‘I want to have it all!’
Desiring what you don’t have is the cause of much discontent and suffering in the world. One strategy recommended by various spiritual traditions is to give up these constant desires. Evolutionary spirituality, however, completely validates this ‘wanting to have it all’. It actually regards this desire as the very key to consciously bringing your life into full blossom. How can that be?
Success means ‘having it all’
The idea that whatever we are able to do or have, we should do or have, is very popular nowadays. Success is considered to be equivalent to obtaining sufficient forms of pleasure and satisfaction. The highest goal of Western civilization seems to be that we all take care of our own material wealth and emotional well-being. This is hardly surprising, because our sense of ‘self’ is associated with what it has, what it knows and what it is capable of, with its role and its function.
If things don’t work out
From a conscious perspective, this separate self can be said to be a constant source of suffering. We’re always busy striving for things in order to experience something at some later time, beyond the here and now. Or we’re trying to avoid something that we don’t want to happen again. We are never satisfied with what is.
Fear and disappointment
This consciousness is forever watchful against what can go wrong in the future. There is a permanent alertness and fear about things ahead. And once things do go wrong, we experience disappointment and pain. Which in turn is translated into expecting things to go wrong again in the future. These are our emotional undercurrents, in spite of all of our striving for satisfaction.
‘I should want less’
One solution that has been tried over the centuries, is to stop wanting things. I often encounter this approach in people I meet. Their aim is to minimize their desires. This can sometimes be a sensible solution, especially when their ‘wanting to have it all’ has become a stressful survival mechanism, where ‘surviving’ takes the place of ‘living’.
‘Wanting’ and ‘striving’ will never go away
Still, over the centuries we haven’t been able to eradicate all this ‘striving’ and ‘wanting’, despite many attempts by various ascetic traditions. ‘Wanting more’ or even ‘wanting it all’ seems to be an inherent part of our human condition. Would life be so cruel as to burden us with a desire that can only lead to suffering? How can this ‘wanting it all’ be reconciled with joy and fulfillment? To find an answer, let me take you on a mental field trip.
Individuality and awareness of the whole
A well-known metaphor from the great spiritual traditions of the East may come to our rescue. Looking out over the ocean, you can see both its vastness and its waves. These waves rise up, exist for a while and then disappear again, as parts of the ocean. Both the waves and the ocean consist of just water, forming one continuous whole.
The relationship between individual human beings and All-that-is is precisely the same. On the one hand we have the totality of all existence, on the other hand we have individual human beings as seemingly separate entities. Both the totality and each individual is composed of that which composes everything. Each human being is a unique manifestation and expression of that totality. In that sense, we are never separate from All-that-is.
As human beings, we have a mind that enables us to be aware of all this. Based on our inner awareness, we know that we form an inherent part of All-that-is. Still, we usually do not live our lives coming from that awareness. More often than not, we are cut off from it. But that doesn’t have to be the case. However, it does require from us that we keep following our heart’s desire ‘to want more’, or even ‘to have it all’.
A limitation of the totality
Life expresses itself through each human being, as well as through any other individual manifestation. Any unique manifestation is a limitation or restriction compared to the whole. This limitation gives each manifestation its own specific place and possibilities. For less conscious forms of manifestation, such as plants and animals,this doesn’t seem to be a problem. But it is different for us humans. We tend to consider this limitation as something painful. And that is a good thing, as we shall see.
Human beings learn to survive, just like all life forms
We all experience difficult moments while growing up. They are the challenges that we need to become better at surviving. Whenever something hurts us, we withdraw, in order to protect ourselves. Once the threat is over, we will reach out again. In this respect, we are not different from animals.
And just like all species, humans, too, have healthy ways to get what they need. On a physical level, we will feel hungry.
On an emotional level, we are aware of emotional needs. On a mental level, we experience desires, wanting to have things. So far, so good.
We learn to survive through identification
At one point in our development, we acquire mental capacities and our ego begins to take shape. This ego collects all kinds of ideas about itself: ‘I am this but not that,’ ‘This is better, that is not okay.’ We start to identify with what we know, do, think and feel. ‘I’m a boy.’ ‘I can ride a bike.’ ‘These are my toys.’ ‘These are my clothes.’ ‘I am angry.’ ‘And that’s me!’ All these ideas contribute to our ability to survive. Wow! All these desires are a natural, uncomplicated result of our drive to learn to survive, to the best of our abilities.
