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Wake Up San Francisco
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March 28, 2015
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Often the things we think will make us happier—like impressing the boss or getting that raise—ultimately deprive us of happiness. As a well-known saying goes, “Few people on their deathbed think, ‘I wish I’d spent more time in the office.’” And yet that’s so often how we live our lives. Life has the potential to be glorious. There’s the joy of witnessing birth and growth. The joy of loving. The joy of learning. The joy of deepening relationships. Sometimes there’s the sheer joy of simply being alive. But those moments can be rare and, again rather ironically, we’re often too focused on things that don’t give us lasting joy to pay attention to those that do.
Our existential situation is such that it’s hard to have anything but a sporadic experience of security and well-being. After all, the world is inherently insecure. There’s nothing in the world upon which we can absolutely rely. True, it’s pretty certain the sun will rise tomorrow morning, but then again, there’s no guarantee we’ll be around to enjoy it. Sometimes we forget this, and it’s been argued that in fact we try very hard to forget it. An entire movement in psychology is predicated on the hypothesis that we have strategies for dealing with the painful reality of uncertainty and loss. Studies have shown that we frequently try to find something unchanging and reliable with which to identify, something that acts like a secure island amidst a river of change. Often what we cling to is an ideology, or a religious identity, or a sense of belonging to a group or nation. This response is one of fear and clinging. We see change around us and we’re afraid. And so we try to find something to cling to—something more permanent and stable than ourselves.
Another strategy we all employ is to imagine that we ourselves are small islands of stability in the river of life. We cling to the idea that we have this “thing” called a self. And we imagine this self to be separate and permanent. We become the thing we cling to. But as Sylvia Plath once wrote, although with a rather different intent, “I am myself. That is not enough.” Our selves are not enough. We find ourselves incomplete, lacking happiness and—despite all our clinging—security. And so we grasp for those things we think will bring us happiness and security, while trying to keep at bay those things we think threaten our happiness and security.
Fundamentally, we all just want to be happy, secure, and at peace. The problem is that as strategies for finding happiness, clinging and aversion just don’t work very well. They don’t deliver the goods. It turns out that thoughts of impermanence often enrich our lives and make us happier. We cling to status, material possessions, approval, and pleasure, and yet the pursuit of these things often turns out to have been a misuse of our time. We think that focusing on our own needs will maximize our happiness and well-being, but this often merely impoverishes us, while including others in our sphere of concern brings us greater satisfaction.
We can swap our ineffective strategies for others that work better, but this requires that we change the way we see ourselves. We imagine the self to be separate and unchanging, but it is not that way at all. The self is, in a simile I’ll return to frequently, like an eddy in a stream. It has the appearance of being a separate thing and of having permanence, but in what sense can an eddy be separate? There’s no borderline we can say for sure marks where the eddy stops and the river begins. The eddy cannot exist without the stream, and the stream itself is nothing more than a mass of eddies and other currents. I suggest that the self is like that too. We are not separate from the world around us; we instead exist as the sum total of our relationships with a vast web of interconnected processes. We are not physically separate, and we are not mentally separate, and realizing these facts is infinitely enriching.