I’m a failure. I need to do something more with my life. Until I write a book and develop a following, I’ll lack self-respect. Unless more people love and/or admire me, my life will feel meaningless. Since none of this is likely to happen, I’m doomed.
No. I’m a success. I’ve overcome an extremely challenging upbringing and much adult hardship. In spite of everything, or because of it, I believe my life sacred and worthwhile.
Depending on my mood, each perspective feels valid. They depend on outlook and emotional state, not “reality.” It therefore makes sense to foster a mindset that makes me feel worthy regardless of circumstance.
That’s not encouraged in this culture, which evaluates us from birth notice to obituary. We’ve all internalized benchmarks for success and failure. Some people gravitate toward the monetary scale. Others prefer the “good works” scale (the more you promote world harmony, the better). Or the fame scale. Or the family scale (the warmer your circle of relations, the better). Or the appearance scale. Or the status scale. It’s easy to think of metrics, much harder to not think of them. We’re conditioned to place valuations on ourselves and others.
But as I pointed out in the last post, personal appraisals are mere opinions. The fact that different people use different rankings proves it. Donald Trump thinks it enough to pretend he’s a wealthy power broker. Mother Teresa devoted her energies to helping the impoverished. If people disagree, who’s to say which stance is healthier? The fact that wisdom traditions come down on Mother Teresa’s side is worth considering, and it is likely that the person who works selflessly will gain more clarity and peace of heart. But we can’t assume that he or she scores higher on some cosmic grading system. We want to, but we can’t.
And what of the obstacles a person overcomes? Many books and movies tell stories about poor, disadvantaged youths who surpass young people from privileged backgrounds, with the latter made to look selfish and smug. These plots appeal, in part, because we recognize it’s harder to win from the rear of the pack. To end up satisfied and secure after childhood misfortune may be more of an accomplishment than achieving great acclaim after a supportive upbringing. But Hollywood notwithstanding, you won’t get many kudos for the former achievement.
Which shouldn’t matter. Because despite our social nature and desire for recognition, adoration must arise from within. If we depend on the affection or opinion of others, we remain vulnerable. A natural disaster could wipe out our circle of support. A mistake or false accusation could ruin our reputation. Or (more likely) aging could leave us isolated.
Relationships seldom help me feel safe, because I know they must end. Death or waning interest will intervene sooner or later. Believing human love unreliable might be the natural result of having lost my mother to depression at age six. If a child learns that the person he needs most can withdraw and then disappear forever, he learns that depending on others is a fruitless strategy.
Children have strong need for reassurance and tenderness growing up. Paradoxically, support in childhood helps one feel more independent when older, so a youngster raised bereaved and/or abused ends up more needy than average. Even more tragically, often he or she also lacks the social graces required for warm and secure relationships. This combination of heightened (though seldom admitted) need and impaired attachment explains my habitual feelings of isolation.
Every problem forces growth. A chaotic upbringing requires the child to adapt, then the adaptations create new challenges that force maturation. In my case, I’m finding that since external bonds often fail to (first) materialize and (second) reassure me, internal love is my only option. But how does a person with longstanding low self-esteem learn to appreciate himself?
The answer lies not in trying to appreciate the self (which is illusory anyway–see prior post), but in gathering support from the rich loam of inner life. Deep inside, love waits in ready supply.
Earlier this year I wrote at length about non-dual awareness after I experienced it for several days running during a retreat. Feeling that the presence animating my being is the same presence propelling the entire universe moved me. I’ve been practicing entering the unitive state ever since, working to strengthen my ties to it. But although this practice encourages feelings of peace and acceptance, it hasn’t assuaged my loneliness. The reason is that feeling connected is not quite the same as feeling loved.
And yet, ever since my potent visions of 2000, I’ve known that elevated awareness awakens one to cosmic love as well as unity. So why doesn’t that universal ardor gain traction in my soul and persuade me that I’m valuable?
I believe there are two reasons. First, the conditioning mentioned above makes it hard for me to credit meditative states. Our materialist, capitalist society has trained me to consider numinous affiliation imaginary, if not delusional. My worth must be proven by a bestselling book or a Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by many warm relations (neither of which is within reach).
Second, when I am able to contact non-dual awareness, it’s largely a phenomenon of mind. I feel connected but not loved, because love isn’t primarily mental. I can see that love surrounds me, but it doesn’t sink in because my heart isn’t as engaged as my head.
I think this is an artifact of how I was taught to approach unitive consciousness. A buddhist nun (technically, a bhikkhuni, a female monastic) advised me to turn the light of consciousness on itself. At first this sparked a headache, as I tried to become aware of awareness. But during that retreat in May something clicked inside and non-duality appeared obvious. I could barely understand why I’d ever assumed a difference between observer and observed.
Note the emphasis, however, on awareness. Focusing on it worked, but it exercised mind rather than heart. I now realize that just as we can become conscious of universal consciousness, we can engender love for universal love.
Last night, while awake between midnight and three, I started doing exactly that. I felt devotional toward the pervasive ardor observed in non-dual states. As happened when I turned awareness back on itself, the recursion of love awoke me to a stunning but obvious truth: affection is not a scarce resource. It doesn’t need to be earned, as if mined with great exertion from rare veins in hard rock. Love is an atmosphere that surrounds us, embraces us, floods us. The reason we don’t often feel this abundant sweetness is that we have forgotten how to breathe it in. But all we need do is inhale, and our aching need for human regard vanishes.
I now understand that we unconsciously separate consciousness (which resides in the head) from affection (which dwells in the heart). Because of a relative physical separation, we experience awareness and love as two different qualities.
But this is a false duality. In fact, awareness remains incomplete without devotion, just as love cannot be fulfilled empty of conscience.
If love is as accessible as nondual awareness, then there’s no need to scramble to win support through success or popularity or anything else. The universe’s warm embrace becomes obvious once we open our hearts to it. So why worry about the number of chairs around a holiday dinner table? Why care if anyone reads this essay, when I know it’s written with tenderness? Love is not dependent on other beings because, along with awareness, it is elemental. The wordless abiding of sentient ardor precedes all manifestation. The intimacy we feel around family, friends, and pets is a reflection of this prior and eternal quality.
Or that’s how it seems. I won’t claim objective truth, only subjective realization (although I insist that this perspective is as valid as any other experiential understanding). By awakening affection for love itself, fondness is discovered to be inexhaustible, strenuous, and universal.
Success in failure? Winning all by losing much? Perhaps. All that matters is feeling safe and secure in an atmosphere of loving regard.Share on Facebook