Fear, self-hatred and loneliness are fuelled by our mind and cause most of our miseries. The same mind, when made aware, can cure all these maladies, leading to self-mastery. An extract from Phil Nuernberger’s book The Quest for Personal Power (Full Circle)
There are three destructive conditions of the mind: fear, self-hatred and loneliness. They are like fire-breathing dragons that usurp the creative force of the mind and corrupt our resources, creating disease, unhappiness, and suffering. They seem to be so powerful that we feel helpless before them. We don’t realize that we ourselves are the source of their power, and that we can take it away from them.
Fear: a lack of self-mastery
The most dramatic consequence of self-mastery is the ability to live without fear. Fear, the most destructive of the three dragons, is the cause of much of our suffering and stress. While we may be familiar with fear, we often don’t realize just how pervasive this monster is. Much of our anger and resentments are rooted in fear. Greed most often begins with the fear of not having enough or of not being important. Then when we accumulate wealth, we become obsessed with protecting what we have.
Fear drives us to acquire political and military power, feeling that if we can dominate, we will be secure. But this kind of power can become perverse and feed our insecurities. The more powerful we become, the more we worry about someone else becoming powerful. The Cold War between America and the Soviet Union was a classic example of how fear drives entire cultures: so much power and intellect dedicated to servicing both individual and national egos leading only to an unending sense of insecurity, of not having enough, of not being ‘the best’.
There are many faces of fear but the most terrible is violence. Whether it is the homelessness and street violence in American cities, the horrors of conflict in Bosnia and Rwanda, sectarian violence in India or Ireland, or political murders in Haiti, all have their roots in fear. Terrorists operate in a culture of fear, intentionally using it to gain power and control.
Many of our fears are less dramatic, but not the less destructive. Some people spend their entire lives fearful that they will not meet someone else’s standards. Even gossip has its roots in fear. If we can make others look small, and by so doing make ourselves look better, we compensate for the fear of being unimportant. Religions, government, and communities use fear to control others, and parents use fear to control their children.
We usually don’t like to think of ourselves as being fearful. We use softer words, such as ‘worried’ and ‘anxious‘, which seem a little more acceptable. But worry is a form of fear, and being anxious is how we feel when we succumb to fear. Since we do it often, we get pretty good at it. Most of us become so skilled at worrying that it becomes part of our lives. And yet the only thing we accomplish by worrying is misery for ourselves and others.
What would life be like for you if you lost all your fear? What if you didn’t worry about what might happen to this or that, or you weren’t afraid of what others might think of you, or you didn’t have to worry about losing your job or paying your bills? Most of us think that if we were only richer, prettier, stronger, better-looking, more charming, safer, taller, slimmer-or if we had a better job, newer car, bigger house, more friends, better-looking lovers, more respect (the adjectives are almost endless)-then we wouldn’t worry, and we would be happy.
Worry and fear aren’t created by a lack of things, they are created by how we think. If you have the habit of worrying, it doesn’t matter who you are, what you have, or what you do, you will worry because that is the habit of your mind. This useless habit is one of the biggest causes of disease and unhappiness. And yet it has become so much a part of our lives that we even think that a little fear is helpful, and that fear is a natural part of being human.
There are people who live life without being afraid. They realize that fear is not a natural part of their being, but rather a product of the mind, a fantasy that grips and destroys, but a fantasy nonetheless. Through knowledge and practice, they conquer the mind’s habit of creating fear. This is one of the first goals of Tantra Yoga, as well as the martial arts. Tantra Yoga masters are called ‘Masters‘ because they have mastered their own minds and have conquered their fear.
The same is true of the samurai, the great sword and martial arts masters of Japan, or the great Taoist Masters of China. You can do the same. You can live life without the petty fears and worries that dog us from day to day, and without the great fears that every so often rattle our cages. Even the most desperate of situations can be faced without fear.
