Fork waters

Terrain 1. By Béla Borsodi, Vienna

Terrain 1. By Béla Borsodi, Vienna

I swim in currents of sensory stimuli; each illuminating with a greater or lesser lucency the waters I navigate. That which glows brightest through the fluids of potential experience causes awareness to snorkel in its direction. Relentlessly, forks appear in the pelagic wanderings of my life, and a selection is to be made as to my orientation. What determines any choice and propels me along this fork or that, remains opaque to me for the most part; it simply happens. Once in a while, I am forced to surface, to tread water and reflect. I am at what appears to be a critical bifurcation; my decision determines whether I sink or swim. Or so it appears as such to me.

With a shift in perspective, I see that the myriad forks which appear before me are of but a single perceptual stream, all a flowing continuum within a singular oceanic awareness. It is a life analogous to liquid in so much as it may course freely in all directions, yet remains within a torrent of unicity I see reflected in memory as life. One moment I funnel through tributaries, the next I am the limitless ocean. Now I apprehend only the flotsam, and next I behold the very depths. One is not distinct from the other; it is all but a frame of reference as to what makes it seem so. I cannot choose the ordering; yet in possessing a degree of buoyancy my drowning is spared.

And what if I seldom perceive the oceanic; what if my experience comprises solely the blind propulsion of the senses? Before too long, I feel inundated; my buoyancy begins to fail me; I am sinking. Wading onto shores beyond these metaphors, I may speak of becoming stressed, or increasingly prone to anxiety. Everywhere I look I see only chaotic presentations of imagery. None of it runs together seamlessly. Everything is fractured and pulling me in differing directions; I become exhausted and confused at the brutal cleaving of percept from sense. The mind aches for tranquillity, for perspective; objecting to objectifications, it hearkens for signs of peace.

How may the mind hear them, and what comprises such signs of peace? To hear distinctly requires a soundscape of silence. Only against such a backdrop can each sign be made distinct. In any cacophony we hear all and nothing at once. So, we come back to the body, to the silent knowledge of our being which some regard as presence. We hear the sound of silence, feel our occupation of pellucid space, and simply know that we are. Try this: At the end of this paragraph, the word ‘peace’ appears. As your eyes settle on that word, hold the vision whilst drawing back telescopically into a sense of beingness, feeling the space you occupy. This is our sign of peace.

Terrain 2. By Béla Borsodi, Vienna

Terrain 2. By Béla Borsodi, Vienna

This simple technique is a refuge from the storm of sensory stimuli. It can be applied in any situation, for we are never apart from ourselves. When we find our mind inundated, when the cacophony appears, we come back to our silent knowledge of being. First, attend to a single sense, such as the breath as felt at the nostril or in the movement of the abdomen, then hold to that whilst telescopically drawing back as before into feeling the space you occupy. As we become skilled in this, which takes many repetitions, we find the body is flooded with feelings of calm; a suffusion of delight supplants the incipient stressfulness and a sanctuary is found within.

The perception of chaos and the inhabitation of a stressed mind both result from our estrangement from the simple peace of being. We instead dwell in a frightened and confused self-narrative which feeds off a heedless attentiveness. Undirected, our attention causes that which was first spoken of, and once again we face a cascading of the senses, an onslaught of forks in a fast-flowing river. We frantically attempt to plot our course, yet are diverted in wrong directions incessantly. Time speeds up; we fight to control our chaotic mind and are caught in a story disordered by a random pagination. Stop. Rest now in the sound of silence and at the sign of peace.

Even when life flows serenely, we still may take delight in our sense of beingness. That is because it is innately delightful, not by dint of contrast, for it is what we are in essence – silent, peaceful, contented. Many tend to disbelieve this; they assume there’s a wishful spinning of thought, some naïve New Age trope-mongering or similar. Or they envisage a labyrinthine teleological path needs pursuing to reveal the truth of it. This is not so; it is all much simpler and immediate; we are not seeking the apotheosis of Nondualism or Zen. On first hearing such an assertion, one may well feel dismissive, for what earthly use are silence, peace and contentedness?

We come back to sensory fragmentation, to the renegade and perfidious attentiveness which renders life episodically fractured and jarring. Rather than seeing the complete picture – a unified presentation of myriad fluxing phenomena – we see the whole divided, apprehending what we think of as unrelated imagery in thought and physical impressions. Though artfully contrived, the photographs here demonstrate the mind’s perfidy as perspective shifts; the unity of a single scene fragments into four quarters. Discerning the integrated wholeness, awareness is known as it is and always was; the mind quietens; the body pacifies, and we are reposeful.

 

The disease of conceit

Old Woman Smiling. As yet unattributed.

I’ve taken the title for this article from a song of Bob Dylan’s; and the inspiration to cover the topic in the way that I’ve chosen to came from a couple of the song’s lines: ‘Conceit is a disease that the doctors got no cure; they’ve done a lot of research on it but what it is, they’re still not sure’. As Bob himself might say, ‘Sump’ns up; ain’t a lot clear though.’

I confess that I’m rather a stickler for words and their origins; so let’s first unravel what’s intimated by this word ‘conceit’. Within the context of the song, it’s shorthand for ‘self-conceit’; and as The Oxford English Dictionary has it, it’s ‘excessive pride in oneself.’ The original sense is of a ‘quaintly decorative article’, as well as ‘something formed in the mind’.

Still, we can see why the medics are struggling to cure this fanciful product of thinking. How does ‘excessive pride’ come to be ingrained within what is taken to be substantively real – the ‘me’ of ‘my’ being – and not remain as ‘something formed in the mind’? The pride is more than a judgement about ‘me’; it’s effectively regarded as what I am.

The answer is that the conceit which issues as excessive pride is self-referenced; it’s taken to be an integral aspect of a substantively real ‘self’. In this way, the notion formed in the mind becomes integrated within a narrative construct of selfhood. This narrative is synonymous with what I think I am as an enduring agent for, and subject of, all experience.

Put simply, we’re fictionalising our life and being, as a result of which process we become a ‘quaintly decorative article’. As this fiction is internal to the mind, it accesses cognitive capacities and so knows itself – it’s egoically aware. The self-narrative then embeds as belief; it’s taken as the self of ‘me’ and from which perspective it reflectively admires itself.

This is the disease of conceit; and it’s caused by mechanisms which remain opaque precisely because of this circular, self-reflective cognising. It’s largely a closed system which, to the extent that it’s monitored at all, is no more than two mirrors reflecting each the other. It comprehends itself only within its own very partial design parameters.

Whenever uncomfortable feelings arise and which affect the ‘quaintly decorative article’, this same entity attempts to modify its own construct. It builds upon its own foundation various justifications, validations and affirmations. It protects its own existence at all costs, taking any measure necessary to do so. It never considers its own destruction as a remedy.

And yet why should this be so; how could it possibly affect matters if ‘something formed in the mind’ ceased to exist? After all, the mind, together with all of its connections to sentience, to memory, to creativity and so forth, would remain. We could still function, love, care, and continue to experience the world without this fanciful, thought-up thing.

Just as we tend to consider ourselves indispensable in our working role, so too does the self-construct regard itself in this way. We assume our job position can only effectively be fulfilled by ‘me’ doing it ‘my’ way. And because the self-construct was originally a survival imperative, it continues to regard itself as such and so never considers its redundancy.

This construct, this ‘thing formed in the mind’, has created a total dependency upon itself in regarding the entirety of experience and action to be of its own doing. It thinks it’s a constant subject which via its agency alone can the world be known, and any response to that world, be made. No wonder it thinks it’s special and that it must be preserved.

Any preservation requires work though; the imagined subject of ‘me’ is rather needy and wants assurances of its status. If these assurances don’t come from others, it creates its own in applying little affirmations of conceit to itself. Interestingly, these affirmations can take both a negative and positive form dependent on the individual’s innate character traits.

