On Gratefulness: A Self-Enquiry

photo by geralt at pixabay CC0

Many so-called non-dual ‘teachers’ recommend self-enquiry as part of the process towards awakening, enlightenment, or whatever other term they use for the realization that there actually is nothing separate, that there is only an eternal ‘oneness’.

Radical non-duality (my term), the message of Tony Parsons (who I met in Wales last year), Jim Newman (who is coming to Vancouver in October, yay!), Richard Sylvester and others, states that there is no path, including self-enquiry, to such a realization, and that all teachings (Eckhart Tolle’s, Adyashanti’s, Rupert Spira’s etc), because they acknowledge a real ‘you’ that can become something, are inherently dualistic, and inherently futile. If the self falls away, they say, it is realized that there never was a self, a separate ‘you’, and this can happen to ‘anyone’ and is unrelated to any personal path, teaching or practice one may follow. If anything, they say, self-enquiry can actually reinforce the sense of the separate self and obfuscate this realization (or at least the intellectual appreciation of its veracity).

While I have come, for now, to enthusiastically accept the message of radical non-duality, my self does not give up easily, and it is (you may have noticed) quite enthralled with the idea and practice of self-enquiry. These days, that self-enquiry centres around eight questions. Just for the record, here are those questions and my self’s somewhat paradoxical and tentative answers to them:

1. Given my life is nearly perfect, why am ‘I’ not constantly filled with gratefulness, joy and generosity?

Tentative answer: I have no free will to be anything but what I have been conditioned to be, subject to the circumstances that have arisen. Without free will, ‘my’ self can only believe, and do, what its biological and cultural conditioning can believe and do given the circumstances of the moment. Nothing is predestined, mind you — the infinite complexity of the world ensures that the nature of our conditioning and the ‘circumstances of the moment’ are infinitely variable — but ‘I’ have no free will to be grateful, joyful, generous, or anything else (in thought, feeling or deed).

‘I’ do feel that I should be grateful, joyful, and generous, but I have no control over that or anything else. I am perhaps the world’s most blessed agnostic, but no one controlled that; it was a combination of the accident of my birth and of my life’s experiences (which were determined by my conditioning and the circumstances of the moment). So I recognize that there is really no one to be grateful to, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking I should be grateful. It couldn’t have been better, or worse; this is the only thing that could have happened given my conditioning and the circumstances. And since there is (really) no time and no thing, it’s only an appearance anyway, without meaning or purpose. I can still be grateful for the accident of my birth and for my generally fortuitous circumstances, of course. But not to anyone. Grateful suggests it could have been otherwise, and it could not. As a result, it’s more that I’m relieved than grateful, for reasons explained in question 2 below.

I am perceived by most who know me as generous, but that is likely because I recognize that most others’ accident of birth and circumstances have been much less fortuitous than mine, so I am conditioned to try to share some of my good fortune. ‘I’ have no choice in the matter.

As for why I am not more joyful — why I’m not completely joyful — I think my answer to that falls out of questions 2 and 3 below.

2. Given there is no real ‘me’ and hence no ‘personal’ danger, why am ‘I’ (apparently) driven by aversion and fear rather than by passion and curiosity?

Tentative answer: Same as #1: This is my conditioned behaviour. I have been conditioned to be cautious and to see the calamities of risk-takers as “their own fault”. The things that strike terror into me — the thought of extreme or chronic suffering or entrapment, or of terrible news, or of an uncontrollable or unfathomable threat, or of wasted time, or of failure, intimidation, humiliation, incompetence or letting people down badly — prompt me to play it safe and do as little as possible rather than risk doing something that could realize any of these fears, regardless of the potential upside. I find myself saying “good enough” a lot in my life.

It is quite possible that I could try to change this conditioning, by exposing myself to risks in a manageable way and realizing that my fears are unfounded or overblown (provided my conditioning and the circumstances of the moment would let me). This is how they treat phobias. But the success rate is apparently abysmal, and it often doesn’t last. Those who undertake it evidently have enough understanding of and motivation to overcome their phobia, and the circumstances of the moment offer enough reassurances, to get them to be treated. I think I perceive my life to be too good to be motivated to try to influence my conditioning. Facing my fears stirs up much anxiety in me, so I’m unlikely to do so (thanks to my conditioning) until and unless I reach the point where the discomfort of living with the fear exceeds the dread of facing the fear (and my skepticism of being able to overcome it by facing it).

I am generally (and occasionally extremely) joyful, but the extreme joy doesn’t last. My sense is that it doesn’t for anyone. Being a self is stressful, inherently dissatisfying (there is this instinct, this vague ‘remembering’ of when there was no separation, and that that was awesome and ‘perfect’ and separation can never hope to match it). There is always something worrisome, nagging, imperfect, to overshadow the joy, to sap the energy of the self-afflicted creature.

