19. The Story I Tell Myself
Q: Robert, I found our recent discussion about self-realization and self-worth very helpful. The discovery that the narrative called “My Life,” and especially the notion of a trajectory or path heading towards some future goal, is only illusory was an eye-opener for sure. Even so, despite the “Aha!” in that moment of discovery, there still remains a sense in which that breakthrough was only intellectual, not felt in the marrow of my bones. Now, the next day, when faced with the usual ennui of life, I’m still trying to figure out my dissatisfaction, think my way through it, and find meaning in life. It seems that the complete and full discovery of one’s true nature is something that either happens or, as in my case, just hasn’t yet. What do you reckon?
A: I would not say that the story is “only illusory.” It’s more that a great deal of the story is not really my story, but a story imposed upon me: a system of values and “truths” instilled in the mind from infancy by caregivers and others in the social milieu. Through deliberate training, and also through unconscious assimilation by osmosis, I have been taught to keep telling myself that story, and to believe that the values and truths in that story are my values and truths.
If that culturally implanted narrative asserts that life must have a meaning or significance beyond just living for a time and dying like any other animal, then simply to experience seeing, feeling, and thinking in each moment while dealing with the exigencies of living as one must will seem insufficient or even ignoble. One is taught to desire something special out of life, but as that “something special” is not readily apparent except in fantasy, a search for that extraordinary something becomes part of the story one tells oneself.
Your search to find “true nature” is part of the culturally infused story which says that one’s moment-to-moment existence as an ordinary primate mammal is somehow deficient—not what we “really” are—so that one must improve upon the thoughts, and feelings of the present moment, and find out how to replace them with something “better,” something with a meaning and significance elevated beyond merely living and breathing.
But that story, the story of searching for something extraordinary—something not this—contains an implicit negative judgment of one’s present “ordinary” condition, which, compared to the fantasized life filled with meaning and significance, must seem disappointing, boring, or worse. So, what you are calling ennui is a feature of that story you tell yourself that says incessantly, “Is this all there is? This is insufficient. My thoughts and feelings are not enough.”
As long as one desires the story to be a happy story, disappointment is inevitable, because that desire cannot always be gratified. The story cannot always be a happy one unless a great deal is ignored or papered over, specifically the old age, illness, and death that await us all unless we die young. Some people try to accomplish that papering over by referring to an imagined special “egoless” condition in which happiness is the “natural state,” and one has transcended suffering. If that were true, why are they still talking about it? When actually feeling happy, one does not talk about happiness, or even notice it except perhaps as an occasional resonance.
If one imagines that others have discovered a true nature that myself has not yet been able to “realize,” a painful tension—a dilemma—arises between the degrading story I tell myself on the one hand: “I’m just a frightened, ennui-stricken lump of flesh,” and the fanciful story of “enlightenment, “self-realization,” and “deathlessness” on the other: “I am pure consciousness with no connection to body or ego.” Really? No connection at all?
Sorting out this dilemma does not require self-realization, discovering true nature, finding one’s place in the supposed “cosmic order,” or anything else, I say. Discovery takes place only right now, and no one gets to choose what to discover, or when, or how. One is powerless in this situation, regardless of what the story you were taught to tell yourself may allege. When that powerlessness comes clear, the dilemma simply dissolves. You just live as best you can while you can, and that’s the story.
If you demand that the story be more than that—demand that the story have meaning beyond the simple day-to-day living of life—feelings such as ennui are sure to arise as a kind of reaction to having interrupted the natural flow of organic existence by imposing upon it a need for meaning which it cannot provide except in fantasy.
The entire concept of self-worth is nonsense. You have, I say, as much right to be here as any other naturally occurring phenomenon: a tree, a donkey, or the Pacific Ocean. You never asked to be here, and are under no obligation to justify your existence, or to find so-called “meaning” in living and breathing. You did not create “myself,” so why would you need to judge its worth? And who can stand outside of “myself” judging it anyway?
As for self-realization, that is just another version of “Heaven.” No one who speaks of Heaven is in Heaven. So-called “self-realization” is just like that—the story of an imaginary condition to be attained somehow in the future. What other “self” can there ever be apart from that which is reading these words in this very moment?
“Myself” is what it is, and we do not know what it is. Certainly the story one has been taught to tell oneself is not it. Prior to judgments and evaluations of any stripe, and without knowing how or why, here we are. Leave the judgments out of it, and you may see that you are not separate from life or the world. All is one, if you only knew it.