Roger Housden calls himself a lifelong student of the beauty of the word. To this end, the British-born author and teacher has has published 23 books, including the best-selling Ten Poems (which began with Ten Poems to Change Your Life), Keeping the Faith Without a Religion, and Saved by Beauty. His latest book, Dropping the Struggle: Seven Ways to Love the Life You Have, is a radical, transformative look at the limitations of over-achievement and the ethos of "I struggle, therefore I am." In a world addicted to self-improvement, Housden offers a voice of sanity and spiritual wisdom. We talked about some of the major pitfalls of our "struggle culture" and how to bring balance to our frenetic lives.
Mark Matousek: I want to start with the struggle to be special. How can we dismantle this armor of specialness that we’re raised to wear in a meritocratic society?
Roger Housden: The natural wish and impetus to feel oneself to be an individual, to be special, includes standing out more than anyone else. The American culture especially, and Western culture in general, urges us to not only become the best that we can be, but also win against the competition.
The ego, as our familiar sense of self, seems predicated on fear. The fear that we might not make it, that we might not get where we want to go. But deep down there is also a grain of fear that we have nothing to give or nothing to offer. I think that’s the ego’s justifiable anxiety about its substantiality and existence. When we turn our gaze to the inside, it becomes difficult to locate this familiar sense of self. To overcome that fear we need to feel special in some way.
I think the answer is self-inquiry, the willingness to look at one’s motives. Not making oneself wrong, but simply noticing where a particular intention is coming from. Is it coming from fear of loss or fear of failure or is it coming out of a natural aspiration as an individual to do good for yourself and the world in general?
MM: So that struggle for specialness comes from a type of desperation, as opposed to expressing our individuality and originality?
RH: Each of us is already special in the sense that nobody has the unique pattern of potentialities that anyone else has. Some of us have the good fortune of some type of natural gift, whether it’s playing tennis or painting or writing. The great French Impressionist painter Renoir, right at the end of his very long life, said to a friend, “I am just now learning to paint.” Renoir carried his gift with a humility which realized how much he still had to learn. Anyone who goes deeply into a field in life and realizes this, gains a sense of proportion that can only make you humble. The more we enter our own gifts, the more we feel that sense of proportion. In that sense, I think our life lies in the fulfillment of those potentialities, whatever they may be.
MM: How can we make our lives better and aspire to great things without bringing struggle into the process?
RH: Struggle has a natural place in our life, but the fight or flight syndrome is often false struggle. There are times for that but we can have that reaction in areas of our life where it’s not successful. Areas that concern existential issues or qualities of life—like meaning or purpose or love. These things actually come to us more as we let go of struggling to achieve them.
Transferring the tendency for struggle into the givens of life that we have as humans is also an issue. For example, the fact that everything constantly changes. People around us change and circumstances change. We can often find ourselves struggling against those things. The capacity to become aware of the givens of our existence—such as change—and to actually welcome those as just part of our human experience releases the struggle.
MM: So unnecessary struggle is about trying to attain some kind of perfection by holding onto our reputation, our image, and other things in a way that they won’t change?
RH: Precisely. Most of us make an effort to do and be the best we can be, which leads to a distinction we need to make between the notion of struggle and the notion of effort. For example, if we’re trying to get the perfect house, the perfect relationship or the perfect job, it’s likely there’s some kind of fear driving us beyond the natural wish to improve. It’s really the refusal to acknowledge that life—including ourselves—is simply not perfect.
There’s a wonderful poem by Ellen Bass called “Relax.” A few of the lines go:
No matter how many vitamins you take,
how much Pilates, you’ll lose your keys,
your hair and your memory.
And it goes on to say:
Your wallet will be stolen, you’ll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles of a foreign hotel
and crack your hip.
Bad things are going to happen but she’s not saying, “Don’t take this medicine”, she’s not saying, “Don’t do Pilates.” She’s saying that it all goes together as part of the whole picture of what it is to be human with our beautiful imperfections.
MM: Wonderful. A lot of folks are at a loss for purpose and meaning as they age and see through the illusions of youth and of becoming somebody. Is it possible to live without meaning? And how do you define "meaning" anyway?
