The Dance of Life: The Endless Sway Between Joy, Power and Pain

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“Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while, a great wind carries me across the sky.”- Ojibwe saying

We are born, naked, terrified into an indifferent and cold world. As infants, we are helpless. We can’t feed ourselves or bathe ourselves. We depend on our parents for everything– love, warmth, shelter, food. Even before we understand language, we understand this relationship, that we are at the mercy of others. There is a beautiful symmetry to all this, the interplay between parent and child, as a child grows older. 

But the other side of this interplay is darkness and pain. Our parents are flawed people. Even the luckiest and most privileged of them do not get to escape suffering. And in this suffering, our parents, and their parents before them, have built a congregation of defenses. The world, as I said above, is terrifying from the beginning. We are dependent on others for survival. As we grow older, a thousand little cuts– but also sometimes a stab wound– enfeeble us. They may seem inconsequential looking back over our lives, but they are not. Perhaps it was being told one is ugly in 2nd grade or not being picked to dance at an 8th-grade party. Perhaps it is our parents screaming at us after a poor grade. Perhaps it is the death of someone we love. Or perhaps it worse, some physical or emotional abuse. 

All of this our parents absorbed far before they have had us as children. And in their pain, they can’t help themselves, they impart their pain on to us in some way. Such is the way of things. And of course, besides our parents, we endure our own lives or own death by a thousand cuts. If I let myself, I can reflect on many moments when I have hurt acutely, including in recent weeks. Life can feel like endless dukkha. Suffering, it seems, is the way of things. 

In this suffering, terrifying world, all of us seek a sense of security and its antecedent, power. All of the structures of the modern economy are built on this pursing of security and power. There is the obvious sense of security– food, housing, friendships, family, work. A strange thing has happened to humanity since the dawn of civilization. If our basic needs are taken care of, somehow it is not enough for most of us. It often isn’t enough to have a decent home to live in, but there is a desire to have more. If your buddy from college, owns a five-bedroom house, while you own a three, so many of us start to feel less than. Our basic needs are not about security, they care about winning and feeling powerful, and accumulating more. And the desire for more is everything that drives the modern economy. We are insatiable beings. Our basic need for security has mutated into something uglier, a constant will to power. (I often have a sense of that looking at the New York skyline where hundreds of skyscrapers dot the ether. On some level, these buildings have practical value as commercial and residential buildings. On another level, they are the ultimate symbols of vanity and power, as monuments to someone’s feeling of omnipotence. I’ve joked to friends that the skyline is nothing but a bunch of erect penises.) 

And so we all live in this strange dance between power, desire, and suffering. So where does happiness come in? For the modern world, often happiness is about hedonism and materialism. Pleasure and accumulation above all else seem to drive many of us. Pleasure can come in many forms whether sex, food, drugs art, or a holiday to a tropical island. And I must say, pleasure is wonderful. I love all of the things I’ve listed in different ways. But the problem, as is the problem with most things of this world, is that pleasure ends. And we are left back into the world of our defenses, the world of our sufferings. Many of us as a result, make the pursuit of pleasure a paramount principle to live by. If pleasure ends, why not keep trying to keep getting more of it? Pleasure becomes an addiction, a way of coping with our existence. The downside of this is that after a while of jumping on the hedonic treadmill, the pleasures don’t excite as much as they used to, and the pleasures can start to feel empty. 

As a result, many of us turn to materialism. The whole modern advertising industry is built on this. In some ways we are just children, just chasing down new, shiny objects to play with. I might have a functional car, but that advertisement of the beautiful new Tesla makes me very excited. I just have to have it. And so I buy it, and I am so pleased for a while, that is until you get used to your beautiful new Tesla, and you have to buy something else. The whole economy is built on this in some way. We don’t buy just what we need, we buy things that will make us “happy.” New clothes, new cars, new houses… new, new, new, the endless chase of more and more. 

Pleasure and materialism work to some extent of course. And they both have their merits. But it doesn’t change the facts of existence. It doesn’t change that we are born into a terrifying world with fragile bodies that will one day soon die. It does not change all the traumas, big and small, which we accumulate over time and build our defenses around. It does change any of this. So most of us are left with endless volleys back and forth between pleasure and pain, between power and powerlessness until it all ends as it does for everyone. 

Depending on your point of view, what I just wrote is either endless depressing or just the way it is, and it’s not best to think about it too much. I personally find it sad. Is that all there is– pleasure, pain, power, suffering? I have been asking myself more and more lately: Who am I? Where am I going? Obviously, spirituality plays a part in how I see existence. It is the search for something beyond the endlessly numbing cycles I have described above… 

But to digress just for a second. Recently I finished a rewatch of The Sopranos. I had watched a decent amount of it when it was airing, but this was the first time I had seen it completely. I found it to be my favorite show of all time. I don’t won’t turn this into a TV review, but it somehow combines the profundity of The Leftovers, with the exciting plot machinations of Breaking Bad, along with some of the pointed social commentary of The Wire, all while being one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen. 

In the last season, a mysterious note is left in a hospital room, and no one knows who put it there. It reads, “Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while, a great wind carries me across the sky.” This quote has become a sort of mantra in recent weeks. It resonates with me in a way beyond explanation and language. I have turned to it more recently as I’ve gone through some moments of real pain, and I do pity myself and wonder why things are happening the way they are. I don’t often think of myself in the victim, “woe is me” mentality. But it can be easy to fall into a trap. And in that feeling, I can turn to an accumulation or pleasure mindset. In short, I drink more or buy more things I don’t need. I don’t judge myself for this, but I am aware of its limitations. 

But that quote reminds me of something else, a different way to view existence beyond the cycles of pleasure and pain. Everything in my consciousness reinforces that I am the center of the world, and my needs and desires are what should drive existence. It is impossible to fully escape this point of view in my experience. God knows I’ve tried. So all of us go into the world with an ego-centric point of view. And most of us have trouble ever seeing beyond that. It is just not in our nature. But some of us try to. I think that is why psychedelics have become so popular. It is an avenue to seeing the world beyond the masks of everyday existence. And that is also what meditation tries to help us with: to get beyond our egos. But again and again, we return to our egos, because there is no other way. We are the center of the world. 

But somehow the opposite of this is true. Whether we are fully aware of it or not, we understand how insignificant our lives are. We understand that the earth has been here for billions of years, but that humans have only been around for a tiny speck of it. We realize that billions of people have lived before us, and have all died, and are forgotten to the grave. We realize that we are just one of many billions living today, and each one of those people is the main character of their stories, who think they are the most important person in the world. But none of us really are. We are cosmic specks of dust, that dance in the gusts of wind. 

What is this great wind, the one the quote tells us carries us across the sky? You can call it whatever you want… God, buddha-nature, the universe, the great unknown. It is this great wind, which is far beyond our tiny ken to fully understand, that is always. This great wind will never abandon us, even when we feel at our smallest. It is there always, the great forces of the unseen, guiding us in the larger, supernal forces of existence. Yes, we hold onto our problems and suffering. And yes, they often feel so big, so overwhelming, and we pity ourselves for having gone through it. But beyond all that, beyond the smallness of our everyday egos, the great wind carries across the sky, guiding us beyond anything we can fully understand. 

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