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By Sarah Klein
“This, then, is the human problem: there is a price to be paid for every increase in consciousness,” said Alan Watts in one of his most famous works, The Wisdom of Insecurity. It’s a sentiment that’s echoed through so many writers’ works, the idea that no truly intelligent person can really be happy.
But really, the problem lies in wanting to escape duality. We want to have more happiness in our lives, without realizing that, as Watts puts it, becoming more sensitive to pleasure necessitates becoming more sensitive to pain. “We seem to reach a point where the advantages of being conscious are outweighed by its disadvantages, where extreme sensitivity makes us unadaptable.”
To put it in the simplest terms possible: if you land your dream job, you could just as likely lose it. If you develop the most passionate romantic relationship possible, you will one day have to part with it. If you fully recognize the joy of being alive, you have to just as well accept the fact that it is not forever.
Watts’ sentiment seems to point to the ideal state being a “middle way” of sorts (unsurprisingly, as he was one of the first people to bring Eastern philosophy to the West).
But maybe the problem isn’t avoiding pleasure, but differentiating ecstatic, ego-fueled joy with a kind of peacefulness that doesn’t really have an opposite. When we are totally at “peace,” that is, happily neutral, not attached, not wanting, not waiting, we find that infinitesimal middle point.
We love the dream job in such a way that we enjoy it in the present, and when we genuinely love it in that way, we don’t need it to last forever. The same goes for a partner: we appreciate their presence so genuinely that their eventual absence (whether through separation or death) won’t absolutely destroy us.
The point is that intelligence may awaken us to the bitter realities of the world, but enlightenment will direct us to a kind of love that transcends needing things to be different. Ironically enough, it’s that very kind of unconditional acceptance that makes the most profound change of all.
“But you cannot understand life and its mysteries as long as you try to grasp it. Indeed, you cannot grasp it, just as you cannot walk off with a river in a bucket. If you try to capture running water in a bucket, it is clear that you do not understand it and that you will always be disappointed, for in the bucket the water does not run. To ‘have’ running water you must let go of it and let it run.”
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