Meta Enlightenment

VI. What Makes Us Feel Distressed?

 By Alex Bunard, Vancouver, B.C., Canada

For some difficult to grasp reason, we usually feel as if we don't belong in this world. This sentiment is best expressed in the following statement:"we came into this world". Came from where? It is as if we originally belong to some utterly different world, where we are unquestionably at home, and then, somehow, by some cosmic misfortune, we happen to fall into some catastrophe and slip into this terrible, hostile world. The very articulate among us (for instance, the existentialist philosophers), give this sentiment an even more pronounced spin by asserting that we are "thrown into the world". It is not clear, however, where are we thrown from? And by what (or by whom) are we thrown into the world?

Traditionally, the western civilization's heritage at large will have us believe that we are thrown out of the paradise (the Garden of Eden) by the God almighty himself. We have been expelled from Heaven, punished for doing evil, condemned to live in a threatening, painful world.

According to this belief system, those of us who renounce this world that is revealed to our senses will return to our original birthplace (which is Heaven itself). Those who do not renounce this sensory world, will be thrown even further into the nether regions (into Hell) to be eternally damned.

It is interesting (and very revealing) to take a closer look at how does this supposedly original dwelling place of ours look and feel. Since many of us feel relieved to believe that quite soon we will be given a chance to return to paradise, there must be something particularly appealing about that place. We cannot see it now, but we can still imagine it. The best way to examine that world is to investigate the great pieces of art that depict it in as many details as possible. But there is quite a revelatory clinch -- there aren't many such depictions to be found. As a matter of fact, there are very few paintings that portray how Heaven, that most desired place of all, looks like.

The heritage of the western religious art mostly focuses on the anecdotal aspects of the religion -- it is the Bible for the illiterate. Sometimes, the paintings veer off into the otherworldly regions, but mostly in order to conjure up the ghastly scenes from hell, in the obvious attempt to instill the God-fearing feelings in the masses. Yet, oddly enough, there is very little in the form of a positive reinforcement, that will actually offer a glimpse of the award that awaits the faithful.

This lack of 'carrots' (the carrots one would expect to find dangling in front of the noses of the religious followers) indicates the feebleness of our imagination, the fickleness of its ability to handle those more subtle aspects of the reality. We think we know what an ideal place, a promised land, must look like, but when pressed to describe it and to depict it, we realize that there is not really much we can supply as the imaginative content. We can certainly provide such concepts as bliss, lack of suffering, and such; but, there is not an easy way to depict it, to give it a clear cut form and shape. Typically, people may propose a picture of clouds drifting in the sunset, or of winged hermaphrodite beings (the angels) enveloped in a gold halo, but it's not clear why should these images bring us more happiness than some other equally pleasing ones (like beautiful humans, mountains, forests, oceans, animals, cities, works of art, and the like).

Still, regardless of the fact that our imagination fails miserably in the attempt to deliver the vision of the true life (managing only to give rise to such pathetic concepts as the divine discontent), it is this very imagination that is at the core of our all-pervasive feeling of distress. Due to our imagination, we feel separated from the rest of the world, and due to this feeling of separateness, we have the urge to employ our imaginative capabilities in order to find the solution. Thus, the vicious circle is closed forming a tight loop.

How can we be so sure of that? First, by gaining some insight into the nature of our biological side (in other words, our organism, which is no doubt a very real thing to us), we can shed some light on the differences between the real and the illusory aspects of ourselves. When studying biological systems in general, it is very important to note that such systems are founded on the prevailing principle of equilibrium. This means that although the system may be comprised of numerous components or variables which more or less fluctuate in quantity and over some period of time, no single component ever falls into the so-called "runaway curve". This will be much easier to understand by following a simple example:

We can obtain similar conclusion by observing any other variable that plays an important role in the life of any organism. The same conclusion is valid for the food supply, as well as for many other vital ingredients. It is therefore safe to reach a  general conclusion -- living beings thrive on optimizing the supply of the resources necessary for carrying on life's functions. It would be very difficult to find an empirical evidence of the process whereby an organism would strive to maximize any of its constituent variables.

Contrast the above conclusion with the conclusion based on the observations of the workings of our imagination -- with imagination, the opposite is actually true. Processes of imagination have a strong tendency to fall into the "runaway curve". This means that there is a very pronounced propensity for singling out the most desirable ingredient of the imaginative content, and to push it with all the vigor one can muster towards its maximum. A simple illustration will make this very clear: suppose a person starts daydreaming about getting rich. In his imagination, he pulls in all the soothing, pleasing images he can come up with at that moment. It so happens that, at that time, the daydreaming activity focuses on the dollar figure (at some other time it may focus on that person's talents, or on his good looks, etc.) He starts working on a scenario where all of a sudden, and very easily, he earns large sums of money. Maybe he's got it by playing lottery, maybe by making a very successful business move. The explanation is of secondary importance, since pretty soon, the process of imagination seizes the dollar figure thus fabricated, and starts obsessing about it. Maybe it's a sum of $100,000 dollars. That person envisions himself with this sum of money, and the feeling of power starts rushing in. Now he feels affirmed, his self begins to swell, he sees himself clearly differentiated from the others. In his daydream, the others may envy him, or adore him, or manifest both symptoms at the same time. The relief from the drudgery of everyday rut has been miraculously (and momentarily) obtained through the powers of imagination which is delivering those pleasing images in a rapid fire succession.

