The Doer’s Dilemma
Since the day that we were born, in the west, we are told that we should be doing, preparing and achieving something. We are quickly ingrained with the mindset of the goal setter, the go-getter. We are taught that we are independent agents and that we can “will” things into existence. This mindset is a precarious one at best. The goal of this article is to explore some of the symptoms that could be attributed to this mindset and then some antidotes to the notion Alan Watts has described as the “Age of Anxiety.”
Perhaps due to my profession, my sense for picking out what is wrong with life has been amplified. As an engineer, we focus on problems all day long. We then attempt to create solutions to fix the issues and sometimes improve the process at large. This approach is the fundamental underpinnings of science, which has become the prevailing dogma for understanding the world.
Science has helped to form and support things such as humanism, where humans have been elevated to states of god-like importance. Unfortunately, when we view ourselves as small independently acting agents with “free-will,” this sense of self-importance separates us from our true selves, others, and the inherent interconnectedness of our reality. This approach also often disconnects us from the results of the application of our solutions to our problems.
An additional aspect that stems from this stance of humanistic superiority is a great deal of dissatisfaction and unease. Because of the way many of our systems in society are set up, we are compared to other people almost constantly. When we lead lives guided by our fragile egos, we can quickly turn this competition into fuel for self-hatred, and worse hatred for being itself. By comparing ourselves to others, we so quickly and easily can pick out our flaws and shortcomings. We can then proceed to fixate on those. This focus on problems can drive us into hyper-drive or nihilism. There are few choices for paths in between. When we proceed to hyper-drive it is often a result of feeling like we act independently from others and our surroundings.
Because we are taught to be independent agents, we tend to have a hard time trusting others. There is a great deal of cynicism pervading society at large. This thought pattern has social and societal implications. In a social context, people can live in fear. They do not go out and meet new people because they are comfortable where they are, and they fear the unknown. The ego also fears being judged. This fear goes back to the worry of not being good enough when viewed by another. From a societal context, a lack of trust harms leadership. A good leader learns how to build confidence and to delegate. The crucial fundamental aspect of a good leader is trust. However, we often hear platitudes such as “If I want something done right, I must do it myself.” This however is inefficient at best.
So then, if we as humans are fixated on problems, continually focused on our shortcomings and not easily able to trust others, what should we do?
As humans, we are always aiming at some point in the future. However, there is a spectrum of focus. On one end stands the hedonist who prefers to live whimsically and with as many pleasures as possible. The opposing end is the militantly disciplined person who continually tries to control the orchestra. In this dichotomy, on one end there is no discipline and a total sense of pleasure-seeking while on the other it is pure self-tyranny and misery. The argument is that neither of these ways exemplifies a life worth living.
As Alan Watts mentions, life is a dance, and the point of dancing is to dance. If the purpose of dance were to get to a certain point (a goal) then whoever danced the fastest would win. On the flip side, we can never be good dancers by purely seeking pleasure all of the time with no semblance of discipline (practice). Now as with dance, life is a flow. This flow permeates all space and time. However, it is only available to us at one single point in time. This time is now.
There is a moment that we can operate from where all of these issues fall away. If we come entirely into the present moment, we can realize this is our only control point. This location is the single point in time from which we can take action. If we live in the moment, problems turn into processes. It is rare that a problem is so dire that it is urgent at this very moment. At this moment, our flaws are usually not hindering us, and if they are, then it is one single flaw. This point is also the moment in which we can recognize this thing as a flaw and turn it into an attribute or at least face it. This moment is the only moment in which we can transform. Finally, this moment is the only one in which we can trust. We must take care as to whom we have in our lives, but when new people come in, we should confide until proven otherwise. It’s like seeing a blank chalkboard. If we can let go of the past, it will be empty. If however, we have already written on it with our past experiences we will not give new people a fair chance. This idea is not to say that we should become doormats. All of these actions are our choice and are accessed from this present moment in time.
Now, as we aim at a future point from the present moment, we should remember that life is a series of trade-offs. If we are fully willing to accept these trade-offs, then we can do what we want and take responsibility for our actions in the here and now. It is essential to set goals to guide our actions, but we are only able to determine our direction, not our destiny. The universe is far too complex and interconnected for us to do what it is that we want entirely. This notion is where acceptance, responsibility and trust come into play.
If we are taking responsibility, then the most critical thing to do is to act as a conductor. The conductor does not try to play each instrument. They do not worry about how each note is performed, or even about how an entire song is being played. They focus on this very moment in time and ensure that there is harmony. They are good stewards of the music and the group. They do not play the orchestra directly, they let go and merely guide it. This idea is very much the same with life. The only way to get to the point of being a guide is to realize that we can never fully know the direction of things. It is like floating down a river. We have a course, but there are many turns. Alan Watts sums this up very nicely as follows:
“When you [really] don't know what you want you’ve reached the state of desirelessness … There's a beginning stage of not knowing, and there's an ending stage of not knowing. In the beginning stage, you don't know what you want because you haven't thought about it, or you've only thought superficially. Then when somebody forces you to think about it and go through and say “Yeah I think I'd like this, I think I like that, I think I'd like the other,” there’s the middle stage. Then you get beyond that and say “is that what I really want?” In the end, you say “no I don't think that's it.” I might be satisfied with it for a while, and I wouldn't turn my nose up at it, but it's not really what I want.
