In his first ‘dispatch’, Jules Evans, philosopher, author and blogger, writes to Rachel, who has had her first encounter with disturbing thoughts. This post is Part 2 and continues from the previous one, signposted as Part 1. October 2020.
….People are like greyhounds chasing after a mechanical rabbit, desperately trying to out-run each other, and if one of the greyhounds stops, scratches his arse and says ‘it’s just a mechanical rabbit’, they call him crazy.
And what lies beneath all the ego, all the desire, all the shadow puppetry? Nothing. The abyss. Human life is a game of charades played over a trapdoor of nothingness, and every now and then the trapdoor opens, one of the actors disappears below, and everyone goes on like nothing happened!
So, you’ve rumbled us. You’ve rumbled adults. You grew up thinking we knew what was going on. We don’t know what’s going on. No one knows why we’re here and we’re all basically winging it and passing the time trying to impress each other before we die.
When I realized this, it made me feel quite melancholy — although maybe there was a certain pride in my melancholy too (I, the Deep One, have seen through the phoniness. I am the Awakened Greyhound).
I didn’t exactly choose to awaken to the emptiness of constructed reality. It was an accidental awakening — maybe through drugs, which can alter our consciousness and make us see things differently. Some people go through similar accidental awakenings through, say, meditation — suddenly everything seems a bit empty and pointless. Or it might happen to them when they first lose someone they love. They notice the trapdoor beneath their feet and think: ‘what’s the point!’
This kind of awakening to the emptiness of our constructs has been called the Dark Night of the Soul. In truth, it happens occasionally through life. It comes with being human, unfortunately, and with being blessed / cursed with consciousness.
So how do we get out of it? How do we discover a sense of purpose or meaning?
People get out of the darkness two ways. Firstly, some people just fall asleep again. Life changes, and they stop thinking such deep thoughts, and get caught up in the game once more. Actually, this happens to everyone. You fall in love, you get a great job, you go on holiday, and things are fun again, and you shelve your inner Hamlet and enjoy the festivities.
There is nothing wrong with this at all. Sometimes the game of charades is a really fun game, and it’s fun to get involved, though unfortunately we often forget it’s just a game and end up totally believing in it and taking it very seriously.
Secondly, some people get out of the darkness by discovering a philosophy or an attitude that helps them through it and gives them a sense of meaning. Their old philosophy — ‘be happy-go-lucky’ — doesn’t quite work anymore, but they discover a new philosophy which works better.
I’ve turned to different philosophies to help me when I’m lost: Buddhism, Stoicism, Sufism, Taoism, Christianity. These are all quite different philosophies, but I think they have a core message to them.
Which is this: We’re here to know ourselves, to discover our nature, and to help other people do the same.
The journey to know ourselves is not an easy one. It involves a lot of wrong turns, a lot of dark forests, steep mountains and sinking swamps. And we meet bad people along the way, fools, liars, egotists, and people who wish us harm. What makes the journey particularly difficult is, when we ask passers-by how to get to our destination, they all give us different directions, and they all seem immensely confident that they’re right.
On this journey, I don’t think you can go backwards. You can’t go back to the Happy Valley of childhood. Frodo and Sam can’t go back to how things were, they’ve got to go forward. You have to go forward. Your consciousness grows — sometimes accidentally, sometimes through education and experience — and then it’s like you don’t fit into the old clothes any more, they feel cramped and ridiculous. That means it’s time to go forward.
Winston Churchill, who suffered from depression, once said ‘if you’re going through hell, keep going’.
But what is the point? That question hangs over us like a cloud when we’re starting out on the journey, just as we find ourselves outside the Happy Valley. Why bother going on, when everything looks so dark and gloomy?
You won’t find an answer right now. It’s not like there is a Fortune Cookie slogan I can give you, which tells you The Point. First you need to practice taking care of yourself. Epictetus said: ‘practice, for heaven’s sake, in the little things, and then proceed to greater’.
Practice taking care of yourself. Practice taking care in the little things. Practice not letting your negative thoughts beat you up and cause you suffering. Why be so mean to yourself? Would you let someone be that mean to your sister, or your boyfriend, or your dog? So why be so mean to yourself?
Practice taking care of your body. The health of your consciousness is connected to your physical health — when you’re tired or hungover, you’re more susceptible to the automatic negative thoughts. Practice taking exercise, going for walks or jogs or swims or yoga, practice getting out into parks or the countryside. Feed your body with good things, feed your soul with good things.
Practice being appreciative of little things — a cup of tea, a good book, a beautiful song, a funny film. Practice being appreciative of other people — little moments where people are kind to each other, despite all the hurt and confusion in the world. Practice loving other people. See them in all their beauty and vulnerability, and how much they want to love and be loved. (I am rubbish at this, I’m usually an utter misanthrope — I need to practice being kinder and softer-hearted.)
I think this practice is easier if you find other people to practice with. That might be a self-help group, or a humanist group, or a Buddhist, Jewish, Christian or Muslim group, or it might be a group of friends that you can be genuinely honest and vulnerable with. Some of these groups might be dodgy, and we always have to be wary of ‘gurus’….but in general I think it helps to practice with other people.
All this practice slowly gets you into good habits. It’s like Mr Miyagi teaching the Karate Kid and getting him into good habits. Wax on, wax off!
And then, one day, perhaps months or years after you started the journey, you realize you’re in a different place, and that your world is a bit more full of joy, and colour, and meaning, that the sun breaks through the clouds more often.
What is that place, what is that light? I believe it’s our inner nature, beneath the flaky conventions and constructions we’ve pasted onto it.
To get a bit mystical, I believe our nature is full of light, and when we practice well, when we get into good habits and out of bad habits, we let that light shine out, and we see the light in others too. And that’s the point. It’s not a sentence or a slogan. It’s an experience of consciousness enjoying itself, and helping other people’s consciousness shine out too.
Or, to use another metaphor, think of your consciousness as like a stream. There’s a lot of mud in the stream at the moment — painful thoughts, delusions, bad habits — yet the underlying nature of the water is still crystal clear. But if you focus on the mud, and splash around in anguish, you just make the water even muddier. Instead, quietly, dispassionately and consistently work to clear away some of the blockages, some of the twigs and trash blocking the stream, and let it flow. Each difficult thought or painful feeling that emerges is not YOU — this is the great delusion that keeps us stuck. It’s just a leaf on the stream, let it come and go. Keep quietly working to clear the stream and its essential clear nature will emerge over time. Let it flow.
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