The Responsibility Series: Waking up

I had an epiphany once where I realized the correlation between depression and one’s sense that he lacks control over his life, and between happiness and the sense that he has control over it. imgres

And this ties into this conversation about responsibility because taking personal responsibility is the pivot between the sense that the universe acts autonomously: that you are just a kite in the current of her schizophrenic temper, battered by circumstance…and the sense that you are the kite runner yourself, working with nature to choreograph each motion of your life. There may be an epiphanic moment when you realize that you are not just a passenger on a runaway train but can run up to the conductor’s seat, take the steering wheel, and redirect it any way you want. This is sometimes referred to as, “waking up.”

When I think about this I always think of the White family from the The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. If you’ve never seen the documentary, it chronicles the debaucheries of the White family from Boone County, West Virginia. And although at first the film seems to celebrate their “fuck it” attitude and laugh at the consequences, as the film progresses it bears a somber undertone. Slowly the viewer starts to see the despair these people suffer as a result of their recklessness. In an interview, the mayor explains that a hopelessness envelops their little coal-mining town… a hopelessness of ever experiencing a quality of life better than the dismal one in which they grew up. The inhabitants feel they are locked into a fate of coal mining. And with no hope for a better future, they just give up. And the consequences of these reckless actions end up governing their lives. Jail, death, child custody suits, poor health, etc becomes their life. NNVG231520-13“It’s a wonder so many tragedies happen in our family. It seems our lives have just been a party. And we’re living life like it’s a story. Like we’re already dead but we’re still alive to tell about it.” As I watched this I thought about how they must not realize they inflict this tragedy upon themselves.

I have experienced hopelessness myself. I have been in relationships with people I didn’t even like– and yet I just went through the motions. I have been at a school that made me deeply depressed, and yet I carried on there for an entire year. Why do we endure such miseries? I think in most cases we don’t even realize we are unhappy. Or even if we do, we don’t realize we have a way out. Expectations set by culture are so oppressive, we can barely hear the murmur of our own soul’s dialogue over the screech, or realize that we can reach our own hand out of the bubble membrane into the circuit board and press the power-off button.

Remember that game Life that we would play as kids on the computer? We are like those poor characters that as gamers we would subject to various crises. Without any self-awareness or inquiry as to why the circumstances were happening, the characters would just react over and over and keep the simulation going. That is what we are in our own lives… highly reactive automatons. We are absorbed in the sagas of our lives and all too rarely step out of the context to examine it objectively and ask ourselves, “Am I happy? Does my job make sense? Does my relationship make sense?” One thing leads to another and we get funneled from school into college, into professional careers, and our minds are churning with the “to dos” of all these engagements. We are like blind sheep just complying and reacting with the trained behavior pattern of our minds (as if some response program was subliminally downloaded into our minds through language and culture).

But each time we react unquestioningly, we anchor ourselves into despair. We become enslaved to our compulsions, which usually tend toward immediate security or instant gratification, for which there are long-term consequences. Take a dysfunctional relationship for example. Our compulsion is to call the person when we know we should give them space. Our compulsion is to say things just to make the other person jealous. Our compulsion is to comply with the unfair demands of other person solely to avoid starting a fight. Compulsions are defense mechanisms against stressful situations that, if we were really going to quell, we would confront rather than avoid or anesthetize. Compulsions are also measures to boost the ego in an instance of insecurity: We brag about our promotions, we bad-mouth those who challenge the social norms we subscribe to, and we upload profile pictures of our six packs to Facebook 7_4_10_B_situation_rehab_kabik-36-13-570rather than acknowledge our shortcomings. We run towards what makes us feel good and away from what makes us feel bad. But this habit pattern keeps us anchored in despair because we are always enslaved to our cravings or our fears. To come back to the example of the dysfunctional relationship, it would be in our best interest to break up with someone who demeans us, neglects us, abuses us etc. But we pine for their attention and validation, and we fear the unknown of being without them. And if we succumb to these cravings and fears, we fail to get out of the relationship and stay suffering. Only when we chose to act against these compulsions do we break the cycle of subjection, take agency over our lives, open ourselves up to growth, and start making moves toward our higher selves. Our higher selves is where we do what is healthiest for ourselves rather than just what feels good in the moment based on our addictions or fears. We think our compulsions protect us and promote us but by listening to them we actually disempower ourselves. Not only do we relinquish our agency over our destinies, and become the kite rather than the kite runner, but we subject ourselves to the negative karmic backlash of our indulgences.

