Please note, this article is also on medium.com
Whether a person feels their life to be empty will depend on immediate circumstances. If such a person is in the middle of passionate sex with a much-desired partner, or has just won the lottery, or is eating an incredibly delicious meal, it seems unlikely they will feel their life to be empty. But if a person is financially needy, lonely, hungry, then the emptiness of existence may well press upon them. Looked at impartially, this is nothing more than survival status at a particular moment in time. Things going well tends to be fulfilling, whereas things not going so well make life appear less than attractive. I should add that this is the state of play for the average human being; someone not particularly given to reflective thought and very much influenced by current circumstances.
People who reflect on the nature of life might be less inclined to be influenced by immediate events and might become observers of their slavery to the whim of fortune. They might rightly conclude that pleasures never really satisfy; they are short lived, and of a lesser magnitude than the pains we can experience in life. The elephant in the room will also be an object of scrutiny, namely that we die and that all our ambitions, hopes, and dreams ultimately come to nothing. Reflections of this nature will probably convince such people that life is empty of meaning, purpose, and lasting pleasure.
The problems associated with deep reflection on life’s nature include an awareness of its futility and emptiness. This futility is an intellectual realization often accompanied by depressed emotional states and can be seen as problematic. Most people sense that contemplation on such matters will reveal things they may not want to be conscious of, and so various diversions and inner censorship help avoid the difficulties, it can bring about. Meanwhile the body continues to seek the resources it needs to continue with life and in many respects is unconcerned with the seeming futility of its actions. In essence, the body has undergone millions of years of evolution to focus its complete effort on personal survival and procreation, and human beings are demonstrably very good at this. We are currently the dominant species, after all. These drivers create a conflict between the body’s programming and the realizations that might come through reflection; however, in nearly all cases, the body determines ongoing actions no matter how futile the mind might see this activity. The body drives most of us to seek shelter, food, companionship, sexual partners, money, dominance; all of these things being conducive to ongoing existence. As far as the body is concerned, life is not empty; it is full of desire and efforts to satisfy those desires. The degree to which these desires are met will determine the kinds of emotions we feel. Pleasurable feelings (love, excitement, cheerfulness) come about when the body is doing well; painful emotions are usually associated with unfulfilled desires (anger, depression, envy, hatred). In effect, the emotions are the barometer showing how well we are doing in life. The body does not know emptiness; it knows pleasure and pain, but never emptiness.
Mind as Slave
The human mind is mostly a slave to the body. When we wake, we load up our survival program – get food, get money, see a doctor if unwell, seek out a mating partner (maybe), fix the leaking roof, and so on. Our mind business itself with plans, schedules, and schemes, to satisfy the body’s needs most effectively, and all this is driven by pain, by the need to fulfill the body’s desires, which always come from a sense of lack. Hunger, sexual frustration, being cold, thirsty, experiencing physical pain; these and many other states call to be addressed. However, we do more than address the current needs of the body, our mind is capable of anticipating the future, and so it is always devising schemes to address future needs. Our mind is truly the body’s slave, although few people see it this way. Most people believe they can do as the mind instructs, but try not to eat for a week, abstaining from sex for several months, or anything else that involves the body’s discomfort, and you will soon see who the boss is; it isn’t the mind. So, the body does its thing and the mind faithfully services the body’s needs as they arise.
The constant demands placed upon the mind by the body induce a continual state of anxiety. After all, our whole being is driven by pain, the need to alleviate it, and the promise of temporary pleasures. If the body is in pain, the mind will also be in pain, and it does everything it can to avoid pain, hence the constant anxiety. As a result, the mind complains and grows weary of the constant striving. But a cruel reality overshadows the complaining mind, which only sees futility and emptiness, and this is encapsulated in a brutal but true reality: those who matter do not complain, and those who complain do not matter. The body does not complain other than when its desires are not being met, and even then, it is hell-bent on satisfying those desires. However, the mind might complain endlessly, but its complaints are unheard by the body whose overriding drivers are those of survival and procreation and nothing else. This conflict is a vicious cycle that typically has no resolution. As boss, the body gets what it wants. As a slave, the mind is always striving to satisfy its boss’s insatiable needs.
