Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Myth of Achievement

In this life, can I really achieve anything?  I think of achievement as if it is something important with intrinsic and lasting meaning.  But someday I will die and whatever achievements I have made will be forgotten over time.  Not even the Earth will last forever.  Not even the universe will last forever.  And yet I feel the need to achieve something in this lifetime.  I want to leave my mark.  I wonder, however, how much of this desire to achieve is motivated by shame and ego.  In other words could my need to achieve actually be the need to avoid humiliation of not achieving brought on by comparing myself to others or some idealized version of myself?

If I remove the ego from the equation then I can see two legitimate reasons to achieve in life.  The first reason is the awareness of being in the moment and enjoying the act of achieving.  If I am enjoying what I am achieving while I am achieving then that has value regardless of whether it lasts in time.  The second legitimate reason to achieve is true compassion.  This can be compassion for others but also includes compassion for the self (which may be the same thing – see The Universe is Solipsistic).  For example I might choose to achieve to make a living to support my family (and myself).  This seems to have value as well.  I call this true compassion, as opposed to false compassion which is motivated by ego or shame.  For example I might choose to appear to be compassionate to make myself look good in the eyes of others.

So it seems that achievement for its own sake or out of compassion is good perhaps because it is truthful.  And achievement that serves the ego is bad perhaps because it is untruthful.  It is untruthful because there is an implicit assumption that life will go on forever (which it will not) and achievements are stored like wealth forever (which they cannot).  It is also deceptive about what its motive appears to be.

What about no achievement at all?  I suppose this could be either desirable or undesirable.  Obviously if I do nothing for too long I will starve to death.  That is not desirable.  I could also become a drug addict and loose all motivation to achieve.  That also seems undesirable.  I could simply “be” without achieving for a period of time not long enough to starve to death.  There is something desirable about that akin to meditation.  Although I would probably struggle with that because sometimes when I am not achieving I feel lazy (a shame based emotion) and it becomes difficult to enjoy the act of not achieving.  That is not a desirable situation either.  And even if I could not achieve without feeling shame then it becomes some kind of spiritual achievement.   That sounds desirable.   Spiritual growth comes from venturing out of my comfort zone.  But why do I need to grow?  Is this not also the need for achievement, only bumped up to the spiritual level?  I suppose there is the expectation that the spirit exists eternally, so maybe that is the difference and the motivation appears to be true.  I suppose when I boil it all down it’s about Truth.  If achievement is true then it is worth pursuing and if it is untrue it’s not but I still feel like I’m missing something here.

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Day Guy / Night Guy and Addiction

Jerry Seinfeld has this routine where he describes how Night Guy screws Day Guy.  Night Guy wants to stay out late and party.  Waking up hung over is Day Guy’s responsibility.  Night Guy always screws Day Guy.  In terms of addiction, it is Night Guy who is in the driver’s seat.  Day Guy has to pick up the pieces.  A friend of mine realized he had a drinking problem.  He went to AA meetings but could not relate.  So he got a doctor to prescribe a drug called Disulfiram, which makes drinking alcohol very uncomfortable and allowed Day Guy to take the power back from Night Guy.  It was Day Guy who took the Disulfiram and by the time Night Guy took over (the early afternoon in my experience) there was nothing he could do about it.

I saw a series of videos (above) where a science teacher describes addiction to internet porn (I think this applies to all forms of addiction) in terms of “Two Minds”.  The first mind is the Limbic System, the primitive brain that deals with fight or flight and seeks to attain pleasure and avoid pain, lives in the moment and experiences the world on an emotional level.  This correlates with Night Guy who wants immediate gratification and is willing to screw Day Guy to get it.  The second mind is the Prefrontal Cortex, which considers the long-term consequences of decisions, plans for the future and thinks logically.  The prefrontal cortex corresponds with Day Guy.  Addiction, obviously comes from the Limbic system – Night Guy, who kicks in whenever an unpleasant situation is experienced and immediately goes to a pleasurable situation experienced in the past and creates a craving for it on an emotional level.  It does not consider the long-term effects of its methods.

The science teacher goes on to talk about the neuroplasticity / adaptability of the brain.  When an addiction is acted upon the brain reacts by creating a stronger pathway of neurons for that.  The more the addiction is acted upon the stronger the pathway becomes.  Conversely, the less an addiction is acted upon the more overgrown the path becomes although it never disappears entirely.  He also talks about meditation as it relates to the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system.  Basically, while meditating the limbic system causes the mind to wander and the prefrontal cortex brings the mind back.  By repeatedly bringing the mind back, meditation exercises the prefrontal cortex making it stronger and better able to withstand the urging of the limbic system to give into addiction.

I saw another video where Eckhart Tolle describes how addiction can be overcome through awareness of it and not giving into it.  In this model addiction is (or is like) the ego (which seems to correlate with Night Guy and the limbic system to some degree) and acts as a separate entity unto itself.  The more the authentic self (which may correlate to Day Guy and the prefrontal cortex although maybe not entirely) becomes identified with the addiction the stronger the addiction becomes.  However, through awareness of the addiction the weaker it becomes.  This is similar to using meditation to strengthen the prefrontal cortex.

I have also looked at some AA videos.  There is no end to them on the web.  I posted one above to give a flavor but certainly watching the whole thing is a major time commitment.  According to my understanding of the AA model, addiction is a disease with both physical and psychological components.  As a disease it is an abnormality that requires treatment or outside intervention that the self is not capable of offering to the self.

I guess the point of all this is, there are many ways to look at addiction.  At the very least addiction points to a problem that requires attention.  On one level addiction is against self-interest because it is physically and psychologically unhealthy.  But at the same time addiction is a survival tactic.  At the heart of addiction there is an intolerable feeling that must be either acknowledged and dealt with by fully experiencing it which is difficult.  If the intolerable feeling cannot be experienced  it must be suppressed.  Neither Day Guy nor Night Guy wants to experience this feeling but Day Guy is at least capable of considering options other than suppression.

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Passive Aggressive Behavior, The Truth Will Set You Free

I used to troll a message board.  I describe this in my recently published eBook entitled Shame and Internet Trolling. I targeted a conservative, ex-military guy from Texas.  All I had to do was post an article that put the Republican party in a bad light and that would set him off on a vicious anti-Liberal rant.  It felt exciting to get him riled up.  When he accused me of trolling and / or baiting I would defend myself saying that all I did was post an article I thought would generate interesting conversation.  Because I did not comment on the article directly I maintained plausible deniability.  It was fun to get him riled up but when he attacked me back I felt horrible.  I had to get the last word in.  I could not let him get the better of me.  Sometimes other members on the message board would take his side.  Then I would feel even worse.

The truth is that passive aggression comes from shame.  If I really felt the article was valuable in and of itself I would have advocated for it.  But instead I tried to maintain deniability to protect myself from counter attack and maintain the illusion that I merely posted the article to stimulate discussion.  Shame based behavior such as passive aggression comes from a mind that assumes that its true thoughts and feelings are not okay.  If somebody else were able to observe these thoughts and feelings they would judge the mind harshly so the thoughts and feelings must be hidden and denied.  To the shame based mind image is more important than reality.  Of course this mindset is ultimately undermining and self-defeating.  Reality is real (by definition).  If the mind values image over reality it is in a sense denying reality and at odds with it.  This results in more shame and anxiety to boot.

In the Book of John, chapter 8, verse 32, Jesus says, “[T]he truth shall make you free.”  In the context of this post this statement is very powerful because shame (the motivation behind passive aggression) is a prison of untruth and unreality.  In order to escape the prison of shame the mind must face its highest fear, to expose the truth within to the light of day and for all to see and judge (if they choose to) without excuses.  This is a very tall order for someone who suffers from shame.  I speak from person experience and in my experience just as this prison takes many, many years to build and perfect it also takes some time (though not as much) to be torn down.  The fear of exposure must be approached with caution and the waters tested gradually over time so that trust of the outside world is built up.  Further, and most importantly, the shame based mind must learn to not abandon itself in the face of shame.  I used to say, “I wish I was dead” to myself whenever I felt shame or embarrassment.  Now, when I experience shame or embarrassment I try to be aware of what is going on inside of me and then I say, “I can love myself through this experience.”  The reality of the situation is that shame is just an emotion and all emotions are real and okay.  They have to be otherwise the one who feels the emotion is not okay.  It is difficult to emerge from shame and appreciate this at first.  But doing so brings forth the dawn of liberation for a shame based person and when this happens behaviors like passive aggression begin to fade away.

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On Judging People

The last Judgment - an icon 17th cent. from Li...

