1. The Problem of Anxiety
Red pill, blue pill? Such were the options that Neo received from Morpheus in the hugely acclaimed film The Matrix, as Neo grew bothered with the irregularities that he recently noticed in his life. Taking the blue pill is promised to instantly relieve him of all anxieties, after which he could proceed to live life as usual for an indefinite amount of time—a portrait of the infamous phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’. On the other hand, taking the red pill would expose himself to an even more uncertain future, which may sound contradictory to what anyone wants but in fact is more in line with reality as it really is. To swallow the red pill means to open up one’s horizon to a ‘bigger reality’, where the problem of our ever-(potentially)-present anxiety is not taken at its face value but rather as a symptom of a bigger problem.
As the story goes, there are times when we come to a standstill in life and suspends our naïve thoughts regarding mundane activities and wonder: ‘What am I doing in life? What is the meaning of life?’. In brief, we begin to question the value of living a routine and puts to question our existing way of life, whether it is truly aligned with what makes us happy or not. This situation is always uncomfortable and sometimes even disconcerting, but provided that we live another day, there is not a third option but to swallow either one of the two pills before we move forward with our daily activities. More precisely, the pill that we end up taking (out of choice) will be that which underlies our subsequent actions in life: ignoring or not ignoring the question of meaning.
A reflection on the blue pill in real life, however, reveals that unlike its portrayal in the film, it is something that requires perpetual consumption—through the various forms of our engagement with the world. When the consumption stops, we once again find ourselves in that juncture where we are liable to anxiety at any given moment. The same applies to the red pill, in that it requires continuous consumption as we navigate through the bigger questions that had previously remained closed behind doors. But here lies the difference: taking the red pill necessarily leads us to the end of taking any pill altogether. Taking the red pill means reminding ourselves of the great uncertainty that underlies our whole existence, which is a ‘call for action’ towards reflexive questionings that if taken far enough leads to the cessation of anxiety once and for all—to solve the problem of anxiety require us to first feel it.
2. Our Mundane Mode of Being
Let us first review our mundane mode of being, which is to derive pleasures from our engagement with the world. Certainly, it is undeniable that there are activities in the world that we derive pleasure from, and this in itself may not be sufficient to tell us whether such activities are wholesome or unwholesome. For example, the majority of people may agree that drinking a glass of beer may be harmless compared to smoking cigarettes, that is, unless one is known to have kidney problems. This also reminds me of a friend who considers himself a reflexive person but who at the same time enjoys company and delights in the thoughts of partying with others and taking intoxicants (the idea of taking drugs is enticing even if he’s never taken it). He expressed that he believes he isn’t justified to condemn an activity as ‘bad’ unless he’s tried it for himself or knows what it feels like to struggle from abstaining from it after he’s tried it.
As a reader, perhaps you can pause from reading further and note down your thoughts on my friend’s view—perhaps in what ways they are appropriate or not—, before I proceed to expand on my own view regarding the matter.
In response, I asked why it is necessary for him to ‘condemn’ anything in the first place rather than just disagreeing with it as I noticed the strong language that he used, which to me indicated him feeling the right to exercise (or project) his sense of righteousness onto others. He replied saying it is because he wants to make sure to avoid ‘evil’ and does ‘good’, to which I repeated why it felt insufficient for him to simply disagree without needing to condemn or even attempt the said activity in the first place. Knowing my friend, I further sarcastically asked whether it takes him to *engage in a same-sex relationship* for him to disagree with it (to practice it for himself), to which he laughed off nervously and said: “of course not”.
There are three things that makes his view on ‘good’ and ‘evil’ inappropriate. First, there is a problem with feeling the right to project his view externally as it is equally misguided as not being able to disagree with things without condemning them. Second, it assumes the validity of an external viewpoint to determine ‘good’ and ‘evil’, which relates to the third point about not correctly understanding the contextual (phenomenological) significance of his situation.
His response to my sarcasm revealed where the problem truly is, in that his need to designate (or condemn) something as ‘good’ or ‘evil’ was due to his own inability to bear with the temptations—its desire was felt unpleasantly. I am aware that it is only a common notion that sense desire hurts when it is unfulfilled while it is pleasant when it is fulfilled. I don’t deny that the gratification of sense desire is felt pleasantly, but to have a subtler understanding of our situation requires us to take a ‘step back’ from our habitual mode of being and have a bigger picture of it.
