When we are afflicted with anxiety, anger, depression, self-criticism, bitterness or neurotic pain of any kind, we often tend to wonder where all this ‘apparently pointless’ suffering comes from. And although it is probably true that we only want to know where the pain comes from so that we can escape from it, or get rid of it, it is still a very good question. Where does all this neurotic suffering come from? Why is there such an apparently endless supply of it?
One way to approach this fundamental question is to say that neurotic suffering comes from having habits. This isn’t obvious at all because everyone has habits (i.e. predictable patterns of thinking and behaving) but not everyone is afflicted with anxiety, depression, obsession, and general associated feelings of profound alienation, isolation and desolation. The point is however that our habitual patterns of living do not cause this type of acute pain when we are able to carry them out as we have always done, but they do when for some reason we are no longer able to enact them as usual. Then they grow teeth and bite us.
A habit, we may say, causes a crippling sense of desolation and loss in our minds when there is no way to do what the habit wants us to do. We are then eaten up by fear and anxiety. Basically, we are going ‘cold-turkey’ – we are withdrawing from whatever comfort-zone it was that we were addicted to. We can illustrate this principle by using a simple example. Let us say that I am very set in my ways – I have a routine that I always stick to. I’m a ‘creature of habit’. An important part of my daily pattern is to go every afternoon for my lunch in a particular café. This routine suits me well – I like the food, I know the people well, I can look forward to having a pleasant chat, and so on and so forth. Because this suits me so well I see no reason to change, and as the years go by (as they generally do) I become more and more used to this habit. This state of affairs cannot continue forever however – it might seem like it can, but that is of course an illusion.
In this story, what happens is that the proprietor of the café sells up and takes early retirement; the place is bought by a firm of property developers who promptly knock it down to make room for a multi-story car park or a block of apartments. Now when this happens I will of course experience a great sense of desolation – I will miss my established pattern and there is nothing that can take its place. It is as if that habit was part of me, and now that it is gone I am left incomplete – there is a big hole in my life that I can do nothing about (other than complain about it, which I do, at every available opportunity). But of course, although I may lay the blame for my unhappiness elsewhere, the cause of my pain is myself because it was me that allowed the habit to grow. I consented to it. I colluded with it. I put energy into it. The ‘fault’ is not the loss of the structure that I depended on (or whatever caused that loss) – that is only the external cause; the real cause is me because I was the one who facilitated and nurtured the habit over the years. I lovingly tended and maintained this habit, despite the fact that it was actually my enemy, as we can now plainly see. So the principle is very simple: the principle is that the more energy I put into creating the habit, the more pain there is going to be for me later on.
The example we have used here is very oversimplified, and there is at least one way in which it doesn’t seem to hold good. We might object that when a person suffers from anxiety or depression, very often their ‘pattern of living’ is still very much in place, but the pain and misery of anxiety and depression come just the same. We have to make our theory a little bit more sophisticated to account for this, and say that what has happened here is that the power of the habit (or pattern) to give us comfort or security has vanished, leaving us high and dry. I still do the same old stuff that I always did, but it either doesn’t mean anything to me (depression) or it doesn’t help me to feel safe or secure (anxiety). I am left ‘comfortless’, so to speak – I am left in a place where there is no psychological comfort at all. I do the thing that I always did, but it’s empty, it’s hollow. I press the button, but nothing happens. Or to put this another way: I’m still taking the euphoriant drug that used to make me feel good, but now it’s no longer killing the pain. It’s no longer doing the job I used to rely on it doing…
I might of course demand to know why my comfort zones have failed me so cruelly (when everyone else seems to be doing just fine with theirs) but this is still just me complaining. It is my dependence on a habitual (or safe) pattern of living that is the ultimate cause of my pain, not the fact that the pay-off for the behaviour has now disappeared, and what this means is that it is all really down to me from now on.
Once I have a good understanding of what the true cause of my pain is, then this helps me enormously. I don’t have to blame the world for letting me down, but rather I can see that I’m actually quite free not to set up these habits, these pain-creating dependencies in the first place. I don’t have to put energy into it. The example of the guy who is very set in his ways is easy enough to understand, but what is harder to grasp is the idea that most of what we fondly call ‘our lives’ is no more than a big, complicated bundle of habits and ‘tendencies-to-react’, trundling along on its predetermined track like a heavy goods train. There are the ‘habits-of-perception’, the ‘habits-of-thinking’, and the ‘habits-of-behaving’, and taken altogether (as a big bundle or package) they constitute that particular and specific three-ring circus that I call ‘my life’.
Just as in the example of the guy who loved to eat in the same café every day, this bundle of habits is my enemy, and yet just like that guy I spend all my time lovingly protecting and maintaining it. Despite the fact that the thing that I am nurturing is only going to bring me untold misery, I use most of my available energy on the task of facilitating its growth. This is like a hard-working starling who devotes herself to feeding a voracious baby cuckoo which has already thrown her own unfortunate off-spring out of the nest to die.
This is a very peculiar if not to say perverse state of affairs. How, we might ask, does the ‘bundle of habits’ manage to be so good at getting us to lovingly protect it? The answer is that it has a very clever trick up its sleeve – it tricks us with the notion of ‘self’. In a nutshell, what the bundle of habits does is to trick me into thinking that it is my ‘self’. I then think that the pattern of living that I habitually engage it is actually me, that this is actually ‘who I am’, so of course I put all my energy into protecting and promoting it. This is clearly a very effective ruse indeed – after all, what would I not do for my ‘self’? If my ‘self’ is in jeopardy, then I am more than willing to go to any extreme to safeguard it. I will pay any price. If the truth were told, I am ready to sacrifice any values or set of principles that I might claim to have, just so long as this precious ‘self’ can go on existing in the style to which it has become accustomed.
But of course the terrible irony in all this is that the ‘pattern of living’ which I am automatically protecting is not who I am at all really. Quite the opposite is true – the pattern that I am protecting is in actual fact my deadliest enemy. It’s what’s making my life hard for me. It’s what’s making me so inflexible and humourless. This unwise identification with a mere mechanical bundle of habits and reflexes (which is supposed to be there to help me, to make things easier or more convenient for me) is actually the source of unending suffering and frustration…