Striving and Being: The Road Less Travelled
“YEAH BABY!” shouted the hyperactive man on stage “I’m going to have shit loads of energy!”
A few weeks ago, my brother and I found ourselves sitting in a jam-packed auditorium awaiting the secrets of “unleashing the power within”. Don’t ask me how we ended up here – promotional personal development seminars are not exactly our “thing”, so let’s just say it involved running out of petrol in peak-hour evening traffic and happening to be in the right place at the right time with nothing better to do – and not much choice, either.
We sat there in hesitant anticipation, not quite knowing what to expect. Suddenly music erupted and we were asked to stand as a sharp, lean, lanky fellow jogged up to the stage to the strains of “It’s My Life”. The sound system was pumping and he was flailing about on stage in a sort of jig with members of the audience rocking along with him. The polite clapping with which we had welcomed him transformed into raucous cheering and the kind of rhythmic, in-unison torrential applause that never knows when to stop.
“Well,” I thought to myself “we’re in for an exciting night.” Suddenly a video flashed onto the large screen before us. We were introduced to the Big Daddy of motivational speaking – Tony Robbins – with dramatic background music, husky voice and all. It seemed most people in the crowd already knew who he was, and a wave of cult-like adulation swept through the room as we were all instructed to cheer again because “we have Tony Robbins to thank”.
What followed was an evening filled with anecdotes, catchy phrases and lots of fist pumping. It was strangely delightful to be in this room full of strangers, sitting there like sponges absorbing all this hyper-positive, go-getter, good energy type stuff that was just radiating off the speaker.
Every person in that room was hungry – starving – for some kind of magic formula to improve their life, whatever that meant to them. One middle aged man said he was afraid of failing; he felt that his life was stuck in a cul-de-sac and he wanted “a fresh start”. A young guy who looked no older than myself and who had difficulty articulating his words said that he fell off a building six months ago and was left severely injured. He had all but lost his ability to speak and his mother had “dragged” him there because, in his own words, he needed all the help he could get. Still another was a little more ambitious with his expectations. He wanted to start his own business. He also wanted to purchase a R23.5 million home (that precise figure) in the next five years – to which the crowd responded with another eruption of wild applause. It comes as no surprise that people had completely different ideas about what success is.
“If you’re not growing, you’re dying.”
“The secret to living is giving.”
“Whatever you appreciate tends to appreciate.”
“All successful people have goals.”
“It’s not what you do every now and again that defines you – it’s what you do every day.”
These sound like the kind of palatable platitudes you see stuck on the walls of a high school guidance counsellor’s office. Skepticism aside though, the more I listened, the more I realised there was a profound depth to many of the things being said – but they were presented in such a quick, slick, well-packaged manner that one didn’t have the time to fully digest and appreciate them.
Throughout the ages, there have been innumerable people – from Plato, to Freud, to this “peak performance coach” in front of me – who have dedicated themselves to the art of higher living. We are fascinated with striving to be our most authentic, optimal selves in order to unlock the treasures supposedly waiting to be “unleashed within”.
We simply have different ideas about how to get there. In the past, philosophers would approach this with logic and reason; psychologists have studied it through observation and academic deliberation; and increasingly today – when many of these truths are already lodged into the foundations of Western thinking – we have self-help gurus whose job it is to shower us with buzzwords, four-day conferences, and inspiring TED-talks all in an attempt to help us get a grip on our own lives.
There is no negative criticism here – I love my self-help books and TED-talks – but I am rather curious as to whether we are any better off than we were 500 years ago. Surely by now, with all this access to prodigious wisdom, we should be super humans who can casually slip into our deepest state of consciousness, confront the darkest corners of our shadow self, and convert both the brilliant and destructive within us into malleable cosmic energy – all while pursuing our PhDs, running half marathons every weekend and making tangible strides to curing AIDS.
Look around you. I’m afraid it isn’t so.
I think the trouble with the mainstream trend of self-improvement is that we pay very little heed to a heuristic understanding of what it means to be conscious. Very few popular motivational personalities delve into the ontological lenses of integral theory, stages of development or shadow work. (For a thought-provoking blog on these topics by a surprisingly young person, click here.) Even from a religious perspective, not once in my experience of church-going have I heard a preacher mention the words “meditation” or “contemplative prayer”. I only discovered these concepts through my own study and exposure to other influences – and yet they are so useful and necessary in molding one’s perspective of oneself and the world – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
It seems there is a void in bringing people to understand these areas of a human’s existence. Often seen as esoteric or atheistic, profound philosophies, concepts and explorations are cast aside and never brought to light for the average layman. And so we continue to be fed a shallow, dualistic and often dogmatic perception of the world – manifesting itself in the politics and religion we see today – two entities that are undeniably responsible for much of our current condition.
There is a beautiful quote by Richard Rohr which says, “There is a deeper current of awareness, a deeper and more intimate sense of belonging, which flows between the surface waters of your being and grows stronger and steadier as your attention is able to maintain itself as a unified field of objective awareness.”
But most of the world is interested in quick-fix solutions. We watch TED-talks, we read books, we drink smoothies in the morning, we go for jogs in the evening – hoping that if we keep this up for long enough, there will be a “click” in the system and everything will suddenly make sense. The perfect outer self will permeate into the imperfect inner self. These outward activities are useful, no doubt, but they can also be very deceptive. To live is to fluctuate between striving and being, and all these actions constitute the striving part. I believe that contentment is found somewhere in between.
Rigpa is a word Tibetan Buddhists use to describe “pure awareness”. In the words of Rumi, it is like “a quivering drop of mercury”, holding a tensile strength instead of a straight line between subject and object; a precariously balanced energetic state – allowing a different mode of perception to unfold. This is the converging of both striving and being – or, in other words, as I like to call it: the liminal space.
Perhaps in the future, motivational speakers will not shout “YEAH BABY! I’m going to have shit loads of energy!” but instead, “YEAH BABY! I’m going to have shit loads of pure awareness, superb contentment and authentic being!” and then, to paraphrase the words of Carl Jung: “I’m going to climb down a thousand ladders until I can reach out my hand to the little clod of earth that I am.”