The English poet William Wordsworth wrote a poem which he titled The World is Too Much with Us. Many of us today would believe that was a very strange title for a poem. But for me that is not the case. Let me explain why,
The essential part of being human is our consciousness. When we are conscious we are not only aware but we are aware of our awareness. Not only do we have thoughts but we are aware of our thoughts. As far as we know other animals don’t have this capacity or if they do it is to a far lesser degree than is experienced by humans, Our consciousness provides us with an internal theatre that enables us to witness some of the processes of our minds.
Consequently, unlike other animals, we have to grapple with two worlds – a world “out there” and a world “in here”. It does not take much thought to realise that any sense of peace and equanimity that we might have arises from the nature of our internal world. But most people are stuck with the pervasive notion that true happiness comes from attaining success in our outer world. As a result they believe, erroneously, that happiness is dependent on such things as wealth, material possessions, glamorous partners, fame and so on..
(Stanford University biologist, Robert Sapolsky, wrote a fabulous book which he titled Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Whilst Zebras on the Serengeti obviously live a stressful life, being the prey of marauding lions, he conjectured they didn’t get ulcers because they lived in the present. If they were faced with predators they took whatever evasive actions they could, driven by evolutionary behavioural responses. But without a “theatre of mind” such as humans have they don’t have the capacity to worry about the future as humans do. Thus once the danger is passed they just get on with things without worrying. We would benefit from such a mindset but for most of us our consciousness won’t allow it.)
And this domination of our thinking by what is in our external world is, I believe, what Wordsworth meant when he wrote “The world is too much with us.” He was implying that we too often allow the circumstances of our outside world to distract us from the only long-term source of well-being – our state of mind.
Let me state categorically that the biggest obstacle preventing us from attaining a sense of inner well-being is an erroneous concept of, and an obsession with self.
Almost twenty years ago now I became concerned with the rising rates of depression. Many of those close to me and quite a few of my coaching clients suffered depression. I often felt a degree of helplessness in dealing with the affliction in those I loved and admired. As a result I devoted many years in trying to understand the underpinnings of depression.
I had a basic understanding of psychology from my long association with my friend and colleague, the clinical psychologist Dr Phil Harker. On his recommendation I read the prolific works of the Australian psychologist who focussed on depression, Dorothy Rowe.
In one of her books Dorothy Rowe wrote that depressives were self-obsessed. Now she didn’t mean this in a narcissistic way, but it seems generally true that those suffering depression can’t stop thinking about themselves and their real and imagined problems.
(When I asked my clients to describe to me a time that they felt happy, invariably it was a time when they had been drawn to focus on something outside their own suffering.)
When trying to develop strategies to assist those with depression, I sought other sources as well for inspiration.
I have always had an abiding interest in Buddhism. Whilst Buddhism is often classified as a religion, Buddhism to me is more about training the mind. Buddhism’s most famous and most ubiquitous technique, meditation practice, helps still the mind and shut down self-talk. Someone with depression is always berating themselves that they are not good enough. Learning meditation techniques stills the mind and provides relief from such self-critical obsessions. Consequently meditation practice provides a non-judgmental, restorative pause for those so afflicted.
Now, in my coaching practice I am not so arrogant as to tell people what they should or should not do. Yet when I offered the option of meditation to my clients many of their own volition chose to try it and reported beneficial results.
(As an aside I would like to assert that generally those who are depressed are good people. Yet because of their heightened sensitivity of self they are not good enough to meet their own inflated expectations.)
But at this time another group of psychologists were starting to make themselves heard. American psychologist, Martin Seligman initiated a movement which he called “Positive Psychology”. He complained that psychology was greatly engrossed in helping those with psychological problems find relief but ignored what we could do to make ordinary people happier.
Seligman and his Hungarian colleague, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, researched the issue. Two of their findings were of particular interest to me.
Firstly they found that those people who had the opportunity to exercise their “signature strengths” lived more satisfying lives. Our signature strengths are those personal attributes we possess that when we give them full rein, fully engage us. When we exercise our signature strengths, because of our level of engagement, we become unaware of the outside world and also our obsession with “self”. We get into a sense of “flow” and often lose sense of the passage of time. When you exercise your signature strengths you might look up at the clock and be surprised that it is lunch time already. Where did the morning go?
It is healthy for us to exercise our signature strengths. If you want to know what your signature strengths are, there are on-line questionnaires available to help you determine them. Again my clients, after taking the time to discern what their signature strengths were, reported positive benefits from finding time to exercise their signature strengths. (Mind you, those who are deeply depressed will sometimes resist this option believing that it is somehow self-indulgent and distracts them from their more serious “duties” whatever they may be. Nevertheless we all benefit from a little self nurture.)
The second finding from the positive psychology movement that resonated with me was the conclusion that people were happier when they were devoted to a cause greater than themselves. This reflected Dorothy Rowe’s concern about falling into self obsession.
On a related theme the Dalai Lama once said:
If you wish to make others happy, show compassion. But if you want to be happy, show compassion!
I am not a Buddhist but over the years I have read extensively about Buddhism and many of its themes resonated with me. I would recommend Happines: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill and Altruism by Matthieu Ricard. Ricard is a Buddhist monk who trained as a genetic biologist at the Pasteur Institute before relocating to Nepal and Tibet doing philanthropic work. He served as the Dalai Lama’s French translator.
Ricard quotes the Dalai Lama as stating,
My religion is kindness. And the essence of my teaching is that every sentient being, even my enemy, fears suffering as I do and wants to be happy. This thought leads us to feel profoundly concerned for the happiness of others, be they friends or enemies. That is the basis for true compassion. Seeking happiness, whilst remaining indifferent to others, is a tragic mistake.
Many religious traditions including Judaism, Confucianism, Christianity and Islam espouse the Reciprocal Rule (that the Christians often believe is exclusively theirs and they title “The Golden Rule”). A belief that is so ubiquitous is unlikely to have become so pervasive unless it conferred a benefit on humankind. That benefit seems to me to be a diminution with self-obsession which in turn helps us to reconcile with our internal sense of self which, as we have seen. is essential to personal well-being.
For example the Jewish sage, Rabbi Hillel the Elder, who lived in the century before the purported birth of Jesus, responded when asked to explain Judaism:
What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour; that is the total Torah, while the rest is mere commentary.
It is intrinsic in the human psyche that the state of our mind is more important to our well-being than the nature of our exterior world. We all know people who have had to live with difficult circumstances but yet live satisfying and fulfilling lives. We also know people whose life circumstances are very fortunate indeed but who are basically unhappy. Researchers tell us that those who win the lotto experience some short term exhilaration but after twelve months their sense of well-being has resorted to what they felt before their win.
At a deep level I am sure that most of us know that our state of mind is essential to our sense of well-being. But living in a materialistic world we are often led to forget this basic premise. Inveigled by the world of retail, unconscious self-promotion and narcissism without much conscious thought we jump on the hedonic treadmill and plaster over our concerns of mind with the temporary and elusive joy of consumption and vanity.
It is difficult to reconcile with this message that tells us that our personal well-being is determined by our own state of mind when we receive so many messages to the contrary. It helps when we have mentors and role models who can demonstrate this truth to us that we inherently already know. It is only human that we sometimes forget these salutary lessons. And when we forget, the world is indeed “too much with us”.
[After I researched all this material on depression I wrote a book which I titled Froth and Goblets. This book is an extended parable of how a Buddhist Master helps a princess to cope with depression. It touches on many of the issues that are outlined in this essay. Many of my clients found it helpful. If you wish to read it, it is still available on-line from Angus & Robertson. Just go to this link: