I love to watch people and observe how they live their lives and organize their experiences internally. My people watching is done in a judgmental or moralistic way, but more so with an observational and curious attitude. I look out into the world like an anthropologist trying to understand another culture or a scientist in a lab. It is purely from a place of learning and understanding what drives human behavior. What I have found from my own observation (which has also been confirmed in much of what I have read) is that people have the strong tendency to avoid painful stimuli and move toward pleasure. I know this isn’t a groundbreaking finding, however it is a crucial underpinning for identifying what drives your own behavior as well as understanding what drives society as a whole. From this basic premise of the pain-pleasure principle, one can then take the monumental step toward living a self-actualized life- a life free of emotional hostage taking, depression, anxiety, addiction, co-dependence and suffering.
The advancement of technology over the past 15-20 years has created a culture of instant gratification and addiction. People are overly reliant on external stimuli to feel good and access positive emotional states. If they aren’t watching tv, then they are on the internet. If they aren’t on the internet, they are playing video games. If they aren’t hooked into some technological device, they are eating or drinking. If they aren’t eating or drinking, they might taking some drug or administering some medication. And when they aren’t engaged in one of these activities, it is likely they are being stimulated through some interaction with another person. Overall, our culture has us wired to be dependent on people, places and things outside of ourselves. People who come to me often share that they don’t like to be alone and that when they are alone, they get particularly anxious. Then I ask them what they do to stop feeling anxious. Their response- they either turn on the tv, drink a beer, eat something, surf the internet or call a friend. Our culture is becoming completely dependent on external stimuli to feel good and to elevate our emotional state. To add to this addiction, the mass marketers are feeding this cultural hypnosis through their constant barrage of advertisements that say “buy this-feel this way”. When you really break it down, how much of our lives are really under our own control? How much of our emotional states are dependent on people, places and things outside of ourselves?
I am not prescribing that you dispose of all your electronics, move off the grid and become a hermit or a monk. What I am suggesting is that if there is to have any semblance of a healthy life, one must strike a balance between between being internally emotionally regulated and externally stimulated. I would even go a step further to say that the path toward self-actualization is one of complete and total freedom from getting fulfillment or relief from external stimuli. You can choose how you want to live your life, however just be cognizant that the level of suffering you will experience in your life is dependent on the level in which you are dependent on external people, places and things to make you feel good and give you positive emotional states.
As I have said over and over, “The problem is never the problem”. And this holds true for this epidemic that is plaguing our society. People think the problem is the drastic rise of depression and anxiety (and other mental health issues) in our culture. The real problem is the blatant ignoring and pacifying of such problems through means of medication and other external stimuli (tv, iphones, food, alcohol, drugs). Depression and anxiety are incredibly valuable signals that provide us with feedback that needs to be taken into consideration. These negative emotions are telling us that we need to do one of two things. We either need to change our procedure- which is changing our current actions and behavior. Or we need to change our perception- which is to change how we’re contextualizing our experience. Rather what is the typical response to such negative emotions in our culture? Drink another beer, watch another tv show, post another picture. People use these short term strategies (aka pacifiers) to run from pain and seek some degree of relief and comfort. The irony is that until the anxiety, depression and other negative experiences get addressed directly, it will continue to show up in some way, shape or form. Most people continue to ignore the signals and keep shoving the problem under the rug for another day. They become masters at finding short term strategies to escape the pain. The problem with such a strategy is that just like any addict, they will eventually hit rock bottom. There will come a point where the pain and suffering will not be able to be subdued by the temporary fixes anymore and this will create such agony and despair that one will truly hit rock bottom and be forced to confront their inner demons. The problem with letting it get to this point is that it typically doesn’t happen for years or decades. This leaves people in what they term a “mid-life crisis” when they get in their forties or fifties.
In order to avoid hitting rock bottom or waiting until your so called ‘mid-life crisis’, it is time to do two things. First, begin identifying the negative emotions in your life. Rather than brushing the anxiety and depression under the rug and pacifying the pain with temporary external fixes (like relationships, food, drugs, technology, etc), begin to sit with the pain and suffering. As uncomfortable as it might be in that moment, it will save you 1000x the amount of pain and suffering down the road. Once you can get very comfortable sitting with the negative experience, rather than pacifying it with some short term external fix, you can then move on to the next step in the equation.
While the first step is about identifying the problem state and just being with it. The second step is about enacting the solution to the problem. If you only identify the problem and there is no solution, one will inevitably return to the old ineffective patterns of behavior to solve the problem and escape the pain and suffering. The solution involves breaking the cause and effect trance that we need something outside of ourselves to feel good. True self actualization and person power is available when you can access peace, joy and other positive emotions without the need for some external stimuli (people, place or thing). One way to cultivate this internally driven experience is through a daily meditative practice. Whether it be through meditation, a martial art or yoga- these meditative practices teach your brain and body that “I can feel good for no reason” and that I don’t need something outside of me to feel good and access a positive emotional state. Yes these practices do indeed have a physiological component to them that enhances their positive effect. By installing a daily meditative practice, one can begin to break the cause and effect linkage that in order to feel good and regulate one’s emotions- they need to do something outside of themselves.
Personally, spending 45 minutes to an hour every day in meditation has allowed me to feel good for no reason. I don’t need an excuse to feel good. I can feel good just by being here in the present moment with my thoughts and experience. Meditation also is very effective at cultivating a sense of gratitude. Because by sitting with your thoughts and observing your breathing- you are unconsciously teaching yourself, “I am grateful for this moment… I’m okay just being right here and now”. Now when I go out into the world I am not frantically seeking external stimuli to regulate my emotions. Amidst all the chaos and uncertainty of the outside world, meditation creates a “happy place” where you can go to seek refuge and peace. Meditation and other meditative practices unhooks you from the cause-effect hypnosis that runs our culture. It breaks the erroneous belief that you need some person, place or thing outside of yourself to feel good. Our culture is predicated on the do–>have—>be model. When in reality the more effective model for living an emotionally healthy life is be–>do–>have.
The culture through the media, politics and mass marketers has conditioned us to be slaves to external stimuli. Just look at your everyday emotional experience in this world. Look at each emotion you experience- contentment, sorrow, anxiety, peace, anger, etc. In each of these momentary experiences- what is causing these to fire off within you? My guess is that some external event, person or thing is behind the emotion. If this is the case, then you are inherently not in the driver seat of your life. Through a consistent dedication to deep meditative practices, one can begin to gain greater control over their emotional life and begin to unhook themselves from the scary reality that they are at the mercy of the feedback that they are receiving from their external environment. The vast amount of personal problems in our world come down to one’s inability to regulate their emotions. Addiction is the perfect example. People who are addicted (whether it be drugs, alcohol, food, co-dependent relationships, etc) have inability to get themselves to experience positive or comforting emotions by themselves. They instead turn to an artificial substance to provide them with the emotional state of pleasure, comfort and feeling okay. Therefore the addiction is nothing more than symptom. If they stop drinking, they will find some other substance or activity to change their emotional state. The solution to this problem of one’s inability to cope and emotionally regulate lies in mastering one’s own internal communication and their ability to feel good amidst the absence of pleasant external stimuli. All the way back in the 17th century, Blaise Pascal made an incredibly relevant observation when he said:
“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone”