When we watch a film that grips our attention, we feel emotions in response to the scenes in the film. So we laugh at comedic films, we cry at sad films and we bite our fingernails at tense thrillers. Being engaged in the film causes us to go on an emotional rollercoaster.
In much the same way, the way we interpret the situations in our life determines how we feel . You see, life is a big blank canvas, it’s us that decide the videos that we’ll project onto it. Some people take what happens to them and make it into a tragedy, others make it a comedy and some make it a spine chilling thriller.
Life has no meaning of its own, only the meaning we give to it. We are born with instincts and temperaments. The rest is a result of what we have learned and how we have reacted to the people around us and the situations we have experienced. As we mature this leads to the development of what I call our Human Operating System. This is the internal map we use to guide our way through life. Whatever is happening in our life we see through the meaning our Operating System gives to it.
Usually we don’t recognise this fact. We are so focused on what we want and on what is happening that we forget we have choices in how we perceive and react. Yet if we take time to zoom out from our everyday concerns we can recognise that we have alternatives.
I would like to share three of the general ways that we approach life. We may use all of these at different times or in different areas of our lives, but we typically have a dominant strategy that we use most commonly.
The most commonly used strategy we use is to avoid pain and discomfort and so I call this comfort seeking. This can take many forms. From numbing how we feel to stop ourselves from feeling as bad to pleading, praying, blaming, seeking miracles and wishful shortcuts, excusing and distracting ourselves.
When we don’t want to do something we have many ways of justifying to ourselves why we don’t want to do it. Books and courses on time management and productivity are always popular. Yet the real problem isn’t that we aren’t using the right system or tactics. It is the simple fact that we don’t want to do what we have to. And so we use a range of comfort seeking strategies to disguise that fact.
Here are the stages I’ve noticed I, and others, use when we don’t want to do something.
- Stage one is to whine about how unfair it is that we have to do this.
- Stage two is to get angry and start to blame the cause of this injustice. How can my Teacher/Boss make me do this?
- Stage three is finding excuses for why we cannot do it. I need this or that.
- Stage four is appealing for divine intervention or absolving of the need to do whatever it is.
- Stage five is looking for miracle cures, magic solutions and wishful hacks.
- Stage six is when we recognise that we just have to do it and getting on with it.
Sometimes there genuinely are shortcuts for what we have to do, and it is sensible to find the best advice, but often in this mode, we lose our common sense and become vulnerable to fad diets and get rich quick scams from unscrupulous people who prey on our weakness.
Entire industries such as payday loans, gambling and tobacco are based on pandering to people’s attempts at avoiding discomfort. Yet if we look at the outcome of their services we find people in addiction, crippling debt and life threatening illness. Because you cannot avoid the realities of life. Not forever and so all that happens is you cover up the symptoms of the problem without ever dealing with the real issue. And so it festers until it becomes a bigger and bigger problem.
Many of the problems that we have, originate because of how we have reacted previously. Often people smoke or drink because they feel it helps them to relax or feel calmer. Yet this can get out of hand, particularly in the case of smoking where they are quickly addicted and so the tool they used to relax, now becomes something that controls them and we have a bigger problem than we started with.
At times, when we are do not have enough resources to deal with something comfort seeking is a valid strategy, but only for the very short term and in the knowledge that we have to confront issue as soon as we can. Otherwise this strategy causes problems to escalate to become more and more serious and harder to tackle.
The dream of the Comfort Seeker is that they will win the lottery and live in Comfort Cocoon. A place where all the worries and problems of life are eased by their riches. Unfortunately it’s a mythical place, that doesn’t exist anywhere in reality. There are numerous studies into the effect a lottery win has on people and yes it does show a great leap in their initial levels of happiness. Yet after a year, most winners are actually less happy than before they won.
The reason for this is that they discover there is no place of paradise. Paradise is an internal state. A state where you interact and engage with the world fully and resolve any dissonance or disconnect as it occurs.
However the idea of the Comfort Cocoon is deeply embedded in our world. Stories throughout the ages have told us of mythical places that hold all that we hope and dream for. For years Adventurer’s went in search of such a haven. More recently, the dream has been portrayed by the media of an idyllic world filled with rich and beautiful people living an exciting and adventurous life filled with luxury goods, designer clothing, respect and high status.
