The Great Escape: Fleeing From Ourselves
Enlightenment is just intimacy with all things.”
~ Eihei Dogen
According to a study by a team led by Timothy Wilson from the University of Virginia published in Science July 4, 2014, most people prefer to do something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative. To examine this, hundreds of participants were left in a bare room by themselves for 6 to 15 minutes with nothing to do: no phones, books, pens, or distractions of any kind. Just stay awake, be quiet, and sit idly in their seats. In one last experiment, 67 percent of the men and 25 percent of the women chose to administer a mild electric shock to themselves rather than finish the process. Beforehand, when given a sample, most said they’d pay $5 not to be zapped again — but when the time came, they still pushed the button. “The mind is designed to engage with the world,” Wilson says in a news release. “Even when we are by ourselves, our focus usually is on the outside world.” The team is working on the exact reasons why people find it difficult to be alone with their own thoughts.
The outcome of this study does not surprise me; however, I am disturbed by it. It reveals a universal, not merely personal, reality about the human condition in our current culture: that so many people would rather inflict pain upon themselves than be present with their direct experience. And, recognizing this inability to tolerate being with ourselves brings up a profound sadness in me. If we have such an aversion to allowing an intimacy with ourselves, then how can we encounter genuine intimacy with others?
How do you avoid being with yourself?
If you are truly honest, you will find that you, too, along with the vast majority of people, spend the better part of your life escaping yourself. We all employ strategies to preoccupy ourselves instead of being present with our experience. Here are just some of the ways we may do that:
- Misusing substances: drugs (prescription and non-prescription), alcohol, food, etc.
- Consuming electronics and media: TV, phone, computer (e-mail, social media, web surfing), news, etc.
- Sleeping (as a means of avoidance instead of nourishment)
- Staying Mentally Preoccupied: worrying, fantasizing, planning, ruminating, replaying, losing ourselves in memories/nostalgia, etc.
- Staying Busy: working compulsively, exercising compulsively, cleaning compulsively, talking compulsively, socializing compulsively, etc.
These are all merely ways to keep ourselves distracted – rather than experiencing any potential dissatisfaction with the way things are in the moment. As Pablo Neruda asserts in his poem Keeping Quiet, “If we weren’t unanimous about keeping our lives so much in motion, if we could do nothing for once, perhaps a great silence would interrupt this sadness, this never understanding ourselves and threatening ourselves with death.” If you are willing to take a sincere look at your own behaviors, you may find a tendency to avoid intimacy with yourself by staying otherwise engaged using some of these strategies, albeit unconsciously. Moreover, once aware, you may begin to notice how these ways of being are actually self-destructive (not serving you) rather than promoting your well-being. For example, the simple habit of quickly checking your email before going to bed and unintentionally finding yourself on the computer for another hour or more, may be consistently robbing you of much needed sleep. At best, these strategies provide us with temporary relief. Ultimately, they are, instead, contributing to our suffering – we are causing harm to ourselves and, perhaps, also to others.
From what, or rather, whom are we escaping?
This is a question for which I do not have an answer. However, my best assessment is that we are afraid of what we might find, or not find, if we really take an honest look at our experience. The words of Alison Luterman in her poem, Stripping, suggest this underlying, existential fear:
“I want to strip. It is the jewel at the center I seek;
let me be oyster, hoarding pearl.
Let me be coal, sheltering diamond.
Though in my heart of hearts I am afraid
I may be onion, each white circle
of stinky tears hiding another exactly like it.
Or rose: whose petals are her everything.”
How do we develop greater intimacy with, instead of fleeing from, ourselves?
People travel near and far in search of beautiful places and satisfying experiences. They surround themselves with luxurious comforts of accommodations, fine food, sumptuous things, or awe–inspiring natural settings. And yet, any satisfaction that may be experienced is fleeting, because “Wherever you go, there you are.” No matter our attempts, we can’t escape ourselves. Therefore, the way to develop intimacy with oneself is to simply meet your direct experience instead of creating separation. Start by inhabiting your body. This is the first foundation of mindfulness practice – mindfulness of body. Begin by bringing awareness of your body as a whole, specific sensations in your body (such as contact), and particularly, the experience of the breath occurring in your body. Whenever you notice your mind engaging in thoughts, no matter how frequently, bring your attention back to the experience in your body. This is a skill that we cultivate, not an intellectual process.According to Dogen, the path to realization is through the body. The human body, for Dogen, is not a hindrance to the realization of enlightenment (end of suffering); it rather serves as the vehicle through which enlightenment is realized by the aspirant. Dogen argues that those aspiring to become enlightened strive with their bodies, practice seated meditation with their bodies, understand with their bodies, and attain enlightenment with their bodies.
The Buddha pointed out that we tend to give more importance to “thoughts” in the hierarchy of experience, yet a thought is no more important than the sensation in your small toe. As Kabir instructs,
“Don’t go outside your house to see flowers.
My friend, don’t bother with that excursion.
Inside your body there are flowers.
One flower has a thousand petals.
That will do for a place to sit.
Sitting there you will have a glimpse of beauty
Inside the body and out of it,
Before gardens and after gardens.”
This very thing we are trying to escape is actually our one true refuge. Therefore, staying connected to your direct experience through your body is one of the best ways to minimize suffering in your day-to-day life.
“Be at peace with your own soul,
Then heaven and earth will be at peace with you.
Enter eagerly into the treasure
house that is within you,
And you will see the things that are in heaven;
For there is but one single entry to them both.
The ladder that leads to the Kingdom
is hidden within your soul…
Dive into yourself and in your soul
And you will discover
The stairs by which to ascend.”
~ Saint Isaac of Nineveh