So perversely, the ‘quaintly decorative article’ can appear charming to itself in terms of its own perceived deficiencies. It can build into its narrative what to it is an alluring sense of inadequacy in which it feels secure by virtue of flaw and frailty. Conceit cuts both ways; it isn’t just about ‘me’ being ‘better than’; it can also encompass being ‘worse than’.

The person who continuously stresses to all those around them of their uselessness or stupidity, or of their noteworthy capacity to suffer, is conceited too. They’re placing a perverse and certain pride in the uniqueness of their inadequacy or burden. In this way, they set themselves apart from others just as much as the boastful egotist.

So we decorate ourselves with one or other of these two modes of conceit; we’re prideful in either a negative or positive sense – it doesn’t matter which; it’s still a disease. Any remedy is beyond the power of the physician; the mind carrying the disease must administer the cure. Of course, as with any health issue, we first must observe our symptoms.

 

Nonsense and non-duality

Photography: C. Frank Starmer, Singapore

Photography: C. Frank Starmer, Singapore

For those unfamiliar with the term, Nondualism is a philosophical principle emanating primarily out of Hindu culture and spirituality. It asserts the possibility of viewing all experience devoid of implicit notions of subjectivity and objectivity, of selfhood and otherness. This positing of an awareness undifferentiated by any assumed subject or self, has perceived similarities with many philosophical and religious traditions, from Mystical Christianity through Sufism to Zen Buddhism.

Whilst descriptions of the non-dual principle differ culturally, it remains broadly identical in concept. The experience of non-duality, meaning the actualised knowledge of it, this however, escapes any verbal description. Because of this, and due also to its sporadic actualisation, the tenet itself is open to widely divergent interpretations even amongst adepts. We could also say that any and all interpretation fails at the outset, as the knowledge is itself not susceptible to any mode of conceptualisation.

Nondualism is a profound and almost elusively subtle principle, and one which has gained increasing traction in The West. And yet it’s not merely an abstraction, not simply a philosophical construct nor a fanciful religious hypothesis. It’s ascendance in Western culture is no accident, and neither is its durability, it having been rigorously tested for three millennia. So the lived actualisation of this impersonal, non-dual awareness was seemingly always latent within the human animal.

Okay, so that’s a very general outline of the subject of this article. Yet what of its significance here, for those interested in psychological and emotional well-being? When the chips are down and life’s tricky, what’s in it for you and me? Is there any usefulness in this obscure principle of non-duality; can it extend meaning beyond the dusty confines of philosophical discourse and can we come face to face with it in daily life? With the audacity of a little hope, we can surely say ‘maybe’.

And yet it’s not actually a case of hope, and certainly not one of belief. Non-duality, or if you prefer, non-self, is both approached and actualised by the receptive and open mind. It’s not a matter of the intellect, so is not produced by the piling together and arrangement of thought. As to its usefulness, we need first appreciate that any prolonged emotional disturbance, or subtly enduring dissatisfaction, must recur and attach in self-entity, thus appearing to happen to ‘me’.

Now in non-dual awareness, the appearance of this ‘me’ is absent. This means the idea of ‘me’ vanishes both as an assumption and as a point of centrality around which experience accumulates. We remain consistent in our sense of being as before, and as a social construct we too must of course persist as some loosely fixed self-entity. What dissolves is the identification with any implied narrative of ‘me’ as a locus and subject of experience. Ergo, there’s nothing to which dissatisfaction may attach.

So this answers the question of ‘what’s in it for me’, and to be clear, the answer is unequivocally ‘nothing’. The question came from a perspective of selfhood, in which ‘me’ is taken as a subject or experiencer synonymous with a benefitting self. This same self was that which assumed its own substance and continuity, and as a consequence came to believe that dissatisfaction attached to the imagined continuum in a parallel progression. All of this fails to pass scrutiny and is invalid.

