Insufficiency and Self

As Westerners we are constantly bombarded with the message that whatever we have isn’t good enough and that we need something more. This was something that came up in the post I wrote last week about some of the more challenging Buddhist teachings being held back from Western students for a range of reasons. This uncovered that there is a commonly held idea that Buddhist practice alone isn’t enough for Western students, it doesn’t work for them in its original form, they need it to be supplemented with other practices.

What I saw was this narrative of needing something more, this story of always lacking in something was a common thread that ran through many aspects of life in Western societies, with our primary source of it coming through adverts telling us we have problems we don’t have and need things that we don’t need. One of the classic examples of this is how advertisers in the early 20th century struggled to sell deodorants until they managed to reframe body odour as being a problem; first of all by  saying that excessive perspiration was a medical issue, and then later by suggesting that women who didn’t deal with their body odour would struggle to find a husband [1]

These kinds of advertising strategies are considered to be pretty unethical by today’s standards, but let’s not forget that we arrived at today’s standards by realising how damaging it was to our sense of wellbeing and body confidence these adverting ploys were. We are at a point in history where the damage has already been done to our collective psyches and it may well be many years before that is repaired.

Woven into our lives is this constant thread of lack – of not having, of not having enough, of needing something more, of needing something better, of needing to be better- and it is little surprise then that we struggle to find contentment, or to feel anything about ourselves is sufficient.

I have a personal narrative of insufficiency too, a story that endlessly resurfaces, of not being good enough, or not being ready yet, or needing something else first before I can move on to the next stage. Like so many others this stems from my childhood, growing up in a critical environment where I got little feedback about anything that I was doing right but plenty of detail about what I was doing wrong.

In meditation this week I was pondering this feeling that manifests in me as a perpetual sense of insufficiency, and I saw the interplay of both my personal experience and the societal message of always lacking in something tangled into each other to make the experience of insufficiency an almost constant one.

I know not everyone has this experience, but I also know that I am not alone in having a voice in the back of my mind that can find a reason why everything and anything I do is lacking in something.

I can’t quite remember what I was poring over while I was meditating, but within my thread of thought it suddenly occurred to me that my chronic fear of heights came from a feeling of insufficiency, from the belief that ‘I can’t handle it’ that Susan Jeffers says is the at the heart of our feelings of fear in her classic book ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway’. This insight spurred me to examine the rest of my experiences for the presence of feelings of insufficiency, and I found that they were all pervasive.

Now when I say that, I don’t mean that when I looked at these things I could see what was actually missing, that wasn’t clear at all most of the time. What I mostly found was the constant movement of the mind away from where it was, going searching for something else. This movement betrayed the underlying feeling of something being lacking, if I felt like I had everything I needed then I wouldn’t be looking elsewhere.

As well as the feeling of lacking in something, the sense of ‘I can’t’ was everywhere too, making dinner – I can’t make those things, I haven’t got enough time. Doing research – I can’t, I’m too tired. Sitting at the desk – I can’t, my back is sore. I realised that these I can’ts were another manifestation of insufficiency, I didn’t want to do them because there was a feeling that I couldn’t handle them, that I couldn’t handle writing and having a sore back or cooking and running out of time.

These are just stories that our minds tell us of course, and I wondered if simply re-storying them was enough to change the narrative. But I soon realised that it wasn’t enough, because even when the stories we tell ourselves and other people tell us are put to one side, a fundamental experience of insufficiency still remains, which is why we struggle to ever find a sense of balance from worldly solutions.

This fundamental insufficiency comes from our sense of self, which in Buddhist understanding is considered not to be a fixed person or personality but  a constantly changing experience which relies on external conditions for its existence. Before we come to a practice, we have an idea that our self is a very real and stable entity, but after we begin to investigate it isn’t long before we find this self to be nothing of the sort. It turns out to be none of the things we thought it was, not our body, not our feelings, not our thoughts, and not our mind.

The sense of self that we have is merely an idea, it only gains its appearance of solidity from the things that it identifies with, that it attaches itself onto, because without these things it wouldn’t be there. But that means that the process of making a self is one that has to happen all the time, which creates its own problems as Khema points out:

“We are constantly trying to reaffirm self. Which already shows that this “self” is a very fragile and rather wispy sort of affair, because if it weren’t why would we constantly have to reaffirm it? Why are we constantly afraid of the “self” being threatened of its being insecure, of its not getting what it needs for survival? If it were such a solid entity as we believe it to be, we would not feel threatened so often.” [2]

The constant requirement for reinforcement means that when we operate through our sense of self we are inevitably going to experience the insecurity that is its inherent nature. Bhikkhu Bodhi sums  up this issue neatly when he says “anxiety is the dark twin of ego”, [3] .

