The Truth

I’m not sure if I’m just in an especially vulnerable, receptive or gullible state right now, or if I’ve just been especially fortunate in the books I’ve chosen to read during these past weeks. First up, and the subject of my last entry, it was 10% Happier, which challenged a few of my remaining issues with meditation and my Buddhism practice. After that, I finished reading The Truth by Neil Strauss, and have been blown away by the thoughts and emotional roller-coasters it brought up in me.

The Truth: An Uncomfortable book about Relationships
The Truth: An Uncomfortable book about Relationships

The subtitle of the book, “An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships” says a lot. Knowing Neil mainly from having read The Game almost a decade ago, I expected the book to be about some sort of insight that he’d come to. Something like “relationships are for chumps” and “we should all focus on overcoming some sort of hedonic treadmill with more sex, more partners, more excitement”. But what I got was something completely different. Neil Strauss has absolutely matured over the past ten years, and the person writing this book has come a long way from the person who wrote The Game.

Instead of the Neil Strauss of debauchery and hedonism, this book is written by a Neil Strauss who wants to explore the deepest and darkest aspects of his psyche. This is a Neil Strauss who is no longer out to satisfy his curiosity, but who wants to resolve issues that he’s been having all life – sometimes without even being fully aware of having had them. It’s an uncomfortably truthful story about a man who was at a low point in his life and who decided to get better.

The Truth chronicles Neil’s way through sex & love addiction therapy, experiments with non-exclusive relationships of various sorts, and the eventual insights that all of this has led him to by the end. Along the way, he asks himself questions like whether it is “natural” to be faithful to one person for life, whether alternatives to monogamy lead to better relationships and greater happiness, what it is that draws us to the partners we choose and whether or not we can keep passion and romance from fading over time.

Going into the book, I saw much of it as little more than a sad tale about a man who was at a low point in life. I expected it to be little more than yet another redemption story. However; as I began to understand the subject matter a little better, the book began to affect me in a significant way. His description of the way that his relationship to his mother affected his life made me realize that maybe a couple of the issues that I’ve dealt with in my own life might have a reason that I need to delve into. Maybe some of my own relationship issues over the years haven’t been due to a a collision of personalities or desires. Maybe things haven’t been as easy as I thought they were.

In fact; maybe it’s not the relationships that have been broken – maybe it’s me.

Love is not like roulette. You can’t bet on a spread.

For as long as I can remember, my own romantic relationships have butted up against two very distinct urges that I’ve been unable to make sense of together. I have a very high need for affection, attention and appreciation (along with a considerable fear of rejection), but I also have a strong need for freedom, independence and following my desires. I’ve suffocated my partners with all of my needs and desires, but I’ve also ended up feeling suffocated by them.

It’s been a really painful thing to experience in my relationships, and I’ve never quite had the insight to understand what it was all about. Was I just a terribly needy person that desired closeness and comfort but couldn’t stand giving it to others on their terms? It didn’t sound like me – at least not the kind of person I saw myself as.

Turns out, as I read more of Neil’s book, a couple of his own issues with pretty much the same thing began to resonate with me on a very fundamental level. So many of my relationships have been built on a shaky ground with deeply rooted fears – both my own and hers. I’ve entered into them trying to meet unresolved conflicts from childhood, a desire for something that I never got and another desire for something that I got too much of. When she worshiped the ground I walked on, I felt as if I got the appreciation I wanted – but felt tied down and restricted. When she didn’t care if I lived or died, I got the freedom I wanted – but felt unappreciated and not good enough.

Due to this imbalance – the skewed perspective I’ve developed for what a relationship should be – they’ve never quite worked out for me.

Less fear.

It’s been a rough couple of days, thinking and meditating about this, but I’ve slowly begun discovering what my goal for this entire thing should be. I won’t go into all the details, since they’re way too personal and I’m not entirely comfortable talking about my family and developmental issues, but there’s definitely some stuff in there that I need to work out.

But I’ve also landed in an insight that’s been extremely humbling for me. Less fear. That’s the goal. Less fear of intimacy, suffocation, loss, speaking the truth, being hurt, boredom, change, the future, conflict, unpredictability, silence, myself and – most of all – other people. That’s the future I need to start moving toward. I shouldn’t be looking for a person to fill the hole in me, that’s something that I need to do all by myself before I can be entirely happy with somebody else. Only without the hole in me can the whole me be in a healthy and fulfilling relationship.

James Hollis, a Jungian analyst, said that “​The best things we can do for our relationships with others is to render our relationship with ourselves more conscious”, and that’s where I’ve been lacking. Not just in romantic relationships, but in so many other kinds of relationships (work, friendship, family, etc), my core question hasn’t been “Who am I?”, but “Who do I need to be for this person?” and “Who do I need this person to be for me?”. It’s terrible to realize that, in a way, I’ve been thinking about people like objects to relate to – not separate individuals on their own path whom I merely share an orbit with. They don’t need to do anything other than follow their own path. Struggling to change their path – or change my own, for that matter – will only lead to misery for everybody.

