Many people suffer from anxiety or worry. Others from anger, hate, bitterness, regret, fear, sadness, impatience, or jealousy. While both negative and positive feelings can be healthy, we speak here of the unhealthy variety: pathos – sickness of the soul.
We begin by examining the shadow of fear. When I speak of fear I do not mean the kind of automatic flinching that one does in response to something coming quickly and unexpectedly toward the head. I also do not mean the rational recognition that some things may need cautious and productive attention. Rather, fear is a troubling, disruptive or stressing worry. It may be about something that may happen soon, or something long-term, like angst over our mortality. While attention and reasonable action may be needed at times, this kind of worry is not. While all of us recognize this truth and assent to it, we still continue fall back into it.
Many people believe their only escape is the hope that the conditions ‘causing’ their pathos may change. They may seek to possess some power or control to change their conditions such that they can be happy (more health, wealth, reputation, relationships, etc). They are mistaken. That kind of control is an illusion. Even when achieved, it will only leave you vulnerable to the next inevitable shift back toward unsatisfactory conditions. Thus, the shadow of fear goes hand-in-hand with the shadow of desire.
Many people look to spirituality as a source of consolation. They want to know that ‘it’s going to be okay’ – that the hard times will pass and things will work out for the best. This is not what I mean by ‘happiness’ when speaking of the benefits of spiritual practice. This is not happiness, but escapism in service to the ego. Spiritual progress is in large part about bringing ourselves in line with Nature, reality, or truth.
And, the truth is, it is not going to be okay. Things will not work out for the best – not in the way people mean by these phrases. Everyone dies, all relationships end, all glory flees, all legacy fades, and nothing ‘stands the test of time’1.
Consolations to the contrary, and those who seek after them, are consumed with external conditions. They require those conditions to be in particular states in order that they be happy, fulfilled, and at ease. Such a person will therefore only be content so long as conditions meet their demands; they will have faith only so long as their good fortune lasts; they will only be spiritual so long as happenstance aligns with hope. In this, they leave themselves at the mercy of forces beyond their control, and True Happiness will continue to elude them. This is because external conditions are always in motion and beyond control.
Such a person will also judge the veracity of all spiritual traditions, practices, worldviews, philosophies, and religions by the degree to which they promise fulfillment of their wishes2. Our own fears can sometimes seem so monumental as to have us believing these things in our heads are more immovable than the whole world. And so we seek the unenviable job of controlling that world. Fortunately, for all its bluster, our fear lies to us – it is not so unmovable.
Superstition is the child of desire and fear, and it acts to pull us away from wisdom and the practices by which we improve it. It subsists because those trapped by it have not seen how True Happiness is possible, independent from circumstance. To them, the admission of impermanence and all that entails is seen as negative, nihilistic, and ‘depressing’. This is the natural recoil of a soul that has not come to terms with the very cosmos from which it emerged.
This pathos flourishes in struggling areas of the world – the oppressed societies, war-torn streets, diseased and malnourished areas. It is driven, understandably, by uncertainty and the fears therein. But this pathos also flourishes in the prosperous nations, where stability makes it easy to turn a blind eye to impermanence. The scope of human experience is narrowed and focus moves toward the petty, where desire consumes.
And that is the real darkness; the real nihilism. Because when tragedy does inevitably strike, such people are stripped of their resources. There is no wisdom that can help them in that moment, as they have aligned themselves for True Suffering.
These two shadows, fear and desire – aversion and attraction – are the strings by which we are controled3. As long as we are controlled by fear and desire, we are slaves to the governments who wish us to be good citizens, the corporations who wish us to be good consumers, the religions who wish us to be good worshipers, and most importantly, we are slaves to our own egos. As so many philosophers, texts, and traditions have asked, what good does it do us to control the whole world if we cannot control ourselves?
For this reason, True Happiness is ultimately about freedom – freedom from fear, anxiety, anger, slavery to the harmful passions; and freedom from suffering under the vicissitudes of fate. When we speak of flourishing, it is this True Happiness that we mean. If spiritual practice is about anything, it is about first learning to see those strings, and then developing alternate sources of action and being.
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- As Marcus Aurelius reminded himself whenever he became too self important or upset, “…soon you will have forgotten all things…” and then, as if a reminder of his mortality were not enough, he takes an additional profound step, adding, “…and all things will have forgotten you.” Yes, even for the famous emperor, there will come a time when no one alive will have ever known his name or the meaning of anything he worked to accomplish.
- It is this wish fulfillment that is at the source of superstition, which infects various subcultures within nearly all great wisdom traditions. In the East, pragmatic transformative practices are set aside as adherents seek to appease ghosts or gain ‘good luck’. In the West, teachings of humble lifestyle and forgiving one’s enemies are replaced by materialistic prosperity doctrines, prayer as wish-making, spell casting, and alleged ‘laws of attraction’.
- The Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, (himself a former slave) referred to all of us as slaves for this reason.