Or, Why the existential vacuum is the precursor to survival.
There’s a Taoist proverb that says: “A tree hemmed in by giants requires tenacity to survive.” The point is that adversity can be a precursor to survival, and that survival depends on our response to whatever tension we might face.
The natural response to tension is resistance, without tension, there would be no impetus to push through, to respond with tenacity, to propel growth. It’s a simple concept, characteristic of Tao, one of the central tenets of which is that life is a continual and constant process of transformation that requires patience, perseverance, resilience and determination.
Simple in theory, difficult in practice.
The reality is that the thing that hems us in – whether that’s external conflict and our response to it, or an internal turmoil in the shape of “the black dog” of depression or the cruel clutches of anxiety – might be so overwhelming, and our resilience so battered by circumstance or a riven mind, that we might lack the will or the energy to resist.
Enter a myriad of routes to numb the pain. Whatever your vice of choice, be it retail therapy – modern life’s “giant tranquiliser for raw nerves”, as the philosopher Theodore Zeldin describes it – drugs, smoking, comfort eating or alcohol, consumer society makes the inimical option all too readily available.
How then do we find hope, how might we navigate our way out of what Russell Brand in his latest book ‘Recovery’ calls "the turbulent meteorology of the mind"? Is it even possible for us, the perpetrators and victims of the pernicious cycle, to save ourselves, from ourselves?
Taking it day by day
Brand, 14 years clean of a tinderbox of addictions, is a passionate advocate and ongoing devotee of the 12-step system, a process of recovery that involves acknowledging and accepting our innate flawed nature before we can embark on the long road to recovery with the support of others and a rigid structure that transfers the energy we might put into our addictive pursuits into a nobler, more self-caring and compassionate cause – that of rediscovering the value of life.
Recovery is a process, not an event, a daily struggle against the tension, a moment by moment, conscious, deliberate way of living that compels us to retrain our mind and think, then act, in a way that steers us away from what Brand calls “a carousel of self-destruction”.
Addiction, as Brand insightfully notes, is a flawed response to the inescapable problem of being human, to the inherent imperfections of our nature, to the disconnection we feel in an age of too much connection, so much connection that we escape it by jumping off the carousel. Escaping down the rabbit hole becomes an easier option when our over-thinking mind ties us up in knots.
The trouble is that the escape is only temporary, the relief only transitory, and when it ends, we're left bereft of hope, full of guilt, shame and remorse, which we evade by jumping back on the proverbial carousel.
Life is pain
The Buddhist interpretation of this predicament is that we suffer because we attach ourselves to false ideas about reality and about how life should be.
In the Zen tradition, suffering translates as “dukka”, existential angst as well as the pain caused by external circumstance, a dissatisfaction with human existence that is both in the lived world and in our heads, confusion about the nature of things as we experience them and as they really are, a mismatch between the fleeting nature of any experience which brings joy, and the fact that it is only ever transitory.
The fleeting nature of happiness, or rather our misunderstanding that it should be available to us all of the time, is therefore also a cause of dukka, because of our socially conditioned failure to realise that all things change, nothing abides, to paraphrase Heraclitus.
In this article in the Lion's Roar, Mark Unno points out that suffering is due to the ego's need for attachment, which in terms of addiction, rings true - we attach ourselves to earthly pleasures and intoxicating distractions to rid ourselves of the feelings in our head which our troubled minds don't allow us to process:
"Human beings are driven by their passions. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the basic desires for food, sleep, sex, success. But problems arise when we grow attached to preconceived notions of how to fulfil those desires, to notions of who we think we are or should be, or to who we think others should be or are. It’s really the attachment to notions of reality that causes our feelings and desires to become blinded, hence the term “blind passions.”
The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl in ‘Man's Search for Meaning’ calls this the “existential vacuum”, the paralysing inability to rationalise life's meaninglessness, caused not by a lack of meaning in and of itself, but by our inability to find a purpose, to find something, a vocation worth pursuing, the lack of which is compounded by the limitations in our understanding.
The route to altering our understanding lies in transcending our troublesome mode of existence, liberating our minds from the existential vacuum. But how?
According to Frankl, the answer lies in the struggle itself, which, if we can find a way of altering our perception of it, can enable us to appreciate the meaning of life, in spite of its apparent meaninglessness.
In fact, according to logotherapy - logo coming from the Greek ‘logos’ for meaning, the form of psychotherapy that Frankl began developing before he was imprisoned in Auschwitz and the essence of which was galvanised by his experience – the tension that results from the “existential vacuum” we face can be a catalyst for survival.
“The defiant power of the human spirit”
In his seminal book, Frankl recalls the story of Jerry Long, who aged 17, was paralysed from the neck down after a diving accident. Jerry discovered that he could use his mouth to stick type and in spite of his condition, led a life he felt to be entirely fulfilling, so much so that he wrote to Frankl saying that were it not for the accident, he may not have found the opportunities that he did: "I broke my neck, it didn't break me".
For Frankl, Jerry was an example of "the defiant power of the human spirit", someone who saw in his suffering an opportunity for growth, not the reason for his demise.
The point that Frankl, Brand and the philosophy of Tao and Zen Buddhism alert us to, is that the real problem doesn’t lie in the fact of suffering, but what Frankl calls the "dangerous misconception”, the ill-formed, bad faith of an idea that life should be harmonious and easy.
We’ve been socially conditioned to believe that suffering, sadness, despair and vulnerability are all shameful traits. Far better to engage in the socially acceptable if not commendable activities of satisfying our urges or burying our hurt, so long as we don’t make anyone else feel uncomfortable with the rawness of our experience.
We have to find a way of accepting that the pursuit of meaning will always be susceptible to being thwarted by virtue of our very flawed human nature and the battles we are destined to get caught up in, within our minds and between people, all of which lead to the suffering that is the prevalent mode of existence.
This is not a fatalistic view, more a call to confront reality and to build our resilience in the face of it. As Frankl says, the tension that results from discord is "an indispensable prerequisite of mental health" - you have to experience the lows to appreciate the highs, as the old cliché goes.
Yes that requires a difficult and radical shift in our thinking, our way of being in a world unavoidably full of challenges. And the process, recovery, reaffirming meaning, remembering our purpose, redefining ourselves as many times as it takes, is slow and continuous. And it requires support, the support of good ideas and good people, as Brand eloquently articulates via the 12 steps.
We cannot control circumstance, the sooner we give up that futile quest, the better we would all be. What we do have the power to do is to control how we respond, to take responsibility, for our lives and our thoughts and our actions; to ride the waves of restlessness, to have the insight that comes from experience to know that the pain, however bad, will pass and that it will likely return; to keep going, again and again, to forgive ourselves when we stumble, to persist in the face of despair, to maintain momentum rather than be crushed by it.