3. Why do ‘I’ spend most of my time in escapist solo activities, when I am surrounded by natural beauty and intelligent, caring people?

Tentative answer: Same as #1: I’ve been conditioned by fear, anxiety, and exhaustion (or laziness). I feel I should be more joyful when walking in the woods, or spending time with interesting people, but I’m not. I do spend time, weather and circumstances permitting, sitting outside in the sun, on the deck of my house or on the beach in Kaua’i, and I do enjoy it. And I enjoy the company of friends. But as passionate as I am about the importance of nature and wilderness and connection, I’m pretty anxious and uncomfortable when I’m away from the comforts of home. Fear of imagined danger or misfortune or even simple discomfort (rain, cold, minor injury, getting lost) interferes with my enjoyment. Likewise, worry about other people’s potential unhappiness with me takes much of the joy of social interaction away.

This may be an expression of exhaustion, or it may be that I am so disconnected from the natural world that I can’t really appreciate it unless there’s absolutely nothing to take my attention away from it. Exhaustion is, at least for me, an inevitable part of ‘self’-maintenance. Worrying about everything wears you out.

My misanthropy is long-standing, and stems from a combination of conditioned distrust and conditioned disdain. But behind it all sits the litany of fears listed above. Being mostly alone is just easier, and now that I’m retired, mostly possible. Being open and vulnerable is, for this self, too hard, not ‘worth’ the effort.

4. What is going on when ‘I’ am stirred by music, by falling in love, by light, by warmth, by water?

Tentative answer: Chemicals arising in the body. My guess is that these activities engender chemicals in the body that are both stimulating and relaxing at the same time. That’s the worry-wort’s holy grail: Stimulation without relaxation stirs up anxiety. Relaxation without stimulation puts me to sleep. I want both together.

Immersion in water also seems to engender an immediate increase in creativity and imagination, that would seem to be also chemical.

Perhaps all these stimuli interrupt what Michael Pollan and David Foster Wallace refer to as the “default setting” — the way the brain/body normally tends to process and react to sensations, thoughts and feelings.

5. How would psychedelic chemicals, if I took them now, affect ‘my’ behaviour?

Tentative answer: Perhaps the same way as #4 — a disruption to the “default setting”. But not necessarily in a pleasant way, and probably not sustainably. It’s possible that their use might lead to a long-term or even permanent different way of thinking, feeling, “being”, or even the disappearance of the self (I wish). But while Michael Pollan and Gabor Maté have reported permanent shifts in patients’ “default setting” — lifelong cures of addiction, depression and mental illness after using certain hallucinogens — I’m skeptical: My experience is that their use is disruptive and temporarily insightful, but provide no lasting benefit. (In that sense they’re a lot like meditation and other “liberation seeking” behaviours.) When there is a glimpse, what is left when the “default setting” returns is just a desire for more and longer-lasting glimpses.

6. Were there actually glimpses, or was that just wishful thinking?

Tentative answer: Impossible to say. As I’ve described them, they seem awfully close to what others have described as glimpses, and too much for even my creative mind to imagine in a moment of wishful thinking. So I’m dubious that they were just wishful thinking. But ‘I’ will never know.

7. Is the hallucination of the separate self inherent and inevitable in creatures with large brains, brains large enough to conceive of one?

Tentative answer: No. The appearance of selves would seem a logical, if unfortunate, evolutionary development of large brains trying to make sense of sensations to advance the survival of the creatures which evolved those brains for other purposes (ie optimal feature detection). In that sense selves are much like cancers and other seemingly promising but ultimately disastrous evolutionary experiments. But evolution is just an appearance as well, an amazing fractal pattern blossoming into apparent being apparently following a set of rules. So nothing is inevitable, and, as Stephen J Gould argued in Full Houseeverything evolutionary is highly improbable, given the nearly infinite number of other possibilities and variables.

8. If there were no illusory ‘selves’, would civilization have happened, and would ‘we’ now be blithely rushing to its imminent demise?

Tentative answer: Impossible to know. Everything is just an appearance. What appears seems to be evolutionary, and consistent with conditioning subject to the circumstances of the moment. So, probably not: self-afflicted creatures seem to behave in more neurotic, desperate, dysfunctional ways, without which it seems likely we’d be like our close cousins the bonobos, content to live peacefully in balance with the rest of life, in the trees of the tropical rainforest where we emerged. Why would we want to live otherwise?

It doesn’t matter anyway — nothing matters, really. There is no civilization, no world, no place, no time, no thing.

