Step Back

The wheel of samsara. On the surface it appears to be a depiction of Buddhist reincarnation. In reality it serves as a deeper spiritual metaphor for the cycles of craving and discontent we face in worldly life. We exit these cycles through the practicing of ancient tenets and the cultivation of inner-life.

When the mind is too focused on internalizing external events, it starts trying to make an internal impact on the external world. For most people, this means haphazardly meddling in various pursuits that aren’t necessarily intended for their intervention. It means overworking, over-planning, and living in delusion. People start weird conflicts in their personal and professional lives, end solid relationships because they think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, or pretend to be people they’re not just to get attention. There are countless examples. But why is this how we tend to behave?

There’s a fundamental chaos in the external world that swirls around like a hurricane. As we move further into the future this manmade invention becomes more and more ridiculous, its chaos potentiated by everyone who contributes and participates in it. The ridiculousness compounds over time into a massive bizzare snowball of nonsense, which is what the world today tends to resemble to anyone trying to cultivate a semblance of spiritual life. When we decide to inhale ideology, nationality, religion, identity politics, etc, into ourselves, our inner state starts to mirror it, devolving more and more into chaos as time goes on. This is why those who most ardently label themselves and participate in various -isms are often the most clouded in their inner states. Without the balance of reflection, study and understanding, our struggle and work in the world often causes us more trouble than good.

Tom works 90 hours a week to pay the mortgage for his luxury condo in lower Manhattan. Once a young Ivy League graduate with immaculate lifestyle choices, he starts losing sleep. He stops exercising. He doesn’t spend enough time with his wife and kids. He starts to feel depressed, so he goes and sees a psychiatrist, who prescribes him drugs and sends him on his way. The drugs make him feel like a shell of his former self, and his life begins to crumble. He feels like giving up entirely even though he’s doing what everyone’s always told him— following the tenets of success.

Jenny works 30 hours a week at a coffee shop to pay rent for her apartment in Brooklyn, where she has 5 roommates. She hated academics in high school so she went to art school and acquired many years worth of student loan debt. She works for minimum wage to pay off her debt and rent. She has all her eggs in one basket— her garage rock band. Her parents pay a publicist to keep the band touring and get reviews and premieres in relevant cultural periodicals. Jenny feels stifled and unhappy even though she’s doing what the popular cultural narratives told her— following her dream.

Todd works 50 hours a week at a start-up, which prides itself on its “open-mindedness”, “progressive thinking” and “disruptive innovation”. Despite these lofty aspirations, he leaves work feeling sterilized and empty. Whenever he tries to provide constructive criticism to his cohorts he’s told to not be “so negative” and to “build people up”. Meanwhile, the company is hemorrhaging investors money and he knows without a more realistic approach it will soon go under. The lack of honesty in his life holds him back from what he knows is possible, and yet he continues doing it because it’s what he’s been groomed for his whole life— holding a steady 9-5.

There are thousands of these examples and thousands of people who meet each archetype. Why do we behave in these ways? Why does modern life put the spirit at war with itself? In making the fundamental distinction between what exists inside us and outside us, we take the first step towards cultivating some sort of spiritual consciousness. What exists inside you is special to you. It can’t always be conveyed to others or even adequately interpreted by yourself. But through reflection, discipline and patience it can be uncovered and accepted.

What exists outside you is harmless only if you learn not to identify too strongly with it. If someone stole your watch right now you would get over it pretty quickly. But what if you had trained your mind to think that watch was your entire world, the essence of your identity? Its departure from your life would send you spiralling into a miserable descent. Sounds crazy, right? And yet that’s how we treat most of the things and ideals we acquire from the world. We identify with them and thus overstate their importance to our inner-state. Then things happen to us: a breakup, a death, a lost job, etc, and it feels like the end of the world. Meanwhile, these challenges are actually often the cornerstones of a life well-lived; through pain and perseverance they provide the most memorable impetus for growth and change.

How can we simultaneously appreciate life for what it is in the moment while also working towards a better future? All that’s required is some balance, which comes from cultivating inner-life, not just outer-life. If you work 12 hours a day and have no time to read or meditate, your inner-life will suffer, and that imbalance will impact whatever it is you spend those 12 hours doing. The same way we can’t function properly without sleep, we can’t function properly without spiritual self-care.

Reflection strengthens the inner-state, which prevents the mind from latching onto all of the delusions and abstractions preventing us from reflecting. This becomes a constructive snowball, much like how over-participation in the external world becomes a burdensome snowball. It allows you to exist as you are peacefully and to engage with the world peacefully. A mind at war with itself is at war with the world. We see a small percentage of people in every demographic in every society who cause the vast majority of problems and inconsistencies. These are simply the people who are most at war with themselves. They project the intensity of their inner-turmoil onto the world and effect it onto the hearts and minds of other people. Their discontent spreads like a virus. The same way we can counter outer-turmoil with inner-balance, we can be a positive influence in the world by not forcing ourselves upon it or violating its fundamental principles. This requires a cultivation of inner-life independent from any sort of external goals or variables.

Chapter 9 of the Tao Te Ching:

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

Simple but profound (like the rest of the Tao Te Ching)— do your work, then step back. Take your shoes off at the door. Don’t carry your chaos with you past where it’s useful. And breathe.