RH: That’s a great question. I certainly spent many years in my early life chasing all over the globe for meaning and purpose. I’d feel like I’d found it, then it would fade away again. I had a classic case of what people call “seeker’s disease.” That was part of my journey, but now, meaning is like a secret that’s revealing itself moment by moment, day by day. When we’re fully engaged in the present moment, no matter what we’re doing, the question of meaning never seems to arise. It’s because we feel fulfilled and that is inherently meaningful. I’ve come to see that the way my life shows up is actually my purpose.
If you want to know your purpose, look at the unfolding of your life, because that is your gift to the world. It may not look spectacular, but nobody else has the precise life that you do. It’s a gift no one else can offer. If you allow yourself to fully feel the life you’re in—not conceptually, but viscerally in the present moment—then that is inherently meaningful. Practice remembrance of the present moment, again and again. Be willing to be where you actually are. In my experience, that is the most inherently meaningful experience you can have.
MM: And what about love? What are some of the practices or changes people can make in relationship to drop that struggle separately and together?
RH: This question of love begins and ends with the willingness to be welcoming to one’s own experience as a loving action towards oneself. It may be dark, it may be light, it may be joyous, it may be sorrowful, but it’s your experience, and therefore, your life. As we have that kind of loving response towards our own life, then life itself in terms of the outside world, begins to feel different. The love of someone else is more accessible or more possible if one lives with a sense of loving embrace towards oneself because that extends out into the world.
I woke up early one morning a couple of years ago and felt the tenderness of my being alone, the bitter sweetness of it. It has many colors, being alone. I walked out into my living room and I can say honestly that everything was pouring with life—the red sofa, the chairs with their patterns of roses, even the coffee table with its scattering of books. Everything was alive with the presence of being. Seeing the world though those eyes, I realized that I could never really be alone. I belong on this earth in the way that an oak tree does.
I don’t think one can run out and try and chase love. When we are open to ourselves and our own experience, and therefore, open to the world, then the world can respond. We have all had serendipitous moments—the most unlikely meetings out of nowhere—that can happen when we have this quality of deep acceptance towards ourselves.
MM: So it does begin as an inside job.
MM: What do you mean by the struggle against time and how can we start to drop that struggle and enter into a more timeless dimension?
RH: Time and the timeless dimension co-exist here, now in this very moment that we’re living, this very moment that we’re speaking.
I was sitting in an ashram one time in India—the only westerner—and this teacher, this extraordinary but very simple man looked across at me and laughed. “Mr. Roger,” he said, “thinks he’s going to England tomorrow, but he’s not going anywhere. His body may move, but he does not move.” At the time, I was very absorbed in trying to get my tickets to leave the country and didn’t recognize what he meant. I realized later that there is a stillness in all of us that is really the essence of who we are. A stillness and a silence that doesn’t move, that doesn’t go anywhere and our task is to experience that while being in time.
We have to be on time every day for one thing or another, so how can we be on time and yet not in time at the same time? A great example for this is driving. I live in California, where there’s a lot of driving entailed. I’m usually going somewhere to be on time to meet someone so I’m necessarily engaged in time. And yet, how can I in that moment of driving my car, be aware of that which is not going anywhere?
I bring my attention to my hands on the steering wheel and notice how the chatter in my mind begins to fall away as my breathing slows. I’m awake and alive, simply driving the car going where I need to go, on time and in time. A still point of the turning world. With that awareness, I bring my attention into my body, and the body is the doorway to the timeless, because the body is always where we are and always in the present moment. What’s not often in the present moment is the thinking mind.
MM: Once again, it’s presence that dissolves the struggle.
RH: In every circumstance. It’s so simple and yet so seemingly hard to grasp.
MM: Just one last question. How does dropping the struggle for knowledge line up with the aspiration for wisdom and gnosis?
RH: Wisdom and knowledge are two different things. Knowledge is immensely powerful and immensely useful. We live in an age of knowledge, with the great god Google, that we can refer to at any time on any subject. So, we can acquire as much knowledge as we would like with a few taps on our keyboard. That’s extremely valuable, but wisdom comes again from that different dimension.
We’ve been speaking about two different dimensions of being human. The everyday, familiar sense of self who lives in time, and that dimension which we’ve called presence, that is always here, that is still and quiet.
It is from that region of silence, that wordless knowing comes. A knowing of what needs to be done or what needs to be said or what needs to happen at any given time. That is wisdom and wisdom does not come from the accumulation of knowledge. It’s the bringing together of knowledge and wisdom that is a great part—perhaps the greatest part—of our life’s journey.