Some people recognise that problems have to be confronted and to avoid doing so is no real solution. They believe that being stronger, richer and more powerful can give them more control over the world. And with control over the world they can bend the world to their will. These people do not seek comfort so much as they seek power. For they believe, with enough power, anything is possible.
Power may be represented as money, objects and things. It could be influence and control. It is encapsulated in the idea of the Self-made man. The person who by virtue of his (or her) own strength of character, willpower and brilliance conquered the world.
However if you scratch the surface of a Power Seeker, you see the bravado and daring is actually an arrogant and childish defence against the same inner fear and insecurity that the Comfort Seeker shirks from. What differs is that the Power Seeker responds with aggression rather than shrinking in terror. Both are motivated by misguided and immature wishes, but there is a scale of passive to aggressive response from the Coward to the Tyrant. The Coward hides from fear hoping it will go away soon and the Tyrant rages from fear, hoping he can out bluster it.
Power seeking begins when you care more that your vision for the world materialises than that of anyone else’s. Buddha (and Yoda) said that all pain was caused by attachment and desire. It is when we stay attached to our desire and we seek to force through our wishes against the current that we become Power Seekers.
It is obvious to see people like Hitler and Saddam Hussein as Power Seekers. Likewise the huge egos of Politicians, Hollywood bigshots, the Masters of the Universe’s from Wall Street and people like Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch. However, it is also you and I, frequently. When we try to get our Partner or children to adapt to what we believe is better for them we become Power Seekers. When we believe so much in our charitable cause that we push its interests ahead of others we believe to be less important, we become Power Seekers.
The key distinction between a Power Seeker and a Truth Seeker is that the Power Seeker seeks to be Master of the Universe whereas the Truth Seeker seeks Mastery of the Self.
Put differently, the Truth Seeker seeks alignment with God. The Power Seeker seeks to BE God.
At the core of Comfort Seeking is the desire to escape the discomfort and/or that they feel. At the core of Power Seeking is the carving to establish control in order to ease the discomfort and fear felt.
The Poster child for Power Seeking is Darth Vader from the Star Wars films. When he coolly swaggers into a room, the room changes to accommodate his wishes. If there is the slightest thing to displease him, he quashes it, merely by raising a finger. There is no doubt as to his power, least of all from himself. He personifies mind over matter, conquering any weakness through willpower.
Yet the desires are still those of a scared little child. Power and revenge over those that oppose or have hurt him and a craving to control the future so that it can’t hurt him again. This short exchange, as Anakin Skywalker turns to the dark side, encapsulates the need and craving of the Power Seeker to be able to control what happens;
“You’re not all powerful.” Padme
“Well, I should be.” Anakin
“I promise… I will become the most powerful Jedi ever. I will even learn to stop people dying.”
Anakin’s descent into the dark side is a story of incredibly powerful physical development, but a fragile and stunted emotional maturity. His fear of losing his Wife, like he lost his Mother, leads him to seek superhuman powers so he can control the future. However in the process of selling his soul to do so, he loses himself and thus everyone around him including his wife and children. Likewise, the Power Seeker can accumulate riches, power and position. However none of these quell the inner fear and without easing that inner fear, people become objects and so the Power Seeker does not truly love nor is truly loved.
So if comfort and power cannot bring happiness, what will…
The problem of the Comfort Seeker is that they fear life and shirk from interacting with it.
The problem of the Power Seeker is that they fight life and seek to impose their will on it.
The Truth Seeker doesn’t shirk from life or attempt to impose her will on it. Instead he interacts with it as a Lover with his beloved. It is a dance. Listening and sharing. Giving and taking. It is an interaction where both are changed from coming together.
You see, at the end of a successful life, is a person transformed by his or her experiences. It is that transformation that is the achievement, the thrill and the legacy of a life lived fully. Comfort Seekers and Power Seekers are afraid of being vulnerable enough to experience that pure interaction. They don’t want to be changed… they want the rewards of growth and achievement without the struggle and the embarrassment and failure that come from not being good enough and developing through failure.
Some people never learn from their mistakes or grow as people because they cannot accept criticism and failure. Learning requires an acceptance that you don’t know it all and that you aren’t going to get it perfect first time. When we try to pretend we did know or that we are right, we block ourselves from being able to grow.
