"Levels", Mental Health, The Ego, The Mind, Well-being, Yoga

The Relationship Between Growth and Suffering

This week’s picture-heavy post is partially inspired by the theory of Positive Disintegration. A Polish psychiatrist named Kazimierz Dąbrowski developed this theory over the course of his lifetime. I got pretty into it after my awakening moment, because everything started falling apart around me and nothing in my psychology BA could account for my experiences.

I Googled “existential crisis” and the Wikipedia page for Positive Disintegration came into my life. It deeply resonated with me and it still does, not that I agree with it entirely. Put most simply, the point is that if you are maladjusted to this society, that’s great. (This doesn’t apply to anyone who knowingly does harm.) The world is in a low place; so low, in fact, that we’re living in a mass extinction event being willfully carried out mostly by people who know exactly what they’re doing.

If you can’t figure out how to fit into this paradigm without losing your shit, god bless you. You are actually more sane than those who can do it with few worries.

I love this theory because it turns our ideas about suffering and mental health on its head: Neuroses, anxiety, and depression are prerequisites for growth, it says. The message is to stop pushing these feelings away and treating them as problematic. You need them, and in some way, they’re serving you. Learn to love them.

The fact that more and more people are suffering from these emotions all the time (as evidenced by rising rates of mental illness) is proof of the fact that widespread growth is desperately needed. People are feeling the pressure to grow on a larger scale. They always have been; it’s just that, more or less, “hating your life” has been normalized and covered up with various “totally normal” addictions. It’s still normalized today (and still covered up with various “totally normal” addictions), but there are now many of us willing to step up and say “that’s insane; this is all completely insane.”

True growth—as measured by a distinct departure from ego interests—must occur, or we’ll just keep hurting and killing ourselves. I mean that in the short-term, i.e. suicide, as well as the long-term way that we kill ourselves by killing the Earth as well.

Yogic theory agrees: Within all human beings, there is the basic pull towards growth. The growth of an individual tends not to match the conventions of societies who are rigidly egoistic, as most are. I present a quote from one of my all-time most favorite books, Yoga & Psychotherapy: The Evolution of Consciousness:

“… In other words, there is social pressure to develop an effective ego. In many societies, experimentation with growth beyond this level is not encouraged. In fact, if it involves an investment of energy that detracts even temporarily from one’s material productivity, it may actually be discouraged. Investing time or energy into developing oneself beyond the ego level may be little understood or appreciated by a society where economic success and material possessions are a major criteria by one which is judged. Experimentation with higher states of consciousness may be regarded with suspicion or considered wasteful nonsense.”

Psst: It’s not wasteful nonsense. It is, in fact, the best thing you can do for yourself and everyone else, even when it looks like “doing nothing.”

There is an element ever-present in humans that wants to see through the false self. There is an element that wants the Truth. There is an element that wants to realize it’s potential, knowing that to do this will necessarily come with difficulty (most likely much more difficulty than the current “you” can imagine).

Obstacles to smooth growth are felt as psychological pain: Like a river being dammed or tree roots pushing up through concrete, there is bound to be pressure when we block ourselves. And why do we resist growth? Because change—especially with no guarantee of immediate, tangible rewards—represents a threat to the ego. The ego will always try to preserve itself, and yet the consciousness beyond the ego knows the illusory ego must be shattered in order for evolution to proceed.

So, part of you wants to grow, and another wants to stay safe. This creates cognitive dissonance (guilt, dissatisfaction, stuckness, dis-ease, etc.), because growth and safety are actually opposites.

Seen this way, we can learn to appreciate when we hurt. We can see how necessary it is for us to burn up, get psychotic, cry, destroy ourselves, lash out, and be fearful. Without all this, there is no movement out of the darkness.

And now, a series of pictures re: suffering and growth. Think of yourself as a seed…

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According to Dąbrowski’s theory, the first picture should be a perfectly happy seed who experiences no pain. They’re just fine in the ground, down there with millions of other seeds. Is the world a bizarre shitshow full of hatred and horror? Who cares! To these people, as long as their needs are met and they’re allowed to continue collecting things, people, and experiences, there are no serious problems. Such a person would be at Level 1. (I reject that this type of person is very common. Almost everyone is made uncomfortable by impermanence and the pain of others, no matter how well they can distract themselves from it.)

What this picture illustrates is the beginning of certain unceasing lines of questioning: “Is this all there is?” We look around for more, but it begins to feel all the same. Pressure is felt. “What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with this world? What can I do? Does it even matter?”

