7 Life-Changing Insights (extract from my book, “What Lies Within”)
1. Everything is Connected to Everything Else
As I considered the rainstorm that caught me by surprise, the totality of nature became apparent. Though it was reported that the storm caused the tree to fall, which resulted in the death of a bushwalker; the report also reveals our own tendency to see things as separate entities and not as complete systems.
To attribute blame for the walker’s death to the tree or the weather is to dismiss the placement of the road, the inhabitants of the tree that may have weakened it over time, the traffic that altered the time of the walker’s arrival on the path, and perhaps even the person who upset the walker, causing him to take in some much needed air away from the stress of his life.
All these things are working together to create the tragic outcome, and none can be seen as individual or isolated.
The example of the rainstorm can be compared to the way we view our lives as well. Our normal way of learning about life breaks up the one reality into parts that we then believe are forever permanent and separate from the whole.
We compartmentalize our bad experiences, our relationships, our belief systems, and our memories into parts of our life, instead of seeing it as the whole picture.
This approach is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because when we group things together in common or name something, we can communicate about these things and not have to reinvent the wheel every time.
It is also a curse because we actually start believing that reality is made up of separate things that are permanent and self-sufficient.
Therefore, we struggle to recognize influence of ideas, patterns of experience, and the always confounding effect of history repeating itself.
In my own life, this insight is clearly seen through my own health, and the health and life of my mother. If I want to look after my health, I must be careful about what I eat, about my nutrition, about how much exercise I do, my stress levels, my emotional and mental health, and the well-being of our common environment because they are interconnected.
I am a complete system and the quality of my health is determined by elements I can and cannot control.
Likewise, had my mum taken a holistic approach to her well-being, it is terrible to think that she might still be alive.
Had she walked away from the work environment that she intuitively knew was hazardous, had she been more aware of the effect of the food she prepared to eat with her oil stained hands, had she not smoked, and had she not chronically allowed men in her life that were as abusive as they were toxic.
Had my mum seen the whole system of her life, and not just the cruel events that would gradually chip away at her psyche, life for her may have been better, and certainly longer.
2. Truth is Relative
Though I have spent a great deal of time in search of life’s absolute truths, the second insight dawned on me that there is no such thing. Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I am not alone. However, consider the example of a car accident on a busy city street.
Two cars collide while five witnesses watch, none who have any visual or hearing impairments and nothing else (mental illness, mind altering substances, etc.) that might inhibit their observations.
During the police investigation, each witness is interviewed and not one of them has the exact same account of what happened. Whether it was age, prejudice, perspective, or position, each witness had their own version of what happened, a version that might also subtly change in a year when the case is brought to trial.
For them, and for this accident, there is no singular true account of what happened. There is no absolute truth to what happened.
The same is true for our own idea of truth and our belief systems. There is no fixed, immoveable point of reference that you or I can say with confidence, “There it is! It is permanent, fixed to that spot, and absolutely knowable for all time.”
We are always changing our views on how or why things happen, we are always seeing things with different eyes as we age and experience. This is obvious in how we view our own beliefs to the beliefs of ourselves ten years younger.
The same can also be said for science. The dominant pattern of thousands of years of science is the rejecting of one accepted theory and replacing it with a better one.
Just as we believed the world is flat and then we didn’t; or the atom is the smallest particle until we were able to split it open. What we believe to be true about the universe is as transient as what we believe to know about our own lives.
Life is always changing, flowing, and morphing into something new and by accepting this, and not holding on to something because we always believed it to be true, we can begin to see life for what it really is – an unpredictable mystery, where nothing is ever certain for very long.
The conflict with this insight, though, is that is goes against our inherent need for certainty in life. We need to know why things happen so that we can better predict where we are going or avoid what has transpired in the past.
When horrible, shocking events occur, there is always an immediate outcry of, “Why? Why? Why?” We need answers so we can account for actions that may seem unexplainable.
If we know why something bad happened, we can work toward preventing it from happening again. Nothing is more difficult than our inability to find an explanation.
For this reason, we put our trust in experts and gurus and anyone who appears to have an answer to the unanswerable. It is our inclination to believe in something, no matter how irrational, than to believe in nothing.
