I'm starting to understand the human condition.
(Please note: I am NOT a psychologist. I’m simply a curious human who is exploring why I’m here on this planet. The following piece is my interpretation of my own experiences, not a solid scientific paper.)
I recently attended a retreat that explored power, peace and the shadow. It was a more advanced version of another retreat I did in 2015 that proved to be one of the most profound experiences of my life to date. I love me some deep dives into the human psyche and this retreat did not disappoint. To be honest, I’m still in integration mode, which is why I’m writing this piece. I feel compelled to share. I write to think and below is some deeper thinking I’m currently doing on this subject.
The aim of the retreat was to connect with the elements of ourselves that form the human ego structure and its subsequent fixations. It happens very early in life. Some of you may know this, but from the time we’re born until the age of about 7, we are pretty much run by our subconscious. There is very little rational thought. We have no real ability to assess the logic of ours or other’s behaviour, so everything affects us and gets absorbed.
It’s like being the moon: we have a very thin atmosphere without much protection, so any passing meteor or asteroid can smack into us and leave a dent. At that early age, most of the meteors are parents, siblings and other satellite family members or friends. Some dents are bigger than others, but every single one of us gets impacted in some way. This common experience leads to what I believe is the beginning of the human condition.
I’ve never really understood that term: the human condition. It sounds so monumental, like a giant, one billion page tome, hidden in the halls of an ancient library, containing every facet of life on earth. The deep wounds of an evolving species, recorded and reflected back at us. The term sounds so grand, medical and esoteric, only ever decipherable by academics or secret societies like the Illuminati. From what I experienced at the retreat, it now seems far simpler than that, yet still so universally profound. Here’s my take…
I learned that when we’re born, we are beings in the truest sense. We just “are”. There is no separation between us and anything else in the world. We exist as one with everything. That’s why babies are so fascinating to watch. They are completely present, completely responsive to the world around them, because for them, they are the world and the world is them. It’s a beautiful thing.
Then, through the very act of being alive, we slowly start to separate from that oneness. It usually starts with the mother. She goes from being one with us, a natural, organic extension, into a separate entity. It starts with something simple and normal like Mum leaving us in a room by ourselves for a few minutes. We hate it. We scream and cry until she comes back and reunites with us. She does, but it leaves a little dent in us. A tiny little mistrust is born. This happens again and again. It is very natural. It is life. But…
For us, the little babies, it is very painful. It is the destruction of our universe as we know it. We are being betrayed and rejected by the very thing that brought us into this world: our mother. It also happens with the father, but let’s face it, mama is far more important at the beginning of life.
In psychological terms, it’s called an object relation. We as babies and infants, transition from that exquisite, all encompassing oneness, into experiencing and relating to things as objects separate from us. Mother, father, brothers, sisters, etc. As I mentioned, it is totally natural, but as we experience this separation from these objects, we begin to feel rejection. Very pure and deep rejection. Here comes the part that blew my mind…
Because we are so young, so vulnerable, so fresh and new, our little nervous systems aren’t developed enough to handle the immense pain we are feeling in relation to this separation. So what do we do? We use the only resource we have: the subconscious. We don’t yet have the ability to rationalise and accept the reality of the situation. There’s no internal chatter like, “I’m guessing Mum has just popped off to use the bathroom. Makes sense. I’ll just chill for a bit and wait for her to come back.” None of that. It’s devastating. How could this be happening? We don’t understand and so fear starts appearing to replace trust.
We then take that fear, all that rejection, and bury it in our subconscious, because that is the only way we can cope and survive. And guess what the subconscious does with all that pain? It builds an atmosphere, a defensive force field to help us avoid experiencing that pain in the future. You may know it as the ego AKA the personality.
Depending on what happened to us in those early years will determine the thickness of that atmosphere: the type of ego and personality we develop. Some people keep their atmosphere close to moon level. Hearts-on-sleeves types. Some people build the stormy, acidic atmosphere of Venus, meaning they’re challenging types and use attack as their first form of defence. Some develop the giant, nebulous atmosphere of Jupiter making it hard for anyone to reach their solid core. There are enough types and subtle variations to fill the universe, so I’ll stop there with the metaphors. I’m sure you get it.
Basically, the subconscious is very efficient and very direct. It does what it needs to do and does it well. It builds something robust and powerful all in the name of protecting and preventing us from feeling that level of pain in the future. It makes sense, right? It’s brilliant. What a smart thing to do. The only problem is that what it builds is built for a baby: a helpless, defenceless infant with an under-resourced nervous system.
When we grow into adults, we also grow into a highly developed nervous system, one that can handle just about anything. The challenge is that by then, the ego structure (personality) has fused with us so strongly that it feels like it is us. So when something triggers us in life as it is bound to do, instead of using this mature nervous system and rational, adult mind to handle the situation, we instead revert to the original pain, the deep sense of rejection and usually completely overreact. We’re still run by that deep, subconscious pattern and defence system. Unless we become aware of it, we are destined to repeat the pattern.
