Hell Is Other People?

I was once the quintessential “angry young man.” Alost everyone pissed me off. I wasn’t the type who screamed and yelled or became violent but when I got angry I would internalize it. I shut down and would stonewall the person I was angry at for days or weeks! Or I would withdrawal into myself and not talk with anyone. A few times a year the pressure would get released when someone did something that really upset me. Then my temper would just let lose. I never hurt another person physically, but anger in all its manifestations can be very damaging to oneself and others emotionally. For various reasons, other people created a kind of hell inside me.

The French existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, “Hell is other people.” For a long time I believed this was true. But is this really? Yes, other people can be disappointing and difficult but do other people really have the power to create our inner hell? Or are we the ones who we let other people do this to us?

I am sure most people have said things like, “You are really stressing me out,” or “You make me so angry.” I know I have. But is this really true? Is it other people who are stressing us out or are we giving away all of our inner power to other people thus letting them stress us out?

Well, I think the answer is yes and no. It can be very challenging to be the kind of person who just remains unaffected by other people. To be that person who just doesn’t care and is able to remain completely relaxed and grounded in the face of adversity. It is possible to be this way (I thought Barack Obama was a great example of this when he was President) but it often requires a great mastery of the skill known as self-control.

 

The cool thing about mindfulness is that the more we practice, the more self-control we get. It is like an innate, positive side-effect of practicing mindfulness. What this means is that the more we practice mindfulness the better we get at responding to stressors rather than reacting to them. Make no mistake about it, there is a gigantic difference between reacting and responding. Reacting causes stress whereas responding cuts it in half. Reacting is habitual and automatic, responding requires awareness and conscious choice. The mind makes a great servant, but a terrible master, so the saying goes.

When we let other people stress us out or make us angry it is usually because we are reacting to that other person. They do something we don’t like, we get triggered and then instantly go into fight or flight mode. We fire right back or pull away. It is usually all downhill from here. In this situation, it is true that hell can be caused by other people. We tend to live in a culture that supports, reinforces and teaches this way of reactive behavior towards adversity.

But when we are able to be mindful, we gain the ability (or skill) to become more self-aware, to not react to every single trigger that goes off in us. When we are more self-aware we can notice that we have been triggered and then respond to the trigger, rather automatically reacting to it. We can notice that our bodies have become tense, that our mind is creating all kinds of negative thoughts, that our heart rate has gone up and we can also be aware of our impulse to react. But we don’t have to give in to this. We can just smile at it in the same way that we would smile at an old person walking slowly across the street. “I see you, but I am going to exercise compassion and not get all stressed out.”

Instead of reacting, we can focus on our breathing, feel our feet on the ground, notice the wave of heated emotions invading our chest and just let it go in the same way that we would watch a bird fly across the sky. We don’t have to give in to the negative thoughts and heated emotions. When we are able to act from a more grounded, self-aware, less automatic place- hell is no longer other people. We no longer let other people have this kind of control and power over us.

Ultimately we are the ones who determine whether we want hell to be other people or not. We are the ones who let other people get to us. We let other people stress us out more than we need to. Human beings are very resilient creatures. We can get bent out of shape, but we always have the ability to come back into shape quickly. The more we practice mindfulness, the more we gain the ability to come back into shape quickly after being bent out of shape. Gone are the days of hanging onto stress or anger for an entire day or days! Yeah we will get upset or stressed out because of other people. It is only natural for most of us. But we can be aware that this has happened and then let it go as quickly as possible. Return to the present moment and move on with our lives without carrying that heavy, stressful, emotionally damaging load.

There is great freedom (and health) in being able to respond to other people in this way.

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None Of This Is As Real As You Currently Think

This seems to be the most difficult concept for humans to grasp- that none of this is as real as you think.

Sooner than later the life you are living right now and everything going on in it will be the distant past.

Will not exist anymore.

Your life will eventually be a life that was once lived a long time ago.

You are not immortal.

Everything vanishes.

Including you.

Trying to forget about this does not help anyone.

It especially does not help you.

I was made very aware of this while reading Jack Kerouac’s book “Desolation Angels” this morning.

In it he describes an entire world, so full of life.

All these people.

All these lives living in 1950’s San Francisco.

Kerouac masterfully portrays this vibrant and thriving world that was so alive at one time but does not exist anymore.

All these characters that he describes.

All these families, friends, problems and achievements- all of it gone now.

And I am reminded that the same thing will happen to you and I.

Our lives, which feel so important and real right now, will be the distant past soon enough.

And then there will be people in some future time reading about this time in which we lived, thinking that it all seemed so alive at one time but now it too is gone.

It is so important to not get too caught up in things.

Our lives depend on it.

We get so stuck on various day-to-day problems and worries.

We forget.

We treat our lives as if it were something that will last forever.

We treat life as if it were continual tasks to be accomplished.

How misguided we are.

We forget that we too (and everyone else) are mortal.

All of this will disappear.

All the more reason to try and be present with it while it is still here.

I too get caught up sometimes and forget.

I treat my life as if it was this thing that will be around forever.

Sometimes it makes me sad that I do this.