As a young man, my Master often walked through the mountains of northern India. The mountains were, and still are, rugged, forested, and untamed. Once, while crossing a very narrow footbridge across a deep ravine, a tiger started crossing the same bridge from the other side. The bridge was so small that only one creature could pass at a time. My Master knew that if he retreated, the tiger would attack. Instead, he raised his arms and rushed toward the tiger, giving a powerful shout. The tiger immediately backed off the bridge, turned tail and ran.
Through self-mastery, you mobilize your powerful innate drive for self-preservation and create both the energy and the focus to find a solution to any problem. But once you allow fear to paralyze the mind, you lose your ability to make choices and become locked into reaction. The greater our self-mastery, the greater our ability to face any situation without fear and to live our lives without worry.
Self-hatred: the other side of misery
At times it seems that we are masters of creating misery. When we aren’t worrying about whether or not something awful is going to happen to us, we remember all the hurts, mistakes, and failures in our past. In other words, when we aren’t preoccupied with someone or something attacking us, we turn around and attack ourselves. We seldom live up to expectations, we are never quite good enough no matter how good we get, and we keep making the same old mistakes.
We suffer from guilt, continually find fault with ourselves, condemn ourselves for not living up to our own or someone else’s expectations. These are all part of the dragon of self-hatred. After so many failures, mistakes, and broken dreams we begin to give up on ourselves and on life. Some of us become depressed, withdrawn, and passive, accepting whatever life gives as a cruel joke that we must endure. Others, angry with themselves, become angry at the world. They become cranky and hostile, taking out their own misery on others.
Like fear, self-hatred is a habit of the mind, an arbitrary way of looking at life and at oneself that leads only to further mistakes, poor performance, and unhappiness. When someone else attacks you, at least you have the opportunity to conquer your adversary by mobilizing the body’s defenses. But when you attack yourself, there is no outcome but defeat. You cannot win in a battle against yourself; you only create conflict and suffering. Instead of mobilizing your body’s systems to defend yourself, you become depressed, passive and withdrawn.
Attacking ourselves is only a habit of the mind, a consequence of the way we learned to see ourselves as we grew up. We can always find many reasons to punish ourselves for the mistakes we make and the expectations we fail to realize. Like fear, the dragon of self-hatred feeds on our lack of self-awareness and skill. We strengthen the dragon by constantly reminding ourselves of our weaknesses and mistakes.
But as long as we continue to feed this dragon of self-hatred by paying attention to it, it continues to breathe fire and create misery for us. The secret is to stop feeding the dragon by experiencing your own inner strength and beauty. You can’t create self-esteem by constantly telling yourself that you are a wonderful person.
Self-esteem and self-respect grow out of the experience of committed effort. Whether or not you succeed is not as important to your self-respect as when you know that you tried your best. And if you continue to make the effort, if you continue to work with your resources, you will eventually succeed. Self-mastery arises out of effort, the underpinning of success.
The tantrics have long known that depression and apathy damage the immune system and lead to serious disease. They also know that when you give up on yourself and become a victim, you deny yourself the power to grow and change. You stay stuck in your own ignorance. That’s why the tantrics believe that the only true sin is sloth, the unwillingness to make an effort. Mistakes are seen as a necessary part of learning, not reasons for punishment. But without effort, personal power remains undeveloped and unused, and the outcome is self-hatred.
Loneliness: in ignorance of spirit The third dragon is loneliness, the most subtle of all the dragons. It is the most difficult to defeat in part because it hides in our misunderstanding of its nature. Most of us think of loneliness as being apart from loved ones, having no one with whom to share our feelings, hopes, and dreams, our fears and concerns, and our experiences. The more unable we are to communicate our inner thoughts and feelings, the lonelier we feel.
To solve this problem, we gather loved ones, build friendships, even join clubs and organizations. We think that if we have friends and family, people around us who love and care for us, we will never be lonely. But it doesn’t work. As rewarding as family and friends are, they do not keep us from being lonely, they only distract us from our loneliness. In fact, the more we depend on our loved ones to keep us from being lonely, the lonelier we become.