In every situation that we find ourselves in, there are two domains of reality that are always simultaneously present: the actual and the possible. In reality, the presence of sense desire in our experience creates a discrepancy between the present state that we are in and a potential state that is perceived to be more pleasant (i.e. the desired). Thus, the phenomenon of sense desire is in actual (i.e. in the present, at any point in time) always felt unpleasantly while the promise of “reaching” the desired state is felt pleasantly. However, the possible can never become actual and to assume that it can is to have a fundamental misunderstanding of our existential situation where the two domains (i.e. the actual and the possible) are always simultaneously present at any one point in time—this, however, does not imply that the present state does not change whether by the means of exerted effort or a lack thereof. The gratification of sense desire is only the other (possible) side of the same coin where it is painful in actual and that it can only be felt as pleasant to the extent that it is painful—it is the degree of absence of sense desire in the present that is felt as pleasant. Therefore, to come face-to-face with anxiety in order to understand it requires us to first abandon this mundane mode of being—living the day-to-day enmeshed in sense desire—and to reveal its true nature that we conceal from ourselves.
Friend, I do not pursue what involves time, having abandoned what is immediately visible. But, friend, I pursue what is immediately visible, having abandoned what involves time. Indeed, friend, the Blessed One has said that sense-desires pertain to time, are much suffering, much despair. The disadvantage in this case is even greater. This Dhamma is immediately visible, does not pertain to time, inviting one to come-&-see, leading on, to be seen for oneself by the wise.SN 1:20
3. The Grand Contradiction
The great contradiction with our devotion to sense desire is in our genuine wish to find peace and safety from pain, which has been shown to backfire. In order to abandon this habitual mode of being that we are, it certainly helps to have a deeper understanding of the more fundamental (and universal) principles of our being—the nature of our sense faculties and of feeling.
Being contacted by that same painful feeling, a man harbours aversion towards it. When he harbours aversion towards painful feeling, the underlying tendency to aversion towards painful feeling lies behind this. Being contacted by painful feeling, he seeks delight in sensual pleasure. For what reason? Because the uninstructed worldling does not know of any escape from painful feeling other than sensual pleasure. When he seeks delight in sensual pleasure, the underlying tendency to lust for pleasant feeling lies behind this. He does not understand as it really is the origin and the passing away, the gratification, the danger, and the escape in the case of these feelings. When he does not understand these things, the underlying tendency to ignorance in regard to neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling lies behind this…SN 36:6
First, the excerpt highlights that there is an escape to painful feeling other than sensual pleasure (which is a false promise) and that is sense restraint. To be sense restrained is to abandon ‘sensuality’, which revolves around the pleasure-and-pain principle (i.e. seeking pleasure and avoiding pain) with regards to one’s own feeling and thus the practice is about enduring the feeling rightly (which will be felt uncomfortably)—to not act out of craving: delight in the pleasant feeling, dismiss the painful feeling, or distract oneself from the neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling. In other words, it is about not tolerating our habitual attitude (i.e. intentions, inclinations) towards what is presently felt at all times—as natural as it may be—, irrespective of the external circumstances.
Bhikkhus, even if bandits were to sever you savagely limb by limb with a two-handled saw, he who gave rise to a mind of hate towards them would not be carrying out my teaching. Herein, bhikkhus, you should train thus: ‘Our minds will remain unaffected, and we shall utter no evil words; we shall abide compassionate for their welfare, with a mind of loving-kindness, without inner hate. We shall abide pervading them with a mind imbued with loving-kindness; and starting with them, we shall abide pervading the all-encompassing world with a mind imbued with loving-kindness, abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill will.’ That is how you should train, bhikkhus.MN 21
This may sound idealistic, but it is very much achievable and practical. Unless one understands that unwholesome and wholesome actions are fully determined by one’s (mental) choices to take up or not take up the craving with regard to one’s own feeling respectively, there is no ‘picking up’ the sign of the mind to develop one’s understanding further—which is necessary to recognise the neutral feeling.
The prejudice of the world is the assumption that all that is real is that which I see, hear, smell, taste or touch. Having established the sign of mind—that is to say, when the phenomenon of mind becomes clear—one sees that the natural world of all that is seen, heard, smelled, tasted or touched is only intelligible because mind is already there. If mind were not there, there would be no meaning. But since our experience cannot not be meaningful, mind cannot not be there.Bhikkhu Akiñcano
The natural assumption of the world is akin to a scientific attempt to understand the phenomenon of sight by measuring how far ‘sight’ can go, which is completely misguided*. Without picking up the sign of the mind, recognising the neutral feeling and understanding our tendency to distract ourselves from them would not be possible. To cultivate the mind means to develop an enlarged perspective with regard to the meaningfulness or significance of our situation, which is a necessary condition for us to understand the nature of our being in the world—and this is required for the coming face-to-face with anxiety.
Not by going, monks, do I say that the end of the world is to be known or seen or reached; but neither, monks, do I say that without reaching the end of the world there is a making an end of suffering.’ The expanded meaning, friends, of this brief indication and outline of the Auspicious One’s, whose expanded meaning he did not explain, I comprehend thus.SN 35:116
That by which, friend, in the world, one is a perceiver and conceiver of the world, that, in the Noble discipline, is called the world. And by what, friends, in the world, is one a perceiver and conceiver of the world? By the eye (ear, nose, tongue, body, mind), friends, in the world, is one a perceiver and conceiver of the world. That by which, friends, one is a perceiver and conceiver of the world, that, in the Noble discipline, is called the world.
The world is not that which we see, hear, smell, taste, touch and cognise but rather it is that by which there is sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and cognition—the ‘body’. By picking up the sign of our own mind and not distracting ourselves (i.e. sense restraint) from the neutral feeling (through food, music, entertainment, etc.), we have a valuable opportunity to uncover the root of our ever-(potentially)-present anxiety in the world. To understand the nature of feeling is to understand that their arising (and endurance) are fully dependent on the conscious six-based body (our sense faculties) and their corresponding ‘objects’ (phenomena)—not our sense of self—,and it is this very nature of phenomena which make up our world that we are fleeing away from—that we, ourselves, are not our own.
…whereas fear is shrinking in the face of something, anxiety is shrinking in the face of—nothing. Precisely. We experience anxiety when we find that the solid foundation upon which our precious and familiar self rests—upon which it must rest—is not there. Anxiety is shrinking in the face of a contradiction—or rather, not a contradiction, but the contradiction. This is the contradiction that we fear; this is the contradiction that threatens us in our innermost being—the agonizing possibility that, after all, we have no being, and that we are not. And now we can see why all the seemingly little contradictions at which we laugh (or weep) in our everyday life are really veiled threats, sources of danger. These are the little cracks and fissures in our complacent serious-minded existence, and the reason why we laugh at them is to keep them at a distance, to charm them, to exorcise them, to neutralize them…Ñāṇavīra Thera
This is not to deny that we have control of our actions and choices in life, but to go further and recognise that even the phenomenon (or fact) of volition is presupposed (i.e. necessitated, conditioned) by the meaningfulness of a situation that we are only in the position to find—we are not the creator of our experiences and neither can we will them to end (in the case of painful feeling, not to have them appear in the first place). To understand the root of anxiety is to comprehend that the sense of self that we take for granted to be our own is fully dependent on the arising and passing away of phenomena (i.e. matter, feeling, perception, bodily formations, consciousness) that we have no control over—including but not limited to, the impermanent nature of our sense faculties, the fact that they are inaccessible to us. From this understanding and through sense restraint, we gradually undo our assumptions with regard to the nature of ourselves (or our ‘selves‘) and the world—surmounting anxiety and becoming fearless in the process.
What we call the ‘self’ is a certain characteristic of all experience, that seems to be eternal. It is quite obvious that for all men the reality and permanence of their selves, ‘I’, is taken absolutely for granted; and the discrepancy that Kierkegaard speaks of is simply that between my ‘self’ (which I automatically presume to be permanent) and the only too manifestly impermanent ‘things’ in the world that ‘I’ strive to possess. The eternal ‘subject’ strives to possess the temporal ‘object’, and the situation is at once both comic and tragic—comic, because something temporal cannot be possessed eternally, and tragic, because the eternal cannot desist from making the futile attempt to possess the temporal eternally. This tragi-comedy is suffering (dukkha) in its profoundest sense. And it is release from this that the Buddha teaches. How? By pointing out that, contrary to our natural assumption (which supposes that the subject ‘I’ would still continue to exist even if there were no objects at all), the existence of the subject depends upon the existence of the object; and since the object is manifestly impermanent, the subject must be no less so. And once the presumed-eternal subject is seen to be no less temporal than the object, the discrepancy between the eternal and the temporal disappears (in four stages—sotāpatti, sakadāgāmitā, anāgāmitā, and arahatta); and with the disappearance of the discrepancy the two categories of ‘tragic’ and ‘comic’ also disappear. The arahat neither laughs nor weeps [i.e. cannot feel the need, absence of craving]; and that is the end of suffering (except, of course, for bodily pain, which only ceases when the body finally breaks up).Ñāṇavīra Thera
*This is also why modern meditation methods based on focusing practices (e.g. mindfulness) are principally wrong for ‘insight’, as focusing on the content of our experience goes in the opposite direction to discerning the mind (its nature of intentionality), which is always in the background of our every (mental choice of) action.