My Refuge in Reality

Large-scale_structure_of_light_distribution_in_the_universeAnyone who has followed my writings, however sporadically, has witnessed my maturation. As I review essays written over six years, it seems clear my tone has grown less competitive, more accepting, less self-centered, and more compassionate.

This budding of genuine adulthood has proceeded neither steadily nor smoothly, as explained in my post Healing After Trauma: Ten Steps Forward, Nine Steps Back. As recently as four days ago (Easter Sunday) I found myself on the brink of that growling chasm of mind that has threatened to swallow me time and again. How painful it is to admit that for a few hours suicide seemed the sole recipe for relief.

In case it isn’t obvious, let me reassure readers that I survived the peril. Once more I lived long enough to learn, for the thousandth time, that mental states are impermanent. Even a mood that seems as massive and immovable as a granite tomb gives way in time.  Ninety-six hours later I feel at peace with my life. Even better: I feel in love with it. This is not, as clinicians might suspect, grandiose hypomania. Rather, I find myself humbled and awed in this creative and churning world, thankful in this moist, vulnerable body.

Progress is on view right there. During the first ten years of our third millennium, suicidal thoughts did not smother me for mere hours, but throttled me for weeks at a time. Seldom during that dismal decade did I feel grateful for the gift of living; never did I feel wowed by it.

Still, it’s hard to claim mental health four days after craving annihilation. It seems obvious another step is needed. The ‘budding’ mentioned above cannot be an endpoint. A season of blossoming must follow.

How could the planets of my psyche rearrange themselves to call forth a springtime of spirit? I hinted at the answer in my last post. That piece traced new sectors on a map of reality I’ve been drawing–over many years–as I grope my way toward mental health. The newest territory on view guides me to learn from the fact that life is holistic, not individualistic.

Before getting to the new parts, let me sketch the overall map, whose outlines will be familiar to anyone with interest in science. At the point labelled “You Are Here” stands a male human body, fifty-six years beyond the womb and nearly fourteen billion years beyond the Big Bang. From the solar system in which that body was born, scientists can detect some one hundred billion galaxies, each with a like number of suns. The galaxies are drawn on the map like dewdrops on an immense web of silk, the weave occasionally dense but most often loose, as if spun by scattered families of tent caterpillars across the canopy of sky. There’s no telling how much more fabric is festooned beyond the horizon of observation. And while we could speculate about what caused the cosmic explosion that generated the uncountable stars, or argue about the dragons drawn around the map’s margins, there is no need. What’s clearly and uncontroversially mapped is sufficient to save this troubled mammal named Will.

For nearly four billion years our lovely little planet has supported a biosphere on its wobbles around the sun. For more than three quarters of those years all life was encapsulated in single cells, at first structurally simple but later more complex. The forces driving evolution toward higher levels of intricacy are–surprisingly–still being worked out, but the basic idea is that energy left over from the Big Bang fuels cellular chemistry. Nuclear reactions in the sun and earth serve up photic and chemical power that living processes have learned to harvest. Those forms most adept at proliferating using the energy of light and molecules come to dominate the family of life. By virtue of ceaseless change, new forms and processes emerge over time; if they prove more effective, the new shapes overgrow the old, and so it goes, evolution branching out over millions upon millions of years.

The single-celled state that was the sole province of life for much of earth’s history–and remains ubiquitous today–consists of tiny bags of macromolecules. While bound in separate bubbles, the chemistry is communal, not individual. No single cell can survive on its own for long. Each relies on its neighbors. Sugars released by one lineage might be used by another to produce lipids required by the first. Such loops of interdependence become further complicated as DNA for chemical capacities gets exchanged between cells, like craftwork traded in a marketplace. The intimate reliance of each cell upon the others provides the healing insight that is helping me as I recover from my recent mood crisis.

In my last post I built a metaphor for human life from the way macromolecules leverage random churning to create order, by grabbing hold selectively as opportunity races by. Today, I believe we can find a useful analogy in the way single celled life seems comprised of individuals, but that those individuals collectively form a cohesive life process that is only viable as a whole. It’s as if each cell is a railway stop on a complex web of tracks. The stop has meaning only within its context of rail lines and other stations; by itself it is nothing but a spot of ground. So it is with humans. We feel separate and uniquely important, but we are just way stations on Life’s great journey. Matter and energy jostle within us as the organic world cascades toward the future. We have significance only in so far as we participate in the network.

Of course, our network is dense with possibilities. Think of all the ideas, art, exploration, passion, trends, and surprises that zip along the rails of culture. Think of the resources pulled from the rocks, the nutrition cultivated in the soil, the cities growing like bacterial colonies on agar plate. Humanity is neither more nor less than another successful–and transient–process in this startling harvest of life.

