Why is that by merely wanting something, we somehow repel it? I doubt it would be possible to quantify this effect under laboratory conditions, but what human being wouldn’t agree? You only have to really want something for it to all of a sudden become elusive. Late for work and need the bus to come quickly? Need a taxi to the airport? Have a job interview and really want them to call you back? Waiting for a phone call from a potential suitor? Somehow we know that all these situations are prime candidates for frustration and anger.
It may seem like superstition, but it's a fundamental truth in life that by attaching ourselves to an outcome we lessen or even significantly reduce our chances of happiness.
The religions of the Indian sub-continent have harped on this idea for thousands of years. The Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita and the Buddhist Sutras all continually focus on relinquishing desire and attachments to people, feelings and things. They tell us to not to attach ourselves to the outcomes of our actions, just act freely. They assure us that this is the path to happiness and even enlightenment.
There is one very simple and important question to ask about the teaching of non-attachment, is it just a safer bet? By not putting your eggs in any basket are you simply assuring that none get broken? Is it in effect a coward’s path? It is not. It is the path of death, of transformation and of spiritual growth.
Non-attachment goes much deeper than just “being okay” with what happens. The key to understanding the concept of non-attachment is to focus on what is attaching itself to things, people and ideas. Becoming aware of attachment is the beginning of true consciousness. The ego is what's attaches itself, it's the glue. There is no psychological pain, frustration, heartbreak, anger or hate that the ego is not completely responsible for. The path to redemption always begins with discovering that we aren’t who we really we think we are. The hero is never really the child of his “parents”, he always winds up being some else’s child. This is mythologies way of indicating that we are not the ego.
Gautama Buddha began is spiritual path as a young prince with a beautiful wife and newborn baby. Many important seers predicted Buddha would be either a great king or a great spiritual leader. His father wanted him to be a king, so he sheltered Buddha from religious teachings and seeing anyone elderly or suffering. But at the age of 29 he accidentally saw a man dying, and Buddha became distraught. His young and beautiful wife would one day become old and decrepit and his new born baby would eventually taste death. This realization was too much for him, and he left everything to become a monk in the forest. Buddha had a major existential depression. The two paths were presented to him, and he, like all heroes, chose the path of death. So many spiritual traditions point out that there are two paths, and like Buddha, the truth lies on the difficult road.
Not to belabor the obvious, but our modern society puts so much time and energy into avoiding seeing and discussing death that we seem to be constantly running from it. One turns forty and becomes melancholy which turns into some plastic surgery, a new car, and a prescription for anti-depressants. Even our government bans photographing flag covered caskets because, God forbid, people might begin equating war with the death of its young people. Death is the only teacher; it defines us, tempering our appetites and rage. It is our better half, and the more we try and escape it, the sillier, shallower and more pathetic we become.
Of course some depressions are entirely chemical in nature and need to be treated with medication. But many are simply existential crises which if treated with introspection, will inspire growth and spiritual development. Our avoidance of the tough topics has lead to an immature society. Look at the great debates of our times and you will see few if any mature voices above the fray. We have become a society of screamers, name callers and megalomaniacs. How else can one explain Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck leading political discourse in this country? A mature person must pass through ‘the dark night of the soul’, and often more than once. It's unpleasant, eerie, foreboding and at times hopeless; but how can one be human without crossing that bridge? By trying to escape it we are running from our higher destines both individually and collectively.
Doctors need symptoms before they can cure, and people need symptoms to grow. Take romantic love for example. While it is surely one of the most wonderful feelings humans can have, only when it is lost do we actually learn and grow from it. People happily in love are like carefree drunks on a park bench. Only when their love ends can they hope to develop. Our society so longs to label and package things that it wants to take the great questions of the day and turn them into music videos. Hollywood, television, malls, pop-music, bestsellers and cheap gurus are tuning our minds into mush and our souls to silicone.
The most important transitional crisis is undoubtedly middle age. It's the point where people either return to their youth, escaping the inevitable onslaught of time, or they take the courageous turn toward death and jettison the ego and material world for something much more profound and transcendent. Jung called it the process of individuation and was not interested in patients younger than forty, finding them lacking enough existential leverage to reach deep spiritual understanding.
So how did The Secret get it wrong? First, how did it get it right. The Secret is one of the most brilliant direct marketing pieces ever created. Like all good direct response work, it strikes at deep chords in the human psyche, greed and love (sex). The classical direct response piece, like its close relative the con scheme, always has its hook in easy money. The Secret puts most direct response work, and con games, to shame with its simplicity. Simply think you have a million dollars and you will have it. As you read this ‘divine revelation’ over and over again, you are introduced to a series of gurus and inspirational speakers with websites galore ready to sell you all you need to be happy.
