When I teach a 6 week meditation training course, often during the first meditation of the first class I invite folks to sit with the question: “Why am I here?” After a minute or two I ask another question, “Why am I really here?” And after another minute, “Why am I really really here?” This line of inquiry is designed to get us in touch with not only what is it we want out of meditation, but what is it we want out of life? Why am I here on this planet? I practice a similar technique when first sitting with a new client in a Somatic Experiencing session, borrowed from my teacher Steve Hoskinson, “So, what brings you in?”. Over the years I’ve come to notice that a lot of folks are very in touch with what they don’t want (anxiety, depression, addiction, loneliness, shame, unhealthy eating habits, etc.), and somewhat at a loss for what they do want. Maybe this is a result of the fetishization of symptoms in Western medicine and psychology, maybe it’s because the symptoms of chronic stress are so pervasive and uncomfortable that they drown out the quieter yearnings of the soul. At any rate, figuring out what you want and going for it is at the core of contemplative practice, Somatic Experiencing, and a meaningful life. Yogi Berra, catcher for the New York Yankees, said, “If you don't know where you’re going, you might end up somewhere else.”
Freud said “Love and work…work and love, that's all there is…love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” The pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles said that love and strife were the primary moving factors not just for humans but also for the whole universe. I find when we get down to what it’s all about, we get down to these two central forces, love and work. If I could be so arrogant as to add to Freud, I would add meaningful love and work.
Joseph Campbell rapped about meaning: “Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”
New Wave philosophers “The Buggles” called the information age “The Age of Plastic” way back in 1980, accurately predicting the effect of technology on culture and the resulting superficiality. This is quite a visceral description of the existential pain lying deep in the hearts of many in the modern world; love and work for many are as empty and shallow as a suburban strip mall. Love in The Age of Plastic takes the form of 700 Facebook friends we barely know, but try desperately to impress with photos displaying how great our lives are, strategically taken at certain moments to cover up the deep loneliness and emptiness. Rather than having meaningful conversations, we tweet one-liners or text emojis. Dating and courtship in the Age of Plastic takes the form of Zagat-rated lovers; rather than looking deeply into the eyes of the other in search of the their soul, we look deeply into their OkCupid profile to suss out how much money they make, the size of their breasts, if they like scary movies, or other trivialities. Love-making in the age of plastic takes the form of an entire generation or two of men addicted to pornography, and 15 year old girls reporting the heart breaking phenomenon of “sex before kissing”. Love in The Age of Plastic has other chilling statistics; one in four Americans reports not having a single person to talk to about important issues, loneliness among American adults has increased 16 percent in the last decade, and three out of every four adults agree with the statement, “Americans suffer from skin hunger.” ie touch deprivation.
Work in The Age of Plastic often takes the form of that rabbit in Alice and Wonderland: “I’m late, I’m late! For a very important date!” It used to be that we would leave work at work, but with modern technology we can work 24 hours a day with our smart phones and laptops, answering emails in airplanes or in our pajamas, leaving us exhausted but unable to disconnect. Gloria Mark, a researcher at the University of California at Irving strapped heart-rate monitors to a team of U.S. army civilian employees, she discovered that email was in fact a major cause of stress. The average worker checks their email 74 times a day, according to Mark’s research. That’s about nine times an hour in a typical eight-hour workday. One worker shared, “Email is relentless. There’s no break. You’re on this treadmill. You’re trying to stay on top of your email, which really means staying on top of the tasks that you’re being asked to do on email, but then you keep getting more and more email which represents more and more tasks.” One client described to me the lack of meaning in her job with a very evocative image, “It feels like I’m a monkey on a typewriter.” Add to this cocktail economic insecurity, stiff competition, and systemic greed and incompetence in leadership, and we have Work in The Age of Plastic.