This batshit dialogue will continue on as long as you allow it/as long as you need it. It can be an extremely difficult time, and that’s about the nicest way I can put it. This would correspond to Level 2 in Dąbrowski’s theory: Something needs to change but you can’t tell what it is. No choice seems preferable, and you are left in a limbo of bad habits (this includes bad thought habits by the way), constantly wondering what to do with yourself, and often in pain. This can go on for a very long time.

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The pressure to the seed casing (from inside and out) reaches a critical point. This is the first departure from a long-held ego. This is when you crack open. Because pressure is relieved, it feels very, very good, and you see how wrong you were about what you always thought you were. This whole time you imagined that you were a hardened little thing under the soil, but now you have upward movement, and you can actually feel it in your brain (it’s the best feeling ever.)

This was how my moment of awakening was experienced. It really does feel like light or like you’re being shaken from a nightmare. It’s pure relief and joy. Everything is beyond fine.

Warning: Your mind will quickly cobble together a new ego because you need an ego to survive. You blissfully and naively think, “Actually I’m a green chute coming out of a seed; now I’ve got it all figured out.” And you try to stay right there, because you’re so sick of suffering, and your ego needs you to just be static.

This is when I started writing. “Now I’m a writer,” I thought. I started building a whole new self out of this, like, immediately. In retrospect, I wish I would’ve just luxuriated in that new feeling for much much longer; maybe read some spiritual books to understand what had happened. This would’ve saved me a lot of spent energy and embarrassment, but alas, it’s not the way it went. (Also, I did desperately miss writing and needed it to navigate my experiences.)

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Every day, your ego tries to make sense of what it is now, and now, and now… but if you’re always growing, this doesn’t work. Every day you see more of what you are, which is ultimately limitless. Here your consciousness is expanding so fast that your ego can’t catch up. Delusions of grandeur are common. Hello, bipolar mania. (Again, this is just my personal experience. I’m sure others don’t have as many dysfunctions of the ego, depending on their upbringing and particular brain chemistry.)

Here, we’re between Levels 2 and 3. You’re growing, but the speed of it might be scary. You know what’s “higher” and what’s “lower” to you, but you do not always act accordingly. There hasn’t been a full commitment to growth or an understanding of what it all means. The ego is checked again and again and again. There may be one or several larger breaks, but the work of burning up the ego is actually very gradual.

At this point, you either make the choice to stay the course, or drop back into the safety of the seed casing. (I’m a big fan of Plato’s cave, though: Once you see the light, you can’t unsee it.)

The transition from Level 2 to Level 3 is huge, and there are no guidelines as to how long the process lasts. Cognitive dissonance can no longer be ignored. You’re clearly on the path of growth with the understanding that your emotions are the most reliable guide for how to live in this world. If you do or say something and it hurts, you actually stop.

This is how bad habits are relinquished and all forms of self-abuse begin to fall away. Your awareness of life (“the way it all works”) deepens, and “lower” actions become less and less tempting.

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Level 4 is an even more conscious and directed version of Level 3: You take charge of your development and there becomes little memory of the seed casing and the factors that once bound you to such a form. One of my teachers might refer to this as “the coming into your light” phase.

Level 5 (I’m not there, but I hope to be someday) is when things mellow out, and life no longer feels awful, confusing, and dangerous all the time. In fact, fear tends to significantly diminish, and you sleep soundly knowing you’ve done right by yourself.

I am a believer in complete freedom from suffering—but only if you’ve gone all the way. Stopping after you sprout or bud will immediately result in more suffering, because you haven’t reached your natural height. (I forget this almost every day, and halt my own growth with habitual actions. Don’t judge; I’m always working on it.)

Imagine if an oak tree decided to just quit growing once it became a sapling, and fought against the natural forces moving it upward. In this metaphor, the tree is fighting it because all of the other trees have decided to stop at sapling-status. This tree doesn’t want to stand out or risk going too far away from the other trees. So everyone’s holding themselves and one another back, not to mention fighting nature. This is what our culture does.

This is also essentially what we do when we decide we’re “good enough” because we don’t want to do all of the (highly inconvenient and somewhat terrifying) work of dismantling our false beliefs. In this case, boredom, doubt, and self-loathing will always return.

Once fully bloomed, the climate and the geography, no matter how harsh, are felt in a completely different way.

Furthermore, once you start losing your petals and drying out, so to speak, you do not resist it any more than an actual flower would: You’ve become what nature intended for you, and you accept that part of what nature intends is the end of individual forms, including yours.

– Lish

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Conditioning, Narratives, Reality, The Ego, Well-being

Happy 4th!

