Emerging from the Prison of Self Doubt and Angst
It is time to take a look at our negative feelings. What is worse, self doubt or anxiety?
I use the word Angst. Angst is a very difficult emotion to manage. Anxiety sounds similar to angst and has a similar meaning. I believe that most people most of the time live in low grade anxiety which makes them feel heavier than they actually are. Angst or anxiety is a background feeling, like a background noise or electronic pollution.
When you are alone at home you start hearing the slightly grating sound of the fridge, some clocks etc. You just want peace and quiet, and you think of it as physical peace and quiet. You may decide to go into nature to experience peace and quiet there, but then you hear the rumbling sounds of distant tractors or airplanes etc. These mechanical, technical or electronic sounds are not generally harmonious. If in nature you are away from those mechanical sounds, you begin to hear the sound of birds, insects, or maybe even you can hear the grass growing. When we hear natural sounds, we include them in the feeling of peace, but when we hear artificial mechanical or electronic sounds we associate them with disturbance. This is why music is often played during meditation, to simply cover the background noise, with something more harmonious.
In spirituality the self is considered as the combination of body and soul. The component parts of our human body are comparable to those of the planet earth. Your body is about 60 – 70% water, like the earth. When we are drawn to nature we are also drawn to a natural harmony that is intrinsic in nature. The natural world is a world of cycles, the seasons, different life cycles. It is part of our human nature to come into harmony with the larger movements and rhythms of nature and the earth. We can feel whether circumstances are natural or unnatural. For example, if a person dies at the end of a long life, we say it is a natural death, but if it happens early in life we say it is unnatural and it disturbs more. We are affected to some extent because life has the ups and downs, good and bad, success and failure, this is part of life. But there is a difference between a natural movement of good and bad, and when it becomes unacceptable, and we really don’t want or like it. It becomes too extreme. Our freedom or state of being in prison has to do with our relationship between what we feel is acceptable and what is unacceptable.
It is common for young people to hold certain ideals. We have many more options available to us at the beginning of our lives. With age our options and freedom of choice diminish. You must have experienced the unpleasant emotion of disillusionment. People generally consider the state of being disillusioned to be very negative. But it is useful to position ourselves in regard to the phenomenon of disillusionment by considering this question. “Would you rather live under illusions, or without illusions?”
We don’t like the experience of disillusionment, but yet we consider that anyone living under an illusion is in an unhappy state. Another question we also have to face is: “Would you rather be a powerful soul in a weak position, or a weak soul in a powerful position?” These are the options. Do you want to be powerful even though you are in a weak position? Or do you want to be in a powerful position even though you may be internally weak? Philosophically, the better choices are to be a powerful soul regardless of the circumstances, and to be a person who is not living under any illusions.
When we put these questions to ourselves, it forces us to position ourselves vis-à-vis negative emotions in a different way. Many, consciously or subconsciously, believe that “if it feels good, then it is good, and if it feels bad then it is bad.” Here we find ourselves facing questions which oblige us to adopt the opposite position. This means we put our understanding in a higher position and give it higher priority than our feelings. We are therefore saying to ourselves: “Even if the experience of being disillusioned is bad, it is still preferable to being in a state of illusion or deluded.”
When it comes to power, I would not choose to be weak, I would chose to be powerful, but then I have to deal with being in a weak position. What would be the use of being a powerful soul in a weak position? We are all aware of the saying: “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This puts us in a dilemma, because it is good to be powerful but not good to be corrupt. Obviously if one is a weak soul in a powerful position, then one would easily get corrupted. The proof that one is a weak soul is that you are easily corrupted by power. When you are in a position of power, then people believe what you say. When you are in a powerful position, people will do whatever you tell them to do. It is therefore easy to abuse your power. But if you are in a weak position you are very limited in terms of what you can do, people don’t pay much attention to what you say, and they certainly don’t do what you tell them.
A deeper question: “is the person that I am, pure or impure?” What would I say about myself? Here is where the question of self-doubt comes in.
Very few can truthfully say they have a completely clear, clean conscience. We all could say, “yes, I have made mistakes.” All of us have hurt someone’s feelings at some time. We have all lied in order to protect ourselves. We have all been arrogant and aggressive. Any time we have done any action which is against the voice of our conscience, it disturbs our conscience. This also confirms that, “if I do find myself in a position of power it is very possible that I would misuse it.” There is a doubt.
It is a little difficult for us to be completely in our self respect when we know there is something that we would be ashamed of, if it were exposed. Anything that a person has done in the past is in their memory. We live in the world of morality which says, “this is good, this is bad.” Also, “this was bad.” You can’t actually change the past and say: “well, it wasn’t really bad, it was good.” We can justify, and find out many ways to explain why it was necessary, but we can’t actually say: “it was morally good.” Having a guilty conscience weakens a person. A big issue to resolve is: “can I clean a guilty conscience?”
Some people raise the issue of forgiveness. However, the concept of forgiveness puts us in an ambivalent relationship with ourselves. It is reasonable for us to say to another who has wronged us: “OK I forgive you, don’t worry, it’s alright.” We can reach a position of acceptance and say, it’s alright. But it is more difficult regarding one’s own self. I can say I forgive myself, but then the other part of myself will say, “well, who do you think you are? God or something?” So forgiving the self is difficult. Even if I say I forgive myself, I still did that thing. We might think that: “well, with time, I will forget what I did,” but you may be 95 and still remember: “when I was 15 I did such and such an act.” It does not go away just like that. Therefore, it is important to discover the solution to this problem.
Spirituality offers an approach which does actually resolve the problem. In spirituality we would not look at goodness and badness through the lens of conventional morality, but through a different lens. The word: “Morality” comes from the Latin, and “Ethics” comes from the Greek. They both mean the majority of people’s opinion about what is right and wrong. The foundation of morality and ethics is public opinion. When we say that something is right or wrong, it therefore is not absolute, but an opinion. However, most people who adhere to conventional morality and ethics also think that it is absolute, because we don’t analyze it critically. We usually learn about right and wrong through reward and punishment. In Western Culture, we also learn that “the best possible is for me to become perfect.” Of course we can’t be perfect, but maximum 99%, 90% or 80%. Thus we find ourselves in an impossible situation. On the one hand, it is impossible to be perfect. On the other hand, if I am not perfect I have a bad conscience. If I have a bad conscience, I have self doubt. Therefore it is impossible to have self respect. This is a very uncomfortable way to exist.
The foundation of this discomfort is the illusion that public opinion is some sort of absolute. Public opinion is created by imperfect people. Imperfect people make each other crazy in this way. You can never be comfortable inside your skin, and that is called angst. Therefore one lives in this feeling that “I am fundamentally not OK.” Then we create the idea that “God who is perfect sees us in terms of our imperfections.” So you always feel a bit embarrassed if you want to get close to God. This is also uncomfortable. This is a prison. This self doubt, anxiety and philosophical suffering.
My question is: if there would be an approach you could adopt whereby you would not be in that prison, would you adopt it? This is a very difficult question, but I am asking it anyway. It is not dangerous, but it is disturbing because it goes to a very deep place in our thinking. The title of this talk implies that it is possible to come out of this prison. But if I am the only person who is not in prison and everyone else is in prison, will I feel isolated? I think it is an important part of human nature, we don’t want to be different, marginalized or ostracized. Aristotle said, “Man is a social animal.” So if we are uncomfortable in our skins, we can fit socially, but if we make ourselves comfortable, then we are socially unacceptable. It is a very difficult question to deal with. Because whichever position we take, will make us uncomfortable.
If I say: “OK, I will compromise my soul,” then I can’t really respect myself, and then if I adopt a truth which is unconventional I will be marginalized, and that is very uncomfortable. There is a very helpful saying which comes from Schopenhauer. He said, “If you want to do something different, then first everyone will ridicule you. If you can survive that and still insist on your different way of looking at things, they will give you severe punishment. If you can survive this difficult step then everyone starts saying, well everyone always knew that.” He must have thought very deeply about human nature and how it operates. In order to bring about change you are going against a huge force of inertia. That is much more powerful than just one individual or a few individuals.
Sometimes people speak of a critical mass or a critical number. The idea is that once you reach this number then a shift happens. I think this idea of a critical number or mass is very relevant. For how long will we be able to live in the situation of being uncomfortable in one’s skin because it is impossible to be perfect, while it is impossible to have self respect if you are not perfect? Sooner or later, people will question the conventional basis of morality. It is very easy to say this or that is not OK, but then what is OK?
In spirituality we are presented with concepts for our consideration which are very unconventional. For example one concept is: You are an eternal immortal soul. You are eternal, immortal, you always exist, you have never not existed, you never will not exist.
This is a very simple little sentence but it has huge implications. Ultimately, I have to decide whether I want to exist eternally in a state of philosophical discomfort. I think that would be eternal damnation or eternally intolerable. A person who hears such an idea may say, “yes, it seems right, but then there are implications and questions.”
One implication is that in order for me to endure my eternity, I must act according to my conscience. If I act according to my conscience, it may not be according to conventional morality. There would be a conflict. You probably have tried to ask yourself, “what is the right thing to do in this very difficult situation?” There are occasions when, if you ‘do the right thing’, you will lose everything. So then is that the right thing? We can find ourselves in extremely difficult positions. I think we look for a reference point.
