I am now reading Already Free, written by a psychotherapist who is also a Tibetan Buddhist. Since I’ve been reading a ton of books on both subjects I picked it up without hesitation, eager to read something that carries both perspectives. There is a disclaimer though: literature and interpretations on both psychotherapy and buddhism lie on a very wide spectrum, so I wouldn’t take the author’s opinion as absolute on both subjects, yet that is precisely why it is interesting, we get to experience how different people interpret concepts or put them to use together.
He offers a counter-intuitive response to pain and anxiety: to commit fully to experiencing disturbing feelings and accept them as part of our existence. His basic premise is that we spend our entire lives trying to feel safe and so we build buffers everywhere, but paradoxically a comfortable existence deadens our existence and aliveness:
“Unfortunately, one of the consequences of this approach of eliminating problems is that the more successful we are at cocreating life circumstances that seem to guarantee safety, the more likely it is we will start to feel stagnant or deadened. We’re no longer engaged with the spontaneity and unpredictability of things, and often we no longer feel fully alive. It’s like living in a gated community. It’s comfortable, but something’s missing.”
A while ago I wrote a short note on Facebook:
today’s incomplete controversial thought on why we suffer if there is a higher power: one of the greatest gifts gifted to life is creativity. If life is creative, that means it has to contain the full spectrum of possibilities: including pain and suffering. On a related note, it is often through pain and suffering that evokes the expression of creativity and transcendence. We are loved enough to be alive in a creative universe (instead of one where everything is perfect because we cannot be trusted to with a full range of experiences). Edit: There is inevitable suffering in this world, such as grief that comes from having loved. Yet out of the full range of possibilities, we have created a world that is full of unnecessary suffering.
I experience these very lucid moments when everything makes complete sense to me once in a while and it moves me deeply. But somehow the daily mundane routine and responsibilities tend to make me lose my way, and I end up feeling existentially anxious. It is probably a result of deep conditioning.
Reading Already Free reminded me of my note, a note I have forgotten so quickly that I had written just over a month ago. I am reminded that I spend a lot of my energy trying not to feel anxious, trying to avoid the life circumstances that would make me feel so. The book made me reflect on how much anxiety is created by actual situations versus the attempt to avoid them. How I am actually narrowing the range of possibilities of my life by trying to avoid pain and suffering. Because while trying to avoid suffering, I stay put. I stop taking risks. When we stop taking risks, we are basically giving up opportunities to live creatively.
I think about all the times I took risks in my life. Quitting school, quitting my jobs, disappointing people, falling in love, going freelance, visiting SF for the first time even though I was running out of money, ending relationships, moving countries etc – they were painful and difficult but they brought me the most fruitful, creative and enriching times of my life. I think I have gone through so much risk and change that it had deeply exhausted me, and it has made me into a fearful, anxious person.
I think the point is not to go jumping into fires but to contemplate a balanced position between trying not to sabotage myself and maintaining a sense of adventure. It is about the middle way. What I really like about the book and by extension, buddhism, is that they remind me that it is impossible to avoid suffering in life, so what we can do is to fully participate in our aliveness. Suffering is part of the deal, but perhaps if we’re not afraid to suffer, we are rewarded with the journey of becoming and co-creating.