So how does one snap out of these habit patterns that imprison us in despair? The first step is self-examination. Rather than just being reactive animals possessed by our compulsions, we must learn how to observe ourselves with no emotional stake in the findings. We must ask ourselves the larger questions like, “Am I happy? Why am I in this career? What are the large-scale effects of the job I perform? Does my relationship with my significant other make sense? How do my words and actions affect myself and others?” This is called “Mindfulness” and unfortunately is very scarcely practiced in Western culture. It is perhaps the most important tool we posses as human beings. We are never taught to use it! Mindfulness is almost synonymous with meditation, although any sort of dialogue about our own consciousness as we experience it is a step in the right direction. We must learn not what to think but how to think. Thereby we can become privy to the original absurdity and retrospective detriment of our impulsive reactions, and consciously discontinue them. Our unconscious habits with their bad karma engulf us in depression, inertia, and self-absorption– beyond which we cannot see. They are so distracting and consuming it is near impossible to do the “higher” thing for ourselves, let alone consider it.

For the heroin addict, he feels the drug has him hostage. For the person in a dysfunctional relationship, the attachment he has to the other person is so desperate he can hardly entertain the idea of breaking up. In both cases, the compulsion is so strong that the victims hardly feel they have a choice in the matter. But we do have a choice. We always do. And we can be free of the consequences these compulsions throw back upon us. We can be free of homelessness and injury… we can be free of depression and low self-esteem. The Whites of Boone County could have been free of jail and premature death. It just takes mindfulness to realize we have a way out, and then some personal responsibility.

The way to navigate out of our personal hells is to first identify the habits that are most obviously debilitating to us from aligning with our higher selves. And then, discontinue them (quit smoking, start eating healthy, quit binge drinking). We realize that our ability to detect detrimental habits becomes increasingly acute, and our sense of responsibility for doing the right thing become increasingly stronger with each distracting bad habit we eliminate. So after eliminating our strongest addictions, our minds become clearer and we find a new equilibrium. Then we can confront the subtler stuff (cut out “friends” that take advantage of us, break up with our partner if it is an unhealthy relationship, quit our job that obliges us to lie). We are, becoming stronger, more proactive people. We are gaining control over our lives rather than simply being victim to their sensory seduction. Then comes the deeper, more ingrained stuff still (rekindle relations with abandoned family members, stop gossiping, start spending time with people and in places that inspire us)… and so on and so fourth, we can penetrate the latent levels of truth within ourselves. Each correction we make in our behavior will give way to another, more profound one and we can systematically navigate our way out of Hell and open, layer by layer, the kingdom of Heaven within ourselves.

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We do so many things unconsciously- we turn on the TV when we get back from work, we cut people off in traffic, we gossip, and we don’t realize how much negative energy we constantly invoke. Even if we WANT to be this ideal version of ourselves, we can’t unless we reform our behavior, starting at the most micro level. Because it is the invocation that is the end itself- we are only who we are at this precise moment. We can’t be a holy person even if we go to church every Sunday and say grace before dinner and go on service trips if we continue to litter, cheat on our spouse, or drink and drive.deliver_us_from_evil_dvd__large_ It boils down to that- not what we want but what we actualize. This new behavior itself is the fruits of our labor. As long as we perpetuate this habit pattern that maintains us where we are now, even if we want to evolve, we cannot. Because it is our current behavior that has us imprisoned at the level that our current status expresses. You can’t break out of Hell using the old habit pattern that got you into Hell in the first place. You can’t get off the streets and still drink if it was drinking that put you on the streets in the first place. “If you want to know what your future will look like, look at what you are doing now.” What you do now plants seeds for the tree that will grow in the future. You cannot plant seeds for a crab apple tree with its bitter fruit and pray it bestows you with sweet mangoes. You must plant mango seeds in the first place.

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