Nations Are Illusory

There has never been a need to cut the world up into nations. There is land. There are climates. There are variances in topography and coordinates which correspond to unique geographic locations. But there is no such thing as a nation once you have become unconditioned.

What we refer to as “our country’s history” is a collection of stories passed down from one generation to the next.  Stories can be twisted to fit any agenda; they are the most manipulative device known to man. I could tell you stories about myself that would make me look awful, and I could tell you some that would make me look great. I expect the same is true of you. Neither one would be based in reality because reality only exists here and now; also, everything is so much bigger than any single story can touch. 

Stories are the things your mind holds onto in order to keep your ego intact, or in this case, the ego of the nation. And so, from moment to moment, I am a woman without a story unless I choose to make one up. I do this often—and we all do. The only question is whether or not we’re aware that that’s what we’re doing.

According the story that is perpetuated in American culture, today is Independence Day. Here’s that story as I see it: A few hundred years ago, some people freed themselves from the tyranny of one guy and went on to oppress a bunch of other people. In the following years, some people ended up way better off; others ended up way worse off. Today, the remaining people are among the richest, saddest humans in the world. Regardless of their comforts and rights, they remain neurotic. Many are outright miserable.

I know there are more poignant aspects I could focus on, and that with the right intonation and rhetoric of glory, I could say something  patriotic: “The founding fathers emancipated themselves from an oppressive, greedy monarch and went on to build a country based on the ideals of liberty and individual pursuit of happiness.” See?  I can do it; it’s just so obviously one-sided.

Anyway, if the goal was for us to be very materially wealthy and very psychologically ill, I’d say this thing is a great success.  But of course it wasn’t.  The goal was freedom, and we are still so far from it.

Freedom is a State of Being

This isn’t meant to be a rant against the US or against Independence Day; it’s meant to be a post discussing actual freedom.  I’m so totally pro-freedom that I want us to be free of nations.  I want us to be free of limiting beliefs.  I want us to be free of borders and security agents with guns and hostility towards one another.  I want us to be free of fearing our fellow humans and free of fearing death.  I especially want us to be free of fearing life. I want us to be free of suspicion. I want us to be free of fearing that at any moment, freedom can be taken away, so we best militarize and lock up.

True freedom can never be taken way, nor can it be granted by another.  It is an individual’s personal work to get and remain free of his/her limiting mentalities (and, of course, to understand what that “self” actually is). Someone who is retired with millions of dollars can easily be mentally enslaved. Someone who is in jail can live outside of the confines of the body and mind and dwell in a kind of peace that eludes everyone else.

It is the work of the collective to create functional communities wherein we don’t treat each other like equipment, constantly assigning value to one another. In this made-up lala-land I inhabit in my imagination and envision as a real possibility, we would give of ourselves as we could and accept when needed. No one would fear for their survival, thereby becoming free to devote energy to inner development. This is the place I want to live, and it is one I know can exist because I can think of it. It is also clear to me that creating such a culture is a requirement for allowing the Earth to heal itself from years of abuse.

The story I want to be able to say regarding the transformation of consciousness goes like this: “Humans freed themselves from their own oppressive minds, ceased to identify with illusions, and came together to clean up the mess they’d unconsciously made.”

What I am Free From

I get that this has all been very pie-in-the-sky: Nations dissolving, people treating each other with love, blah blah blah.  I know it seems like there are a million steps we have to take before we get there, but the truth is that awakening happens in just one moment. One click of light and it’s all over. The self that thinks of the self falls away. The self that is separate from others is revealed as a facade. It all seems so idealistic until you get a taste for it and begin to feel the changes within yourself.

Suddenly, it’s feasible: We really don’t have to keep waging war on this planet or on one another if only we could drop every single lie that stands between us. The war within us is the war without. The things that leave us feeling like we’re 50 different people all the time are the same things that divide us on the whole. Total system overhaul is dependent on us transforming ourselves and  moving forward consciously.

To round this little post out in a much more normal and personal note: Today is my 100th day alcohol-free! I didn’t plan it, and if I had, it wouldn’t have been as good as it is. I’ll be spending the day playing outside, being with loved ones, watching fireworks, and drinking a bunch of nonalcoholic ginger beer and grapefruit soda. I choose to see today as a celebration of my freedom from alcohol addiction.

I’m working on a big post on alcohol right now: Why I don’t drink (it isn’t because I’m an alcoholic) and how I’ve practically spring-boarded from poor decisions, constant shame, and self-recrimination into positivity and actions that are more in accordance to who I know I really am just by giving it up.

The post will go up when it does, and until then, I hope you are all enjoying this beautiful summer. May you celebrate real freedom, as well—whatever that means to you.

Love,

Lish

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