Nyanaponika expands on this by saying  that :

“…the belief in “I” and “Mine”, instead of giving a feeling of security, is, in fact, a cause of anxiety, fear and worry… This belief in “I” and “Mine” and the passionate attachment to it, is at the root of the existentialist philosopher’s “anguish” as well as of the anxiety neuroses that haunt modern man. The belief in unrealities, even if a temporary solace, must ultimately end in disappointment and despair.” [4]

Khema attributes this insecurity to the constant need of the ego to be identified with something. [2] If there is a challenge to the things we identify with then the sense of self runs the risk of ego death – a worst nightmare for most of us. But of course the ego has its coat on a shaky peg anyway, because in Buddhist understanding all the things it claims as itself or for itself are nothing of the sort. All of the experiences and phenomena that the ego identifies with are constantly changing, so it has to continuously chase after them to have any hope of persisting. This fundamental instability in the existence of our sense of self lies at the heart of why having a sense of self  comes is synonymous with fear and anxiety.  

The  problems we experience because of the sense of self are considered to arise mostly from our identification with it, and our misunderstanding about what it is. Ontl takes a slightly different tack though when he suggests that part of our problem comes from the inbuilt survival mechanisms of our minds and bodies that normally operate to guide us towards favourable conditions and away from ones that will do us harm. A mission creep happens to these processes  and they take over in situations where they are not required, plunging us into “a fog of cravings and longings”. [5] They create a “vague, objectless wanting [which] leaves us perpetually dissatisfied and unfulfilled”. [5]

This vague, objectless desire, whatever it is caused by,  really resonates with my experience of an unspecifiable ‘something’ that I feel certain that I am lacking in, which sends my mind on a search for anything and everything that might be able to fill the nameless void, however briefly.

I had become aware of the mind moving to find something fulfilling  a few weeks ago when I saw that the contents of my thoughts were largely calculations, imaginings, and projections aimed at creating some kind of pleasant feeling. . When I observed the process closely, I saw that there was some blip that triggered the mind to start working out how to gain some pleasant experience. I could only assume the blip was some kind of desire, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. The desire that started it was indistinct, it was like a little spark that activated the rest of the system, which then started working out how to achieve a desire. But I also noticed that the desire it was calculating how to achieve was not the one that started it off.

To illustrate my point, this unspecified desire for something would activate seemingly randomly, then my mind would think about going to get some chocolate for example, or think about the ancient Sumerian civilisation, or plan a multistep project, or think about  XLR cables, or when I should next visit Costco. The thoughts that came after the initial impulse of desire were nothing to do with that first feeling; they were, it seemed, just ideas to generate any kind of pleasant feeling.

This had led me to conclude following through on these types of thoughts is futile because the answers that the mind is coming up with are not the ones that go with the initial question that was being asked. The initial feeling of wanting or needing something  happened in the present moment, but the response from the mind is some point in the future. The wish for something is happening right now, so these future imaginings cannot satisfy it. They are just distracting us from where the problem actually is, which is right here, right now.

I puzzled over what kind of  desire it could be that was starting it all off but no matter how hard I looked I just couldn’t see what it was that I wanted. But when I started to look at insufficiency, I realised that it wasn’t desire as such that was setting the system off, it was a sense of lacking in something – the wanting came from a sense of not having. Insufficiency was triggering a desire to have something, anything, in the vain hope that it might be the thing that was missing. That explained why the things the mind alighted onto had no relationship to the initial spark, it was being driven by that vague, objectless sense of needing something without any concept of what that might be.

The constant movement of the mind to do, do, do, to get this or get that, or get rid of this and replace it with that, I saw had all stemmed from an initial feeling of insufficiency, of something lacking. When I kept my mind in the present moment and just recognised ‘ah, there’s that feeling of insufficiency’, then it would just pass on its own without a problem.

Our grand plans appear to be about something that we are working towards, but really they are just us trying to feel better right now. We think we will feel better when our grand plan is complete, but we never needed to do it in the first place; if we had noticed in the moment there was a feeling of insufficiency then we didn’t need to do any of the things our mind suggested, we just needed to let the feeling of insufficiency pass.

