic, changing every moment; nothing remains static.

Third Commandment : Don’t run away from suffering, rather, sit with it, understand it, and allow it to teach you something about yourself

When suffering arises, lean toward the discomfort of life and see it clearly rather than protecting yourself from it. Suffering is always an opportunity to learn about yourself.

Fourth Commandment : You cannot control suffering, but you can choose how you respond

Refrain from reacting in a negative way, let the slander pass by you as if it were a silent wind passing behind your ears, protect yourself from the feeling of hurt, that feeling of agony. So, although you may not be able to avoid difficult situations, you can modify the extent to which you suffer by how you choose to respond.

Fifth Commandment : Don’t personalize the suffering

Personalizing is the tendency to narrow our psychological field of vision by interpreting or misinterpreting everything that occurs in terms of its impact on us.

Sixth Commandment : Guilt is a self-created prison; you hold the key to your liberation

Guilt arises when we convince ourselves that we’ve made an irreparable mistake. The torture of guilt is in thinking that any problem is permanent. Since there is nothing that doesn’t change, however, so too pain subsides – a problem doesn’t persist. This is the positive side to change. The negative side is that we resist change in nearly every arena of life. The beginning of being released from suffering is to investigate one of the primary causes: resistance to change.

Seventh Commandment : Relinquish the past

The acceptance of change can be an important factor in reducing a large measure of our self-created suffering. So often we cause our own suffering by refusing to relinquish the past. If we define our self-image in terms of what we used to look like or in terms of what we used to be able to do and can’t do now, it is a pretty safe bet that we won’t grow happier as we grow older. Sometimes, the more we try to hold on, the more grotesque and distorted life becomes.

Eighth Commandment : Let your enemies be your Guru

The best teacher is always our enemies. They are your Guru because it is they who teach us patience and tolerance.

Ninth Commandment : When suffering arises within you, observe it without engrossing yourself in it.

It’s similar when my dad would comfort me while watching a scary movie by saying, “It’s just a movie.” My terrified reaction was because I was placing myself in the movie. Our suffering is created in our minds, it’s not a real object. Even though it feels real, the more we can view our suffering from a distance, the quicker we can gain perspective of how to view and understand the suffering.

Tenth Commandment : Cultivate a flexible mind

Without cultivating a pliant mind, our outlook becomes brittle and our relationship to the world becomes characterized by fear. By adopting a flexible, malleable approach to life, we can maintain our composure even in the most restless and turbulent conditions. It is through our efforts to achieve a flexible mind that we can nurture the resiliency of the human spirit.