The illusion that the mind is in control of matters derives from the fallacious notion of free will. This is not the time or place to address the issue of free will, but the most succinct expression that destroys the idea of free will is that: we can always do what we want, but we cannot want what we want. Given that we do not have free will, the protestations and schemes that occupy the mind generally come to nothing since our mechanistic nature determines our actions. We might read self-help books, attend workshops, adopt a spiritual practice, seek psychological counseling. Still, all of this comes to nothing if the scenarios conjured up in our mind conflict with the body’s needs and or existing conditioning.
The mind can even be seen as a pain amplifier. Not only does it try to address current bodily needs, but it imagines future scenarios that might cause pain. Worry, fear, fanciful hopes, imagined adverse outcomes all serve to ramp up the psychological distress, and with it comes anxiety. Little wonder that the mind looks on at its daily grind and finds the whole thing futile, painful, and unsatisfying. As far as the mind is concerned, we strive today to do the same thing tomorrow. Now, most people don’t reflect on these matters, and so this is how they live their lives, with little or no respite other than the occasional pleasure. But the mind does have another role.
The Body as Slave
Many spiritual traditions understand our slavery to the body very well. The less sophisticated traditions will set up a conflict between body and mind to address the situation. This conflict might consist of denying the satisfaction of bodily desires and even introducing practices that punish the body somehow. For most of us, this would be a recipe for disaster. The body will not be denied, and if it cannot get immediate satisfaction, it will seek to get it other ways – haughtiness, arrogance, spitefulness, schadenfreude, bad tempers. A mind that tries to apply its invented regimes to the body will suffer even more than it did when it was just a slave. So there has to be another way for the mind to gain some dominance – and there is.
The body is a dumb beast. Yes, it is miraculous in how it works and has its own intelligence, but that does not serve us in the least as we search for some level of satisfaction and happiness. In any case, the body is unconscious and does not know that it exists. The mind, on the other hand, has two tools at its disposal – reason and understanding. By utilizing these tools, we can move from being mere slaves to the body to an active state where we come to understand the nature of our body and particularly its desires and emotions. After all, we are looking for happiness, and happiness will never come if we are passive slaves serving a body with insatiable needs. We need to become active through our understanding.
As the slave of the body, the mind may reasonably conclude that existence is futile in its default state. This conclusion is understandable because the mind gets nothing from this continual slavery. Once it starts to become active, it can use the body as its lab-rat. It can study how anger comes about, how hope and fear are two sides of the same coin, how some situations might cause anxiety, how pleasures are just a temporary relief from pain.
The most important aspect of this approach is that we do not intervene in the actions, desires, and emotions of the body, we observe and understand, and we certainly do not judge. Of course, this may sound simple, but it is not. Years of conditioning will cause most of us to censor, intervene, and judge, but simple non-interventionist observation can be achieved with practice. Our mind likes to understand, it gives it pleasure, so instead of being a dumb, badly treated slave, it becomes a master of its understanding. The mind takes on a role of its own, and its existence is no longer futile; it gains in understanding and achieves some level of satisfaction with that.
As the mind acquires more understanding and skill so the power of the understanding brings about the resolution of internal conflicts and many of the pains associated with life. This goal of minimizing the pain in life should not be underestimated. For Epicurus, pleasure was simply the absence of pain, and for Spinoza, the mind experiences pleasure when it comes to understand our pains. The body will always go chasing after pleasure, but the mind can busy itself with trying to avoid pain.
The mind cannot see emptiness when it orientates itself to becoming boss of the body, not in modifying its behavior directly, but in terms of understanding. The miraculous part of this is that understanding has a power of its own. The body’s behavior may well become modified, not through some direct effort but through the subliminal effects of understanding. The default state where the mind is a slave to the body’s need is unsatisfying for the mind. When the mind becomes active, it assumes its proper role, and feelings of futility and emptiness melt away.