Common among all of us in "Spectrum" is the fact that we are looking to find more meaning in life. One of the roots of unhappiness for us is that feeling of emptiness, where the things we do in life don't seem to add up to anything. Well, there's no universal solution to that problem. Each person has his own unique key to finding meaning in life. Some of us complained that there was too much boredom and repetitive tasks in life. Others of us complained that life was too full of activity and everything seemed too scattered and chaotic. In any case, we find much to be desired about the culture we live in. We are barraged my messages from the culture about what we should be doing to be happy, and most of those messages are sometimes self-serving and certainly phony. We seem surrounded by people with cell phones and planners who imply to us that we ought to be staying busy and filling our time with important stuff. Are those guys with their faces in their planners all the time finding the meaning of life in there? Maybe.
Maybe there is something to be learned from stepping back and figuring out what will make our life more whole. Some people find this wholeness in religion. None of us in the group is particularly religious, though. In fact, we have pretty much come to the conclusion that religion is one of those phony messages.
As we get older, our concept of the past and future change. Younger people are climbing the hill of life trying to get to a better place in their careers and relationships. When we were in our 20's we had a picture in our heads of what life was supposed to be like, and had plans for getting to the picture. Some of us are more talented and ambitious than others when it comes to making the picture actually come true. Those of us who are older and on the other side of the "hill" look back and try to make sense of what actually happened compared to what was supposed to happen. This can be a depressing thought and another reminder that there is a kind of emptyness in life.
Freud and Jung
The group had a discussion the intersection between Jung and Buddhism. It has to do with alleviating one's suffering through understanding one's self, and becoming more "whole" - that is, becoming aware and accepting conscious thoughts as well as the unconscious. Also, considering those things we all have in common (super-ego? collective consciousness?) to open one's self to community. The way to curing suffering is to accept and understand one's own suffering. It seems a bit paradoxical, eh? There is the story of the woman whose child died, and who went to the monk and said "please bring my child back". The monk responds "I will if you bring me a mustard seed from a household who has not suffered death." Of course she can find no such household, and in the process learns to become more compassionate, and therefore, happier. The German philosopher Victor Frankl came to the conclusion that the root of happiness is, not necessarily one's circumstances, but the reactions to circumstances, and recognition that we have the right to choose those reactions. People who are happier are the people who do good things for themselves, and they do them because of their active intention.
Freud said we can use our dreams to help get in contact with the forces in our unconscious that have been formed during our upbringing. I call it the "internal treadmill", where, despite common sense, we still do the silly things we did as kids to get rewards. For instance, if I got whiny as a kid, mom would buy me something. So nowadays, I get whiny all the time, without reward. Being whiny just seems comfortable, because once upon a time it was a way to feel comfortable. In therapy, we examine these behaviors in order to attempt to outgrow them. Freud tried to fit this type of stuff into a scientific theory, but unfortunately, made up a bunch of stuff that seemed scientific but was just unfounded theory. His idea, anyway, was to uphold reason as a way to get to mental health.
Carl Jung went beyond the Freudian model by saying there is so much beyond the rational. His interest in the meaning of dreams was not only relevant to the analysis of patients, but also to the big questions of who we are. What are these dreams I have? Do they mean anything? Or are they just the chaotic firing of neurons? Jung said they point to the "collective unconscious", which is that churning of the mind that happens in the background, that we are not really aware of during waking life. Every person has this churn in the mind, and it's similar for all of us all over the world, just like we have similar hands and fingers and eyeballs. Mythology throughout time has used themes that come out of the collective unconscious. That's why so many myths are so similar, even amongst peoples who have never been in contact with each other.
The dreams that come to us and the myths that come out of the collective unconscious are real and important and they are beyond what we can map out using logic. Believing in God again, for me, means realizing that God is beyond the things we know rationally. Jung was an advocate of becoming more fully human by pushing the boundaries of thought. It's important to consider the light as well as the shadow, the masculine and the feminine, the mind and heart, introversion and extroversion, and so on, as we move toward more full awareness. In our western society we have a bias toward the rational, the things that can be expressed as written language, the measurable and predictable. We see just about everything in a linear way and in terms of either/or, and good/evil. Well, I reject that way of seeing things. Even though I still have the damn baggage that says I am a sinner and need to be redeemed. Rather than "repentance", is it not better to think in terms of continually improving ones self through transformation?
