Through the teaching of Trappist monk Fr Thomas Keating, I became aware of what he calls internal programs for happiness; three ways in which the constructed self constantly props up its incessant insecurity. These are: The need for validation by others through affirmation; the need for security and certainty; and the need for power and control. It works well for those who are talented, wealthy and successful. Sometimes it works well for the better part of a lifetime. But I’m not one of those people – despite what some might think – and I don’t relate well to those people. I envy them, or worse, seek to compete with them, until I become all unstuck again. I become the brute beast described by the psalmist in Psalm 73. It’s the only response to the fools who don’t accept and embrace their foolishness as the way into the authentic Self. Or so I thought.
I’ve become aware of strange inversion of the internal programs for happiness. I call them the internal programs for unhappiness. If esteem is in short supply, if security and certainty are nowhere to be found, if it’s not possible to get in control of the situation, the constructed self is wickedly clever. It turns the lack of these things into a strange psycho-antimatter, a vacuous attachment to the absence. It glories in misery.
Between the wars, the Irish poet Terence Gray wrote:
Why are you unhappy?
Because 99.9 per cent
Of everything you think,
And of everything you do,
Is for yourself –
And there isn’t one.
That’s a little hard to grasp at first, the claim that you don’t exist. But you don’t, not the one that you have spent a lifetime identifying with and attaching to. I work with deeply broken men, my qualifications being I too am deeply broken. But I noticed in my journey through brokeness a desire to make pain my friend, to identify myself as a loser, a dropout, a fool by design and intent. That may not make any sense to you if you have never come completely unstuck, but for anyone who has, you will know what I mean.
Because I work with deeply broken men, a couple of years ago I asked the Irish theologian Peter Rollins what advice he had for men who knew the folly of the system and the rage against its wounding of them, who got stuck in their wounding. I was asking “for a friend” but of course, the friend was me. He said that such a man has still not learned what his stuckness has to teach him. He’s still bargaining with reality, wanting to find anything to hold onto so that his (s)elf does not taste annihilation. Why am I so blind to this simple truth?
If our environment cannot support the fragility of the human ego, then the ego will define itself in contrast to the environment. The Hollywood screenwriter M. Night Shyamalan created a fascinating dichotomy that reveals the designs of the alterego in the movie Unbreakable. Bruce Willis’ character is physically unbreakable, and he befriends a man who has type one osteogenesis imperfecta, a rare disorder that causes bones to break easily. Unbeknownst to the audience -and Willis’ character, this ‘friend’ is his nemesis, the villian. Shyamalan sets two two characters in contrast and reveals the tension of the dualism. But the alter ego need not be evil; it might simply be flawed. Whatever weakness it carries, this becomes the point of identity. The tragedy is, the new attachment is no different to the projection of achievement, of success. It’s simply its inverse.
The small s self – the constructed identity that everyone of us builds, carries around, projects and converses with internally all day, the self that over ninety percent of our thinking is possessed by, repetitive and futile – this self does not exist. Not metaphysically, in any sense. It is a fiction, a script that we unconsciously wrote, that we use to define us over and over, even though it tells us nothing about who we truly are.
It’s first and greatest mistake is acting alone. It is the orphaned self, that has not learned solitude. It aches in aloneness and craves attention. It seeks out the ideal, and sets about finding that ideal by living entirely reflected, and expects others (most especially our spouses) to keep holding up the mirror perfect, lest we crumble in dismay or erupt in rage at seeing our greatest fears presented back to us. But the internal programs for unhappiness have a strange way of insulating us from such confrontation. The inverse is to seek out the anti-ideal, a strange perversion that allows us to survive through self-cannibalism. By defining ourselves as terrible failures, we acknowledge the rejection of others by retreating further into our widowhood with the world. The separateness of the self, it’s first crime, becomes its greatest and all defining crime.
This tragedy makes a man (or woman) unreachable. The fall has made the belief in the self complete in a way praise, possessions and power never could. And the only tool that God has at his disposal to free the self to die – suffering – now becomes the means of an emotional zombie-like existence.
The only thing any of us have to free us from this bizarre death dance is what is present to us, right now, in this moment. The thing that is right in front of you. Let it demand nothing of you, simply receive it. Do not demand anything of it. Reframe everything you encounter as neither good nor bad, but simply present. Notice your desire to control it with your apparent cleverness, or want it to control you in your supposed stupidity. Neither are true. When all I see is available as friends to greet me and befriend me, when I bring the Self, loving Presence, true Consciousness to all form, all matter, slowly the furniture will be rearranged, mostly despite ourselves.
David Whyte expressed this so lucidly when he wrote:
Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.
The French playwright and philosopher Albert Camus wrote “man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is.” You are not as bad as you think you are. Nor are you as good. Both are fancies, places to attach. Solace becomes those who see and respond to the invitation, regardless of circumstances, to be who they unutterably are. Part of the great Dance. Marilyn Chandler McEntyre offered the following wisdom in journeying with pain, so that it does not become this new antiself:
Consent to it
but don’t wallow in it
Know it as a place of germination
Remember the light
Take an outstretched hand if you find one
Exercise unused senses
Find the path by walking it
Watch for dawn.”