Paths Out of Suffering: Societal vs Spiritual Values

Paths Out of Suffering: Societal vs Spiritual Values

This essay is a revision of something I wrote ten years ago. It explores a question I still ask: How do we find our way to happiness?
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
–Robert Frost
In this society, we are raised to make our way in the world. We’re expected to gain knowledge and skills, cultivate social connections, find a supportive mate, and raise families—tasks that in one form or another have been part of humanity’s experience since its beginnings. Added to that we’re now pushed to build careers, seek online popularity, produce goods, provide services, and accumulate wealth. Further, to hold our own socially, we do our best to look good, sound smart, and generally impress others. We all know some of these goals are more worthy than others, but few of us question the underlying ideal: social success. Does pursuing it take us where we need to go?
Here’s what the social success ideal assumes: 1. If we succeed, we’ll feel satisfied; and 2. If we don’t, we’re doomed to misery.
Like many before me, I’ve grown skeptical of both these assumptions. At one time in my life, I managed to succeed in a substantial way. I built a surgical career, gained status, accumulated wealth, bought an house, etc. Yet even at the peak of that success, I did not feel satisfied. I felt stressed and adrift.
I’ve also failed. Spinal problems ended my surgical profession in my early forties. Despite lots of trying, I’ve struggled to maintain friendships, in part because my upbringing baked in fear of others and provided little support for overcoming my shyness. My wife and I have no kids, also partly because of my upbringing. We also have no nieces, nephews, or much in the way of extended family. As a result of all this, my social network is pretty sparse. Yet, despite little that people count as social success, I feel pretty satisfied and far from miserable.
I need to be clear: my loving wife counts for a lot, and we enjoy reasonable financial security (our risk of homelessness, for instance, is low). But my degree of social success is much less than I once thought mandatory for satisfaction.
Maybe letting go of obsessions around social standing is a common effect of age, but it feels striking. It undercuts the two assumptions above. After all, when my life seemed successful I felt unsatisfied, and now that it’s not, I don’t. What gives?
When I think about it, it should not be true that satisfaction depends on social success. Life is too jagged and unpredictable. It’d be tragic if our only option was to forever scramble up peaks of gain while skirting the chasms of loss for as long as possible. Especially since loss is so inevitable and sometimes comes earlier than we expect. Whether later or sooner, we all face aging, illness, and death. We really should have a better option than feeling satisfied only as long as youth, health, and success last.
Following the road of social success means believing happiness tracks circumstance. It means assuming that as life goes well or badly, in lockstep we feel happy or miserable. But my own life and those of many others reveal the lie in these common assumptions.
Of course, bad times do–predictably–cause bad feelings. Yet it is possible to meet difficulties with heart, move through the pain, and come out feeling contented and even enriched. We’ve all heard stories along these lines, and many of us have lived our own versions. So in this sense, there is no lockstep between circumstance and happiness.
Then there’s the fact life may line up with expectations, while happiness remains elusive. Contemporary values promote lifestyles, relationships, and livelihoods that often feel hollow once we secure them. And many of us suffer inner conflict, so core unhappiness remains despite outward shells of success.
There are certainly folks who’ve built true happiness along conventional lines. But there are so many exceptions, it seems natural to seek alternatives.
Meditative traditions of the East and contemplative ones of the West offer many. They guide us to feel less enslaved by circumstance and more secure in our souls. They tell us we need not feel destroyed by our (inevitable) losses. They remind us that worldly success often feels shallow and unsatisfying. They guide us to meet life’s jaggedness with equanimity.
I began spiritual practice with deep skepticism and low expectations. I was just finishing medical school and had had begun attending AA meetings. My drinking was heavy, and I knew it wasn’t consistent with ethical clinical care, but I was doing a good job building success. All I asked of spirituality was a little help staying sober.
It worked. I stayed sober through many years of surgical training and practice. I was grateful for spirituality, but at the time I only credited it with helping my atheist self negotiate the 12 steps of AA. Only after my career fell apart did I begin to rely more heavily upon it.
Even then, it was many years before the wisdom of spiritual traditions took root. For a long time I practiced in hopes of rebuilding social success. I even became a meditation teacher in pursuit of that goal. But after a decade had passed and my teaching remained small scale and mostly volunteer, I realized high levels of formal success were probably out of reach. That’s when spirituality made the difference: it helped me find inner peace in the absence of outer success.
Wisdom traditions help us find solace inside, but they also encourage us to behave helpfully outside. It took awhile, but I finally caught on to the fact that my teaching and writing efforts will only feel satisfying if I view them as service rather than career.
For me, spiritual maturity occurred in two stages. First the focus was inward. Later, it turned outward. Both directions are vital, and each can be toxic if carried too far or in the wrong spirit.
Early on, I’d resolve to focus inwardly, but the time ended up devoted to rumination. Obssessed about past and future, I made little progress. And even after I began settling into stillness, even after I build t steadiness and faith, something more seemed needed. I felt called to apply what I was learning in the wider world. I realized that if didn’t serve Life in some way, my spirituality might be mere escapism.
Yet while my outward focus was on social success rather than service, I remain locked in that painful struggle for validation. And even after my emphasis turned to more selfless service, I found it depleting if I failed to devote times to inwardness and stillness.
Gradually, I’ve gotten better at striking the right balance. My ability to remain steady–independent of circumstance–has this been increasing in recent years. So has my capacity to serve others without hoping for recognition or feeling depleted.
In short, I’ve exited the freeway of modern stress and am following a mellower path.
Here are some turning points that have proven pivotal to me:

Befriending Consciousness

I explore my inner experience, settle into it with less resistance, and soften it when I can. By accepting my emotional stress and bodily discomforts, I naturally begin to lessen them.
When I notice that my emotional state is agitated by fear, grief, or desire, I feel how that lands in body. I see where over-reactions, outdated habits, and resistance make my situation worse. Once I’ve accepted my experience, I can gently refine it. Angst tends to lessen and what remains feels easier to bear.
Of course, one of the most useful techniques is breathing. We can take deep breaths, feel the sensations of airflow and bodily movement, and keep our focus on the present moment. Stress softens when we quit fighting reality and simply breathe.
Another useful tool is imagination. Picturing a beautiful landscape or a beloved companion feels settling. The richer the imagined experience, the more grounded and peaceful I feel.
We might wonder: if it’s possible to generate peaceful feelings, can we generate ecstatic ones? In my own case, I’ve found it can be done, and sometimes that feels helpful. I’m learning, however, that a state of ecstasy feels less necessary as I find contentment. My desire for rapture is born from dread of despair. The less I feel haunted by desolation, the less I crave ecstasy.
Contentment feels wholesome and sufficient, while craving or clinging to peak experiences invites disappointment and frustration.

Helping Living Beings

The term ‘living beings’ includes one’s own body and mind. Rather than judging and pressuring them (like we often do), we can support them with acceptance and compassion. We also can help our bodies and minds by eating well, exercising, opening our hearts, and meditating.
As we do, we find ever-increasing energy for helping and nurturing other beings. These may be family members, plants in the garden, or animals in the wild who need protection from pollution and degradation. There are myriad ways to support others.
Which is good, given how people differ in their interests and capacities. If we’ve been badly traumatized, we may feel so depleted that we can do only a little to help. Maybe watering a single houseplant is all we can manage. That’s okay.
There’s nothing to be gained by judging our limitations harshly. And as we spend less time punishing ourselves, we free up resources. Gradually, we find more capacity to assist others, to take on more.

Enlarging Perspectives 

One of the surest methods for sidestepping the angst born of the success imperative is to focus on the Big Picture. We are products of long histories, both evolutionary and cultural. Genetic and historical factors play decisive roles in our lives. We’ve had fewer choice points than we think.
When we seem to make decisions, our choices are strongly conditioned. So too then, is our level of success. Contrary to widespread belief, life trajectories are not constructed by personalities; they’re shaped by history and circumstance. We aren’t individuals acting in the world so much as world processes with delusions of individuality. Recognizing this, we can feel less judgmental of ourselves and others.
Consider that multicellular life has been evolving for hundreds of millions of years in a cosmos that’s been expanding for billions. The scale of reality defies understanding. No matter how tiny you imagine yourself in the face of that expanse, you’re tinier. Individuality must be less important than we imagine, given how we live in the midst of so much complexity and space.
What’s more, a great many people are struggling. I must admit that no matter how challenging my circumstances feel to me, there is someone, somewhere, who would consider them a big improvement over their own.
Enlarging my perspective in these ways keeps me from contracting into loneliness and grief. I feel less stricken and less alone.

Awe, Love, and Wholeness:

What’s just been described is a good path to qualities this site emphasizes: Awe, Love, & Wholeness.
  • Awe arises naturally as we delve into human consciousness. There is something profound about feeling the body breathe, accepting the present moment, and surrendering to what is. The feeling of Awe is a powerful antidote to the delusion that reality must change before we can be happy.
  • Love arises when we feel support by the earth and other beings. And feeling support inspires us to offer it. At its most mature, both love and helping come naturally, without force, stretching but not overwhelming our capacities.
  • Wholeness becomes obvious as we broaden our perspective. No individual story is truly individual; each is a subplot in a much larger saga, written by cosmic forces far beyond our control. Some people view these forces as mechanical and random; others think they are divine and intentional. Belief matters little; we are healed by feeling part of something larger than ourselves.
We can find our way to Awe, Love, and Wholeness. We can follow the less-travelled roads. Ancient spiritual traditions and modern psychologies offer detailed maps. My own path has been charted by such ancient and modern wisdom, and also by Mindful Biology, which entered my life in a time of crisis, as a sort of grace.
However we worship, learn, or practice, what’s important is to take heart and have faith. We can find our way.