There was once a man who was terrified of his own shadow and lived in fear of the sound of his own footsteps. Walking along one day he entered a panic and tried to flee at top speed. But as fast as he ran, his shadow and footsteps kept up with him and made him run all the faster, until he finally collapsed of exhaustion and died.
If he had only sat down in the shade of a tree, he would no longer have been able to see his shadow or hear his own footsteps.
There are certain basic psychological needs we all share.
We all want to feel empowered and in control. To some extent, we want to be able to tame our environment, both physical and social and, to this end, we will seek to control situations and other people. This need for control runs very deep and can play out in myriad ways, some subtle and some less so: a child crying to get her own way, a wife emotionally blackmailing her husband, a boss coercing or bullying his employees. We have been conditioned to believe that control is very important and we desire to feel that we have power. A feeling of powerlessness can be psychologically devastating and so we tend to get wrapped up in all sorts of mind games, belief systems and mental trickery in order to develop a sense that we have some kind of control and in order to insulate ourselves from what we fear is a disturbing truth – that life does not move at our behest and that we are, essentially, lost.
We also want to feel validated – we want other people to approve of us and what we are doing. We are social creatures, of course, and the approval of the group is, from a biological point of view, important for our survival. It is also important for our social and psychological well-being. The validation and respect of others is something we seem naturally to want, and our social conditioning backs this up. Very few people are genuinely comfortable with being disliked and criticized. True ‘loners’ are rare.
As well as the need for control and approval, we also want to feel secure. We want to feel that we are safe and, again, this can play out in many ways – family can provide a sense of security and safety, or the accumulation of money. Parents naturally want to give their children a feeling of security and we grow up with a strong need for this. At times of great stress, many people seem to regress into a child like state, where an uncomplicated and unquestioning safety was the norm.
Virtually every action a person takes can be traced back to these three basic needs. Often, we are motivated by a combination of all three.
Change often threatens these three core needs. When we encounter change in the environment, we can feel a certain loss of control – things are moving, but not at our behest. We can suddenly come face to face to the painful and shocking possibility that things are happening to us – we can start to feel like puppets. When it becomes apparent that other people’s views are divergent from our own and, in particular, when they directly disagree with or criticize us, our need for validation comes under threat and we can react aggressively in self-defense.
Usually, our need for power, validation and control gets satisfied in the form of a set of narratives – we each create stories about our own life – what it means, where we have come from and where we are going, what’s important, a set of moral and cultural values, and so on. These narratives are generally populated by things – and people – we care about. Our inner psychological landscape is a complex web of things we care deeply about, and the range of elements which make up this web is enormous – our career, our family, our health, kids, society, our country, education, the environment, freedom, … the list goes on and on.
But there is a problem with caring about things which strikes directly at our happiness and is, in effect, the cause of all our suffering. And it is simply this: When we care about something, we are attached to it, and attachment is suffering. This was the Buddha’s core insight. It is the second of the four Noble Truths, the first one being simply the observation that all life is suffering.
The reason that attachment causes suffering becomes clear when we meditate (that means ‘think about’ not sit in the lotus position for hours – though you can do that if you like) on what it is we are attached to.
Our attachments are illusions. The truth is that we are not in control. John Parkin, in his wonderful book F**k It! Recounts a story about being in a toy car on a track at a fairground. The car had a wheel and, as a small child, you could have the illusion of being in control of the vehicle, but the truth is that it didn’t matter whether you were holding tightly onto the wheel, carefully navigating every bend in the track, or if you were just sitting back, letting the wheel spin. There is no control. But, far from being something to fear, this truth is greatly liberating. Do you remember, as a child, jumping in to a pool for the first time? It seemed terrifying, but when you finally let go and allowed yourself to fall, it was a wonderful, exhilarating experience. You faced a fear and discovered there was nothing there.
The approval of other people is just as illusory. People think what they think and their opinions are just smoke and mirrors – another illusion of something that matters. Letting go is not falling into oblivion but a chance to spread you wings and fly, free from the views of other people.
We are so fragile – the truth is that life is short and can be over in the blink of an eye. Although we spend so much time trying to protect ourselves from this simple fact, it is still a fact. It is still reality. There is an ancient Indian meditation where monks sit in graveyards and watch the bodies decomposing. Anthony de Mello called this a ‘wonderful meditation.’ Such a thing could not be done today – we have removed death physically far away from our day to day life – but it must have brought home the reality that ‘all flesh is grass.’
Like the man afraid of his own shadow, the things we are attached to are fantasies – they are not real and we can see them dissolve into nothing is only we would look at them in the right way.
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