In non-dual awareness, both selfhood and otherness are apprehended as mental constructs. There is no subject either to which awareness appears to channel, or which is thought to grasp outwardly at otherness. The awareness is seamless and is recognised neither as appearing ‘here’ or ‘there’, which again are known as constructs and values of the sensory system alone. ‘Here’, ‘there’, ‘self’ and ‘other’, are still understood in a conventional sense, yet are known just as conventions; they’re notional.

‘But this is nonsense!’ I hear you screaming. Well, yes, it is non-sense. It is awareness knowing itself as itself and prior to the learned demands of the sensory system which conventionally overlay it. As I said, the experience of non-duality escapes any verbal description, and yet it’s valid to point to it nonetheless. Why so? Again it’s a useful principle, and one which extends meaning in daily life once actualised. This meaning is deeply significant, and as explained just above, is beneficial.

So how does one explore non-duality; where does one (or two), start? Here, I differ from many contemporary proponents in recommending the adoption of a contemplative system of discovery. This generally isn’t what people want to hear, particularly if they’ve heard or read others’ suggesting the redundancy of method and structure. Whilst it’s true that non-dual awareness doesn’t come into being formulaically, it’s assisted by receptivity, openness and a passively enquiring mental outlook.

The receptive and pliant mind lends itself to an intuitive ‘seeing’ which is non-verbal and uncontrived by thought – it’s not empirically or discursively arrived at. It’s not, in this case, new knowledge derived by means of old knowledge. Neither is it any representation of the sensory system such as a mood, any mental state, or feeling – it is non-sense. And much nonsense is written about non-duality too, some out of ignorance or egoic pride, and some because it defies clear categorisation.

So, this principle is potently beneficial, is actualised in receptivity, pliancy and gentle enquiry, and is brought to mind through being pointed to. In my view, the best pointers avoid allusions to the spiritual or divine (where?), the esoteric or the mysterious (what?), and the rigidly formulaic or prescriptive (how?). Whilst actualised non-duality is indescribable, pointers to it need not confound the hearer unnecessarily nor worthlessly engage the dubious. Awareness alone must know itself.

A friend seeks contentment the creative way

Photography by Jorge Royan, Argentina

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

He was very clear, very driven, and very talented. He knew exactly what he needed to do in life to find fulfilment. That clarity and sense of purpose, together with his precocious artistic talent, would see him home. There was no doubt about it. He could see the route to finding the contentment he instinctively sought. The plan was quite simple.

How lucky he was, at this tender age of fourteen, to know his purpose in life. How many of us have the remotest idea of what lies ahead beyond the dreams, the vague and perhaps utterly unrealistic visions, the naïvely faithful notions of our own abilities? But this young man had substance to it all. He had talent and artistic sensibility in abundance.

None of this would be easy though – and he knew it. It didn’t matter. It was Plan A, and it was the only plan. He didn’t need alternatives, reserve positions, a fall back. This was going to work; there was no question about it. All he had to do was hone his craft further. All he had to do was to give his natural ability time to mature and develop.

Five years he gave it; ten at the outside. It didn’t matter – it would happen. He’d devote himself wholeheartedly, sacrifice everything. Forget the girls, the blokey camaraderie, the non-essential studies and the qualifications. Forget the inevitable loneliness and isolation that this devotion would bring. This was art; you suffer for it – you have to.

He became a master of his instrument. It took less than four years. By the time he was eighteen he was hailed as the very finest in a field of other prodigiously talented young musicians. He could play any venue and the past masters would turn out to listen. He was in demand as a session player with recording artists too. He’d made it ahead of time.

Now in his mid-twenties, certain things were becoming apparent to him. He’d attuned to the success, but it gave him no real sense of fulfilment. I asked him why he seemed unhappy, why he wasn’t as responsive as he used to be. He replied: ‘Cos I’m depressed Hariod. Sometimes I feel like killing myself. The music’s never given me what I thought it would’.