Living life without questioning it
Before a child has developed an ego, it will react to shocking moments by contracting. But this contraction is released as soon as the situation has passed. The child doesn’t yet question its own existence. In a completely natural way, it displays qualitiessuch as presence, surrender and trust. As long as there is no questioning self, this is the situation. It is an unconscious awareness of abundance.
The first shock: self-contraction and its fixation
However, after the ego has been formed, this contraction gets fixed into an unconscious identification. If we are not mirrored and ‘held’ by our parents at difficult and shocking moments in our vulnerable early years, we will fall out of our natural attitude of trust. That painful first shock of existenceis then met with a contraction on all levels: physical, emotional and mental. The ‘self’ starts to identify, unconsciously, with the person it has become in the contraction. And the content of this identification consists of an ‘explanation’ for this contraction: ‘Obviously, I’m not worthwhile’, ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I’m not okay’, ‘There’s no room for me’ etcetera. And even though these are unpleasant thoughts, they do numb our pain. This is a completely unconscious and automatic process. Now the child falls into ‘poverty consciousness’. The ‘self’ begins to live according to these inner beliefs. It will either try to confirm or challenge them, creating all kinds of suffering in its own life and in the lives of the people around it. It may sound bizarre and I guess nobody knows why things have been designed this way, but this is clearly the cause of our neurotic desires. (See also ‘Humanity’s first shock’)
The limitation that each individual manifestation implies, is torn away from the whole through our unconscious identification with our pain-avoiding survival strategy. All people tend to identify with their ideas, roles, knowledge, possessions, feelings and body. They will withdraw into themselves: ‘I am this, I am not that’. In this unconscious separation, we don’t just lose our natural, open connection to others, but also to ourselves and the greater whole. That is why we call this self ‘the separated self’. Even though the self knows there are other people and a world out there, this is merely a mental conclusion and not an inner experience any longer.
Despite our intellect, we remain ignorant about life
In the course of our development, we lose touch with the ‘submental’ current of life that is part of our being, too. This is the rich life of sensations, emotions and feelings that connect us not only to the deeper layers in our own being, but also to the world around us. We may get to the point of having a high IQ, but being ignorant about life. We become ignorant of the very foundations of our existence. We lose our capacity to gain direct, integral knowledge about the life force that we are, let alone to guide this force wisely.
So the separate self, by identifying with its constriction, isolates itself from the whole. Through this isolation, it ends up in a place of powerlessness. Seen from the perspective of the whole, we don’t just limit ourselves to being a part of it, but we also isolate ourselves from it, as a disconnected piece in the larger whole. Yet this, in turn, can make us aware of what we are now missing. The separate self brings us in the position of becoming aware of things outside ourselves that we want to have. We start to realize that we miss something and that we are inadequate. We are faced with our imperfection and our finiteness, and we start wondering about the meaning of our existence. Our future death suddenly becomes more than just a given. It becomes an expression of our limitation, and that turns it into a problem. This marks the start of our journey back to the oneness that we came from. However, that journey begins with our neurotic forms of ‘wanting’ or desiring.
The separate self looks for a solution outside itself
The separate self will naturally look for a solution to this dilemma. It starts with ‘wanting more’ and increasing its capacity to get more, in an attempt to overcome its limitations. ‘If I’m not seen, I will prove that I’m worthy’. ‘If I don’t have something, I will make sure I get it.’ ‘If I’m being constricted, I will break out.’ It will fight against its limitations and finiteness. To this end, it will go to great lengths, even to the point of pulling out all the stops. In other words, it makes an unconscious, clumsy attempt to return to something larger, in order to return to wholeness. In that sense, ‘wanting it all’ reflects its memory of a lost paradise that the separated self would like to enter again. So our neurotic wanting is actually a clumsy attempt to become whole again.
An unsolvable dilemma
Yet this strategy, applied by the separate self, will never lead to a solution. Outside of my separate self, there will always be lots of things that by definition I am not or cannot have. Because they come from this ‘poverty consciousness’, my desires will always have a neurotic character. At the physical level, this may lead, for example, to food addiction as a distortion of a healthy appetite. At the emotional level, it leads to overcompensating emotional ‘needs’. At the mental level, it leads to controlling forms of desire, in order to fight off my sense of insecurity.
The separate self cannot operate beyond these three levels, until it starts to dawn on us that the separate self itself is the problem. How does the separate self become aware of this? That can only happen when in the course of our life, the separate self runs up against its own limits. Which actually requires that it never stops ‘wanting’ and ‘hoping’ and continues to try and solve the problem!