But the overwhelming feeling of success quickly wears off. To keep the juices flowing, and to ward off the drowsiness that threatens to set in, our day dreamer must keep returning to the crucial ingredient that makes everything else happen - he must obsess over this dollar amount. Soon, he becomes desensitized to the power buzz that the sum of $100,000 generates in him. Gradually, this sum starts to feel insufficient, even trivial ("yeah, there are tons of people around who have this kind of money, even much more than that!", he remarks to himself.) Inevitably, he is forced to conclude that a sum of $100,000 is actually nothing special (although at first he was delirious with the feeling of power upon imagining himself in the possession of so much money). Now the new surge of imaginative activity kicks in -- he has to devise a scenario in his head that would allow him to increase his wealth to the more dizzying heights. He would like to hit the one million dollars landmark now, but would also like to make this all look plausible and as realistic as possible.

This activity is very engaging, very seductive. The ingeniosity is given free reign, and before we know it, there pops a new, fresh and amazingly cunning scenario that will help our hero grab his first million dollars. Now he feels even more affirmed, his fame and fortune now push him even higher, closer to the top. Amazed before the new vistas that open up to him from his newly won platform, the day dreamer feels the renewed surge of vital energy gushing inside him. His enemies now lay crushed beneath his feet, his friends run up to him, embracing him, asking for his support and his closeness. The people that used to despise him, or to feel indifferent toward him, now crawl back to him, begging to be forgiven, to be accepted. Life feels much less threatening now.

Alas, this gushing of vital energy quickly subsides. Again, the buzz is starting to wear off. His imagination starts sensing the imminent collapse of its powers, of its privileged position. Rather than wait to be dethroned by the other cognitive functions (the sensory and intellectual capabilities), the imagination jumps at the next cunning plan -- devise an even more seductive scenario. Let's work on a story where the day dreamer will become the richest person ever! Let's devise a plan where he will, in a more or less plausible manner, outsmart everyone and amass his wealth beyond belief.

And on and on it goes. Eventually, the reservoir of vital energy that was supporting this whole charade empties out, and the day dreamer collapses back into everyday reality, possibly with a debilitating headache.

One thing is obvious from studying this daydreaming anecdote -- there exists an unchecked need for maximizing certain component(s) of the imaginative process. In our example, the process of daydreaming was mercilessly maximizing the dollar amount. However, the key word here is unchecked. What do we mean by the unchecked?

A very important understanding is reached when we realize that in the unfolding of an imaginative process (such as is described in the above daydreaming anecdote), there isn't a mechanism at work which will serve to balance things out. Unlike biological processes that we've studied briefly, imaginative processes do not seem to be connected with the reality. This statement will be clearer if we compare biological processes with imaginative processes:

Both processes have the need for certain variables; for example, an organism has the need for oxygen, while a daydreaming process that we've described has the need for an imaginary dollar amount. The difference is, once an organism gets its dose of oxygen, it ceases to take in any further amounts of oxygen (same holds true for food, water, sleep, etc.); but contrary to our expectations, once an imaginative process obtains its dose of whatever it is that it needs (for instance, a certain dollar amount), it does not cease to further pursue that component. Amazingly, it keeps working unchecked not only by the rest of the components that comprise the imaginative process, but also by the organism, as well as by its surroundings. Thus, any resemblance of the equilibrium (which is so vitally important for every living being) is abruptly lost.

The outcome of every natural process of life (in which all the variables get spontaneously checked by all the other participating variables) is a harmonious continuation of the natural processes (be it of creation or of decomposition); the outcome of every imaginative process is the overall state of deterioration and confusion. It is this witnessing of the deterioration of our inner processes that keeps us ever freshly wounded and overly distressed. It is similar to hurting ourselves organically by overindulging in eating, drinking and other bodily activities. The only difference is, we can never go as far in indulging our bodies as we can with indulging our imagination. Consequently, we can harm ourselves much more seriously with our imaginative processes than we can with over-eating or over-drinking.

Besides, we feel somewhat betrayed by such situation -- we feel the genuine need, the genuine purpose of having rich and elaborate imaginative functioning, while at the same time we get invariably damaged by engaging ourselves in such processes. This situation reminds us of the parable where a group of people have entered a pitch black cave. All they could feel in total darkness is a whole bunch of pebbles rattling under their feet. Suddenly, a voice in the darkness was heard: "If any of you take some pebbles from this cave, they would regret it later; if any of you don't take any pebbles from the cave, they will also live to regret it!" This mysterious warning served only to spread confusion throughout the group; some people were all for leaving the pebbles alone, while some were intent on taking a sample of the pebbles with them. Eventually, the group split right in the middle, where approximately one half took some pebbles, and the other half didn't take any. The moment they left the cave and reached the outside daylight, they heard terrible rumbling noise, and realized that the entrance to the cave collapsed, and that they couldn't return to it. Then, startled, they looked at the pebbles some of them brought with them: what they have regarded as mere pebbles in the darkness of the cave were actually pure, beautiful diamonds! So the people who didn't take any, naturally regretted that they've missed on such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. On the other hand, people who did take some diamonds with them didn't feel any less anguish, regretting that they didn't take more diamonds.

This is known as a double-bind proposition: you'll be damned if you do it, and you'll be damned if you don't do it. In our case this means that we would be doing the wrong thing regardless of whether we engage in our imaginative functioning or not. This is definitely very distressing, and it is understandable why so many of us feel so upset most of the time. It is also easy to see why, then, do we tend to slip into finding faults with everything, especially with other people and with the outside world in general. The  current double-bind situation is quite unbearable, and we are forced to jump at the conclusion that something must be terribly wrong with the way things are fundamentally set. It really feels like we've been expelled from the paradise, and it feels as if only by abandoning this whole charade will we ever be able to restore our original peace and felicity.

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