Fortunately, my friend survived the crisis. The affection of a dog helped, as it always does. So did the wonderful countryside he found solace within. It was a long process though, several years in fact. Eventually, the adjustment was made, and the realisation set in that the creative impulse, as potent as it was, could never create contentment itself.

When we invest in our dreams we take a huge gamble. We love the content of those dreams, and we become wedded to the embedded illusory projections. Yet divorce is always painful. To invest our entire emotional and physical energy into what amounts to no more than desire, is dangerous. It feeds blind belief, and it abandons reason.

We create in our dreams a fairy tale in which we live contentedly, fulfilled, free of striving, free of internal strife. This narrative projection in effect becomes our personal identity. We inhabit this narrative thinking that it’s what our life will become. We project our personal self-entity so as that ‘self’ becomes both narrator and narrative alike.

It’s all incredibly creative. You might say it’s one of humankind’s most sophisticated attributes – the projection of the ‘self’ into a complex narrative. Very few other animals can do this; and even then, it barely warrants comparison. Our capacity to delude ourselves with these narrative creations and projections is enticing too. It feeds desire.

We can make intelligent plans; we can and must project into the future – of course. These plans can be as creative and ambitious as we like; there’s no harm in any of that. But when we project our ‘self’ into future scenarios, such that the projection becomes belief, then the creative force turns into an adversary. We think it’s our friend, but in truth it’s not.

We can’t create contentment. It can’t be willed or manipulated into being through self-interest and acquisitive desire. It’s in fact this self-interest that blocks any contentment. If we’re able to remove the ‘self’ from our plans and projections, then we’re immediately shielded from the intense negativity my friend suffered. So we need to uncreate this self-entity.

A friend seeks contentment the escapists way

Photo: Sukanto debnath, Flickr

Photography: Sukanto Debnath, Hyderabad

He’d moved to London from another country, knowing that this would be the place he’d find fulfilment. Here, in the capital, he’d access the vibrant core of the British music scene and escape the parochial, small-minded outlook of his friends and family. There’d be no looking back to the old country. The millennium was advancing, and so was he.

He vowed forever to release himself from the strictures of his Catholic upbringing, from what he saw as the provincialism of his parents and all they stood for. He’d be contented and free, endlessly creating new music to accompany him in his endlessly renewing life. There’d be obstacles; but with his talent, wit and charm, he’d find contentment and freedom.

The connections were built soon enough. Despite his tender years, he was savvy; he knew how to look the part, and how to play the part. He knew the music scene was largely theatre. Talent was partly optional, but in any case he had it in spades. Within two years he was playing sessions, and within four he was on a world tour with a huge star.

Yet still he felt trapped, still part of a controlling network of managers and agents, the hordes of goffers and of course, the stars of the shows. So he tried to escape through sex. He was a pretty boy, on show nightly to many willing and available girls. Maybe with them, each in turn, he would feel less trapped, find the contentment and freedom he sought.

But soon the girls became more of a burden than a pleasure, just more obligations and more small-mindedness. It felt a bit like the old country. So he tried to escape with cocaine, yet that proved even more of a trap, and his mind became smaller and more caged-in still. No matter how he tried to escape his sense of emptiness, he could never escape himself.

As the years passed, he turned back to the Catholic church of his homeland. He stopped rejecting his past and what felt most like home. He gave up on finding fulfilment in himself, and age dulled awareness of his discontent. Besides, now he had a son he could project all his own failed ideas into, and the circular predictability of it all came to pass.

I’m still in touch with my friend, but we don’t talk about much of this; it’s too difficult for him to swallow. And who am I to be telling others why their lives didn’t produce what they thought it would? My friend found credibility and prestige, has a wonderful family, health and wealth. What he didn’t find was how to escape the aching void within.