Some strands of Western psychology have suggested over the years that  the source of our emotional problems stem from a broken, insufficient sense of self, with the implication that it can somehow be fixed, but the Buddhist way of understanding this is that the sense of self is the source of this insufficiency, if you have a sense of self that creates the feeling of insufficiency. The sense of self can never bring a feeling of completeness for more than a few seconds because it always has to chase changing conditions to prop itself up, it is always unstable, uncertain,  at risk, and in need of something. So in this way of understanding the self, the sense of self can never be fixed, it can never be made complete because it isn’t possible for something that relies on constantly changing phenomena to ever reach a stable end state. Chasing after a feeling of completeness, of sufficiency through our sense of self, or our personal identity is like chasing after rainbows, no matter how far we go we will never reach the end of it.

This is where advertisers have us at their whim, our senses of self will never feel sufficient so they will always have something new that they can convince us that we need.

So if our sense of self cannot achieve a sense of completeness then how do we get away from this constant feeling of lack? The answer lies in experiencing the world away from the perspective of the self. It isn’t possible to feel sufficient through the medium of a sense of self, it is only possible to feel sufficient by not having a sense of self, by dropping that viewpoint and experiencing the world through the realm of just being.

I used to think about what it was that was taking my attention away from the present moment, and I would ask ‘what is missing in this moment that makes me want to be somewhere else?’ Now that I think about it from the perspective of insufficiency, I realise the question instead is ‘what is missing from ‘me’ that I think I need to find it somewhere else?’ There never was anything missing from the moment, it had everything in it that needed to be there, the missing part was in ‘me’, the feeling of lacking something that comes from viewing the world through a sense of self.

When I meditate and I am perfectly content then there is never anything wrong with the moment, it is fine just the way it is even when it has uncomfortable or unpleasant things in it. But when that feeling of insufficiency comes up then suddenly there is a problem, there is something wrong with this moment because my mind decides that it is better to be somewhere else. The moment doesn’t  change, it is only ever ‘me’ that is changing.

Even in something as mundane as watching the breath in meditation this feeling of insufficiency can pop up and derail my best intentions. Whether it is just there all the time out of habit, or whether it is being specifically triggered by some idea that ‘I can’t watch the breath anymore, I can’t handle it anymore’, I don’t know, but it happens and then there is that impulse for the mind to take me out of this moment. If I see the impulse for what it is, and don’t react to it, then I can stop the mind from spinning a story, and I can keep my attention on the job at hand.  

When we follow this feeling of lacking in something  we project our imagined sense of what the problem is, its cause, and its solution into the past and the future, but all that is really happening is in the present moment, and all that our problem actually is is a feeling of insufficiency right now. This means that the thoughts  it triggers are largely illusory and paying attention to them is wasting our time because they are not dealing with the problem of now. Thoughts like these  are little better than dreams, the reality is happening now.

When we stay in the now, we notice the fleeting feelings and impulses, the urges to get something, anything, and if we watch our minds carefully then we notice that our thoughts are being activated by these sensations.

Allowing the feeling of lack, of non-specified wanting, to just arise and pass away on its own has reduced my problems massively, but its cause still remains. To permanently uproot this feeling of insufficiency requires the complete loss of belief in the ego as a source of potential happiness, and that requires the long and intricate practice of the whole path of enlightenment. To say it is no small job is an understatement of epic proportions, it may even take longer than a whole lifetime if you accept such possibilities. What I mean to say is that I can see it is important to not let the length of time it takes to stop falling into the trap of  feelings of insufficiency become another source of feelings of insufficiency. We can perhaps try starting with breaking the habit of a lifetime of thinking there is something wrong with us, and try something different instead. Whenever a feeling of lack of any kind comes up, we can say ‘ah, that’s just that feeling of insufficiency, that’s just what having a sense of self feels like’, and simply let it go instead.

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

References

1.    Everts S. How Advertisers Convinced Americans They Smelled Bad. 08/03/2012. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-advertisers-convinced-americans-they-smelled-bad-12552404/. Accessed 6 May 2021.

2.    Sister Khema. Meditating on No-Self: A Dhamma Talk (Edited for Bodhi Leaves). 1994. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/khema/bl095.html. Accessed 5 May 2021.

3.    Bhikkhu Bodhi. The Search for Security. 1998. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/ati/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_15.html. Accessed 5 May 2021.

4.    Nyanaponika Bhikkhu. The Discourse on the Snake Simile: Alagaddupama Sutta (MN 22). 14/10/2017. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanaponika/wheel048.html. Accessed 5 May 2021.

5.    Petr Karel Ontl. Of Mindsets and Monkeypots. 1993. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/ontl/bl131.pdf. Accessed 5 May 2021.

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