A patient of mine had experienced a dramatic change in his behavior, and hence, his self-perception. His refrain was always, “I never was like this before!” In response to his own confusion, he endlessly tried to examine the “cause” of this change. In meticulous detail he went over the alterations in his work situation which had stressed him. He tried to reconstruct the parameters of his childhood, the weaknesses that such a confused family situation had imposed on him.
At first, I listened approvingly. His descriptions were meticulous and insightful. I underscored that a cognitive understanding of his situation was helpful. The mind does have a rational dimension, and it needs to be fed. But after a while, I pointed out that for all his “understanding” he did not feel any better, and questioned whether more explorations such as childhood reconstruction and an analysis of situational triggers would lower his anxiety?
When I finally suggested that he go in another direction he confronted me. “I need closure”, he said. “When I find the right explanation I will stop being anxious.”
I looked at him, “There is no closure”, I said.
The writer and Buddhist Monk Pema Chodrun has called such searches for closure, “Looking for a reference point.” A reference point is a standard for evaluation, assessment or comparison. Reference points are standard constructs of the rational mind. The rational mind seeks explanations and understanding; these are the foods that satiate the rational mind.
But mental satiation is like the joke about Chinese food: “You eat and an hour later you are hungry again.” Mental closure is always transient. The right conception does bring relief, but quickly the search returns for there is always more to think about, and all thinking leaves us is hungry for more knowledge and a dose more of resolution.
Buddhism calls this tendency Samsara, the endless cycle of death and rebirth, which in this corporal life is characterized by the endless cycle of suffering (anxiety, depression, anger and grasping), resolution followed by another round of suffering. According to Buddhist thought, such suffering is existential, it is inherent in our being.
Buddhist psychology utilizes the term enlightenment, which means an openness to experience. It entails giving up on such reference points and instead being open to the experience of the moment and nothing more.
In the throes of suffering we try to move to the past or future. We try to gain closure and by doing so rid ourselves of the experience. We do not want to feel what we are feeling, to sit and take it. But enlightenment means just that; sit with it, do not avoid, do not react to the experience.
Instead, we must relax our body in response to the experience, and rather than allow a reactive mind to search for reference, we utilize bare self-observation.
For example, if someone rejects us, the reactive mind sees ourselves as “victimized”. In response, we may externalize it as blame for the other, or we may try to understand why we are so hurt, or we may sink into self pity. Each conceptualization brings temporary relief, but no change in the way we deal with suffering, and it forces us to fixate and identify with self-perceptions which invariably lead to greater suffering.
To reach an enlightened state of mind, we first center our body and let afflictive feelings go. Simultaneously, we stand aside and let our thoughts flow. As Chodrum says, “Like touching a bubble with a feather.” We watch the progression of our thoughts and the feelings that encircle them. We do not get in their way, try to guide them, or reject them. We are simply open to the experience as it exists.
As we get out of our own way the experience dissipates, moves on and makes room for new experiences. We flow through life, which is the natural state of our being.
Rather than self-explanation, our task is always to flow with the moment. Contentment is dealing with each moment as it exists, and meeting it with calm and acceptance. That’s all there is. Closure implies a permanence that does not exist; seeking the illusion of closure is a path toward more suffering.