Spiritual growth is an unlearning process. Awakening into the true nature of reality requires constant unlearning of false beliefs and a re-discovery of the direct experience of the present moment. Conceptual reality is a house of mirrors, a myriad of illusion. Of all illusions, psychological time is the trickiest to detect.
Seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years… The passage of time is seemingly objective and compatible with experience. Events appear to unfold sequentially, superimposed onto the clock. But the past is a memory. The future is imagination. Life is eternally present, an infinite succession of Nows.
As Mark Twain said, “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” So much of our attention and energy is spent on holding on to days-gone-by or worrying about things that may never materialise. How does life change, once liberated from these opposing forces?
I’m enchanted by exposed brick, arched ceilings and passionate discussions about the nondual nature of existence. The magical space I’m sitting in, this sweet July afternoon, is the cellar of Castello di Titignano, Orvieto. Its shade and air circulation offers respite from the intense Italian sun. I’m grateful. And cool.
Barrels of fermenting grapes from nearby vineyards are replaced with pop-up chairs, projector screens, speakers. A colourful poster for SAND Italy 2019 reminds me of how far I’ve come. 12:35pm. It’s my turn to present at the Science and Nonduality Conference:
Welcome to the Age of Re-Enchantment: Magic Transforming Mental Health and the World.
Here we goooooo! Months of visualising, mind-mapping and soul searching has come to this.
We are told to be aware, to pay attention, to create space. Yet conscious engagement with thoughts, with the intention to change them skillfully, has immense benefits. Although counterintuitive, it boosts the ability to be mindful and accelerates spiritual growth.
Maturing the ego and cultivating a skilled, self-serving intellect, is just as rewarding as the transcendental elements of spiritual practice. But the message in the West is often black-or-white; the ego is all bad, the solution to troubling thoughts is always being in the Now.
Living in the present is simple and impossibly hard. The complexity of mind distracts in a multitude of ways. Neglecting the quality of thoughts makes presence much harder; if your thoughts work against you, the task is greater. Yet it’s rare to see spiritual guidance on techniques adjusting the thinking mind.
In poker, an unlucky hand, an opponent’s provocation, general impatience, or bad luck may drastically impair a player’s decision making process. Regardless of ability or experience, when this is extreme, a player takes high-risks or consistently makes irrational moves, in a futile attempt to chase losses. In game terminology, this psychological trap is called tilt.
The tilt mindset influences more than just financial investments. We invest in a multitude of ways; be it with time, emotions, creativity, or physical energy. In any situation, decisions may be impaired thanks to the accumulation of investments made, just like the poker player on a losing streak, spewing chips when the odds aren’t in favour.
Psychologists call this cognitive bias the sunk-cost fallacy. Away from gambling, it’s difficult to spot because success is linked with stories of unrelenting determination and a “never-say-die” attitude. Quitting equates to weakness. If you really want to succeed, never, ever give up!
But sometimes quitting is the best decision. In any venture, the refusal to quit can become a hindrance to success, growth, or progress. It takes a calm, measured assessment of a present situation to spot the sunk-cost fallacy. Pride, stubbornness, guilt or fear are some egoic traits motivating us to continue on a set path, even when the signs point in a new direction.
Honesty and knowing when to quit
A challenging relationship taught me the suffering caused by a refusal to quit. I’d invested so much emotion, time, energy and daydreams of perfect futures, I felt the relationship had to work. I’d created a fantasy I was attempting to make reality, despite signs indicating the relationship was over. The sunk-cost fallacy caused me to hold on, when all I needed to do was let go.
A storyline developed. I told myself I’d only be happy when we were together, in the same city, three years in the future. It dawned on me that I was holding on to the belief she was “the one,” and we were destined to be together, no matter what. Quitting was far from easy. But as I slowly sobered from the intoxication of what could’ve been, it became clear my decision was based on a “what if,” not the truth of the situation.
Awareness of the sunken-cost fallacy adds clarity to such decisions. We can then choose investments wisely, based on our present understanding, not an outdated notion or chasing of metaphorical (or literal) losses. This takes an honest assessment, like the poker player who knows when to call it a night.
I encourage you to ask yourself — where am I investing time, money, or energy, based on investments already made, rather than based on the present reality?
This conscious approach uncovers investments that have become stale. Without curiously exploring, much goes unquestioned. Yet we only have a limited amount to invest, and creating a dynamic and value-filled life means consistent assessment to align to the “what is” rather than the “what was” or “what could be.”
Flexibility and opportunities to learn
Every investment provides opportunity to learn. Quitting doesn’t erase experiences gained along the way — with a mind primed for growth, those lessons are injected into new investments as we learn to spend our time, money, energy more wisely. In this way, quitting adds flexibility to our lives, allowing us to view new opportunities with fresh eyes.
Impermanence (annica in Buddhism) is a universal truth. Everything is in constant flux, all is transient. The Buddha taught increased well-being, harmony and reduced suffering are possible when we allow greater flow into our lives. Embracing impermanence allows the old to leave gracefully, providing room for the new.
Quitting can be viewed as failure. Or it can be viewed as letting go to create space for the infinite potential of new opportunities, people, or experiences closer aligned to the person we are becoming. With limited energy, letting go of what no longer serves us allows us to invest in what does.
Quitting takes courage, especially when it closes the door of familiarity and opens the door of unknown possibilities. But when enacted skilfully, quitting is an act of faith — in ourselves, and in the universe.
One summer’s evening in Budapest, I shared my battle with depression and anxiety with a close friend. “There’s always a choice,” he responded, his matter-of-fact assurance a thin veil covering his brotherly concern. These words stuck with me, enough for me to recollect seven years later, not least because I respect his guidance.
