Updated: Apr 30
Terror at death and annihilation is at the core of the human psyche. Self-esteem is the creation of an animal who suddenly knew too much and had to adapt in order to still function. Constantly seeking to preserve our self-esteem, we seek approval, retribution, respect, validation, and wealth. Driven in this way, we are slaves to our fears. The wealthiest and most powerful people and the systems they control have also exploited these fears so that we are caught in lives of struggle, toil, and that lack satisfaction. Once we have deep insight of our own powerlessness and the powerlessness of others, we can use the amount of power that we do have to try to change how we relate to ourselves and others. We can see through the empty promises of the culture and find better refuges.
Recently, I've been playing a game on Xbox called "Vampire Survivors." It's a simple game. You choose two things: a character with a unique starting power and a map. Then you run around avoiding getting hurt while accumulating experience and gold. As time passes, you become more experienced and powerful, but the map becomes more challenging and so you don't really "progress." Eventually, time reaches a certain mark and Death comes. It doesn't matter which character you play with, how experienced you get, or how much gold you accumulate, when Death emerges on the map, the game is over.
Vampire Survivors is a perfect metaphor for our own existence. No matter how skillful one has become at running around trying to avoiding suffering, we all end up at the same place.
We're wired to stay distracted to this reality. So when an empty promise or meme appears in our feed that tries to be a balm from fully experiencing the total oblivion that death will bring, it's natural for us to believe it and dissociate from the deeper feeling. Plus, there's a constant effort online to redirect our attention back to being good consumers and cheering on a particular political party. But there is a type of wisdom that comes from seeing the emptiness in everything as a result of death's inevitability.
Death is the only truth of life. It's the only real problem. But none of our knowledge can stop death. Death defines life and our politicians, celebrities, inventions and cleverness are impotent against it. Nor can our knowledge tell us why we even exist. This means our knowledge is empty. But ineffective knowledge drives our actions. This means our actions are empty. Actions create culture. This means our cultures are empty. Untying the knot shows us that our existence is completely empty. By empty, I don't mean not real. Existence is something. It is just that everything we are feeling, thinking and chasing are illusions.
What creates experience is our nervous system. It's our own labels and meanings that give life texture. But where did those labels and meanings come from? The culture of course, and so we are like a cat obsessively chasing its own tail. Each human nervous system is a closed system. It cannot go beyond itself. The world we experience is the world created as an illusion experienced in our consciousness. We never taste the world, only the shadows of our nervous system. We are a hand that draws itself by looking at itself in the mirror.
Obstacles to living meaningfully
While politicians in the United States claim to care about citizen well-being, the bigger concern is the protection of the financial system and its shareholders. The efforts that go toward social justice, or preservation of traditional culture may seem noble depending upon which side you are rooting for, but if those with vast wealth and power truly cared about people, they would leave people alone but use their power and influence to pay much higher wages, create access to healthcare so that one accident or illness wouldn't bankrupt or destroy someone's entire family, build a sustainable and nutritious food supply, discourage celebrity worship, create harmony instead of division, set standards of behavior rather than enabling actions that harm society, teach children financial, moral, and psychological health rather than allowing them to be flooded with toxic messages on social media, be used as political pawns and so on. But people serve the financial system and not the other way around.
In the United States, and subsequently around most of the world, politicians will cater to the shareholder class primarily and will take minimal actions to placate the masses—securing votes or at least preventing open revolt (maybe this is less of a concern than it used to be if it means you get four more years in office). They will give lip service to reforms and infrastructure while funneling money through government spending to continue to enrich shareholders while keeping the vast majority stuck on the hampster wheel, sickly and mentally ill. And so most of the activities of life are meaningless. Our impulses, passions and fears are exploited so that we perform well for those at the top of the economic system and their lackeys. If you are someone who can't adapt psychologically to this, you will be unemployable. In America there's many options for people like this, but none of them are very good.
Since the beginning of civilization, those in power have been obsessed with preventing death and pursuing immortality. Everyone else in the civilization has been snared in whatever political system is in place that serves alleviating the anxiety of those in power. Look at the Great Pyramids and the emperor's tombs in Xian. Powerful rulers have enslaved their populations to work ceaselessly and meaninglessly for the hopes the rulers have that it will help them fend off death. In modern times there is the endless pursuit of youth treatments and all sorts of expensive technologies that can only be afforded by the wealthy while most of us live in fear that one sickness or illness will cripple us financially. Our productivity goes to help the wealthy pursue their vain search for the Holy Grail of youth and immortality.