But how might this perspective rescue me from struggle? When I look back on Easter Sunday and replay the content of my cadaverous thoughts, I notice an obvious theme: everything that upset me revolved around–you guessed it–ME. Not a human organism seamlessly embedded in the tracks of time, but a lonely man acting like an isolated entity, a solitary life-builder.

What does this life-builder do? He claims responsibility for the shape of his experience. If he finds himself in late middle age as a prematurely retired physician, an unknown writer, and a troubled loner, he blames himself. If his body is losing vigor, if he feels more tired and broken than others, he blames himself. If he doesn’t measure up to cultural standards, he doesn’t question those standards; he questions himself. And what does he gain by claiming all this life-building power? Misery.

Others may find the standard formula workable: get an education, cobble together a profession, develop a network of family and friends, and measure success in units of attainment. Many find relative peace of mind this way. They may not be as accomplished as they’d wish, but they’re accomplished enough. Their social network may not be as supportive as they’d like, but it’s supportive enough. They may not feel as happy as they could, but they’re happy enough.

For me, however, that formula leads to ruin. Although I continue to produce a little bit, here and there, my financial wellbeing depends on a disability policy. Too physically challenged and emotionally sensitive to work as a physician, I survive on a dole. And while I am slowly learning how to relate to others without reactive blow-ups, a lifetime of stormy sensitivity has left me with almost no friendships that began more than ten years ago. In similar fashion, my mental dysfunction made raising offspring seem unwise, while my sister remained childless for the same reason. So there’s no following generation that owes me life and with which I might bolster my shaky identity. And though I’m finally at a stage where I feel happy much of the time, it’s impossible to say I’m ‘happy enough’ when every couple of weeks I plunge into depression and sometimes contemplate suicide.

So my life-builder has failed to set sufficient anchor into this spinning ball of soil, water, and air. One of these days the centrifugal force of failure could pull loose the strings, untethering this body from its hold on life. Or so reasons the little self-constructing demon.

But what is this life builder? Is it really a builder of life, or simply a teller of tales? If life proceeds by the power of chaos, with only occasional choice points that are themselves selected on the basis of conditioning, how much of the life-builder’s history is really its own creation? If every living form depends on the entire biosphere, might it be more accurate to say that events are created by the entire web rather than single, transient nodes within the whole?

Inevitably, I am brought back to the Buddhist idea of no-self (in the Pali language, anatta). Twenty-five centuries ago The Buddha taught us that our sense of self is illusory, an insight neuroscience confirms. And not only is the life-building self an illusion, it’s a dangerous one. Think of how many murders and wars have resulted from perceived slights to honor, possessions, relationships, or power. What do these psychic treasures have in common? They are battlements around the chimerical self.

Well, it’s one thing to say the sense of self is a projection without substance; it’s another to retire the life-builder from its chosen (and imaginary) task. This is where those abused as children and marginally functional as adults have an advantage. Childhood trauma led to unstable identities, which, when layered with later failures, makes it difficult for us to believe ourselves stable, coherent adults. But does lacking a solid identity make relinquishing the self-building project automatic? No.

It’s not that simple, because the life-builder would rather destroy the organism than admit it never built anything in the first place.

So where does that leave us? More specifically, where does it leave me?

It presents me with a grab point. I can continue pretending my personality is in charge, which means the life-builder will continue to call its narrative up for judgment, with all the danger of self-destruction that incurs. Or I can look at the map of reality, see my true position as an infinitesimal intersection on the unending lacework of life, and shutter the machinery of self-construction. I can escape the slavery of individuality.

And isn’t that a twist? After growing up in a nation that exalts rugged individualism and claims to value liberty, I learn that freedom comes from surrender rather than self-will.

How wonderful it feels, when I can manage it, to quit worshiping at the altar of a mythical self and begin honoring my identity as a tiny swirl in the roiling ocean of life. No longer must I struggle for identity as if manning a rowboat far from shore, furiously bailing as waves wash over my gunnels. Instead, I can marvel at how fate’s currents create this temporary entity named Will; I can savor the sensation of life flowing through me.

What’s more, it’s beginning to seem like escaping the prison of selfhood is both possible and essential. Given my constitution and history, letting the life-builder claim responsibility is becoming increasingly hazardous. How much healthier it would be to quit defending, judging, and punishing this ‘self’ that doesn’t exist. Lacking alternative, I might as well wake up.

Tentatively, shyly, I feel ready to unfurl my petals and claim my place as one tiny blossom rooted in four billion years of life. Who knows what lush radiance, what love, might shine forth as I open toward the infinite sky?

To conclude this post, I’ll append the following verse, said to have been the first words spoken by the Buddha upon enlightenment. It popped into my mind shortly after the term life-builder occurred to me, for obvious reasons…

Oh, house-builder, thou art seen at last. Broken is the ridgepole, smashed the rafters, awakened to freedom, no more imprisoned by sorrow am I.