What has all this self-enquiry taught me? That my conditioning has entrenched a well-trodden “default setting” of mostly-fearful thinking, mostly-anxious feeling and imagining, distracted, disconnected sensing, cautious and unpracticed intuiting: a shadow existence driven by ‘self-ish’ fear. And for most of my life the circumstances of the moment (and the other selves around me) have reinforced that conditioning.

Now that I’m retired, they often do not, so I am at a loss. Nothing makes sense any more, especially this “default setting”. I long to escape from it, from ‘me’. But ‘I’ have nothing else. For now at least. Ungrateful bastard that I am.

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7 Responses to On Gratefulness: A Self-Enquiry

  1. Philip says:

    The best we can achieve is mere being with nothing particular in mind. Inner conflict cannot be calmed for long.There is no redemption from being human. But thats ok because no redemption is needed.

    Have to thank you again Dave for all the amazing posts and honest thoughts over the years. Keep being yourself, sure that many have been and are still grateful.

    dosn’t Daniel Quinns Ishamel (& Jared diamond) tell us of the original sin? Our split selves and our destuction of the natural world (and therefore civilsation) comes from the worst mistake we made. But we still contain biophillia and glimpses. We had some kind of spiritual mutation and collectivley now feel the pain. Guess I’m hoping for “joyful pain” for the rest of my days…a kind of “peace”. The only salvation is the exploration of there being no salvation.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Philip. I guess the idealist in me still thinks it’s possible that my self will, sooner rather than later, fall away; foolish, I know, but I can’t help it. It’s perhaps like having an incurable disease, and continuing to hope that a cure will be found or the disease will just end spontaneously. As Tony and Jim say, it’s in the nature of the seeker, the self, to seek what it can never hope to find.

    The most recent glimpse of ‘natural reality’ without the self was a remembrance, an assurance, that that natural reality is always there, and all the fears and anxieties of the self are unwarranted and transient, and that somehow makes them a little less overwhelming. And the idea that our destruction of the natural world, and the onrush of the sixth great extinction, are just appearances — as preposterous and outrageous as that sounds — is kind of like a candle in the darkness, a solace of sorts. That’s not to diminish the apparent enormity of what our civilization has wrought, or its ghastly consequences. It’s just a reassurance that there is something beyond that, something eternal and wondrous, even if it’s not for ‘anyone’.

  3. Brutus says:

    As with your other posts about nonduality, I can empathize with quite a bit of it and certainly understand it intellectually. Being prone to the self-interrogations to which you admit (and summarize), I could easily find myself in similar logical and narrative traps, robbed of agency and suffused with fear. But that’s your story, not mine. My grief for the world, insofar as I understand it (warts and all, especially human corruptions), is profound, but I can’t dwell there. Nor can I turn my thoughts continuously to private, inner experience. Rather, I am grateful for the time and experiences I’ve enjoyed — good and bad — that make me who I am, and I strive to extend what beauty (some of it borne out of suffering) is available to me just a while longer. That’s not at all the same desire as being free of suffering or freed from the self. Make of it what you will.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Makes sense to me Brutus. I’m a bit envious of your situation.

  5. Philip says:

    Last night I run my car into the passenger side of a car doing a uturn onto my side of the road, both cars written off. Had a second to brake and losse speed from 65kmh. Air bag popped in my face, sore and tired today. It is a hassle in many ways but kind a feel revived, not just relived. Shook the old guys hand as quick as I could, sure he wouldn’t have done it if he had free will. The older I get the quicker I am to forgive. Was about to play last hockey game of the season with my 16yr old son, about to pick him up. Our team lost by golden goal in extra time with player short. 5 years ago would have felt different about it all. Grateful for much at the moment, my life feels “perfect”. Only a week ago I was talking to my friend who is going through an acyomonus break up about how “everyhing” going so well for me and I feel at peace (this is as good as it gets) and feel almost uneasy about things. The universe has rewarded me with challenge and suffering again, gratefeul for only being some paper work for emergency services. I had a gimpse of my possible destruction. The destruction of my inexistant self…..processing it. What an ignorant fuck I am…driving a fun machine listening to mix Fm hits fueled by one of the worst crimes in 21st centuary -Iraq. etc.

    There is always a chance for reinvention in an individual and a culture. Your situation can change Dave. Remember that book the ego trick. I’d say you “at one with your ego” for most part. You can watch your sense of lack. i’m glad there is an idealist in you. That why you have this blog, why myself, Brutus and many others come here. Hope and fear are on each others tails. We need the courage of hoplessness now, then we will not confuse grief and fear.
    I’m going to have a bath now.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Philip. Glad you’re safe and hope there are no lasting repercussions from the accident. My only two accidents were both on black ice, and no one was hurt in either. I wrote about the first one here: http://howtosavetheworld.ca/2004/01/17/eleven-seconds/

  7. 1in7.6B says:

    When I’m by myself I’m in the company of an idiot. ;-)

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