What can we learn from the parts of life that bring us darkness and misery? So many of our discussions are about shame and unfulfilled dreams, but what good can come of these things? The therapist and author Parker Palmer makes the distinction between a life about "getting somewhere" (wealth, power, etc) and a life about appreciation. If the paradigm of my life was simply to get somewhere I'm bound to be disappointed. In fact, even if I get to the place I wanted to get to, when I am there I will be disappointed because the reality is always different from the image, and life is still full of lousy events no matter what. Nevertheless, it is necessary to make plans and have some concept of the future or else we will be stagnant, and that is certainly lousy too. Of course there is great satisfaction of planning something and actually seeing it through, but the bigger ambitions come with the bigger pains of trying to get there. It may seem as though there are others out there who have done wonderful things, but as we become closer to others and listen to their stories of life, we find that even the seeming successful have had their heartaches too.
Palmer notes that the people who are ultimately happier are those whose life paradigms are about appreciation. They accomplish things, but they do not judge how much they have "accomplished", but instead appreciate life as it comes. This appreciation comes from living life in a more contemplative way, and in a less egotistical way. Many of our pains are pains to an over-inflated ego. Palmer points out that the appreciation of the moment comes to those who have practiced contemplation of some sort, whether it be prayer or meditation. And those who have suffered and overcome great pain have practiced this contemplation almost through necessity because we need to pause and figure out what the painful experience was all about. So do we need to suffer greatly in order to come to the point where we can appreciate and feel joyful about life? Is each disillusionment a step toward having eyes more wide open and to the blessings of the here and now?
Even though the men in out group were skeptical about religion, it can serve a great purpose for many people, sometimes as a vehicle for meditation and contemplation, and to fulfill the need to feel connected to something larger than one's self. That need is universal, and is the root of religion and mythology. "Spectrum" spent a good deal of time talking about myths and stories and how they relate to our lives. Jung said that myths are a way to understand what he calls the "collective unconscious", that is, the mysterious part of mind that is beyond what we can easily describe in words, but what we all have in common, and which is larger than each individual.
An example of a mythological story was brought up in the group: Rapunzel. The letting down of her hair was a symbol for opening ones self up to the world and getting out from the encloisterment of the tower. It's taking a chance on a happier life, even with its potential perils. This analogy means the opening of one's self to the possible perils of the inner life as well as the outer physical dangers. Participating in the group was itself a risk for all of us to take because we had to look at the dark sides of ourselves. But according to Jung, and many wise people before and after him, we need to examine and accept the darker sides of ourselves in order to better understand life. The cure to suffering, according to Buddhist thought, is to accept one's own suffering. That sounds paradoxical, eh? But that is a large part of what "Spectrum" was all about. Even though we say we are not religious, I think we arrived at the central tenet of all major religions, which is compassion. Our examination of ourselves, and our taking the risk of sharing our unique stories, including (especially) the dark parts, is what bring compassion to each other, and to ourselves.
It seems contradictory to "appreciate" the dark parts of life, but we can't help but learn and become wiser if we look back in a realistic way about our trials. Our "wholeness" comes from embracing not only the joys but also the failures. There is something empowering about not having illusions about the world, but knowing through disappointment that you are closer to the what Palmer calls the "certainty about bedrock reality". The dark episodes of life also make us more empathetic of others who have been through hard times, and therefore more loving and closer to our friends and family.
In James Fowler's "7 stages of Faith" view, the 5th stage comes when we realize that there is more to the universe than what we can know using linear language, and mathematical logic. That's where I am, and I still don't know exactly where to go with it. There is an awful lot of stuff out there that seems like enlightenment, but is it really just new-age hokum? I can't abandon science, but I acknowledge that there is much more to existence than what we can see or measure. We have the obligation to be skeptical about everything, but we also have the obligation to be open minded enough to know that our limited human brains can never know very much about how this big universe functions. The unknown can be frightening, or it can be exciting depending upon attitude. Every day we move toward an unknown world, and we can choose to see it as a darkness to be feared or an adventure to be lived.
Prev: Part 2
ReferencesDavid Burns, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy
Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces
Christian de la Huerta, Coming out Spiritually: The Next Step
James Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development
James Hollis, The Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other
Gershen Kaufman and Lev Raphael, Coming out of Shame: Transforming Gay and Lesbian Lives
Joe Kort, 10 Smart Things Gay Men Can Do to Find Real Love
Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul
Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward and Undivided Life
Cindy Spring and Charles Garfield, Wisdom Circles: A Guide to Self Discovery and Community Building in Small Groups