The last Judgment – an icon 17th cent. from Lipie, Historic Museum in Sanok, Poland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the Book of Matthew Chapter 7, verse 1 Jesus says, “Judge not lest ye be judged.”  Traditionally I took this to mean, do not judge other people because you don’t like being judged yourself and if you judge other people then you open the door for them to judge you back.  Implicit in this interpretation is the idea that everyone has some flaw worthy of judgment.

Before I worked from home I worked in an office.  My adjacent cubicle neighbor was a very judgmental person who was always criticizing other people to me behind their backs.  One day she came into work with a really depressed look on her face.  The idea struck me that she was depressed because she was judging and criticizing herself just like she criticized and judged other people and it was making her feel horrible.  I base this assumption on personal experience.  I am also guilty of judging other people.  The judgment originates from a very active voice in my head that will never pass up an opportunity to point out how I should feel humiliated or ashamed because of my actions.  It also judges other people.

So now I take what Jesus said in the Book of Matthew to mean, if you judge other people you will judge yourself and constantly judging yourself feels horrible.  This makes sense to a point but Jesus goes on to talk about hypocrites and how you should not criticize a person for having a mote in their eye when you have a beam in your own.  So with that in mind it does seem like he is saying it is hypocritical to judge someone else when you yourself are equally (or perhaps more) worthy of being judged.  Either way, judging makes the object of judgment feel horrible (ashamed) even though Jesus does not address that point directly.

Judgment is also self-perpetuating because a person who judges himself and others does so from a place of shame.  He judges himself because he feels shame.  He judges others to make himself feel less shameful about himself in comparison to the other.  This shame is linked to  the illusion that judgment is upholding standards upon which civilization is maintained.  If the standards are not maintained then civilization is undermined (so goes the theory).  I happen to believe that upholding standards is a good thing.  But it seems to me that it would be better to hold up standards without judging because judging is shaming and makes people feel shitty.

In a sense it is impossible to not judge because judgment comes from that critical voice in your head.  However, you do have the ability to separate yourself from that voice by observing it without believing it is you.  You don’t have to go along with the judgment of either yourself or anyone else.  Judge not lest ye be judged.

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The Universe is Solipsistic

Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion,...

Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, 16th century image from Japan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is an idea I have about the nature of the universe.  The idea is that the universe is solipsistic in that there is one mind and we as individuals experience an illusion of separateness.  All consciousness comes from the same source.  Perhaps there was some event like the Big Bang that set the illusion of separation into motion.  This is not such an original idea,  however, I think the way I approach it is a little different than anything else I have heard or read.

I got the idea in law school reading hand written criminal appeals written by uneducated murderers.  It occurred to me that the criminal would do anything he could to get out of prison.  He would research the law and hand write a complex legal document.  Even if he knew he was guilty he had infinite compassion for himself — because he was himself.  When we look at murders in prison we probably think they should be there.  But if you or I were the murder we would want our freedom.  Why?  Because on some level we all have infinite compassion for ourselves.  This is not to say that we are never self critical, but rather to illustrate that underneath the self criticism there sits a place of self compassion.

According to this model, to the extent we have compassion for others it is because we recognize ourselves (the universal solipsistic mind) in the other person.  We see ourselves quite strongly in our children (for obvious reasons) and therefore have more compassion for them than strangers.  The same is true for family members, fellow countrymen, teammates and friends we associate with.

In this model the forces of evil in the world attempt to perpetuate the separation through judgement, shame and perhaps even the concept of altruism.  When we judge a person we say we are better than them and we separate ourselves from them.  When we shame a person we make them feel inferior and separate.  The same holds when we judge ourselves.  We then become separate from ourselves.  This really is the ultimate illusion.  We can see that we are one whole and yet when we judge ourselves we act and feel as if this is not the case.  The same is true (according to this model) for the universe as a whole.

Now, one might argue that this view of compassion is actually selfishness and that it is morally superior to have compassion for a complete stranger unconnected to ourselves for other reasons rather than having compassion for someone because you recognize yourself in them.  This is altruism.  But I suspect this point of view comes from a place of shame.  It is judgmental and attempts to separate those who love themselves from those who think the purest form of love can only be directed to another person.  Anything else is selfishness and selfishness is by that altruistic definition bad.  But if the universe is solipsistic then the love of the self is the actually the highest good and altruism is an illusion of separateness.