Basically, The Secret is a hundred pages saying “fake it till you make it” disguised as spiritual revelation, expertly packaged in a in a direct response piece promoting the products of a bunch a quacks. To top it all off, free distribution through social media on the Internet and you have a game changing piece of marketing. But apart from a very professional sales pitch, the sad thing about The Secret is that it promotes desire as a religious attribute. Don’t look beyond desire for something more profound, embrace it and become one with it. Zen Capitalism.
By allowing desire to become the person all is lost in the labyrinth of the ego, which blocks out all universal consciousness, leaving one in the dry barren place of anti-depressants, malls, cable television, McDonald's, golf clubs and of course The Secret.
The ego is a necessary element of human development. In order for us to separate from our mothers, our families, leave childhood and navigate the horrible adolescent years, we need an ego. We must make an exceptional effort to create a healthy stable ego that will feed our ambition, drive, self esteem, and allow us to make something of ourselves, find a partner and protect our loved ones. But once that process is complete, the second half of life should follow the reverse path, trading away ego for universal consciousness. The two are incompatible. The ego drags us out of infancy and childhood and finally, when we realize we are not the ego, that we are a reflection of something incomparably bigger, we must slowly allow the ego to crumble in the face of ‘the truth’.
In India, some men in their 50’s, once their children are grown become, Sadhus, ascetic wandering monks, leaving their work, status, family, in short, their egos, for the contemplative life. Some are even obligated to attend their own funerals, to reinforce the idea of becoming dead onto oneself. Many men in the west do the opposite, they find a younger wife, start a new business, and do it all over again, preferring to live two lives instead of one real one. This is the key choice in life, retold countless times in spiritual and mythological stories. The hero often has a choice between two paths, security (ego) and death (universal consciousness). Death is change; it’s the formless void from which form emerges, the knife that cuts, the bullet that wounds. Only from the perspective of middle age can one see the folly of the ego while accepting it as the ‘game of life’.
But how sad is it to see mature adults falling into the games of the ego? The Osama Bin Laden’s, the George W Bush’s, the Kim Jong- il’s, the Sadam Hussein’s and Dick Cheney’s of the world. Where is their maturity? Lost somewhere in the tremendous vortex of their egos. Egos must play out their scripts as Freud said, in business, politics and the arts, but under the watchful and restraining eye of responsible, spiritually mature adults. We should never let people lost in their egos pull the real strings. Nationalism, wars, environmental destruction, misery in places of abundant wealth are all products of the ego. Spiritually mature people don’t let oligarchs, investment banks and corporations bath in fortunes while people close at hand live in poverty.
Modern life brings many difficulties along with its wonderful achievements. It’s common now in the West to see couples having their first child almost exactly at the apex of middle age. It’s difficult to look one’s baby in the eyes and not feel the ego rise in rightful defense of the young family. Where is the time for the spirit to grow when there are mouths to feed, bills to pay and schooling to provide? How is the earth going to sustain wealthy 60 years-olds consuming like 25 year-olds? If we look at life in two parts, the first is spent in full service of the ego, raising offspring, making money, finding status, and the second is the elegant glide back into the universal from which we emerged. Unfortunately, too many people want part two to be a remake of part one, which in the end denies the greatest and most difficult fruits of life while devastating the earth and denying the world a mature, enlightened leadership. As Jesus told Martha, sister of Lazarus, who worried too much over the home, as opposed to her spiritual sister Mary. “Martha, Martha, Mary has chosen the better half, and it shall not be taken from her." What is the “better half”? It is the un-owned, un-possessed, un-speak able, un-identifiable, the void, all that is and ever was, the road less traveled, the Tao.
Of course, embracing the spiritual life is no easy task, if it where, the promise could not be so great. At mid life, people must face death and embrace it. It’s much more comfortable to flee toward security, no matter how ephemeral it is. An adult must make a great leap of faith to not only accept death, but to embrace it, bath in the sublime nectar of impermanence, brevity, change and all that is transient. Only from this place is one able to see why we are unhappy in spite of our possessions, status, money, and unending consumption. By letting go of all that sustains us, and feeds the ego, we can finally feel the euphoria of universal consciousness. Almost all traditions point a big finger in the same direction, no matter what our background, one must only look up and you will see it hanging over you, pointing you somewhere, and if that place terrifies you, than you know you are on the right path.