Tuesday, November 03, 2015

The Inner and The Outer

Much of self-help and spiritual literature advises one to derive one's happiness from "inner" sources, as the "outer" is what it is and to want to change the outer is fraught with frustration.

The dichotomy between the "inner" and the "outer" is expressed as if the inner is "me" whereas the "outer" is "not-me".  Supposedly, if I look within "me", I can find eternal happiness.  But if I continue to look for happiness outside of "me", it will be elusive.

This is a serious misconception, and a dangerous one.
 
An immediate problem is the definition of "me", and where to locate this "me".  In many spiritual traditions, such as Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta, the mind or even the "soul" is the outer, the not-me.  In those traditions, the way to find happiness in "me" is to regard everything as not-me.  Whatever can be observed, is anyway "not me" (or so it is claimed).  And, going further, even the observer is "not me".  There is just no "me" to be found anywhere.  One's true nature is "nothing" (in Buddhism) and "everything" (in Advaita Vedanta).

But even if we disregard these radical systems and consider "me" as my mind and my attitude, it is still a grave mistake to consider "me" as somehow more likely to provide continued happiness and contentment than the "not-me".

The first issue with this approach is what I call the "loser approach".  The loser says to himself: I can't seem to make a difference in the world, so let me then find fulfillment in an imaginary way.  The parable of the old woman looking for her pin under the light even though she lost it elsewhere is brilliantly pertinent here.


The second issue is that it is a huge misconception that one can in general transform one's mind and one's attitude in a way that is easier than transform one's external situation.  In many situations, it is easier in fact to change the situation rather than escape into oneself.  If one's boss is a bully, it is quite often possible to address this situation so that the boss is given some feedback, rather than adjust oneself to become more stoic.  The self-help approach leads to a status-quo in the world, rather than improvement.  And according to many studies, one's basic temperament and drives are mostly set in stone after the first few years of one's life.  One can perhaps learn to modulate one's anger, but to not get angry at all is a tall order.  Novice seekers vainly imagine that one day they will be free of anger and desire.  Unfortunately, they realize the futility of their quest when it doesn't matter whether they get angry or what they desire.

The third issue is that this approach leads to a high degree of isolation.  Since "I" am to derive "my" happiness from "myself", I no longer deeply care for others.  I may be compassionate in a condescending manner, but I cannot be passionate or sentimental or attached or loving or sad, because these are directed emotions in which another person is deemed significant.  In the self-help approach, all significant emotions must be directed to oneself.  Any outward expression is fraught with complication and suffering, and an "inward-looking" person is unsure of handling such complications.  For an "inward-looking" person, only one's own happiness is important.  Others should also focus on themselves, instead of expecting anything from oneself.

3 comments:

zrini said...

sober critique on shall we say, narcissism vs activism? if changing the environment only keeping the self constant is one extreme, changing of the self keeping the status quo of the environment is another extreme. the truth must lie in the middle, and there must be a spectrum. and based on one's own present conditions, one can choose the hue. if one is materially addicted, a dosage of spiritualism might help and so will a dosage of materialism to the spiritually addicted. but it must be a personal choice, only subject to criticism if thrust on another without consideration to the other's state. isn't that true for any generic ideology?

observer said...

"The parable of the old woman looking for her pin under the light even though she lost it elsewhere is brilliantly pertinent here."

Interestingly advaitins use the same parable to say exactly the opposite.

Anonymous said...

There is no boundary inner and outer in Advaitha(non duality.