The second shock in your life
The separate self reaches its limit when we don’t know how to go on anymore. Usually this happens in a crisis. We get stuck in our survival mechanism. I call this the second shock of our existence. Even after having tried everything, giving it our all, it still doesn’t work out. Our taking for granted that things will just continue as they are and that everything will be fine, is now gone. That makes the separate self wonder: ‘Is this all there is?’ ‘Who am I?’ ‘What is the meaning of my life?’ ‘Which desires are still worthwhile?’ etcetera. The separate self has now become ‘consciously incompetent’, which enables it to open up to the possibility of transcending its poverty consciousness. (See also ‘Humanity’s second shock’.)
Reunion with the whole
Of course, the separate self will first try to solve its ‘incompetence’ through its own separate means. Initially, its questions about the meaning of life are only approached in a moral and rational way. Still, the separate self is now on the verge of a new discovery: the realization that it cannot answer these questions ‘on its own’. It is opening up to a new approach. It may discover that its self- identification is not ‘true’. It may discover that although there is a self, this self does not necessarily consist of what it has been identifying with so far. In fact, it is not even limited to that. This is the moment when meditation, contemplation and other forms of consciousness work can play a decisive role. For the first time, the self becomes aware of itself as a much larger space in which both ‘individuality’ and ‘totality’ exist in a differentiated unity. This realization can put an end to our desire for things outside our separate self. The separate self starts to realize that is already part of the whole.
Is suffering the gateway?
The separate self suddenly understands that all that mental desire was merely a clumsy attempt to get over its forgetfulness and reunite with the whole. One interesting question remains: Was that long journey with all its suffering really necessary for this? Maybe not. Yet I see few people turn within while still believing that their life is going well. And people who prefer to keep their lives small, hoping to escape from the problems of desire by trying to want less, don’t seem to reach this turning point either. In general, the separate self only transcends its neurotic wanting after it has tried and given everything to find its own solutions.
Consciously falling back into ‘abundance awareness’
The self that has transcended its mental wanting, finds itself in abundance consciousness again, which it had fallen out of during its first shock. Now it can consciously dwell in pure, unconditional ‘being’. Through meditation and contemplation practice, this realization can be further deepened and stabilized. In this realization, we encounter once more all those great ‘spiritual’qualities that seem to be a natural part of existence, without any need to pursue them. In fact, they become unattainable when we try to pursue them. These are qualities like tranquility, peacefulness, connection, trust, surrender, joy and creativity. This more expanded self can also understand that it may have a body, but is not its body. It may have thoughts, but is not its thoughts. It may have a history, but is not its history. It may have feelings and emotions, but is not its feelings and emotions. It may play certain roles and own things, but is not those things. This self is an open awareness full of possibilities, connected to All-that-is. It is both individual and knows itself to be part of All-that-is. It is not ‘separate from’, but ‘part of’. It is both a unique manifestation and a universal presence.
‘Being’ the drive towards growth and development
Now the universal intelligence, of which this Self knows itself to be an inherent part, can make itself known from within. The person knows something by becoming one with whatever it is he is aware of. (This is knowing by being it, ‘knowledge by identity’, versus ‘separate knowledge’ about something outside of you.) This knowing is free of the neurotic urge to solve the dilemma of not having what we desire. We now trust in life’s unfolding, where things will naturally reveal themselves whenever we give it our loving attention. Devotion can accomplish great things, in a way that the separate self can only dream about. This does not imply in any way that everything will go smoothly or that there is no pain any more. It is not a solution for problems, but it is a joyful way of being, beyond struggling and a constant sense of lack. ‘Wanting something’ can now be contemplated in a calm manner, because it is no longer a compensation for some perceived lack. (See also ‘From discontent to fulfillment‘.) All that we have learned in our development before the second shock can now be put to good use. But this time as an instrument in the hands of someone who is at home within himself.
A life based on vision
Such a person will continue to dwell on the big questions of ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What am I here for?’, but without the need for any fixed answers. It is more a matter of being attuned to what is ‘true’ and ‘good’. This is living in a vision, which springs from the wholeness of one’s own heart and mind. ‘Wanting it all’ turns out to have been a correct intuitive impulse. From a clumsy attempt of the separate self to become something that it can never be, it develops into a Self that is part of the greatunfolding of itself, others and the larger context of its life. “Our progress is not measured by the amount of inventions we create (…) but by the amount of the world that we are able to reintegrate and recognize as ourselves.” (Satprem, ‘Sri Aurobindo or The Adventure of Consciousness’)
For a deeper exploration of humanity’s first and second shock, see my book ‘Humanity’s Second Shock and Your Unique Self‘.