I’ve been thinking a lot about stress lately. Partly because I’m teaching a course about it in London later in the year but also because I’ve been feeling stressed even though I’ve just had (on paper) one of the most stress-free winters on record.
Because my broadcasting work takes place mostly in the summer, I’m blessed to have a fairly light workload from November to March. The teaching and therapy is all year round. But the winter months allow me to study and teach without having to get on trains and planes and travel the length and breadth of the country.
My hunch is that this is not a question of increased efficiency but something more existential
The theory is that I get up early, light the fire, meditate, do a little reading and study out in the garden office, come in and read the papers and some poetry by the hearth: relax and inspire myself.
The reality is an amorphous mass of half-effort, procrastination, sub-cutaneous guilt, dissociated eating, caffeine consumption, queasy internet use and an unstoppable feeling of dis-ease and non-achievement.
There are innumerable online commentaries on procrastination and how we can make ourselves more efficient and I shan’t add to them. But my hunch is that this is not a question of increased efficiency anyway but something more existential. What I feel in my seemingly perfect winter home is a feeling of not-at-homeness. (What the politically dodgy existentialist Heidegger calls “Unheimlichkeit”.)
Let’s look at it in terms of Buddhism. The first noble truth of Buddhism is dukkha. Variously translated as suffering or dissatisfaction, there is one venerable translator who insists on using the word ‘stress’ to translate this central term. I wonder whether this queasy feeling of not-at-homeness I feel is dukkha too.
Classically defined it’s the inherent dissatisfactoriness of conditioned things. My skin wrinkles and ages, my boyfriend leaves me, winter kills the summer. Nothing conditioned is going to satisfy. And so, the argument of the Four Noble Truths goes, don’t cling to conditioned things.
So far, so conceptual. But what if this winter’s feeling of unsettledness, perpetual self-persecution and Unheimlichkeit is the actual experience of dukkha. Can I start there and explore outwards from that lived experience?
“The They” are all those amorphous, shadowy entities that haunt the fringes of consciousness
As I wrestled and itched with these questions in the cold months of February and March I also had a peculiar yen to re-read the notes about existentialism from my studies. I glanced a little dazed at the big volumes on Heidegger and existential therapy. Then plumped for a very readable and comprehensive account by Sarah Bakewell.
There I stumbled again across the Heideggerian concept of “the They” (or das Man in German). I immediately spotted that a great deal of my dukkha-ish feeling was to do with my existence being haunted by the They. (The other component which I have explored in another blog post is around Time…)
“The They” are all those amorphous, shadowy entities that haunt the fringes of consciousness. Like a barely-noticed but very loud chorus of internalised parents, teachers, friends and enemies. “The They” are all the ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ that hang about like noxious grave-gas in the mind, spoiling any relaxation (“you should be doing something”). Undermining free expression of your self (“you don’t deserve an opinion/ you’re being selfish”). And vitiating any simple experience of being in the world (“you should be doing something else with your life / what makes your life so special?”)
The scripts of the They are endless and perfectly tuned to spoil any activity or lack of activity with their toxic commentary.
All human beings are programmed by our genetics to care very much what other people think
For Heidegger, das Man was a symptom of modern (for him that meant 1920s) mass media – gossip columns, newspapers, popular magazines. The pure experience of Being gets sidelined and hacked to pieces by this disembodied paranoia about what other people think.
All human beings (as tribal animals) are programmed by our genetics to care very much what other people think. But imagine what Heidegger would make of the Internet. The almost infinite reach of our gossiping and self-hacking within the World Wide Web. We can now care what a billion people think about us. As Sarah Bakewell writes, “Everything, above all ourselves, becomes a resource, precisely as Heidegger warned. In being made a resource, we are handed over, not just to other individuals like ourselves, but to an impersonal ‘they’ whom we never meet and cannot locate.”
Although, there’s a danger here in reifying the ‘They’ and making them more real than they are. They are precisely powerful because they don’t actually exist. They are purely a construct of our suffering mind. It’s our minds that project the power of the They into the ether because it has to put that primal paranoia somewhere.
For whatever reason, we grow up turned against ourselves. And rather than accept that uncomfortable fact, we expand our sphere of reference out and convince ourselves that there really is someone out there who hates us. Wants to crush us, is waiting to pounce and criticise us for every breath we take. Obviously, we can’t always find a candidate but the amorphous “They” does the job for us.
Once established “the They” provide a good shunting ground for all the self-criticism. Fear, life anxiety and doubt that builds up in a human life.
Meditation is the perfect tool to hack away at the decades of limescale “the They” leaves behind in the mind
Even those people who ‘don’t give a damn’ or who are ready to ‘stick it to the Man’ are usually precisely so rebellious because “the They” is so big on their inner horizon. Indeed the person who has no experience of the They would presumably be a sociopath.
While all humans care what “the They” thinks. I assume that there is a healthy “middle way” that might go some way to dismantling my not-at-homeness. Meditation is, to some extent, the perfect tool to hack away at the decades of limescale “the They” leaves behind in the mind. Getting still and alert enough to spot those relics of the past. The critical parents, the hurtful friends, the powerful State – and how they are still lodged and powerful in your mind is the first step.
What I experienced was a wave of appalling recognition and then embarrassment at the extent to which I was still – aged 46 – in the thrall of these various voices and figures hugging the outskirts of my psyche and whispering unsweet nothings in my ear.
The goal of existentialist freedom (and to some extent Buddhist liberation) involves seeing and de-fanging this shadowy chorus of disapproval.
I played around with really naming the half-formed figures in the shadows and brazenly contradicting them. Some of their power, I found, lay in them remaining (like Rumpelstiltskin) unnamed. I also enacted rituals of cheeky, rebellious, existential outrage in my mind where I did precisely the terrible thing that “the They” most hated. Sat with the resultant waves of emotion that passed, in turn, through guilt, horror, shame, indifference, peace and elation.
No doubt “the They” will always find a way to make a comeback at certain flashpoints in my life
I used AIT (a form of energy clearing). Worked with a hypnotherapist, I talked about it to friends. And I wrote morning pages.
And it seems to have worked. A great deal of the ambient stress that I would feel just walking across the garden has melted away. I am able to ‘be’ with much less queasy not-at-homeness. The thread of low-level stress that smeared my wintery days seems, mostly, to have vanished.
No doubt “the They” will always find a way to make a comeback at certain flashpoints in my life. But thanks to those wintery months of feeling un-homed in my home, I was able to negotiate a workable truce. And get on with living my life, They-free.
NOTE: I highly recommend Bakewell’s wonderfully-written and lively book. There’s so many wonderful quotes from it but the one between Simone de Beauvoir and her partner Jean-Paul Sartre is very touching:
He said on the whole that the two of them had lived without paying too much attention to God. She agreed. Then he said, ‘And yet we’ve lived; …we’ve taken an interest in our world and we’ve tried to see and understand it.’
I’d love to know your thoughts on “the They”. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!