Optimism Is Betrayal

Let optimism be defined as faith that the future, individually or collectively, shall be better than the present situation. Then optimism, I say, is betrayal.

When you’re a child, being optimistic is a legitimate pragmatic fudge. You often benefited from believing that the thing around the bend would lift you out of the funk, that your concerted efforts would release you from this fate. Some combination of deus ex machina and human agency, I mean, made you feel powerful. It did me.

But you’re older now and what got you here won’t get you there. You can’t throw the same bridge over everything. Now is it a cloak.

So, let’s get real, shall we? The fact is we just can’t bear the entire weight of the current situation. Therefore do we say, “Things’ll get better.” Therefore we reach for our phones. For a drink, a meal, sex, an email. Spin out a fantastical future. Lionize our pasts.

While all along the singer intones: Can’t quite bear… Just can’t bear this… Can’t quite bear…

You don’t see what I’m saying because you’re so accustomed to reacting–fast as can be–while simultaneously wiping clean from your mind that to which you were reacting. All you know is that you grabbed the drink; that you thought of sex, pursued it; that you told yourself: “You’ll get through this because you’ve gotten through harder things before and, dammit, you’re strong”; that you liked a tweet, your own. Upshot? You’re constantly mentally massaging and managing without fully recognizing what it is you’re trying to massage, manage, coax down. It’s an evasion, a dodge, a fudge, a cheat.

A lie.

Sure, when you’re young, you’ve always always always got something to look forward to. So fresh! So new! But when you’re older, you know, if you admit it to yourself, that the jig’s up. You might still be keen on a project, an event, a person, but you just know that it’s a variant of the same damn thing. Ergo, it won’t free you from the unbearable weight of the present situation. No escape hatch. And no true liberation (nirvana).

Optimism, for us, yes for us, is therefore a betrayal. It’s the mind’s turning away from what it can’t quite bear by suppling itself with a story that will temporarily mollify its suffering.

Actually, the egoic mind does this fancy two-step. First it just is resistance to present reality. Second it proffers its own stratagems by which it can overcome its own resistance. Optimism, a no to this and a yes to what’s next, is the ego’s call and response–to itself.

Oh, but take it all on now, experience the full weight of the present situation right now, and you will be transformed. As they say, no time like the present.

A Commitment To The Cosmos

Look, somewhere down the line we killed the cosmos and we’re living long, long, long after that enveloping we once knew. Living limply afterward.

This was a very bad idea. Existentialism starts off from the death of the cosmos and then advises us to buck and embrace our own lonely freedom. Even worse.

Without a commitment to the cosmos, we’re screwed. We’re deluded human agents just messing around with, you know, maybe some social change. What? Screwed how?

Nihilism, that’s how. Our lives have nothing ultimate to rest upon. Careful where you step, mate, because you’re bound to lurch down a hole.

Take a mechanized universe functioning according to natural law. Fudge it why don’t you and say, at least from a first-person point of view, that human beings are an exception, that we’re special somehow. Then see what happens when we chiefly develop the egocentric capacities to pursue our first-person desires and to satisfy, as best we can, our first-person needs.

Well, here we are. Human atoms spinning in an infinite void.

Come on, what about community? No genuine community, only ersatz, sans cosmos.

And God? No God without entwinement with the cosmos.

Don’t you know that the heart seeks intimacy with the other and that–horror–that has been foreclosed? This, yes, and it yens to merge with the other in love.

Cold comfort is what we’ve got: humanism and “the infinite universe,” not the intelligible cosmos and the love of being.

Discontent Is Really Everywhere–In You

There’s that nagging thing. You forget when it started. You’ve done a lot to try to get rid of it and, barring that, to diminish it.

Remember? There was that one thing you did–that was pretty crazy. But not just that one thing either. Think of all the zany antics and mental gymnastics you’ve been up to.

That you’ve been up to for a lifetime.

But, of course, if you moved, then it would ceased nagging you. Right, because it’s about the place you live. Got it. Except you did move and discovered that it wasn’t that. Or maybe it’s just that this place isn’t the right one. So, keep searching, right?

You tried different relationships. Nope. Still nagging.

Tried different substances. Fell into the background but subsequently roared back, didn’t it?

Of course, you said, because it’s about adopting a different mindset. Yes. Get the mental game down and you’ll own it! Bone up on the best self-help kung fu lit. Sorry, that too didn’t do it, didn’t remove every last blot, stain, blemish of that nagging thing.

Oh, why won’t it just go away?

Well, thankfully, there’s work, isn’t there? Put yourself into something, Carlyle said. That’s a way out of melancholia. Out of The Funk. Work as workaround.

And when there isn’t work, there’s diversion, entertainment, just that thing you wanted to see or go and listen to. So much to look forward to, right?

So much to look forward to! 

Have you looked? Listened just now? Try it. Turns out: Still there. Still Here. You turn away and see a homeless person, shirtless and begging. “I feel so grateful that I’m not like that guy.” Wrong. You are like that guy, only your suffering is subtler, not so obvious.

Your suffering, like his, like mine, won’t go away. And if, holy of holies, that nagging thing were to go away, then there’d be a new nagging thing to take its place.

This was the Buddha’s great insight; this was what the Buddha taught when he announced the first Noble Truth–namely that life, insofar as we selvingly experience it, is dukkha. Is waves upon waves of discontent, unsatisfactoriness, offness. Our mental life is colored by, coated with, and saturated by dukkha.

