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To Strive Or Not To Strive: Reflecting on Mark Manson’s “The Disease of More.”

A friend of mine from graduate school recently shared a blog post by Mark Manson titled, The Disease of More. I’ve enjoyed Manson in the past, so I gave it a read. As much as I feel it is generally more valuable to create new material to share, I think it might be beneficial for others to share my reactions to this piece (which are largely positive).

The article starts out with the following:

“Success is often the first step toward disaster. The idea of progress is often the enemy of progress.”

I immediately had a gut level reaction to the concept he was pointing to, and that has a lot to do with my experience participating in various online forums dedicated to the practice of different forms contemplative spiritual practice. Among contemplative types, there is a perennial argument between the developmental camp and the always-already-THAT camp. (I suppose it isn’t much different than the “salvation through works” vs “salvation through faith” camps within Christian traditions.) I have generally leaned more toward the developmental camp, given that there appears to be an undeniable progression of both skills development AND consciousness development that occurs over the lifespan, sometimes with or without deliberate effort. The idea that the only thing getting in one’s way is the drive to be better has at times created a near insurmountable roadblock to progress for many an aspiring yogi.

At the same time, I’ve also witnessed countless individuals discover, through practice, profound decreases in psychological suffering resulting from practice, which only briefly quells the powerful drive to suffer even LESS. From the perspective of the always-already-THAT camp, the drive to suffer less is itself a form of suffering. If the point of all this is to suffer less, why not abandon the drive to improve one’s self and simply be who you are already. “You are already enlightened. Just stop trying to get enlightened, and you’ll realize your true Self.”

As you’re reading this, I hope you’re starting to see how both of these concepts, or rather stances (as David Chapman would describe them in his online book, Meaningness), are incomplete. In both cases, what is being treated as a truth about reality would be better viewed as a way of looking, or a seeing that freesViews such as these can be an instruction, or method, which can be used to ever deepen (development camp) the experiential knowledge of how things truly are (always-already-THAT camp). In other words, I don’t believe it’s helpful to view either stance as being ontologically true, but that sometimes it may be helpful to view either or both as pragmatically true. When taken up as a way of seeing one’s self, life, or experience, either can lead to life transforming insight.

Without diving fully into the remaining contents of Manson’s article, it does appear he is using his chosen stance as a kind of method with regard to the man with whom he worked on this issue:

“What if there is no ‘next level?’ What if it’s just an idea you made up in your head? What if you’re already there and not only are you not recognizing it, but by constantly pursuing something more, you’re preventing yourself from appreciating it and enjoying where you are now?”

I don’t know if Mark understands his view as a being more of a method than a truth (I’d love the opportunity to ask him someday). If he does, I’d love it if he came out and said so. And maybe he has. My favorite professor in graduate school (R.I.P.), while education me and my fellow therapists-to-be, often told us he didn’t believe in magic. He believed in science, and for him that meant if something works, there should be a way to explain how and why it works. He took this a step further with his therapy clients, and made every effort to explain what he was doing with them and why, at every step. I was deeply inspired by his way of working with clients, and I do the same for the clients with whom I have the privilege to work. My insistence on both transparency and a pragmatic truth criterion is what inspired me to base much of my therapeutic approach on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). But I digress…

I suppose the point of this long and rambling post is the ideas I read in Mark’s post are only helpful in context. There are times when “stop trying so hard” is helpful, and times when it stunts growth. The development of wisdom requires the ability to determine which approach is more helpful at any given moment. So go, and be wiser. (Or perhaps you’re already wise enough. Stop trying… Just kidding.)

What is your experience of striving to grow? What happens for you when you relax that drive? Does it work in some conditions but not in others? I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, especially those which differ from mine.

P.S. I mentioned a few posts back that I’m trying to get back into the swing of writing. I consider my writing skills to be pretty rusty lately, and I’m open to feedback in that area as well. In the interests of becoming evermore comfortable stepping into vulnerability, please feel free to share whatever constructive criticism you may have. Thank you!

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Filed under Buddhism, Meditation, Mindfulness, Personal Development, Psychology, Reflections, Religion & Philosophy

A Reflection on Holistic Pluralism

Let me start by saying that I am by no means claiming to have a deep understanding of physics. What interests me as a student of religious studies is the relationship between faith traditions (including philosophical systems) and contemporary developments in scientific theory. What follows are my initial thoughts in response to idea referred to as Holistic Pluralism or Organicism.

Throughout history philosophers have speculated as to whether or not the world is reducible to an essential component. This is especially true of the Pre-Socratic philosophers. For Thales, the component was water. For Anaximenes, the component was air. The Western pre-Socratic philosopher that comes closest to the theories of today is Heraclitus – the “weeping philosopher.” Though he thought the essential component of the Universe was fire (which is now widely dismissed), he also taught the idea that everything is in flux, and that the universe is essentially a cooperation of opposites. His philosophy was in some ways the rough sketches of what now could be called ‘Organicism’ or ‘Holistic Pluralism’.

Rather than assuming that the Universe is merely composed of eternal matter that takes on different finite forms over time, Holistic Pluralism describes the Universe as an interconnected / interdependent reality in which all things exist in relationship to one another. This is not to be confused with Monism, which would deduce that all things are in reality an undifferentiated One. Physicists today would argue that Monism just isn’t so. They observe that an atom has its own identity and function in the Universe, but when brought together in relationship to other atoms, molecules come in to being. The atom is both its own whole and a part of something greater. Ken Wilber, author of ‘A Brief History of Everything’, calls this whole/part a ‘holon’. An atom is a holon, as is a molecule, an organism, and a human being. Every holon is both composed of sub-holons, and is itself a sub-holon to a greater holon that transcends the sub-holons by which it is composed (are we tracking?). The point is that everything is in some way deeply related to everything else, and thus interconnected and interdependent. Heraclitus was on to something by stating that everything is in flux.

The reason this theory of reality is sometimes referred to as Organicism is that it appears to be the way that things organically occur in nature. As Alan Watts has pointed out, one cannot accurately describe the behavior of an organism without also describing its environment. For example, it would be difficult to describe the act of a human walking without also describing the ground on which they walk. It would also be impossible to accurately describe the act of eating with describing both the organism and the food it consumes. This demonstrates how our contemporary understanding ecology relates to other (if not all) areas of existence.

As a student of religion, I immediately see a connection between Organicism/Holistic Pluralism and the teachings of the Buddha. Key to the Buddha’s teaching are the ideas of impermanence, interdependence, and the emptiness of inherent existence – each of which work in perfect harmony with my understanding of contemporary physics. Though, what I find fascinating about the Buddha is that his sole aim was not just to figure out the nature of reality for its own sake, but rather to use his knowledge to successfully liberate himself and others from an ongoing cycle of suffering (or, anguish / unsatisfactoriness). He saw that when conditions were right for a seed, it would grow in to a plant. He correlated this organic idea to the way that thoughts, emotions and concepts arise. When the conditions in the mind are suitable for a particular kind of thought or emotion, it will more than likely arise/come in to being. This is why the Buddha put such an emphasis on meditation. By freeing the mind of the conditions that cause negative results, one can begin to experience these negative thoughts and emotions less frequently.

This is just one example of a possible correlation between the teachings of an ancient faith tradition and contemporary science. I would to hear about other correlations if anyone has one to share.

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