Every personality is different. Some people get aggressive, some withdraw, some use humour, some use intellect, the list goes on and on. The reactions vary from person to person, but they are all forms of defences, used to ward off that feeling of helplessness and rejection. We all do it. All of us. And as I said, depending on what happened to you in those formative years, will determine how you react.
This, I believe, is the genesis of the human condition. It is our Pavlovian response to something so deep and terrifying, that we build this complex and automatic response mechanism (called the ego) to help us through it.
So then the work of the seeker becomes the deconstruction of that ego. The acknowledgement and acceptance of that childhood experience. The integration of that early truth with our adult nervous system, so that it no longer needs to protect us and get in our way. That’s the work we were doing at the retreat. Facing it. Naming it. Most of all, feeling it.
Holy shit, did I feel it! It was challenging. The ego doesn’t like to be confronted. It has plenty of booby traps laying in wait for the inspired seeker. It triggers all kinds of darkness, all kinds of judgements, false senses of power and anything else it can do to throw us off the trail. It doesn’t want to die and it puts up one hell of a fight like a wounded, wild animal. If it’s going down, it’s taking us with it.
The irony is that it really does have good intentions. Its single job is one of protector. And for the early part of our life, it is very much needed, very useful. When we mature, however, it isn’t so useful. But by that time, it’s part of the furniture. It’s one with us and has no intention of going anywhere. It wants to stay. It feels very justified to be part of us and can be ruthless in that justification. We’ve all felt it. Those moments when we keep making the same mistake even though we know better. We keep choosing the same type of love interest, the same types of friends who really aren’t good for us. We turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping, all forms of distraction. We chase possessions or experiences that are detrimental to our true nature, our true happiness, but for some reason, we just can’t avoid the chase. In fact, we become masters at justifying our actions. I am so guilty of that. I can rationalise the shit out of anything and convince others of it too.
This is all the conditioning of the ego. It needs to stay, so it manipulates us into needing it. It wounds us with one hand then offers a bandage with the other. Very clever indeed.
It all sounds so morbid, so self-defeating, but the good news is that there is a way through all of this. It takes some self-exploration, some talented facilitators and a willingness to really face your truth. When I say truth, I mean the dark stuff. The ugliness we all do our best to avoid.
At this retreat we DID NOT hold back. We embraced our hate, our pettiness, our childish tantrums and inexplicable judgements. At first, it feels so confronting to share that part of ourselves with strangers. What will they think of me? How could I be such an awful person? I’ll never be able to show my face here again.
Guess what? We’re all the same! The details may be different, but those underlying feelings exist in EVERY SINGLE HUMAN ON THE PLANET. We are simply so afraid of them, that we’ll do anything to suppress them. Or we have buried them so deep in our subconscious that they are repressed. Either way, I’m here to tell you, they are there. They are.
The interesting thing is that inside all that darkness is light. Freedom. Peace. Expansion. I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it. And I’m going back for more. In fact, my experience was so profound that I faced a full crumbling of my identity. My ego structure lost its footing and came crashing down. What that manifested as was lots and lots and lots of tears. I’m a strong, capable 41 year old man and I was laying on the ground in the foetal position, buckled by this experience. Not in the way you may be imagining. I didn’t fall apart and fracture into a million pieces. I simply released some deep, deep pain that I’d been carrying since I was three years old.
The thing that really fascinated me is that when this release came, it was so pure, so devoid of thought and story, that it didn’t feel like pain. It was just my body letting go of something. There was no analysis on my part, no referencing it to something else, no justifying or trying to make it neat and tidy. I just opened the flood gates and out came the flood.
Afterwards I felt very calm, very peaceful and very powerful. I felt present. Truly present. The ego had gone quiet. There was no little voice yapping in my ear about how good or bad I was or what I had to do to recover. There was no comparing myself to anyone else. I had gone full circle. I was one with everything once more.
So where am I now? Well, the truth is that the feeling of oneness didn’t last. I had about a week of blissful afterglow and then, as we were advised by our facilitators, the ego came crashing back in and I felt shaky. I had the infamous spiritual hangover. But that didn’t last either.
Something has definitely shifted in me. I no longer feel this deep anxiety in my heart and gut. I’m no longer driven by something that is inside me, yet I feel helpless to control. I have space. I have choice and I have an amazing new level of self-awareness.
At this point, I’m sitting with it. I can feel my brain quietly rewiring itself and although my personality is still in tact, my reasons for doing what I do are changing. I’m far more interested in my happiness instead of my bank balance. I’m far more connected to my feelings than my thoughts and I’m learning to listen to them as my inner guidance system. They offer so much.
I’m also more willing to put myself out there, hence this article. I’m more willing to fail than ever before. I learnt through doing the retreat that failure was my biggest fear. I was so terrified of it that I never really let myself do it. I was either a perfectionistic overachiever or I jumped before I could ever go down with the ship, whether personally or professionally. Now that I’ve faced it and lived to tell the tale…bring it on! I can fail. It also means I can take bigger risks. I am free to express myself how I truly want. It’s always been here, I’m only now aligning with the courage to do it. That means you’ll be hearing a lot more from me. How fun!