You find this line of thought bizarre? You think it’s over-the-top? A bunch of bunk? You haven’t realized how, at almost every moment of the day, you turn away from how subtly, quietly unbearable your consciousness ordinarily, selvingly is.

The Buddha also said: The way out is through.

We Are Busy People Despite What The Research Says

Research suggests that we’re not as objectively busy as we think we are. Accepting the research findings, Kyle Kowalski then provides hypotheses, which seek to explain why we might feel so busy anyway.

My tack? It’s more elemental. I simply reject the premise upon which the research findings are based. It’s not strictly a question of measuring how much housework we have to do versus how much housework others before us had to do. It’s rather, and more metaphysically so, a question of asking: “How did we become busy people?

For Americans are, undeniably so, busy people.

Consider an often overlooked fact about human consciousness. Suppose the invention of household appliances such as washers and driers have diminished the time owners spend on washing and drying clothes. No need to suppose; it’s a fact. What has been overlooked, however, it how it’s possible for someone to change the object or contents of doing from one thing (e.g., handwashing clothes) to another (e.g., renovating a home). This is even easier to see in the case of someone who’s neurotic. If a neurotic person is told that crime in New York has gone down since the 1980s, this person may grant your point without giving up on his neuroticism; his neuroticism may just take up another object (e.g., death by infectious disease) while not so merrily continuing.

I think this has more or less happened. The evidence from our consciousness reveals more about who we think we are than the research may indicate.

Here is one metaphysical story–an abstract and fictional one, yes–that one could tell to illustrate how busyness in the lives of Americans could have arisen.

  1. Doer.– Ask yourself, “Who am I?” Swiftly take whoever you are to be an agent. You are a doer.
  2. Saturation.– Next, let your life be utterly saturated by this identity. Let yourself be consumed by what is it you have to, wish to, need to, or would like to do.
  3. Central Question.– Next, may this to be your formative, anxious question: “What do I have to, wish to, need to, or would like to get done–now or next?” (Goal-setting and planning are simply more sophisticated means of realizing these ends.)
  4. Time Famine.– Concomitantly, think of time as only–only!–that which enables or disables human agency. Time is friendly just when it enables me to get as much done as I’d like to, unfriendly, even hostile, when it thwarts my efforts, stymying my attempts. (Elsewhere, I have called this “time famine.”)

Now let conditional happiness be that state of mind that is contingent almost exclusively on how much you actually got done. Then you feel proud, satisfied, or relieved when you’ve completed just about everything you wanted to. Else, you feel despondent, anxious, overwhelmed, or (over time) burned out when you did not or could not.

The suggestion, then, is that this basic conception of being human just means that we moderns are attached to busyness in the sense of being seemingly incapable of conceiving of ourselves outside of it. At the same time, we’re frightful of whatever lies on the other side. What Protestants denigrated as “idleness” or “laziness” scared us, rattling us to no end.

Ours, therefore, is not a question of doing nothing. It’s a question of non-doing. Call this the open secret of contemplative science.

In Search Of A Central Question

Imagine this. It’s just barely 1970, you’ve been living in San Francisco, and here have come psychedelics, hippies, and Eastern religions all seemingly out of nowhere. You want to know, don’t you?, what’s going on and what it means for individual and collective human development.

Guess what? You don’t have to exert your imagine too much because the American philosopher Jacob Needleman wrote a quirky little book called The New Religions in 1970. Herein, he surveys Zen Buddhism, Meher Baba (who?), Subud (what?), Transcendental Meditation (yes, that TM), Krishnamurti, Tibetan Buddhism, and a Russian mystic named George Ivanovich Gurdjieff.

In the penultimate chapter, “In Search of a Central Question,” he turns to an assessment. He asks not–“Are these religions valid?”–but rather–“Can they speak to us?” He elaborates:

The question I am raising here about Subud, Meher Baba, and some of the other new teachings is not whether they are valid teachings or genuine paths, but whether they are valid and effective in America. We are no longer a nation of pioneers or Puritans attempting to take both the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of Earth by storm. Our problem is not so much that we are excessively engaged by external demands, but that we are preoccupied with our feelings and desires. It is true that we are a very busy people, but this busyness is a reaction to the fact that so little is clearly demanded of us from the external world. It is as true to say that we are a people in search of our desires as it is true that we are in constant pursuit of our satisfaction. (p. 219)

Over the twentieth century, the therapeutic dispensation, to cite Philip Rieff, has created a people accustomed to faux-interior searches into my desires, my needs, my emotions, my satisfactions. Ken Wilber would call it narcissism.

So, what’s wrong with this?

Only that such faux-inwardness blocks access, let alone awareness of, the inward path of which these traditions so adamantly speak. When we hear, “Introspect,” we think that it means that we should analyze the contents of my mind, especially as these relate to my feelings. Yet when the Eastern traditions invite us to introspect, they are inviting us to go ‘inward’ and  ‘upward’ well past the content of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and sensations in order to find, and be in union with, the Source. They want us, as it were and as a first step, to get behind the everyday phenomena through genuine acts of introspection.

Amid the cultural revolution, Needleman worried that Americans weren’t yet ready for the true inward path. My sense is that we may be riper today.