This situation means we must live each day performing tasks that keep us in good favor with the economic system. Those who can't do these tasks or who won't, are imprisoned or discarded. What is called mental illness in the United States is largely a description of mental and emotional states and behaviors that aren't adapted to conforming to the economic system and it's culture. And this culture and system exists to outsource the anxiety of the wealthy and powerful onto the rest of us.
Most people recognize this situation at least superficially. Most don't realize how individuals in society internalize these messages and just become tiny versions of those at the top but without any real power or influence. People are obsessed with status no matter what rung of society they are in. As soon as a group gathers, people are immediately trying to figure out the pecking order. Vain ambition and related fears play out in infinite psychodramas across society at every level. Rather than support each other we compete with each other. Rather than share, we horde. There is a belief that if we emulate the behaviors and mentality of the billionaire class we will also somehow find immortality or be better able to negotiate with death.
What are our options?
The first step is acceptance. We must accept that there is no permanence, security or solution to life. Fame is not a solution. Excessive wealth is not a solution. Youth is not a solution. Being powerful or attached to powerful people or organizations is not a solution. Neither intelligence nor cleverness are solutions. Altruism is not a solution. Philosophies nor ideologies are solutions. Pets are not a solution. Vacations are not a solution. Substances are not a solution. Engaging with politics and activism is not a solution. Family is not a solution. Social media and endless distractions are not solutions. Spirituality is not a solution. Work is not a solution. Love is not a solution. Chasing meaning is not a solution.
Underneath all of these lies emptiness and acceptance of this infinite emptiness is the first step. Once we accept this, we can start seeing all of the thoughts and actions we perform trying to solve the problem of life, trying to escape from it, trying to figure out how to project the artificial construction of the ego one more second into the future. When we stop chasing a solution, we can be in stillness. This is the eternal stillness that underlies this universe and likely any other ones.
Once we encounter stillness, compassion many times arises spontaneously. This is the compassion for all beings that are trapped in empty existence with no solution or escape. This compassion can then lead us. By harmonizing our breath with compassion we can lead our bodies with our intentions to remain in a state of compassion for ourselves and others. We recognize that as long as we feel our breath that we are okay. We become our breath not our fears and vain ambition. We recognize that there is nothing to accomplish in life that is worth losing touch with compassion and a peaceful mind and heart. We recognize that when our mind is chasing after things, so is our body. We create anxiety and depression when continuously seeking permanence. Acceptance means letting go of all the baggage.
Love and meaning
We are in a constant state of vicissitude. People believe they will become enlightened and transcend life. They won't. There is no enlightenment, solution or escape. There is only the acceptance that life and death is out of our control. There is no free will (I'm not suggesting that we are totally pre-determined either, just that the number of variables in the environment, including our own bodies, acting on us are far greater than the ones we have influence over). There is mainly luck, chance, and an ability to witness to our own experiences. This we must accept and then hopefully we will connect with the compassion that arises as a result of this awareness. If we are lucky, we will be around others who recognize the deepest depths of the human condition, and rather than use and abuse us, they will join us in stillness, celebration, kindness, creativity and autonomy.
When we understand that we are the way we are because we have been shaped by society and culture to be this way, we can start to see that we aren't bad, but rather programmed by society and significant people during our development. This doesn't mean that we should identify with being powerless victims. It does mean that we must be open to having respect and consideration toward how all of those factors beyond our control led us to our current beliefs and behaviors. In a different life, a different timeline, we would be totally different people.
We must then also learn to extend the same respect toward others since they are the products of the same truths. With this understanding extended to all beings, we can change. Our relationships are altered by focusing internally with a deep commitment to love and faith in love and then producing this externally in our interactions with the world. In these actions is where hope and meaning lie–where change lies for the individual and then humanity.
Breathe, breathe in the air
Don't be afraid to care
Leave but don't leave me
Look around and choose your own ground
Long you live and high you fly
And smiles you'll give and tears you'll cry
And all you touch and all you see
Is all your life will ever be
Run, rabbit run
Dig that hole, forget the sun
And when at last the work is done
Don't sit down it's time to dig another one
For long you live and high you fly
But only if you ride the tide
And balanced on the biggest wave
You race towards an early grave
"Breathe" by Pink Floyd