If your reference point is perfection, and you can never be perfect, then even if you have that reference point, you can never apply it. Another problem with the reference point of perfection is that the definition of perfection is determined by imperfect people. Now, It is said, for example, that the movement of the planets around the sun is perfect. Right? The planets move around the sun, everything is circling in perfect balance. One description of perfection is an extreme decided on by imperfect people. And another definition of perfection is more like balance.
If you want to make a good decision about something, you must take everything into consideration. In spirituality they say to us: “when you want to decide, you have to consider the past, the present and the future.” You don’t know the total past, or future, and only some of the present. But someone who does their best to take into consideration all the factors, and looks at the past, the present and the future of that situation, has a good chance of making a good decision. You make a decision, and say that is the best that I can do in the circumstances.
In the creation of art there is a point where you say it is right. If you are a writer, you want to write a perfect piece. With computers, you can refine your written piece and reach an optimum point. At that point you need the discernment and the courage to say, “now I will not work on my text any more, it is good enough right there.” This requires a decision from within to say, “this is it, from here I let go.” There may be others who disagree, but you decided, “this is it for me, and leave it there.” The film of Henri-Georges Clouzot “Le Mystère de Picasso”, shows how Picasso paints a picture and decides the point at which the painting is done, ready. In terms of art, we might determine whether a person is a great artist partly on the basis of technique, as well as on the basis of vision, but also because of knowing the right point of optimum perfection.
Your life is also a piece of art. Each day we do something in our lives with the internal impulsion to improve ourselves. If we live with the idea of perfection being impossible to reach then we cannot work with our lives to achieve success. I think we are more imprisoned by the idea of the impossible unattainable perfection, than our daily worries or anxieties.
We need to look at balance as perfection rather than perfection as an extreme. We must therefore accept and work with our imperfections in order to be balanced. Then we can bring ourselves to an attainable point, and permit ourselves to determine that as the optimum. Many things are within our control, and others are not. We cannot control other people’s behavior, but we can manage our emotions in the face of someone’s unacceptable behavior. We need to position ourselves such that our actions and words correspond with our conscience. We must be able to identify the point of diminishing returns, and refrain from the compulsion to go beyond it.
Another emotion we must give up is the sense of being obliged to prove that I am right. In spiritual study of Raja Yoga it is mentioned that, “your only problem is that you are caught up in right and wrong.” We worry about the possibility of somebody finding out that we are not OK. Not OK means not perfect. It is important to be able to express oneself, and to say that “I live according to my conscience and that is good enough for me. I have a policy, I will not worry about your opinion of me as long as I act according to my conscience. In that way I can have self respect.” (This idea is brilliantly analyzed in the novel Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, first published in 1962.) I give others full permission to have their own opinions. Then ultimately we come to terms with the fact that there is both positive and negative within us, we pay attention to go with the positive in spite of the existence of negativity within us.
The person who is a powerful soul in a weak position, must work on this until it has become managed. “If I am alright with me, then that’s it, I am OK.” Then there is no more anxiety. I really don’t have to worry about anything. What else? Is there any concern for self doubt? When I go according to my conscience, there is no room for self doubt.
I can go in front of God and say Hi! and God would say: “yes OK you’re fine.” Then I have a good relationship with God. This is how I would deal with this self created prison. It does require the courage to face other people’s disapproval. But since I am eternal, it makes it all the more important. Other people come and go and change their opinions. Fundamentally, we cannot allow ourselves to be driven by public opinion. Therefore we need to create our own morality. What do you think? Is that workable? Think about it?
Sitting with the self and really thinking about creating one’s own personal ethical policy is a form of meditation. Let us spend a few minutes in silent introspection considering our personal ethical position.
Turn your attention within… Sit with the self, with the idea that I am an eternal immortal spiritual being… I must live with myself forever… To respect myself is the most important thing… I listen carefully to the voice of my conscience… I begin to trust that voice… It is a very quiet voice… It is the voice of my soul… The silence brings inner clarity… I do not act on impulse… I act according to my deep inner truth… The purest part of my humanity… I make myself free from external influences… I make contact with my deep inner purity and the heart of my being which is essentially loving, I trust myself… And I allow myself to be close to that higher being, the Supreme Soul… That being is indeed truth… This is my reference point… I seek to stay in harmony with this… Then I act, whether it is a thought or a feeling, a word or a deed… And when it is right there is harmony, and when it is wrong there is disturbance… In this way I know… Then there is no anxiety, no worry, no fear… Then I trust myself…