Think about it for a moment. Are you ever lonely for your enemies? Do you miss having unpleasant people around you? No, we are lonely for our friends and family, for those people to whom we feel close. It is the absence of our loved ones that makes us lonely. We think that loneliness involves ourrelationship with others, but it really involves our relationship with ourselves. It arises out of our sense of individuality.
Our life experiences seem to confirm that we are truly alone. We are born into this world alone, we die alone. No one feels our pain or our joy, nor do they digest our food, breathe for us, or feel what we feel. Even though we may communicate and share these experiences, it is still ‘me’, the ego-sense of individuality that tells me I am alone. We don’t experience any ‘self’ that is connected to, or a part of, any other self.
As a consequence, we fail to understand the fundamental connection we have with each other and with the universe at large. Yet there are times when we experience a sense of wholeness, of completeness, of kinship with the universe at large. It may happen when we look up at the starry heavens, or watch the birth of a child, or participate with others in working through a crisis situation.
It doesn’t happen because we have expectations or make demands, we simply experience a strong sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves. At this moment, we lose our ego-sense of self, and experience being part of a greater identity, a greater ‘Self’, and all loneliness vanishes. Unfortunately, these experiences are fleeting, easily lost in the shuffle of our day-to-day distractions, pressures, and reactions. When we are genuinely loving, we also break free from our ego-sense of self but we confuse ‘loving’ with ‘being loved’.
Most of us engage in a desperate search for someone to love us, but we confuse the issue by saying that we need someone to love. We say we want someone to share with, someone we can love, but what we are really saying is that we need someone to love us, someone who will make us feel important and keep us from feeling lonely. This is not love, but emotional attachment, which leads us into dependency.
We believe that we need this person to be happy, to be content, to be fulfilled. So our loving becomes distorted by our emotional needs. When they don’t love us back, we feel miserable and unloved. When they aren’t around, we feel lonely. We all have a remarkable, unlimited capacity to love one another. There is a wide range of expression of our love, from brotherly and sisterly love to romantic,sexual love. But as long as we continue to confuse love and emotional attachment, we will continue to be lonely, even when we have someone to love.
We can conquer this dragon of loneliness, but we must turn to our deepest resource to do so, our core spiritual Self. The great spiritual sages of all traditions say that our loneliness lies in the ignorance of our spirit, the core of our being. When we become aware of this Self, we experience the mystery of life, the unbroken and unending connection we have with each other and with the universe.
We become fully conscious of the universal Spirit that flows within and through us. Picture life like a large oak tree filled with leaves, twigs, and branches. Our ego-sense of self makes us feel like we are a leaf of this tree. When the winds blow, the leaves rub against each other. Sometimes this is a pleasant experience and sometimes it is very unpleasant.
As leaves, we feel isolated and apart from one another, even though we can see that we all belong to the same tree. When we become conscious of our spiritual Self, we realize that we are far more than just the expression of a single leaf. We are more than even the branch and the trunk. We are the lifeforce within the tree. We cannot realize the power of this experience by analyzing it.
Intellectual understanding is not the experience of wholeness, nor does it put an end to loneliness. Those experiences of wholeness gained by watching a birth or gazing at the stars are not intellectual, logical events. We must go beyond the intellect and become conscious of the human spirit directly. This is the heart of the meditative traditions of self-mastery-to calm the mind so completely, to be so focused, that we experience this spiritual Self directly.
In Tantra, this experience is called samadhi, while in western meditative/spiritual traditions it is referred to as a ‘mystical experience’ because it takes us beyond our thoughts and emotions, beyond even our beliefs. The mystical experience is powerful and undeniable. In just one experience, our loneliness, our fear, and our self-hatred are diminished by half.
As we become more skilled in our ability to have this awareness, we gradually lose all sense of loneliness, all fears are vanquished, and all self-hatred is eliminated. Our ego-sense of individuality now becomes an instrument by which we express in our unique way our thoughts, our love, our joy, and our strength. We do not lose our identity, we polish and refine our identity until our spiritual Self shines through like a bright light, and we experience the real joy and freedom that are our true heritage.