For 35 years he’d tried to escape that void, that inner sense of discontent and the absence of fulfilment. He tried escaping by leaving his country, by attaching to fame and glamour, by getting lost in music, lost in sex, lost in cocaine. He tried to escape vicariously through his son, who through his father’s connections now himself has fame and glamour.

But it’s futile to seek contentment by escaping, because in any seeking we always bring our self along. And it’s this idea we have of our self which is the problem; it’s this entity which thinks contentment can be found and attached to. The self-entity misguidedly attempts to manipulate the world in order to satiate its desires and avoid all else.

We can’t escape the self or its misguided manipulations. What we can do is deconstruct it, and see it for what it is. It isn’t what I am; it isn’t what you are. It’s an on-going narrative construct that embeds within our being as belief. This means we come to believe that this narrative that comprises the self-entity correlates to the actuality of our being.

That actuality – what I am and what you are beyond selfhood – has a default state of perfect contentedness in being. That actuality doesn’t need to escape anything, or discover anything, in order to dwell fulfilled and in an emotional and psychological well-being. This isn’t some fanciful idea; it’s fully provable through a cultivated presence in being.

In developing presence in being, and through living contemplatively aware, we see that escapism is redundant. In fact it’s utterly useless. We may escape into pleasure, into forgetfulness, into distraction and indulgence. But we can never escape our sense of self once there. In our informed presence we see this truth, seeing what we are beyond self.

 

A friend seeks contentment the heavenly way

License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

She was an oddly attractive young woman, gregarious and vivacious, amusingly unpredictable in her scatter-brained thought processes. Yet to chat with her could feel like being spun in a cement mixer, never certain which way was up or ever knowing when you might be disgorged to go off in a nonplussed silence – like her, mixed up, but not unpleasantly so.

At other times it was like trying to read Ulysses in a hurricane, or after a few too many gin and tonics, her monologue a flight of consciousness borne on a slipstream of vacuity. She’d rarely be able to end sentences; there was always something vital to add; and whilst meaning seemed promised, her turbulent fervour meant it was always lost along the way.

And getting lost was very much her thing. When she wasn’t adrift churning your brain with her vapid and vacuous inanities, she’d seek to lose herself in other ways. It was as if she was running away from the possibility of simplicity, instead losing herself in rabid mindlessness and scared she may be forced to face directly her own simple, alive presence.

Sex was another of her favoured routes to losing herself. Here, once again, she clambered into the cement mixer – churning, enfolding, collapsing, resurfacing, over and over. And once again she would find herself at last setting in silence – the emptiness of alienation and self-loathing. Powerless to dispel these feelings, she settled for God’s Plan B:

Get to heaven; not now of course, but when God chose. Only there might she finally rest content as the soul she was sure she possessed. There’d be no need to get lost any more; in heaven she’d finally dispel her fears, safely in God’s presence. All else had failed; that was her proof that this world was just a staging post, a stop-over to a final destination.

It’s was a great plan for her, because she could carry on pretty much as before, knowing that eventually all would be well. All it took was belief and a few minor behavioural adjustments. She got into a circle of believers whose groupthink was policed and bonded by a prayer leader cum show master. And there she relaxed in God’s merciful hands.

I could guess at my friend’s thinking, though it wouldn’t have been consciously known to her. She was fearful of the world, so she tried to lose herself in it. The mind is a great place to get lost – lost in thought. It needn’t be prayerful thinking – just words, imagery, sounds; anything will do. Keep churning it out and you’ll lose all sense of your own being.

And then you simply wait; lost to your own reality, yet in God’s waiting room. It doesn’t have to be Eastbourne or Palm Beach. You just do it in your own mind and body. Contentment must wait too as you’ve found you couldn’t will it into being. All you need is the belief that one day the waiting room vacates as your soul steps through the doors of heaven.

At some level, we all do this. We all have our own version of God’s Plan B. If we’re rational and not given to such flights of fancy, we invent our own little piece of heaven that’s somewhere along our chosen path. Like my friend, we too seek contentment. We may conceive of it differently – happiness, wealth, status, relationships – but it’s the same final objective.