I sometimes do not appreciate the passing moment and I create problems that would not exist if I could stay aware of the transitory nature of everything.

The mind often tricks us into thinking that everything is so real.

So important.

But if everything is just going to be a distant memory before we know it, how important are we really?

Why get so caught up in our preoccupations?

Why take ourselves so seriously?

What happens when we stop forgetting that we and everyone we know are quickly passing lived lives, is that we appreciate the moments we do have much more.

We stop trying to make life something that it is not and appreciate what is here now.

A feeling of gratitude and release from pressure and stress arises.

We can settle down and appreciate our time and the people and things around us before it is all gone.

We can do the things we want to do more.

Knowing that it is all just going to pass, gives us the freedom and courage to live the kind of lives we want to live right now.

Without this realization we are just wasting something very valuable.

Valuable only because it can never be gotten back.

Procrastination, The Importance Of Putting Everything Off

“A nice piece of modern contemporary philosophy and contemplation about the way we live our lives in the modern world.” -Tracie Sokoloff

Nothing makes me happier than the complete absence of all obligations. Nothing. To be alone in wide open time and space, free to go and do whatever I want, is the ideal condition for myself to exist within. Free to listen to music, free to write, free to make art, free to fall asleep in my garden, free to go for a long walk, free to drift in whatever direction I get blown in without any concern for time or things that must be done- this is what I consider to be basic human freedom. Human freedom is a basic need that we all share and the more that this basic need goes unmet, the more we experience mental and physical illness. (It is ironic or tragic that in the society we have created, the more this basic need goes unmet the more material and financial gain we often get. This is why in America more people are on psychiatric drugs and suffer various addictions than any other country in the world.)

For close to thirty years now, I have managed to put everything off. As I get older I am becoming more skilled at doing this. Prior to thirty years ago, I still put everything off but I had my parents continually placing in front of me what I was trying to put off. Without anyone forcing my hand, I am able to keep everything away. The difference between myself and most Americans is that I see what is often referred to as procrastination as a very healthy behavior (if done right). In fact, I feel it is necessary to put things off in order to live a life free from as may obligations as possible. I have always believed that the person who dies with the largest amount of things put off or not taken care off, has lived the fullest life. In a society where a person’s value is in equal measure to the amount of obligations that they have, we must actively engage our ability (which we all have) to put things off, if we want to live free from this often self-made prison.

In order to successfully put things off for as long as possible (in order to live more fully now), it is important to know how to be alone. If an individual is not able to be genuinely alone without anxiety, it will be difficult for he or she (or it) to free themselves from all obligations. Putting things off will be a struggle for the individual who is not able to be alone. By being alone what I mean is the ability to be completely undisturbed by the outside world. To shut the entire outside world out as if it was not even there. When we shut the entire world out, people who want something from us no longer exist. Other people become like trees or clouds in the sky- they are just there, coexisting along with us rather than wanting or demanding something from us or us needing something from them (obligation means to need something from another person or for another person to need something from you). To be free of obligation means to not need anything from others and to not be disturbed or anxious about what others might need from you. This is why being alone is a skill that is crucial for successfully being able to put things off.

The skill of being alone is in great decline in American society. This is one of the most tragic phenomena of our time. The ability to be alone is disappearing in front of our eyes. Individuals can no longer even be alone while sitting on the toilet! Most individuals sit on the toilet with some kind of digital device in their hand. These digital devices (computers, smartphones) serve one fundamental purpose, to prevent people from feeling alone. Most of us can’t handle being alone. We don’t like how it feels. We become uncomfortable and anxious, feel like we are missing out when alone and digital intervention comes to our rescue. This is tragic because the human soul needs to be alone in order to flourish. Less time alone equals less soul and more mechanization (which is what the corporations who sell us these products need and want us to become- mechanized).

The one phenomena that differentiates our period in human history from any other period is that we can now avoid being alone even when we are alone. Our phones and computers are doorways through which the outside world can slip in and fill our aloneness. Most of us voluntarily open up this door for the outside world to come on in when we are alone because we have forgotten how to be alone. Being alone is a skill that requires practice. Once we are constantly interrupting our aloneness by checking our emails, texts, Facebook and Instagram our ability to be alone becomes weaker and weaker until we can not be alone anymore without some sort of distraction present. This is a human tragedy.

If we are not able to shut the outside world out and be fully alone, we will not be successful at freeing ourselves from all obligations. As long as we let the outside world in, even if we manage to put most things off, we will still be tormented by the lingering feeling of all the things we are not getting done. There is no greater waste of time (life) than putting things off while worrying about what we are not getting done. The entire world must be completely shut out, forgotten about or neutralized (meaning everything is just how it should be) in order for a person to successfully put things off. Our day is spent doing exactly what we want to be doing, free of any extraneous concerns or worries, free from the constraints imposed on humans by time. We are fully content and at peace in our aloneness, not worried about what is being left undone or missed out on because we are fulfilled (engaged) in our lives now. This is what it means to be free and the only way to be truly free in our contemporary world is to put everything off.

