We all know that up is good and down is bad. Up is where the angels are, where God is, where the sun is. Down means hell, mud, holes, pits. When someone dies we put them under the earth, but we pray that their soul will rise up to heaven, which derives from “sky”. The songs say “lift me up” and “take me higher”. We talk about the Ascension and Moses going up the mountain, and call music “heavenly” when the singers soar up to their highest notes.
So it’s only natural that when we work on ourselves and follow our goals we think of ourselves as aiming high, reaching for the stars, ‘Moving on up now, out of the darkness’. The implication is that we’re starting low, mired in ego, weakness, Original Sin, or just a formless potentiality. Putting a shape on our lives means transcending ourselves, moulding ourselves to a higher ideal.
You build a house by piling bricks on top of each other, and the higher the structure gets the more impressive it looks. We generally think of working on ourselves the same way: building everything up brick by brick.
But there are a handful of words that suggest it’s better to go low than to aim high — words like “grounded”, “rooted” and “fundamental”. The one I like most is depth. That thinker is deep, that insight is deep, I gained a deep understanding of this issue, I totally had to go, like, deep within myself to create my latest masterpiece, y’know?
Why do I like the word so much? Because it suggests that rather than toiling away at a shaky edifice that’s supposed to reach some lofty external ideal, the good life might be more about uncovering things you already possess.
When I’ve been most at peace, most lighthearted, most at home in my own life that’s been my experience: that I’ve somehow tapped into an inexhaustible wellspring of clearheadedness at the core of my being. Rather than transcending myself, I’ve finally accessed myself. Rather than fashioning a rickety ladder in the hopes that I’ll eventually glimpse the face of God, I’ve become aware of that face smiling out at me from within.
This isn’t to say that I’m not filled to the brim with sin and ego — I’m all too painfully aware of them. But they aren’t a tangle of gnarled branches preventing me from getting to the sky. They’re a bunch of tangled roots preventing me from getting at buried treasure.
I find this way of thinking — more accurately, a way of feeling or intuiting — encouraging for a few reasons. First, it implies that goodness exists within as well as without, meaning you’re not an entirely bad person even at the worst of times. Second, rickety ladders fall down, but if something is inside you it’s not going anywhere. You always have it, even if you don’t always feel you have it. Third, it means self-improvement consists of becoming more and not less like yourself. Fourth, it helps explain how people can be so enlightened and so incredibly unenlightened at the same time, which is otherwise hard to make sense of. It’s possible to see the inner well and even to drink from it without letting it flood every corner of your being.
But if goodness is so innate, why does the pursuit of it take so much work? I’d suggest it’s because the roots are really tangled. Imagine yourself hacking through ten miles of thick, ever-growing weeds in the dark with nothing but the toy spade that is your willpower.
Or think of it like building your muscles: the muscles are already there and ready for action, but growing them takes time, effort and skill. Do it the wrong way and you’ll cause yourself pain or even lasting damage. Neglect your exercises for too long and you’ll lose a lot of the work you did previously. Focus on some muscles to the exclusion of others, and those are the only ones that will grow. Take this process to its logical conclusion and your proportions will be completely out of whack. (To complete the picture, imagine an imp dancing on your weights every time you lift them.)
Did that come off discouraging?
Thankfully my first analogy was incomplete, because we’re working with more than a toy spade. Some of the way has been cleared by other people, and we have others working alongside us. God is clearing the weeds from below while we do it from above. And meditating regularly is like trading in the spade for an earth auger with a torch attached.
It’s not a perfect analogy. We often feel like we’re struggling to get at our own essence from the outside, but sometimes we feel like we’re there, in the zone, battling the weeds from a position of strength. All authenticity is tainted and all confusion contains authenticity somewhere within it: it’s less a static, linear process then a constant dance of yin and yang, which forces me to mix my metaphors but that’s the way these things go.
As far as I can tell, untangling the knots of ego and illusion and discovering the truth underneath them is the essence of what Buddhists call “enlightenment”. Chögyam Trungpa calls the direct, unfiltered experience of life “basic sanity”, while Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the wave whose job is to realise that its essence isn’t “waviness” but water. The Tao Te Ching also recommends the digging-deeper method: ‘Thirty spokes meet in the hub. Where the wheel isn’t is where it’s useful’ (ch. 11), ‘You don’t have to look out the window to see the way of heaven’ (ch. 47).
What does classical psychology have to say on the subject? From my very limited understanding of it (corrections welcome), Freudian analysis kind of agrees with the “going low” principle and kind of disagrees with it. It does encourage you to burrow beneath the edifice of your adult self to discover the childhood traumas beneath it, but only so that you can eventually heal them, making your edifice stronger than ever. The more we work through our childhood wounds the more we enable the rational, orderly part of ourselves to function undisturbed. Breakdowns and other traumatic events can cause us to regress to our childhood selves, but the remedy for this regression is to build ourselves back up, brick by brick, until we’re facing the sky again.
I don’t really disagree with this picture — it’s important to build yourself up, create coping mechanisms, develop good habits, strengthen yourself, master your fears. I just don’t think it’s the whole picture. Speaking as someone who’s had both breakdown-like and enlightenment-like experiences, I find the “enlightenment” layer to be the more fundamental — not a state “up there” that has to be climbed towards but a stainless treasure that’s always waiting deep down, even when it’s obscured by the thickest of weeds.
I also think that the good life demands a lot more than the competence, rationality and self-sufficiency of adulthood. And that brings me to the Christian take on all this.
(End of Part 1 — to be continued)
(How’s that for a metaphysical cliffhanger?)