Psychologists and Sociologists are forever debating whether the cause of our behaviour is due to nature or nurture. The truth is both. We are not born fully developed, we are born as potential. How much of that potential is realised and in what form it is realised, is determined by the choices we make moment by moment. If we choose to close ourselves from the gifts and opportunities that life gives us because we are afraid they may hurt us, we become less than we could be.
If we attack life with the belief that we with our tiny perception and limited understanding know better than the intelligence of the Universe and seek instead to fight for our pre-set ideas, then we at best settle for an inferior version of what could have been and at worst lose our humanity in the battle.
If however, we remain open and vulnerable despite our wounds and past hurts, despite our trials and despite our fears and insecurities then we win it all. We win the greatest prize of life. Not it’s riches, status or power. We get to discover what we are and to live and love what we are. Because when you have the freedom to be and do anything, you will always choose the best option for you.
And the best option for you… is pure and simple to be you. The unvarnished, unpolished acceptance of what you are and where you are.
For anything else feels uncomfortable. It doesn’t quite fit, you don’t feel like you’re the best at it and it feels a little false. When you are you, you are on rock solid foundations because no-one else can ever be you, like you can. Knowing this and feeling this, you don’t worry about what might happen because no-one is going to find you out for pretending to be what you are not and you aren’t going to fail because you suddenly lose the ability to be you.
Truth Seekers Learn From Every Experience
Navigating your way through life is a little like finding your way through a maze. You have to be sensitive to the way that you are acting and reacting and to the responses of people and situations. Sometimes what you do works out, you need to understand why it worked out so that you have a clearer map of the landscape. That way next time you can have a surer chance of succeeding.
Sometimes what you do doesn’t work out and you meet challenges or dead ends. You need to know the difference if you want to avoid the frustration of fruitlessly banging your head against a wall. Challenges are those things that are stopping you from moving towards your goal, but can be overcome with more knowledge, skill or patience. Dead ends are the things that aren’t going to change and you need to accept you can’t get past.
It’s often a fine line that is difficult to judge and even harder to accept, but the emotional tax you pay for your lack of awareness or attachment is what makes life seem unbearable or annoying. For me, Truth doesn’t mean what really happened, that’s honesty. Honesty is the first level of truth. But truth goes beyond honesty because you can only be honest about what you know and are aware of.
Truth is the underlying landscape in the maze of life. It is the dynamics underlying situations that determine whether what we do works or not. Governments spend billions trying to control and manage economies. Yet still they collapse and crumble.
Because they work on their own story of what the landscape is. Consumers make their choices of what to buy or not buy based on what they believe the economy will do in the future. Were you to ask them, these Economists, Politicians and Individualists would pass a lie detector test, yet they didn’t know the truth. Nevertheless, sooner or later, truth emerges and shatters the myths, arrogance and stories. Economies, Dictatorships and even landscapes crumble from truth.
The most powerful empires in the world such as the Egyptian, Roman, Mongolian, Chinese and British Empires were created in a power seeking mode. And so while they could impose their will on the world for a long time relative to a human lifespan, what they created collapsed sooner or later.
Truth is what is really going on. Generally though we operate from what we think is going on. And so we expect things to turn out as the model in our heads says they should be. Then when they don’t turn out like that, we get angry at people, organisations and situations not working as we think they should. Then all our energy is wasted on trying to change people, systems and situations to fit with our ideas about how they work. And this is where we meet all those challenges and dead ends that seem so unfair. But life doesn’t work to our ideas of fairness, it works to its own rules, which we can only work out from the clues it gives to us.
Whereas we are more productive, efficient and effective when instead of approaching life with a pre-set idea of how it works, we open our mind and use the clues all around us to guide us to how it actually does work.
The critical distinction between power seeking and truth seeking is that the power seeker wants to change the world to fit with their ideas. Whereas the truth seeker changes their ideas to fit with their increasing awareness of the actual reality of the world. In the process of doing this, the Truth Seeker becomes transformed and grows beyond their childish whims and wishes into someone more aligned with Truth.
From a more mature perspective they want different things. Where once they wanted money , power and things, the Truth Seeker learns that they wanted these things because they thought they were necessary for freedom, peace and happiness. Now they can go straight for the main goal which is really about being themself, without getting hung up on what other people think or going off on unnecessary tangents.