And if like my friend, we find our plan isn’t working, we either come up with another one or seek to lose ourselves in the world. There’s a million ways to get lost, most of which come down to an incessant distraction. Industries exist to feed this need to get lost in distractedness: drugs, drink, sex, entertainment and a whole host of anodyne consumerist fads.

Whether we choose to get lost in distractedness, or plan a route to contentment, we’re always putting things off. We’re always saying that the immediacy of being present in life is not sufficient; it’s not going to bring contentment. Yet contentment is accepting what is, as what is. It’s accepting our own presence in any and all circumstances. That is all it is.

Do you see how simple that is? Nothing has to change, to ‘get better’, to ‘be more than’, or to ‘become other than’. It’s incredibly simple and immediate. It’s nothing to do with plans or Gods, with projections or heavens. It isn’t about seeking or believing. It isn’t ‘about’ anything other than the vital immediacy of your own undeniable presence as you.

A friend seeks contentment the hard way

Photo: Jorge Royan, Argentina

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

He was born into an assured middle class comfort, a guarantee of a private education and career to follow. His future classmates would go on to become cabinet ministers in government, bankers and CEO’s. A few became artists with no real need even to sell their work. Like him, their future would be cushioned with inheritances, trust funds, contacts.

By his mid-teens, these privileges had begun to jar with his sense of individuality. He felt he was being led along a path of someone else’s choosing – his father, his teachers, what used to be called ‘the establishment’. There was a feeling of an enforced cronyism which he felt deeply reluctant to conform to. So he decided he had to rebel.

And what does a privately educated, rebellious British schoolboy do in the 1960’s? – he becomes a communist. Attaching to an ideology which fed his youthful contrarianism made him feel he was charting his own course in life. He was wrong-footed by the Czech invasion, but his thinking was by then set. He would be a grafting wage-earner.

Being both an idealist and a romantic, he set sail for Ireland where he would sell his labour working on a travelling fair. Never quite feeling accepted and a little hurt for all that, he returned to England, toiling shifts in factories. His political ideology became more sophisticated. He cultivated the speech of his co-workers. But he was still a posh boy.

And he couldn’t shake it off. There was an irrepressible haughtiness to him, still that exaggerated springing gait that his kind affected during their elite schooling. Still he fought it; still he believed that only by conforming to his absurdly fake self-image would he find contentment and feel comfortable in himself. He sought authenticity in play-acting.

‘Why do I always seem to provoke people? No matter how hard I try to befriend them, they always end up wanting to attack me in some way’. I had to be honest; it was a sincere question from a very dear old friend. I told him it was his fake image that was being attacked. Hard as he tried, people saw right through the pretence; they were offended by it.

Of course, we all have a self-image that we nurture and project. In that sense, my friend was only doing what we all do. We inhabit a narrative of our personal identity, an epic tale of what and who we are. We cling to this so dearly such that it becomes embedded as belief – we believe the story correlates to reality. And if we believe it, why shouldn’t others?

This on-going narration is largely responsible for sustaining our sense of selfhood. We keep the thing knitted together with the flow of our thoughts and perceptions, and all that those mental phenomena give rise to in action. Along with our bodily feelings, our running analysis of our situation and our undeniable sense of being, this narration feeds the self.

But this sense of self is not identical to our authentic being; it doesn’t correlate to the actuality of our being. It is, for the most part, merely this mental creation of the narrative. We can manipulate the narrative as much as we like, we can be as extreme as my friend and fabricate a new story; but it’ll never authentically disclose our being to itself or to others.

There was nothing wrong with being born into privilege. My friend had no need to disown all that entailed. It’s incredibly hard work fictionalising a life. It took my friend most of his adulthood to realise the futility of attempting this. All the while, he believed his authentic self truly was a fairground worker, a night-shift operator, a revolutionary.

