Ann, in her mid forties, is a fit, attractive highly successful businesswoman having recently sold her IT business for more than $20 million. She is happily married, has a wide circle of friends, is independently wealthy and yet had recently come to see me suffering from depression.
By all the normal standards what has she got to complain about? She no longer needs to work, has a husband who loves her, can go anywhere, do anything and buy almost anything she desires and yet she is unhappy.
Something is missing, she is not happy. For most people “give me more” is the usual answer when we feel empty, more things, more activities more stimulation.
In the 1930s psychiatrist Abraham Maslow, a contemporary of Freud, wrote about a hierarchy of needs and that our needs change with the circumstances of our life. At the most basic level there is a need for food, shelter, physical security, so if you speak to a mother from Somalia she would be happy if she had clean drinking water and her children could safely go to school.
The next level up in the hierarchy of needs, is the need for emotional fulfilment, a sense of belonging and feeling satisfied with what you are doing. For my mother it would have been having her family around her. Her happiness came from being part of a loving family.
As each need is fulfilled it’s then taken for granted and no longer fulfils us. At the next level it is a need for creative fulfilment. I wish to express myself in something that reflects who I am. To be successful in my career, undertake a creative endeavour, be a successful musician, artist, writer or travel the world and discover new territories. This is the urge to do my thing.
This is where we find Ann. She has been successful and creative in her career, amassed a fortune and now no longer has any new territories to conquer. Sure, she could go and set up a new and bigger business and make even more money but she has nothing to prove, she can “do” business and already has a larger passive cash flow than she can ever need or want. She is out of the rat race as educator/entrepreneur Robert Kiyosaki calls it.
Even though her unhappiness seems like a problem, it is actually a reflection of her high state of sensitivity and awareness. A less tuned-in person would continue to work in business and plateau at just making more money. It’s OK to make more money but after a certain point in our life it’s limiting, when we don’t need more money to cover our lifestyle, we have transcended our survival needs, and if we are still drawn to the dollar, it becomes either a score card to prove how successful and worthy we are or it’s become a habit and we don’t know what else to do.
This brings us to the last level in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, self-actualisation.
In a recent TV interview Bill Gates was asked about what gave meaning to his life and he replied that everything up until this stage had just been a preparation. The formation of Microsoft, development of the Windows operating system, amassing one of the largest fortunes in the world was just a preparatory stage. It taught him business skills and gave him the means to pursue his true life’s purpose, the Bill And Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s richest philanthropic organization. He stated that the real purpose of his life is to make a contribution and be of service to humanity.
Ann was searching for a greater meaning to her life, within her was the need for contribution and service to an ideal that is greater than herself and her own needs. For some this is easy and natural and finds us, for others it is a realisation that dawns upon us after a considerable time.
A step towards finding your inner peace is to discover what is your unique contribution and then acting on it. But this is only part of the story, there is still the need to master your thoughts and feelings.
One of the great spiritual leaders Guttama the Buddha, some two thousand five hundred years ago, did not talk about happiness but rather the end of suffering. He said that there were three sins. From his perspective it was not a moral prescription, that thou shall not steal or thou shall not lie, very noble and important lessons, but rather the things that caused unhappiness or suffering.
The first cause of suffering according to the Buddha was attachment. It is being compulsive, addicted to certain behaviours or attitudes. Most people are addicted to their comfort/pleasure, this is not to say that we become ascetic and avoid pleasure as some extreme religious groups believe when they ban dancing and women wearing make-up. Pleasure is a gift from life and should be embraced, the question to ask yourself is “what is my motivation for this activity and is it being driven by an inner need to escape?”
The second cause is aversion, avoiding things. That can include not saying something because you might be rejected, being afraid of conflict, avoiding things because they seem too hard or feeling afraid. Ideally the purpose of not doing something should be because it is not the right thing to do. Overcoming aversion is to do the right thing even if it is difficult or fearful.
Marketing people understand that to sell to someone you have to engage them emotionally. People are genetically programmed to be pleasure seekers and pain avoiders. The ads are full of good feelings (pleasure) associated with various products and they also have the solution to your problem (pain) by using their product.
In the primitive lifestyle of our forebears this made good sense, if something tasted sweet then it usually was good for you and if it was bitter then probably it was poisonousness. Things that were soft to touch were OK and prickly were not and so the attraction to pleasure and repulsion from pain was layered into the body memory until it became habitual and eventually genetic.
But in a complex society such as ours everything is not as it seems. Things that can give us pleasure may not be good for us, such as sweets, soft drinks, chocolates, alcohol and tobacco. While other things that may seem difficult are good for us, telling the truth, maintaining agreements, staying focused on a project even if it is sometimes boring and tiring.
To become free of your habitual programming of attachment to comfort/pleasure and aversion to pain/discomfort is called detachment, so that your actions are guided by your internal moral compass rather than the course of least emotional resistance.
The third and last of the Buddha’s “sins” is ignorance. That is not ignorance of how to do things like drive a car, operate a computer or manage your budget, but rather ignorance of yourself. Why do you behave in a certain way? Why do you get upset? Why don’t you like certain people? Why can’t you carry through with personal resolutions? “Know thyself” as Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, once said.
The search for inner peace takes us on a journey of firstly dealing with our own personal survival needs and then fulfilling our life’s purpose, while on the way learning to detach from, without suppressing, the pull and push of our emotional conditioning.
This is a big call and for the people who choose to search for meaning in their lives and rise above their reactions, life becomes more loving and joyful. It is the difference between one wine that with time becomes vinegar and another over time becomes sweet.
Before enlightenment it’s cut wood and cart water, after enlightenment it’s cut wood and cart water with awareness and detachment.