The act of striving to become more, to learn more about living is a prominent part of many people’s lives; it certainly is for mine. However, I’ve observed a form of suffering which is associated with growth and striving, which I suspect is pervasive in progressive society. I will talk about the underlying beliefs that cause this suffering and the complex of dynamics that occur as they come forward for transcendence. I analyze these beliefs for the purpose of undermining them. However, I seek to undermine them not to cease striving, but to elicit understanding the cause and mechanism of striving-suffering, bringing it into clearer focus and illuminating the path to transcendence.
The core of the belief system I’m speaking about is the pair I’m not good enough : I need to be good enough. I name beliefs of this form motivating dualities. They begin when we set a standard for ourselves, here denoted “good enough”, and acknowledge that we do not meet that standard. This pair creates a vector — a drive to become more in the direction of our standard. Without both sides of the pair, these beliefs would not be motivating.
When the standard is concrete, this pair can integrate peacefully into a growing human being — it is equivalent to setting a goal and acknowledging where we are in relation to it, motivating us to close the gap. This pair will cause striving-suffering as we begin to identify ourselves with the abstract act of striving and/or achieving, separated from the goal to achieve. I’ve seen this both in cases where the person believes herself to be achieving highly and where he does not. When this identification occurs, the underlying belief system that created the vector is cemented into place — to transcend the motivating duality means letting go of striver as part of our identity; simultaneously, our identity as a striver is formed by these underlying beliefs, so we cannot let go of that in isolation either. We become trapped in a Nash equilibrium of beliefs and identity.
As we develop, we will eventually meet our previous standard, but because our identity and beliefs are trapped in this equilibrium, they mutate to adapt to their environment. The concrete standard that formed the initial vector is abstracted, and we begin to feel that we aren’t “up to standard” as a general principle. Goals that once had concrete action steps for growth become fuzzy, and we begin to grasp for Good Enough in the abstract. This grasping is the core of striving-suffering. We strive but never near our goal, because it is now too abstract to be measured.
I should be clear about the way I am bringing in some Buddhist philosophy, specifically that attachment is the cause of suffering. To interpret me well, it’s important not to read suffering as “bad” or “thing to be avoided”. It may be that all striving is attachment and thus suffering, but when we are nearing a goal, when we see the gap of a motivating duality closing, we feel pleasure and fun. Living while oscillating between suffering and pleasure/fun is an often pleasurable and fun life which includes suffering.
Striving-suffering is calling me for analysis because it undermines its own end. The striver-sufferer seeks to expand herself and her consciousness, however she is blocked from transcending this aspect of her beliefs and identity. Someone trapped in striving-suffering will often not be able to access universal consciousness — the deeply peaceful identification of self as the universe — because they are unable to take off the lens of “good enough” because it would mean the collapse of their identity. Striving-suffering is a common condition in progressive culture, and we see its effects: many highly talented and accomplished people, dedicated and hard-working, with narrow, inflexible consciousness.
So, while the motivating duality I’m not good enough : I need to be good enough drives us to grow, to continue growth of our consciousness we must eventually transcend it. One path to transcendence is to undermine both beliefs at once by breaking down the core concepts upon which these beliefs are built. Breaking core concepts to the point of existential crisis is a practice I engage in more often than most; it is often deeply overwhelming and confusing, and many don’t feel they have the freedom of lifestyle that would allow such frequent crises. A smoother path is to unlink the self-reinforcing complex so that each aspect is free to go without being pulled back into place by its companion. A striver-sufferer can do this by, for example, observing and reinforcing himself as someone who naturally seeks to grow, so that the motivating duality is no longer the sole support for that aspect of his identity. This frees the motivating duality to be transcended without invoking a crisis of identity.
A striver identity supported by natural seeking is more flexible than that supported by the motivating duality — it requires a less hefty lens, and the lens can be removed without threatening our identity. It moves our motivation from extrinsic — motivated as a means to an (impossible) end — to intrinsic, which can be trusted while beliefs and ways of perceiving shift, freeing the consciousness to expand in new domains.