In my own life, I saw my own father, Len, as a violent, cold, and distant man who never had any interest in his family’s well-being or in his own life outside of gambling and drinking.
In reality, Len believed he was simply doing what his own parents had done: raising children with a heavy hand and living for themselves.
Our views as to how our family existed had startling differences even with common remembrances. Cheryl saw both our parents as two perfectionists, attempting to be perfect in their own way, and clashing at times.
There is no absolute truth to my family, only my ever changing perspective on it.
3. God is Fear of Death
This journey of mine, however long and difficult, is unique to me alone, just as the journeys of others will lead them to insights unique to them.
Having said that, this third insight might seem provocative to many, though it comes solely from my own searching, and it builds on the previous insight that there are no absolute truths.
There is, however, a common link among many humans and that involves coming to terms with the irrevocable fact that we will all die some day.
In order to better live with the thought of death, many have turned to the comfort of a religion that reassures us that there is some sort of god or saviour that is looking after us and waiting to welcome us into an afterlife. Religion relies on faith, a faith that is needed to accept the eventual reality of death.
When considering this, my mind goes to a news report I watched when the Christians and Muslims were at war in the Balkans.
This particular coverage was focusing on a recent speech made in Yugoslavia by a member of a paramilitary unit who said, “Not enough women were raped, not enough men were killed.
The (‘Albanian scum’) are dirty, depraved people and we are paying them back for what they have done to the Serbs for generations. But we did not pay them back in full. If I had it my way, we would have cleansed every Albanian from Kosovo. They would not have existed as a people anymore.”
As I listened to the venom spewed by this man, so filled with loathing and fuelled by his own beliefs, I couldn’t imagine what kind of mind could hate so much.
A mind that is cut off from reality, isolated and afraid of people who have different beliefs? A mind that fears his own death? A mind that must protect its version of the truth about God and the afterlife from the barbarians who have a different version of God and truth?
Or, a mind that could never consider that his beliefs weren’t the truth, thereby leaving his own life and death with no certainty.
When I think of my own life, never is this insight more illustrated than at Ray’s funeral. Still reeling from the shock and grief of Ray’s sudden and senseless death, the family congregated to pray for Ray’s soul and listen to the reassurances of a priest who was certain Ray was eternally resting in peace in the afterlife.
His promise of peace and rest were of no use to Ray, but rather, a way of soothing our wounds in the knowledge that he was somewhere else and he was in good hands.
Faith tells us to believe so as to relieve our own anxieties about death, but that is all it is: a coping mechanism and not an absolute truth.
4. Ideas Can Kill People
That is not to say that I, a man who spends a lot of time deep in thought, believe ideas are necessarily harmful; but rather, when we are conditioned to believe facts, traditions, values, and anything else we do not seek to discover on our own, we can quickly put enough stock in them to act irrationally and even violently.
A historical example of this lies not only with Pol Pot, but also with Adolf Eichmann, the infamous “Architect of the Holocaust”, and his role in orchestrating the mass exportation of the Jews from their homes to the concentration camps.
Upon his capture in 1960, after living a secret life in hiding in Argentina, Eichmann recorded over 1200 pages of notes, accounting for his part in the Holocaust.
Though later tried, found guilty, and hanged for 15 criminal charges, including crimes against humanity and war crimes, Eichmann referenced the guiding rule of his life, beginning in early childhood, in which strict obedience of authority was of the highest value.
Beginning with his father, who represented absolute authority and whose every command was to be obeyed, to his schoolteachers, and later his military commanders, Eichmann explained, “Obeying an order was the most important thing to me. It could be that this is the nature of the German.”
Though his defence has received the attention of numerous detractors who point to a man simply trying to save his own neck, the power of conditioning is evident.
We are all raised to believe certain truths and values about life, including loyalty, honesty, integrity, and even power. Therefore, our brains are trained to believe certain ideas, which we may then hold as absolutes and do anything, including heinous acts of violence, to uphold them.
From the Japanese kamikaze fighter to the Jihadist, beliefs can be so consuming that they become life and not just a view of it.
