A few months ago, I was sitting on a bus daydreaming when an advertising hoarding caught my eye. An impressionistic image of a fast car was emblazoned with the words, The Road To Better Is Endless. Indeed. We can always have, do, or be more or better, according to the logic of the self (and the commercial markets which feed our never-ending appetite for seeming betterment on every level). Whatever pinnacle of material or spiritual achievement or attainment we’re fixated on reaching, we want to get from here to there.
Let’s look at how this wanting-more-or-better mechanism works. The self – the bundle of thoughts and sensations that we take ourselves to be – inevitably feels deficient or lacking in some way. It’s not until we really start to notice this tendency that we realise its ubiquitous nature. Listen to your self-talk, and you’ll hear what I’m referring to; that stream of commentary that issues forth from within, describing and diagnosing endlessly. You need to lose weight. You shouldn’t have said that to her. Why is he speaking to me like that? I need to sort out my money issues… This inner voice can be compelling, particularly when its assertions are backed up by the images of memory or imagination and sometimes powerful physical sensations or emotions. Having believed what the voice is telling us, it’s natural that we’d set about trying to find solutions to the ills or problems it has conjured so convincingly. Needless to say, the very same inner voice – the thought stream of the self – also proffers possible fixes for whatever it deems wrong.
Much as some people say the pharmaceutical industry creates new disease categories and disorders for which it can then sell cures, the self declares itself deficient and then offers up possible solutions to that very same deficiency. It’s only when we really investigate that the absurdity and illogic of this mechanism becomes clear. The same self acts as prosecution and defence, judge, jury and defendant. There’s often a split apparent there – the part that is doing the criticizing and the part being criticized, for example. We can even hear this split in our thoughts; God, you’ve always been useless. Why can’t you get it together? Who is talking to whom?
The superego – that inner critical, controlling voice – is particularly adept at serving up should and shouldn’ts, and telling us how we should be. Complete with exhortations, instructions, and images of how we should look, feel, or be in the future – inevitably better than how we are in the present moment – it can feel like we’re at its mercy. We see the images in our mind’s eye of how we should be, and take them as proof that we are indeed deficient as we are. And yet the idea of stepping off this merry-go-round can seem impossible or crazy, especially if we believe that we are deficient and that how we are in this moment is not okay.
The self will co-opt anything to its mission of making itself better, of perfecting itself in its own image, including inquiry. It’s natural that we would come to the Living Inquiries with this mindset; it’s the way that we’ve always approached everything, because that’s what the self does. However, if we continue to look deeply, we discover several things. One, that the Living Inquiries do not work as a way to improve the self; rather, the inquiries reveal that there isn’t a self here to be improved. Two, that it is possible and even okay to be here exactly as we are in this moment, which after all our striving for betterment is often a huge relief. Three, that it’s less painful to meet reality as it is than to stay suspended between here and there, between fantasy and reality. In fact, it’s unfelt pain that drives the whole mechanism.
Seductive as it may be, the endless road to better is exhausting and ultimately leads nowhere. Many of us have experienced reaching some long-nurtured goal or dream only to discover that it hasn’t bought us the salvation that we longed for. By painstakingly investigating the whole fantasy of better, we can free ourselves from mortgaging our present to an imagined future, and inhabit the reality of this moment, whatever it contains. And what could be better than that?