Truth is, it was only recently I came to appreciate the resonance of this phrase. There’s always a choice, yet depression deceives us. It makes us believe there are no choices, no escape from suffering, and leads to feeling hopeless. Hopelessness is one of the most damaging aspects of depression, with the potential to move us towards a dark destination — suicide.
I shiver recollecting this destructive feeling. Weighed down by suffering, I’ve contemplated suicide as a futile and self-destructive attempt to find a solution. I’m a firm believer those who contemplate, or unfortunately act upon, ending their own lives don’t want their life to end. They want an escape from pain, and suicide appears the only choice.
There’s always a choice. Yet when our rational minds do what they do best, and search for an explanation or and answer and come up short, our synapses can be diverted to the extreme. It can feel like we have no choices left to us. We feel powerless. We feel we’ll never experience happiness again. Worse still, we feel we’ll never experience any feeling other than the void of nothingness.
Here’s the thing — hopelessness is a symptom of depression. It isn’t truth.
An inability to imagine a worthwhile future when feeling hopeless
You could view feeling hopeless as failing to imagine a future where suffering has ended, and peace or contentment has taken its place. But the future is imagination, it’s not real. And mental projections are filtered by our current state. When filtered through a depressed state, future projections are grim. It’s an illusion mistaken as reality.
I was inspired to cover this topic when an impending life decision triggered suicidal thoughts. You may be alarmed reading this, but to reassure you — this is familiar terrain. Meditation has helped me cultivate distance from such thoughts, and spiritual practice and self-awareness allow me to accept the transient nature of their presence.
Essentially, I now have the resources to experience such thoughts without fearful resistance, undue attention, or allowing them lead to feeling hopeless.
The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.
Regardless, I’m faced with major upheaval, as returning to the UK has become a possibility. I was struggling to discern my options when contemplating this big life decision. Strangely, I relate to Nietzche’s words: “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.” My egoic mind has romanticised suicide as some maladjusted attempt to solve problems.
“Hey, Ricky mate, looks like you’re out of options. Ah well, you could always kill yourself.” Such is the puzzling nature of despair, imagine this inner-dialogue presented in a jovial tone, in clear defiance of the seriousness of its implication. I’m certainly not alone in suicidal ideation — a staggering 10 million Americans seriously contemplated suicide in 2015.
A cessation to suicidal thoughts by adding options
Before we go on, I want to distinguish fleeting thoughts from other “levels” of suicidal tendencies. A 2008 study defined suicidal behaviours into three definitions:
Suicidal ideation: thoughts of engaging in activity to end one’s life.
Suicide plan: the formulation of a method through which one intends to die.
Suicide attempt: engaging in behaviour leading to self-injury with some intent to die.
The scope of this article isn’t to hypothosize when the leap from Nietzche-esque macabre escapism turns into something more life threatening. Either way, I’ve noticed a very clear correlation to the times when I feel hopeless and suicidal thoughts popping into my conscious mind.
This time, something very interesting occurred, causing me to meditate deeply on the source of such thoughts: when I opened myself up to the option of leaving Berlin, and returning home to Bristol, the suicidal thoughts disappeared. It’s as if having another conscious option created a path for the problem solving brain to arrive at a healthier destination.
Do we deny challenging options from our conscious mind?
“I regret it when I suppress my feelings too long and they burst forth in ways that are distorted or attacking or hurtful.” — Carl Rogers
What’s going on here? I speculate this process is linked to the unconscious. Sigmund Freud identified denial as a key psychological defence mechanism. Was I denying the possibility of leaving Berlin from my consciousness because I was afraid of the significance of change involved? Did this suppression lead to suicide ideation as a bizarre and maladjusted attempt at problem solving, like a neurological short circuit?
Applying this theory to another example, let’s say your relationship is going through a challenging period. It’s fraught with pain and heartbreak. After an argument, you notice suicidal thoughts appear. Could this be a result of one possibility — the very real possibility of breaking up — being denied from existence?
There are numerous reasons why, in this example, someone may be inclined to deny a breakup is imminent. Believing in the myth of romantic love, a fear you won’t cope alone, framing the breakdown of a relationship as failure. Oh, I’ve fallen for all of these!
Our choices can be internal or external
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” — Epictetus
What about suicidal thoughts arising in times of emotional distress without an obvious cause? Initially I defined choice as existing in the external; choice is quitting my job, going on holiday, dumping my girlfriend, getting a new girlfriend. My choice was changing something external to change the way I felt.
I’ve since learned choices come in many forms. For example, we don’t choose which thoughts enter our minds, but we can choose how to respond to them. We can choose to change our perspective. We can choose to take action. Deciding to find an answer to “what is causing me this much pain” is a choice. Sometimes, staying alive is a choice.
Remember, there’s always a choice.
Opening up to choice, allowing space for faith
Once open to the richness of choice, we need to discern which choices serve our wellbeing and create positive possibilities. Getting shitfaced and sniffing multiple lines of coke is a choice. Having an affair in an attempt to find intimacy during a dry spell in a relationship is a choice. But such choices lead us to extra suffering, exacerbating hopelessness.
This is a theory I’m going to continue to meditate on, but intuitively, it explains experiences I’ve had. One of the biggest preventions of suicide is normalising suicidal thoughts, not from a place of detachment, but from a place of curiosity and acceptance. The more we understand the mechanics of suicidal thinking, the more we can offer solutions, provide space for people to discuss their experiences without fear of judgement.
To conclude, a word on faith. There will be periods when choices aren’t obvious. This doesn’t mean there are no choices — there’s always a choice. You just haven’t discovered them yet. And this is the time to choose faith. Faith these choices will soon arise, which they will. Faith that opening up to new possibilities sets the framework for them to present themselves, which they will.