One percent of our problems is responsible for ninety-nine percent of our worries. And there is a great solution to that one problem.
THE BIG PROBLEM
I read an excellent summary of the problem facing us in life this week. It comes from Alain de Botton and you can read it here: http://www.thebookoflife.org/why-you-are-anxious-all-the-time/ …
But if you prefer, I can summarize it for you.
Today, he says, you are anxious. There are all kinds of particular things we are anxious about – everything and anything. We fantasize about how to escape our anxiety, through travel, beauty, achieving our ambitions (status), and love.
But nothing works. We remain anxious. Anxiety is our natural state.
For good reasons.
“We are intensely vulnerable physical beings”, he says, and sooner or later our organs will let us down.
“We can imagine so much more than we have …”
We are descendants of worriers – the ones who worried and didn’t get eaten by wild animals.
“We rely for our self-esteem … on the love of people we can’t control.”
THE ANSWER TO ANXIETY
Alain de Botton gives a number of palliatives, ways to mitigate our anxiety. “The single most important move,” he says, “is acceptance.” He means acceptance of anxiety itself.
This is so close to the right answer, and yet I think it misses the point.
The fundamental reason or cause of anxiety is a failure to truly accept and love ourselves.
If we accept ourselves, we find peace in almost any circumstances. It is because we don’t accept and love ourselves that we criticize other people and mess up our lives and theirs.
So, then, how do we accept ourselves?
There is one answer that I’ve recently stumbled upon. It’s a philosophy of life that I find immensely appealing.
It’s called Gnosticism and it arose in the century before Christ and especially in the two centuries afterwards. Christian Gnosticism became the main form of Gnosticism – and probably the most popular form of Christianity in the first and second centuries – before being rooted out as a heresy by the “orthodox” Christians who eventually won the battle and re-wrote history. In my opinion, however, Gnosticism is the answer, whether in its Christian or non-Christian forms. Let me describe its world-view.
The problem with humans is that we are animals, but we are not just animals. We are also, partly, divine. We came from heaven and that is where we belong. But we are strangers in a strange world – the material world.
We are two creatures in one. We have bodies, and therefore are subject to all the cruelty and decay inherent in belonging to the material world. We are subject to disease, hunger, natural disaster, and death. We will be separated from everyone and everything we love. No wonder we worry. As de Botton says, we have plenty to worry about.
But we also are spiritual beings. Our spirit encompasses our psyche and our mind. We know right from wrong. We have consciences. We can think. We can love. We can do things that appear not to be in our interests. In modern language, we can transcend our genes.
In the Gnostic view, our spirits are the reason for hope. We are not marooned in the material world. We possess fragments of divinity. We come from heaven and it is our destiny to return there.
We do this, here and now, by connecting to the forces of good in the universe. There is a good force that is going to win. It is nothing to do with this world. It is all to do with the world before, beyond, above and below the material world.
If we connect to the forces of good, we can become good. We are loved, and we can love in return. Of course, we won’t become perfect – there will remain a struggle between the material and spiritual in our selves. But the spiritual can become stronger and stronger over time. Eventually, when we die, our spirits will return to where they came from – and probably be issued with new “bodies” which are not subject to decay and which we can enjoy.
Love is at the centre of this philosophy. And if we love, and live in love, we can love and accept ourselves – and improve the world as well. We can convert as many people around us as will allow us, to the new philosophy of love and optimism. We live in the light, and the darkness, though it does not disappear, can recede.
This philosophy acknowledges that we will fail, that we will fall short of our ideals, that we cannot perfect ourselves. But, unlike the Christianity that prevailed, this philosophy has no place for the gloom of guilt. We get better by becoming the best version of ourselves, not by dwelling on how far we fall short. It is fine to acknowledge when we have done wrong. But even that is not a reason to stop loving and accepting ourselves. We just have to put ourselves back in the power of love, and derive energy from that force.
The Gnostic philosophy – like that of Jesus and Paul of Tarsus, like that of Zen and Indian philosophy, from which it was partly derived – is highly paradoxical. We are strong when we are weak. We gain strength not by puffing up the ego, but by yielding to the force of good within and around us. We should not try too hard. We should not try to do everything – especially the most important things – by ourselves. Yes, we can ask for the help of our friends and colleagues. But the best help is divine. It comes from within ourselves – from the inner depths we have which we are scarcely aware of, but which we can excavate by careful thought and meditation – if you like, by prayer. And it comes from outside ourselves – from the universe or from God (you chose which expression you prefer – I prefer “universe”), from the forces of intellect and love that are alive and working in the world. We find the answer to difficult problems from our unconscious mind, which is connected to the collective unconscious and the Mind of the universe.
How it works is a mystery. But it works. Miracles happen – for example, cyberspace. If you hitched a ride in the Tardis and went back to the nineteeth century and tried to explain cyberspace, you could have become a best-selling science fiction writer like Jules Verne. But they would never have believed you.
The philosophy requires tolerance of, indeed progressive adeptness in, mystery and paradox. To paraphrase a French philosopher, there are things that are known to the heart that science cannot know. Or not yet, anyway. But Gnostic philosophy also has a profound respect for science – indeed, gnosis is Greek for knowledge. The spirit expands as knowledge expands. But the spirit is not constrained by knowledge – there are other dimensions too.