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The Greatest Generation

Tom Brokaw wrote a book entitled “The Greatest Generation.”  I never read it but I’m pretty sure I know what he wrote about because I grew up with parents who also sung the praises of this greatest generation.  Like Brokaw my parents belonged to the baby boomers.  They always talked about how great their parents were and sort of implied how ungrateful my generation was.  They told me or implied that things were better in the past because they and their parents lived in simpler, more virtuous times.  The United States was really united back then, also more patriotic and religious.  We had the strongest economy, best education and the most powerful military.  My parents both went to college, found professional jobs, bought a house, my mother became a house wife and my father retired in his 60s with a pension.

My earliest memories come from the 1970s when things seemed to be in decay.  Jimmy Carter was the President.  Pollution was horrible.  The military seemed weak after Vietnam.  Faith in the government had been undermined by Nixon.  There were gas shortages and hostage crisis.  Crime was up.  The purity was somehow gone and had been replaced by malaise, irony and sarcasm. The golden age was clearly over.  Ronald Reagan seemed to lift the spirit of the country but something told me that it was a paler, less authentic reflection of the spirit felt during the time of the greatest generation.  The country longed to return to that time and pretended it had somehow returned but everyone really knew it wasn’t quite the same.

What bothers me about the concept of the “greatest generation” is that it implies all other generations are not as great.  It implies the way to pay tribute to that generation is to feel like our generation would not have persevered and stepped up to fight like the greatest one did.  It also implies that the US as a country was better because of the virtue of the generation that lived at that time.  They fought the war, they joined civic organizations, they were patriotic.  As such when a member of my generation doesn’t pull his own weight it not only reveals him to be a weaker, flawed person than the gods of the greatest generation, he is also contributing to the downfall of our civilization.

The concept of the greatest generation implies that my generation is somehow responsible for American decline because we cannot measure up to that generation.  It is a form of original sin.  The concept of the greatest generation implies that our generation missed out on something better and that we didn’t deserve it anyway because we just aren’t as good as they were.  The concept of the greatest generation implies also that it is our duty to feel ashamed of ourselves to atone for this.

I grew up wishing I lived during World War II when people were patriotic and united.  I wished I had destiny handed to me like that generation who were drafted into the military.  I felt lost and unnecessary all my life and told that I did not deserve what I had.  When I graduated college in 1993 I could not find a job.  I would have given anything to be told I was needed and given a destiny.

Back then everyone in the street wore a suit.  Now, not even the President wears a tie at times.  It feels like the standards are slipping but I know would have been one of the ones to maintain the standards and yet was never given an opportunity to do so and then blamed for not maintaining the standards in the end. Every organization I have belonged to was great once and decayed during my lifetime.  The US is just one example of this for reasons I have discussed.  The Catholic Church is another example.  The soulless folk masses I attend as a kid seemed half assed in comparison to the rigid, solemn splendor of the Latin Mass my parents attended when they were kids.  My Boy Scout troop disbanded while I was a member.  The fraternity I joined in college was the strongest on campus and then decayed when a kid fell off the roof during a post initiation party.  After that most members stopped contributing.  I (for some reason) felt compelled to keep it going.

This myth of the greatest generation was devised by the baby boomer generation.  I imagine the greatest generation came home from the war where they witnessed horrors.  Perhaps they suffered from PTSD.  They came back to live in a society that did not experience the direct assault of the war in that the cities and infrastructure were not destroyed.  The standard of living in the US at the time was far superior to devastated Europe.  The greatest generation saw their soft kids growing up like this and shamed them because they could not deal with it.  Clean your plate – there’s starving kids in Europe!  So the baby boomers in turn grew up with a great deal of shame.  And what does a person who feels shame do?  He dumps it on to someone weaker than him.  This happened to be the children of the baby boomers, my generation that grew up in the 1970s.

There’s the sense that I’ve been carrying the weight of civilization on my shoulders.  That things were better back then because people are more selfish and less disciplined now.  So every act of selfishness now is further undermining civilization.  When I’m bad I’m not just undermining myself, I’m undermining civilization.  But is that any way to live a life?  I did not decide when to be born and it’s not my fault that times have changed.  I’ve wasted enough time feeling ashamed for being given a higher standard of living than the Baby Boomers and yet having less career opportunity than they did.  Up yours Tom Brokaw.  It’s time to move forward put the myths of those two generations to bed.

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Filed under Achievement, Judging, Shame