I don’t know what happens next., but it’s going to be interesting. I’ve learned that the reason we love people is not to make them change or to make ourselves change. We don’t love people to get their acceptance or praise. The reason we love people is to help us accept ourselves for who we are.

10% Happier

10-percent-happierI just finished reading reading 10% Happier by Dan Harris. It’s one of those rare books that I get through from beginning to end in a single sitting, I just couldn’t imagine putting it down.

There are plenty of reasons for a book to have that kind of an effect on me. Most of the time it’s because of a riveting plot or a particularly interesting topic. This time around, however, it was something entirely different that made me unable to put this book aside. As weird as it may sound, I think the reason I fell so hard for this book was that it managed to poke at that dark recess in my mind whose cries for help I’ve been ignoring for way too long.

Respond, Not React

Let me bring you back a year or so.

In the late months of 2014, I suddenly found myself having a stress-related nervous breakdown. It had been building up in the background for a while, but I wasn’t able to recognize it at the time. I was trying to juggle a full-time job, a collection of very demanding hobbies and an even more demanding relationship. I’ve always been a high performer and held myself to high standards, but apparently this was all too much for me to cope with. I didn’t realize the pressure that I was under until it was too late, and I hit the wall. I hit it hard.

Over the next few months, I started going to cognitive behavior therapy, as well as getting some initial meditation practice as a way to help me out. Also, for obvious reasons, I tried reducing the amounts of things that I was up to on a day to day basis. It all started helping me, and I slowly began dipping my toe into the dating pool again. The stress began to diminish, and up until April/May of 2015, things felt like they were heading in the right direction.

Then the relationship collapsed and my mother’s cancer returned, all at about the same time. The next three and a half months were all about her, and I forgot about dealing with my own issues. She died in August 2015, and my life collapsed all around me again – despite me carrying on the façade of being on top of things.

It took until some time around October or November before I started finding my way back to a meditation practice. By that time, I’d lost about 10kg (~22 lbs), wasn’t taking care of myself properly and had been piling things back onto my schedule again, just to keep busy and my mind off of things. I took on more work than I should have, deciding to revamp my company’s website from the ground up and start learning a whole lot of new skills and meet new people. I didn’t get back into the meditation habit proper until about a month ago, but I’ve been doing it almost every day since then.

The Triumph of Narcissism over Fear

Reading 10% Happier, I realized that some of Dan’s journeys, concerns and initial misgivings echoed my own. The book reads more like a memoir than a self-help guide, and brings you through some of his darkest moments and his brightest, all the way up to his realization that meditation has made him – give or take – about ten per cent happier, hence the title of the book.

The book also reminds us that Buddhism and meditation aren’t a panacea. There’s no magic formula in them that solves all the world’s ills. Used effectively, however, I’ve found exactly what Dan did – they’re an amazing tool to get control of your internal narrator – that voice in your head that keeps comparing yourself to others, worrying about the future, mulling over the past, telling yourself that things might be terrible in so many ways. This is what Dan is talking about in his book – his journey to finding out that very thing.

Meditation isn’t woo woo, and it’s not something exclusive to hacky-sack playing pot smokers who non-ironically say “Namaste” to each other. You don’t need to sit cross-legged and chant “Aum” for hours on end or chant in groups. Quite the contrary, meditation is hard, and just like any skill it requires lots of training. It’ll feel strange in the beginning, and you’ll worry that you’re doing it wrong – just like the first time you try your hand at painting, deadlifts, singing, programming or juggling. Over time, however, it all gets easier as you get better at these things.

Is this Useful?

There were two points in the book that touched me very deeply on a personal level. The first was near the beginning, as he was recounting the beginnings of the journey that finally led him to Buddhism and meditation. It was a long story about drugs, work, persistence, travel and a mental breakdown – and his realization that he needed to start seeing a therapist. The story reminded me a lot about my own issues, which had also started as a collection of physical warning signs before I couldn’t ignore the mental reasons that were underlying it all.

The second moment came as he was recounting his experiences at a meditation retreat – his first. He was getting frustrated over things during a lecture near the end and, during question and answer time, he asked what the deal was with the teacher imploring them not to worry about the future. What if he misses his plane after the retreat? That’d delay his connecting flight. That’d make him late for work the next day. These are practical things that deserve thinking about because they have big real-life effects.

The meditation teacher, Mark Epstein, simply answered that these things are all true, but after asking yourself the same question seventeen times and worrying for nothing, you need to stop and ask yourself a simple question: is it useful? It humbled Dan, and – I don’t know why – the answer affected me very profoundly as well. There are so many things that I go around thinking about, worrying about, agonizing over – for nothing. What did she mean when she said that thing? Why am I not getting an answer to that e-mail? Why is my boss talking to HR? Is it about me? Will it affect me? How will I feel when my dog dies?

These questions, these agonies, they’re not useful to me. This is something that I really need to work on some more, and this book drove that point home very well in those three words. Is it useful?

This book is a lot of things; but at its core it’s a book that demystifies meditation. It reminds us that it’s not something that belongs to a mysterious cadre of people who have dropped out of society, but something that carries real-world benefits that are available to all of us. I would recommend this book to anybody with an interest in getting on top of themselves and making a change for the better. I loved it.