Awareness Of The Voice In Your Head

“The only difference between us and someone who is noticeably insane is that we are able to keep our mental chatter relatively inaudible.” -Eckhart Tolle

I looked out my window and noticed clouds in the sky. I thought to myself, “Strange weather.” Then I said out loud, “Strange weather.” Who the hell was I telling this to?

Have you ever been in a car with a driver who can not stop talking? They talk about a movie they saw, a book they are reading, something someone did or something that they will do in the future? I can think of no better example of just how much we identify with the voice in our heads- even at the expense of our and others safety when we are driving a potentially dangerous vehicle at high speeds.

We do the same thing when we are driving alone. We are usually more identified with the voice in our heads than we are with the experience of driving a car. While driving we are far away from that classic Zen saying: “When doing the dishes, just do the dishes. When walking, just walk.” While driving, very few of us are just driving. Even when we are cleaning our homes, taking a shower, sitting by a swimming pool or eating food you might noticed that you are more identified with the voice in your head than you are with the experience of what you are actually doing.

Why is this?

I was thinking about this as I was watering some of the plants in my garden this morning. I was thinking about why we are so identified with the endless mental chatter that runs through our heads, even when we know that it is the root of our unhappiness, anxiety and stress. It’s the equivalent to smoking cigarettes even though you know the cigarets are killing you- but still you can’t stop. As I was thinking about this I realized that I was lost in thought! I was more identified with the voice in my head than I was with the experience of watering my plants! I was thinking about this essay I wanted to write. I was thinking about what I was going to do tonight. I was thinking about a hundred different things that chattered their way through my mind. Compulsive thinking, thinking, thinking! But I was not even aware that I was standing in a puddle of mud.

In his book The Antidote, Happiness For People Who Can Not Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman writes in depth about how trying to make ourselves happy and successful (in order to avoid feelings of uncertainty) is precisely what sabotages the attempt. He writes about numerous individuals who have chosen a radically different and less forced positivity approach to achieving sustainable happiness and fulfillment. In one section of the book he visits the worlds best selling spiritual author, Eckhart Tolle, in his cramped and tiny apartment in Vancouver, Canada. In Tolle’s apartment Oliver (who is an award winning journalist) and Eckhart engage in an illuminating conversation about how we tragically misidentify who we really are with the voice in our heads.

Oliver asks Eckhart what he thinks is our biggest barrier to fulfillment and happiness. Eckhart replies by telling him that it is the compulsive voice in our heads:

“There is complete identification with the thoughts that go through your head. It’s just a total lack of awareness, except for the thoughts that are passing through your mind. It is a state of being so identified with the voices in your head that you actually think you are the voice in your head.”

Oliver goes on to write about how one day Eckhart Tolle, after suffering immense anxiety and depression, had the realization that “I am so sick of myself!” Eckhart thought to himself that this statement implied that “there must be two of me: the “I” and the “self” that I cannot live with. Maybe, I thought, only one of them is real. I was so stunned by this realization that my mind stopped. I was conscious but there were no more thoughts.” After his breakthrough Tolle, who was up until then on a path towards becoming a successful intellectual and academic scholar, no longer mistakenly believed he was his thinking: he saw himself instead as the witness to it.

The fundamental premise in Buddhist philosophy is that all suffering and unhappiness is the direct result of attachment. When we become attached to emotions, thoughts and perceptions we cause ourselves and others suffering. It is important to keep in mind that this does not imply that we do not value or care about the things or people in our lives. Being non-attached has more to do with the understanding or insight that the fundamental nature of everything in our lives (including us) is impermanent. The more we try and attach to things (whether it is our car, our partner’s happiness, our happiness, our security, our health) the more we will suffer when things change. “Everything is always changing,” I told myself last night as I abstained from reacting to feelings of anger when my dog put a giant hole in my brand new shirt.

As I was watering my plants in the garden, completely identified with the mental chatter that was running through my head, I was in a state of attachment. Attached to the thoughts about what “I” would do later or what “I” would write. As a result I felt somewhat dissatisfied and impatient, even while engaging in the peaceful and enjoyable activity of watering plants.

The practice of mindfulness can be summed up with one sentence: Aware and non-attached to the bundle of thoughts, perceptions and sensations that move through our consciousness. Just see what happens and be present with all the uncertainty that arises when we are not attached, could be the motto of mindfulness practice. When we practice mindfulness we experience what the Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote about in the 18th century:

“I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind that they too are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in perpetual flux and movement.”

Hume goes on to discuss how all human unhappiness and dissatisfaction is the result of being completely identified with this perpetual flux and movement. “Why don’t humans see this?” Hume often ruminated in his writings.

When we practice mindfulness we are aware of the voice in our heads, but not identified with it. We witness the flux of thoughts and emotions continually passing by, while sustaining non-attached awareness, which remains focused in the present moment. Whether we are driving cars or watering plants, we are being mindful when we are calmly observing rather than consumed by the compulsive thinking quest to make ourselves happy and secure at some point in the always illusive future. We notice the voice in our heads but are not identifying with it. When we do this we open up a new dimension of consciousness. We become aware of a deeper, more present self, behind or underneath our thoughts. As a result the compulsive thoughts lose their power and we are more aware that the reality that is our life right now has almost nothing in common with the voice in our heads.