Have you ever wondered why it is people find it so difficult to get on? From the outside it seems we are rigged for war. There is conflict between husbands and wives, parents and children, teachers and pupils, bosses and employees, fellow workers. So much friction and so much unhappiness. Is there something innately wrong in people that they can’t learn to live happily with one another?
According to my past training, I would have gone along with the common orthodoxy which tells us that that the cause of this friction and unhappiness is that we are suffering from low self esteem, lack of love, deep psychological problems, mental illness or the absence of the right kind of drug which is supposed to restore our brain chemistry to right functioning.
Since being introduced to the teachings of Vedanta, however, I now see that the root cause is that we are suffering from a misguided UNDERSTANDING of what is important in living a happy and satisfying life with others. As a consequence we have insufficient PRACTICE in living in a WAY which, in itself, brings about a quality of mind which is happy and is directly the result of a certain way of associating with others. Below is an extract from a longer article of mine entitled ‘Living Rightly With Others’.
The point to see here is that people are living out their understanding of what they think is important and necessary in for their life and happiness. In this I don’t believe they have any choice. They don’t decide to live out their understanding of what is necessary for their life and happiness – they just find themselves doing this.
So there you have it. We are all living in a way that we believe to be in our best interests and, given our belief, we can’t help but do this. The important point here is that if our understanding is wrong concerning what is in our best interests, we tend to harm others in living out this understanding.
Does this mean that when people act in harmful and destructive ways it proves that they are rotten to the core? I used to think so, but not any more. With all the unnecessary suffering we inflict on each other there seems to be a good case for such a view. On TV we see a lot of killing and people inflicting terrible harm on each other, along with all the political rhetoric that tries to make it seem right. There is definitely a dark side to human beings. The question is: what is this dark side? Is it an innate defect in human beings or is it something else? It appears to be something else – we all suffer to a greater or lesser degree from ignorance about what is important in living a happy and satisfying life.
So we have to discover a way of living with others that is based on the understanding of the value of participating with others in a beneficial way that brings value to our ongoing association with them. In this case we are not trying to make others live rightly or expect them to (such expectations always bring about disappointment and righteous indignation). Instead we are living in a way that we know is in our best interest and is evidenced by a feeling of rightness within ourselves and a happy and meaningful association with others. Such a way of living with others makes us truly human as well as relatively happy.
Behind most unnecessary interpersonal suffering is the ongoing pursuit of experiences that we consider our live and happiness depend on. We often compulsively pursue values which we think to be all important to our life and happiness but are values which produce fear and hostility. As a result, in the very pursuit of them we can’t help but end up unhappy. And then because we are so unhappy we try even harder to gain and maintain these experiences that we just know will make us happy but which keep on increasing our fear and hostility. It is like a wheel that goes around and around and in the process accumulates more and more unhappy experiences. So what are we going for when we engage in this misguided pursuit which produces anxiety, hostililty and depression. It’s very simple really: Trying to look good in our own eyes and trying to look good in the eyes of others is behind most of our interpersonal suffering.
This could sound a bit over the top. It is nevertheless true that if we are suffering emotionally about interpersonal difficulties it is because we have built our lives around looking good in our own eyes and looking good in the eyes of others.
We can value being a person who is loved and approved of. We can value being a person who is good. We can value being a person who is better than others. We can value being a person who is perfect and we can value being a person who is in control. Unfortunately, however, valuing BECOMING such a person is the fastest and most sure way to continual unhappiness. An example may make this clear.
In our culture the value of being loved and approved of is very common. Now so there is no misunderstanding let’s be clear on the fact that if people have affection for each other and like being in each others company it is very pleasant and a nice experience. Friendship characterised by affection and enjoyment of each others company, coupled with sharing your lives together in honest conversation and activity, is a very meaningful human experience. However if we approach people with the idea that our life and happiness depend on their love and approval we will be afraid of these very same people because we might not get what we think we need from them. We become hateful and resentful of them if the love and approval is not forthcoming or sad about losing it.
When the meaning of living becomes trying to become a person who is ‘valued and loved’,and one lives for such experiences, one’s whole life becomes organised around self concern. One is concerned with being a self who is loved and approved of. One wants to be loved and approved of in one’s own eyes and one wants to be loved and approved of in the eyes of others. When this inordinate self-concern takes up all the room the concern for living rightly with others, which demands the contribution of value, is not possible.
The whole idea of psychological needs, especially the need to be loved, misdirects our attention from what is important in life. I would prefer the term ‘requirements of living’. We can only meet the task of living with others by contribution which involves exercising our primary human capacities of building strong cooperative bonds with people around us. Association with others (living with others) which is characterised by contribution, is a requirement of living a happy and satisfying life. This is the kind of association that builds in us a feeling of strength. As human beings we help each other by standing together and working for our common good. This is actually our primary strength; it is also the primary requirement of living. Living a life of self concern, where we can’t and are not willing to contribute any value and where we can’t help but stand alone, makes us very weak and fills us with immense psychological suffering.
Living with others in the right way requires active and accurate participation. Living with others is an art and it can be learned. As a metaphor, imagine each moment with others that presents itself is like a target which we to shoot with a bow and arrow. We have to clearly see the target we need to hit. We then shoot the arrow. We see the result and if it is not right or not right enough, we correct it. We keep on practising hitting the target ( right living) and in the process of doing so, develop the capacity and skill, and our understanding and capacity become one and the same. We no longer have to consciously and deliberately shoot the arrow, we act spontaneously and intuitively. At this point we are successful in the performing of the art. If while trying to perform the art successfully we are concerned with proving ourselves rather than doing the job well we would be too self concious, too full of self concern to learn the skill well and enjoy it.
There is a big difference in becoming successful and trying to become ‘a success’. Living is an art to be lived which requires right understanding of what it is and its value and practice until we become good or successful at it. There are many people who have become what our culture regards as ‘a success’ but who are unhappy and live miserable lives. Happiness does not come from external things (money and things of course have there own value and importance) but is an inward quality that arises when we live in the right way. If we are unhappy we have to look to how we are living our lives and what values we are living for.
In this competitive culture it is easy to become totally concerned with getting from life things which in our own eyes will make us ‘a success’ such as admiration, love and approval, popularity, money as a means to increase personal standing, prestige, status, power, perfection, being better than others, outstandingness, fame, sexual appeal, looking younger and numerous other things that we understand to be valuable because they help us look good to ourselves and others. It is true we will gain ego inflation which is deliciously satisfying because it acts as a defence against ego deflation. When we live for ego inflation our lives are built around self concern rather than concern for living rightly. Such a way of living only produces pain and suffering in the form of lonliness and interpersonal conflict.