Why don't you really know what you want? Two reasons that you don't really know what you want. Number one, you have it. Number two, you don't know yourself, because you never can. The Godhead is never an object of its own knowledge, just as a knife doesn't cut itself, fire doesn't burn itself, light doesn't illumine itself. It's always an endless mystery to itself. I don't know and this I don't know other than the infinite interior of the Spirit. This I don't know, is the same thing as I love, I let go, I don't try to force, or control. It's the same thing as humility. And so the Upanishads say, if you think that you understand Brahman, you do not understand, and you have yet to be instructed further. If you know that you do not understand, then you truly understand. For the Brahman is unknown to those who know it, and known to those who know it not.
And the principle is, that anytime you as it were, voluntarily let up control. In other words, cease to cling to yourself, you have an access of power because you're wasting energy all the time, in self-defense, trying to manage things trying to force things to conform to your will. The moment you stop doing that, that wasted energy is available. Therefore, you are in that sense having that energy available you are one with the Divine Principle; you have the energy. When you're trying, however, to act as if you were God, that is to say, you don't trust anybody, and you're the dictator, and you have to keep everybody in line. You lose the divine energy because what you're doing is simply defending yourself.
So then, the principle is, the more you give it away, the more it comes back. Now you see I don't have the courage to give it away. I'm afraid, and you can only overcome that by realizing you better give it away because there's no way of holding on to it. The meaning of the fact you see that everything is dissolving constantly that we're all falling apart we're all in a process of constant death...”
From this quote, we can see that they only way to go about life is to let go entirely. However, there is a double bind here. As soon as we try to surrender entirely, we find that there is a part of us that cannot. Then we start to desire not to desire. It is when we accept this portion of us that will also not fully accept that we can reach this state of desirelessness. This state is the river or the Tao - the flow of life. Now with these principles, we can return to some of the notions we looked at in the introduction.
With our fixation on problems, we can re-frame them. Instead of, “this is a terrible problem,” we can ask ourselves, “what is it that I am supposed to learn from this situation?” Really, the question is, for what is it that we are being trained? Life can be viewed as preparation and growth. Based on all of our experiences we are being prepared to surmount some task that no one else can take on. We must take care to observe this pattern instead of trying to force ourselves into something else. This concept is much like the notion of fitting a square peg into a round hole. It is our life’s journey to figure out what shape peg we are and find the corresponding missing piece in the puzzle of life.
When we do not accept who we are, or our life situation, it can quickly turn into a mental meat grinder. We should remember, as Jordan Peterson so aptly put it, that we can only compare ourselves to who we were yesterday, not what others are today. Another way of looking at it is something like what Alan Watts said: “Kindly let me help you, or you will drown,” said the monkey putting the fish safely up a tree. Now, if we are fish, don't try to be a monkey. Be an awesome fish. We should discover our true nature and embrace it.
Back to the notion of trust. This tenet is an essential attribute of human existence. We are social creatures and have relied on faith for centuries to survive. With the current political and news climate, this trust is trending toward zero. Now is a more critical time than ever to realize that there is some pattern to all of this that we do not fully comprehend or understand. This view is the window of light for trust. It is essential to not be belligerent with our belief either. We must take care as we become a culmination of people whom we trust. However, it is better to be open and astute, then closed and cynical.
In conclusion, we must realize that there is a single point in time from which we can act. If we can fully let go of the past and not worry about the future, then it makes it much easier for us to trust. This locus is the single point of our awareness, and ability to act toward some goal. Having a direction is necessary. We must remember that we can only step toward a course, not determine our destiny. During this process not accepting what has been, or whom we are can lead to being a self-tyrant. Everything starts with committing and taking responsibility. We can be a good steward of life, but we can't control it. We must trust and allocate control, accountability, and power.
In conclusion, this letting go is not a giving up or a meaningless to the universe, it is the exact opposite:
“If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so. If this world is a vicious trap, so is its accuser, and the pot is calling the kettle black.
In the strictest sense, we cannot actually think about life and reality at all, because this would have to include thinking about thinking, thinking about thinking about thinking, and so ad infinitum. One can only attempt a rational, descriptive philosophy of the universe on the assumption that one is totally separate from it. But if you and your thoughts are part of this universe, you cannot stand outside them to describe them. This is why all philosophical and theological systems must ultimately fall apart. To “know” reality you cannot stand outside it and define it; you must enter into it, be it, and feel it.” - Alan Watts