Stepping outside of that conditioning and thinking without prejudice and pride is the only way to discover real insight for ourselves, and is nearly impossible because each society deals very harshly with deviants who dare question its sacred cows.
To put it in a more mundane setting, my mother and Cheryl collaboratively raised Carl and would often literally come to blows over whose idea as to the correct way to rear him was right.
My mum spoke from her experiences and also her unique generational perspective, while Cheryl relied on her maternal instincts as well as new, contemporary views on parenting.
Neither woman’s ideas were wrong, but they would often argue bitterly with the most extreme conflict ending in Cheryl attempting to strangle my Mum with the phone cord, and mum simultaneously trying to dial 000 for help.
Clearly this example evidences Cheryl’s own struggles with mental health, but the battle to defend your ideas, whether it’s foreign or domestic, remains a chronic cause of violence and division.
5. Humans Need Meaning to Live
As my previous insights established, our fear of death not only creates a need for answers and the comfort of another world, but it also compels us to seek out meaning in the life we have before death comes.
This search for purpose in life is relatively new when we consider the greater process of evolution, which is based on the dominant pattern that life is a copying process.
Though much more complex in many ways, essentially life only changes when it needs to in order to survive; otherwise, it simply continues to multiply into new life without regard to death.
An example of this can be seen in the African reed frogs, which can quickly change gender to accommodate breeding shortages. If the ratio of male to female frogs becomes significantly lopsided, the female frogs will develop the organs of the males in order to procreate and preserve the continuation of life.
In animals and in pre-historic man, the focus was always on the creating life and never about worrying about death.
Thanks to many years of evolution and the development of the sophisticated human mind, our awareness over the imminence of death has inspired a need to make the most out of life while we have it, and not just a focus on keeping it going.
This intellectual development continues even now, further intensifying our search for meaning.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, people’s lives were tightly structured around religious values, and their work was mainly close to nature, very physical, and about survival and there was little leisure time to contemplate anything else.
In the last century, however, science and materialism has usurped religion for many people and the Technological Revolution and a vastly more educated population have allowed many of us to have the time, money and the energy to question and measure life’s greatest questions.
In the last hundred years particularly, philosophers and psychologists have investigated the deeper workings of the human mind, with shocking revelations about the dilemmas of being human.
Ironically, as we continue to seek out more value to the life experience, so too have we witnessed a substantial growth in the occurrence of depression and suicide.
The incredible thing is that these issues surrounding mortality are not common knowledge and not a key part of our education.
For more than one hundred years, authors and writers such as Kierkegaard, Freud, Rank, Perls, Adler, Becker, Fromm and Yalom (to name just a few and let’s not forget Charles Darwin who pulled the ‘created in heaven’ rug from under us and made us face our animal nature ) have commented on man’s universal fear of death.
This then produces their consequent vital need for self-esteem – through doing good works and feeling that they are making a difference, that their life will count in some way, long after they have died.
We are meaning-seeking creatures and I can see why this is so. Without meaning in our lives, what is there to look forward to, but illness, old age and death? Surely my life will count for something?
To be completely honest about my deep motives for writing this book, I would say it has a lot to do with making my mark, hoping to leave the world a better place for my having lived.
Isn’t this urge to be a hero, even within our own small circle of friends and family, common to practically everyone? Of course, as soon as I use the word, ‘hero’, I feel myself cringing, and not wanting to admit it. It sounds very egocentric and narcissistic.
In my own life, I grew up in a mad football and sporting culture and won awards and felt an important part of my club and my town. Our society is structured to give us many ways to become heroes and feel good about ourselves when we excel in our chosen roles.
But what happens if we don’t have a good grounding and unconditional love as a child, and we miss out on building confidence and high levels of self-esteem in our teenage years and beyond?
My thoughts go to my sister, Cheryl, whose dreams of becoming a wife and mother (thereby establishing meaning to her life) were dashed when she found herself pregnant and alone at age sixteen.
The way in which she viewed her life gradually disintegrated into disenchantment and she eventually broke from reality when her two children were taken from her care and adopted out.
As was the case with mum and Carl and even perhaps Cheryl, the reality of what their lives had been and what they could never be were not worth the labour of living.