One of the unfortunate effects of traumatic stress and/or chronic stress is that the nervous system gets stuck at a very high state of arousal. Like an engine with the RPMs redlined, any extra stimulus becomes highly aversive, with the old saying “the straw that broke the camel’s back” being a very real danger. Also, less arousal becomes highly aversive as well, with both conscious and unconscious core-beliefs keeping the nervous system revved up, such as “If I relax, who’s gonna pay the bills? Last time I relaxed something terrible happened. Idle hands do the devil’s work. If I relax someone else will take my job. I’ll relax after my email/to do list is done (which is never).” In it’s extreme expression, a slight stimulus is enough to send the nervous system into chaos, such as an environmental toxin/fragrance, eating gluten, difficult feedback, a difficult interaction, a nasty email, sleeping in a new bed, even leaving home. When the nervous system is redlined life is about survival, not meaning. Life becomes the pursuit of money and security and stability, rather than the pursuit of meaning and thus real happiness. Fritz Perls, the famous psychologist and developer of Gestalt therapy, would ask his patients, “When did you die? When did you stop singing and dancing and dreaming?”
So often we trade what is meaningful for what is comfortable/ familiar. Resiliency is the ability to ride the inevitable waves of discomfort that come with change. In Joseph Campbell’s seminal book “Hero with a Thousand Faces” he found that the great myths of the world had very similar plot lines, what he called the “mono-myth” or “hero’s journey”. The myths center around a character who goes on a journey in the pursuit of meaning, the first step of which is to leave the familiar. Frodo and Bilbo Baggins leave the Shire, Luke Skywalker leaves Tatooine, Dorothy leaves Kansas, the Buddha leaves the palace; all heroes leave the familiar in search of something beyond words or recall, something indescribable but deeply meaningful. “I’d like to boldly go where no one has gone before. But I’ll probably never leave Aurora.” says the character Garth in the genius 90s comedy ‘Wayne’s World’. Garth is a character that wants to spread his wings but can’t muster up the resilience to leave the familiar comfort of his white bread Michigan suburb.
Again from Joseph Campbell: “If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it's not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That's why it's your path.” To change, even if for the better, is highly stressful. The events that bring meaning to life; like adventurous travel, starting a new relationship or ending an unhealthy one, starting a new business or ending a job that no longer serves you, entering therapy, talking to a stranger, standing up against injustice, speaking your truth; these are all highly stimulating activities. When the nervous system is redlined, these key life events that move life forward are often put on the back burner.
The beauty of good Somatic Experiencing, mindfulness practice, or other healing work is the growth that happens as a result of taking a load off the nervous system and building resiliency. On the second or third year of SE training, the cohort I belonged to experienced amazing changes naturally occurring in their lives as a result of doing good healing work: “I got a new job. I moved into a new house. I got a divorce! I’ve got a new lover/spouse.” An SE client I work with got shot twice in the leg by a Seattle police officer at the age of 13 for pulling a cell phone out of his pocket while doing graffiti (yes, he’s a POC). At its worst, his traumatic stress redlined his nervous system to the point of agoraphobia. After 3 years of weekly SE and a long and winding healing journey, he has a full time job he finds very meaningful and is trying his hand at dating.
A classic Buddhist technique for living a meaningful life is to meditate on one’s inevitable death. One zen practice is to spend a little time each day on your imaginary death bed, looking back on your life. From this perspective, what really holds importance and value? 60 hour work weeks to buy Teslas and khakis to impress people you don’t like? Binge watching Netflix? Pabst blue ribbon and bong rips? Getting lots of likes on Facebook? In the classic Carlos Castaneda books Don Juan the Yaqui medicine man instructs his student to remember death at every step. “When you realize death is behind you three steps waiting to tap you at any moment, so much pettiness is dropped.” When I remember my own life from this perspective, what’s been meaningful for me has not been the windows of financial security or comfort I’ve experienced, but the adventures I’ve had, the moments of deep connection I’ve shared with others, the wild healing journey I’ve travelled, and the risks I’ve taken in the name of living a life of depth.
“My story isn't pleasant, it's not sweet and harmonious like the invented stories; it tastes of folly and bewilderment, of madness and dream, like the life of all people who no longer want to lie to themselves.” -Hermann Hesse