You have an image in your mind of how you would like things to be. It’s frustrating to you that things are as they are. You want them to be further along the line. It may be your finances, your career, your relationships, or your body that is bothering you. All you know is that you are not where you would like to be.
Many, many people are haunted by the difference between what they wake up and experience, and what they would wish to experience in their ideal world. People look at their finances and say ‘too little’, at their career and say ‘too minor’, at their relationships and say ‘too unsupportive’, and at their body and say ‘too ugly’. These concerns should be called the ‘fabulous four’, as they take up so much of the modern mind.
How did we get to be like that? Let’s have a look at each of the four concerns, and examine how they can arise in a normal society.
Most economies are set up around a simple equation. You provide goods or services to others, and they pay you for them. In order to keep everyone making an effort, the pay is usually just enough for survival. If the service is perceived as innovative, desirable or rare, the pay is more. If it’s perceived as easily copied, undesirable or easy to find, the pay is less.
You have two extreme tactics available to you. Firstly, you can play the supply game, and seek to provide a sought-after service. Or secondly, you can opt out of the supply game, and live on less money. Most people sit somewhere on the continuum between the driven money-seeker (let’s call that level 10), and the carefree dropout (let’s call that level 1).
The worries come when someone observes their life, and becomes angry that they are at too ‘low’ a financial level. ‘Low’ is subjective. Most people in western society have access to enough food and shelter to live. It’s often, therefore, the level of subjective anger, not any real objective level of finance, that determines the unhappiness.
Again, most economies nowadays have a simple foundation: the provision of desirable goods or services in return for monetary value. With careers, the issue often slips sideways from money into status as a proxy symbol.
Here, the two extremes are as follows. Firstly, you can insert yourself into a status slot with high perceived value (again, innovative, desirable or rare). Qualification-heavy careers protect their own rarity – they are, essentially, closed shops, except to those permitted or prepared to suffer the journey. Or, secondly, you can sit outside that status-based game, and have less influence, but more time available.
In a similar way to financial life, most people sit somewhere on the continuum between driven status-seeker, and carefree, status-free living. The worries here come when someone stuck on the treadmill becomes overwhelmed with how it rules their life; or when someone status-free becomes troubled by the lack of respect or influence afforded to them by others.
Many modern cultures have developed an individualistic concept of the self: the idea that each of us is a ‘unit’, separable from other ‘units’. Passports and other ID processes contribute to this myth. We then set about trying to make this ‘self’ happy, by removing loss, and attracting pleasure. This is a difficult task. Loss is intrinsic to the human experience; and many kinds of pleasure lead to reactive health problems.
A common psychological response is to blame others for one’s losses and pains. It is easier to point to someone else, and say ‘they did it!’, than to allow a perception that we control our own happiness. Unhappiness becomes determined by our level of subjective anger at others, rather than any objective level of behaviour by others. In a vicious circle, the angrier we get at others, the unhappier we get in ourselves. This process is sometimes called projection.
Many modern cultures have also developed an idea of our body as a badge we face the world with, a tool of self-esteem. We believe in a mythical points system, in which we gain invisible points by looking attractive to others. Because of our biological heritage, we often treat each other more respectfully when we match certain visual ideals. In many societies, slimness is a visual ideal.
At the same time, our societies present us with temptations that threaten that visual ideal, especially foods that pack high levels of calories into a brief window of pleasure. We get trapped in a catch-22, in which we alternately eat the delicious foods, and then try to return to ideal weight. The fast food and diet industries are, in this sense, opposing forces, both making money out of the human tendency to fall into binge and purge.
DISTILLING THE FRUSTRATIONS
To distill an understanding of the above four frustrations:
- Financial frustration is discontent with one’s position on a subjective wealth ladder
- Career frustration is discontent with one’s position on a subjective status ladder
- Relationship frustration is subjective anger at others
- Body frustration is subjective discontent with one’s position in relation to a common visual ideal
The next bit is going to be annoying to those who are action-oriented, and want to cure life by influencing the ‘world out there’. I’m going to suggest that there are four things we can helpfully accept:
- We can accept our financial position exactly as it is
- We can accept our status exactly as it is
- We can accept others exactly as they are
- We can accept our bodies exactly as they are
This is a key part of many meditation practices. We accept everything exactly as it is, without judgement, without blame, and without discontent. Once we get good at it, we can find peace.
WE CAN STILL ACT
It is a common misconception that to accept life is to become somehow passive. But this is untrue. When we rise from meditation, we can still act to change things. But we will be acting in a way that is free from frustration, because it is grounded in acceptance.
GOOD ANTI-FRUSTRATION EXERCISES
Frustration cannot exist if the present situation is accepted. Here are four exercises that improve our ability to accept in each of the four areas mentioned above.
- A day on a budget. Give yourself an exact amount of money for a day out. It could be £10 or £100 – it doesn’t matter. Allocate a day in your diary, and plan your day out to match the exact budget you have given yourself. This will improve your ability to accept and make the best of a particular financial level of resource.
- A low-status day. Give yourself a day in which you accept a low status. Wherever you find yourself, cherish others and help them. Take the last place in the queue; give way in traffic; see how you can serve others. This will take your mind away from the damaging quest for respect from others.
- A day imagining everybody is (a) God/Buddha. Spend a day imagining that everyone you meet is a God/Buddha, and possesses a secret wisdom in everything they do. Your mission is to be attentive to them, to serve them, and to try to discover what that secret wisdom is. This will stop you from being quick to anger.
- A day without focusing on your appearance. Give yourself a day’s rest from thinking about your appearance. Look in mirrors as little as possible. Do the basic maintenance, and then don’t fuss. This will begin to place you back in the world again, and help you to be less self-obsessed.
Alongside meditation, the four above practices help with acceptance of finances, status, relationships and body. Gradually, you may find yourself feeling more peaceful and less pressured. If you train yourself to be accepting of your present situation, then frustration is no longer necessary, and can be avoided. You can still act to improve things as you see fit; and because your actions are free of frustration, they will flow better and be more effective.