The reality of knowing that we only have one shot at living a full and meaningful life not only enhances our anxiety over the inevitability of death, but also create situations when people are inclined to give up when they feel that their lives have no value.
Admittedly, there were many occasions where I wondered how I was still functioning in a relatively sane manner when my family members were not.
6. Mind is a Memory Process
When I first began to record the events of my life, my remembrances were clear and easy to write, right up until the events of mum’s death. There I was, typing away about the details of her horrific suicide, when my emotions took over and the tears began to fall.
Once again reliving the tragic events of that day, my tearful moment was interrupted by the appearance of my dog, who was happy and eager to play.
Realizing that my memory and nothing else had caused this pain, a pain that was in my past despite troubling my present, made me realize that the human mind is a process of memory, a recalling of past events and experiences that influence how we deal with or view the next event or experience.
My memory had caused suffering – it was suffering – as much as it could predicate a stereotype, establish fear, and any other behaviour that is now dictated by our past.
How does memory cause suffering? Stripped down to its essentials:
At some point in evolution man took a great leap forward from other animals and became self-conscious due to the amazing invention of symbolic language, and with it a symbolic ego that is the controller, organizer and decision-maker of our inner world.
And so the invention of language enables man to ‘bind’ time and invent an inner newsreel or story and therefore allows him to live in a symbolic world of his own creation.
The main benefit of this process is to be able to delay action and name and store in memory various objects in its environment with a good, bad, or neutral judgment.
This is where an emotional aspect ‘kicks in’ to the process. If a really nasty thing happens to an individual, his memory records that event as a painful one, and all the feelings that go with it too. Our remote ancestors had one major goal – not to be killed!
Similarly, the same process occurs with a pleasurable event, but now the feelings are good ones. So far, it all seems sane and logical.
This memory process also controls our anxiety by building defences against unpleasant memories or dangerous situations, such as denial (“This is not happening to me”), projection (“That person is thinking these ghastly thoughts, not me”), and repression (“That did not happen”). Obviously this whole process is cumulative.
Just like a computer program, the mind then retrieves any relevant information to work out the best approach to a problem, or plan for future action and it will be seeking to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.
Some of this information is factual knowledge such as the address where I live, but other knowledge is psychological in nature, and relates to my self-image, and my personal inner newsreel that is keeping tabs on what a great guy I am.
Hah! This process is making sure that the tape gets edited to delete any subversive material or relegate it to one of my many ‘defence’ bins if it does not correlate with Mr. Good Guy.
Now what happens if something I am doing or thinking about triggers a recall of an unpleasant memory? I get the emotion that’s locked away with this memory as well as the description or image of the event.
If it is something very traumatic that I have repressed into the subconscious, it may take a similar event to trigger the past memory.
There is another angle to this that touches on man’s fear of death and his desperate strivings to overcome his grotesque animal fate by seeking to achieve heroic transcendence in whatever way he can get it, even if it is within his family or being a gifted teller of jokes.
To the extent that he believes he is fulfilling his own personal heroic ideals then he will maintain high self-esteem.
But what happens when he gets older and his ideals are not being realized (and remember that these ideals are an integral part of his ego and memory process) and he begins to doubt his own version of immortality?
He will most likely suffer a depressive withdrawal from which he may never fully recover, which is personal suffering on a massive scale.
As we get older, we become less and less spontaneous in our actions and burdened with our past memories, although we like to think that we can keep the pleasant ones and ditch the bad ones and I can see this pattern of behaviour repeated in myself and my family members and friends.
I considered myself to be a high achiever and the best experiences in my life have been achieving goals in football and business. I also had influence in my career and family life.
My own sense of personal worth was directly related to these past peak experiences, both the positive and negative ones.
When my marriage failed, my self-esteem went into a tailspin, and I have been on a proverbial roller coaster ride ever since.
My father wanted to be a pilot, but his parents had their own agenda for him. He carried a chip on his shoulder all his life because he was not able to realize his full potential.
To compensate for his lost dream he escaped into drink, gambling and women and took his frustration out on those closest to him.
My sister wanted to be a happily married mum, with a loving spouse. Cheryl’s dream was shattered when she became pregnant at sixteen years of age. She took her frustration out on her children.