He exhausted himself in attempting to inhabit these fake identities. He offended and disturbed so many people in his clumsy, transparent masquerading. And when people were provoked into attacking him in some way because of it, he tried even harder to deceive by manipulating the attackers’ own feelings. This cleverness only made matters worse.

Our authentic identity isn’t a narrative creation. It doesn’t need working at with story-telling and charades. We don’t need to create an acceptable self to project to the world, let alone an unacceptable one. Such manipulations are only ever mutations of inauthentic selfhood in any case. In seeing through this great deception, our authenticity is realised.

A friend seeks contentment the stupid way

Photo: Tibor Vegh

Photography: Tibor Végh, Hungary

She’d had a privileged education, had become versed in European literature, could read Latin and speak three modern languages fluently. She was healthy, solvent and now free to do as she wished. By any standard, this was an advantageous start to her adult life. Qualified and confident in herself, she set out to travel and explore the world.

Her experiences were interesting and varied, though not as rewarding as she first had imagined. So after a year she came back to England and got a job in publishing – a plan which suited her well so she thought. She’d landed the perfect means of earning a living and so could settle into her life back in England with an assured future ahead of her.

After a while she began to dimly sense that her career may never prove quite as fulfilling as she’d anticipated. It had begun to feel one-dimensional, as if going nowhere in an undisturbed and rather bland serenity. Was this to be the sum total of her reward in life? How could this ever prove satisfying to her at any fundamental level?

She gradually realised with an increasing certainty that she wasn’t really contented in her stable and untroubled life. So she decided the best thing to do was to ordain as a nun, to live her life in an ascetic and highly controlled monastic order. Here, she would find the answer to her discontentment. Here, the fulfilment she sought would be found.

For 12 years she lived shaven-headed, wearing the unwomanly, rough cotton robes of her order. She spent her days in prayer and meditation, and in performing duties around the monastery. She was convinced that she’d eventually come to some understanding, to see what it was that prevented her from feeling content with life, and within herself.

Finally, she decided she’d had enough, so disrobed and quit the order to re-enter Civvy Street. A few months later, we were having dinner together at her place, discussing the whole experience. She didn’t seem too enthusiastic; so I asked her why she’d spent all those years locked away from the world. ‘Because I was stupid’, she said.

What my friend learned was that we don’t ‘find’ contentment; we don’t discover it in different places or situations. What she learned was that the fulfilment and contentedness she’d sought both by going outwards in travel, and inwards in meditation, were the wrong approaches. What she learned was that contentment couldn’t be reached by her ‘self’.

Very few individuals show the radical determination that my friend did in her search for contentedness. Most of us incline to the more obvious and conservative routes to well-being. We choose acquisitiveness through careers, or reputation, through our families or in our relationships. Most of us don’t stake everything on the search.

This, as my friend eventually discovered, is a good thing. For her, it wasn’t the travel that was misguided, or the career, or the interminable hours of prayer and meditation. It was the seeking itself. It was the idea she had that she could ‘find’ contentment, and that once found, this sense of well-being would attach to her – she’d possess it for her ‘self’.

When she’d responded to my question as to why she’d taken such an extreme approach to finding contentment, she spoke a profound truth. In saying ‘because I was stupid’, she was telling me a lot about myself, and about most of us in fact. What I learned from that stark comment was that I’d be stupid too if I let my ‘self’ go in search of contentment.

And this is the great difficulty, the paradox, the conundrum. Behind all our ideas about becoming happier, more fulfilled, about garnering prestige or increasing our pleasures, there’s a fundamental flaw. There’s the notion that all these things can be attached to and experienced by my ‘self’. But this ‘self’ is just an idea, a narrative process acting itself out.

Once we begin to realise what my friend did, that the unfolding narrative of her ‘self’ was what obstructed contentedness, the paradox begins to dissolve. And being willing to see through that mostly deeply held belief, that story of ‘me’ and my ‘self’, is what’s truly radical. This is an old message, a timeless one. Am I stupid to ignore it?