When her children were taken away from her, she felt powerless and blamed the system. Then she waited for God to come and save her and the rest of us as well. She is still waiting.
Mum’s dream of a perfect, happy and loving family lasted only a matter of months after she married Len. Only her stubbornness and her maternal instincts enabled her to keep up the pretence that she was living her dream.
When mum’s world began to fall apart, she blamed it all on her illness and a never-ending conspiracy of doctors, lawyers, union officials and bosses. She was a very sick lady, but she also developed a victim mentality.
Her life was virtually over from the moment that she left work, although she lived for another 14 years.
My brother Ray had a poor self-image as a young boy. He got poor grades at school and copped severe physical and psychological punishment from my father.
He was considered the “black sheep” of the family. He could never overcome his low self-worth and he escaped into drinking, gambling and womanizing.
His incredible generosity was his way of buying love. He needed his “friends” so badly that he could not say no to a psychologically sick individual and he paid the ultimate price.
Even my nephew Carl had tremendous intellectual ability, but a very poor self-image.
An absent father and a string of role models, who also happened to be people with poor self-worth, left him constantly searching for the empty void creating by not feeling wanted or valued.
He eventually blamed the world for his problems, escaped into drugs and music and lost interest in life.
The big question I have from this insight is whether I can stay awake when my memory program begins to react to an event like a robot, and if I am able to let this reaction go, without giving it any energy?
7. The Time is Now
As I explained in the last insight, psychological memory is suffering, even when we rely on it as prior knowledge, helping us to dictate our decision making and values to live by.
Our perspective on time, however, treats our past memories, as well as our view into the future, as a lateral process.
As our brain perceives it, there is a past, a present, and a future and we seem preoccupied with learning or separating ourselves from our past and putting all our hope for a better life in the future.
Unfortunately, we never live in the present, and the present is the only period that truly exists.
As with most of my family members, I’ve spent a lot of time dwelling on my past, searching for answers as to why so much suffering fell upon us, and trying to do everything I could to move away from it, both physically and figuratively.
Additionally, I spent a good deal of my life anticipating the future.
Eager to get away from Len and Braybrook, I took off for Sydney in hopes of carefree days and a new start with no one to determine my course but me.
I was always looking ahead to happier days that may lie ahead, and becoming a man as opposite Len as I could be. At no point did I give much thought to what, how or who I was living presently.
The dominant repeating pattern of our concept of time is that the future moves into a fleeting present moment and then becomes the past.
Reality is broken up and separated into these three mutually exclusive time sections. It is “one thing follows another”.
We measure this process by using time pieces and calendars that reinforce our notion that we are moving in a straight line from the past, to the future.
This concept of reality also gives us hope that things will be better in the future, than in the past. If they do not turn out for the better, we suffer. My family suffered, I suffered, and we lived in the past while the future never offered any hope.
We never lived in the now.
If I recall some of the harrowing events in my life right now, I will probably get very emotional and feel bad. Did anything bad happen to me right now? Well, yes, I brought back to mind a nasty memory.
So, it must be the memory of that event that is causing me to suffer right now.
This eternal “now” moment is very democratic – it includes every single thing going on, whether remembered or happening here and now.
Now that I realize I can only exist in this eternal “now” moment, it also occurs to me that I had better start enjoying this moment because it is all that I have really got and this moment is also uncertain and unknowable unless I try and grasp it with – you guessed it – my memory process.
These seven insights came to me at a time in my life when I had no faith or belief in anything.
Life’s questions seemed to have no answers and as my long journey seemed to come to a precipice, I finally realized there were no absolute answers. There seemed to be only fear, conditioning, memory, and misunderstanding.
As I considered what I had discovered, the greater relevance to the moment revealed itself. I had spent my entire life searching for the ultimate truths, without compromise.
It never mattered how hard, how painful, or how potentially destructive those truths may be, I had always been committed to uncovering them.
For me, it was the greatest act of courage and now it was being fulfilled. The only thing left for me to do was to test it and apply to my own life. It would also mean leaving the bush and confronting a new life that may look nothing like the one I’d come to know.
And it may just cost me everything.