Islam: Day 21 and Week 3 Recap – The real reason why we’re unhappy

Since high school, I’ve questioned the meaning of existence (in an angsty, teenager way). One of the reasons why I wanted to become a SEAL was that I believed it was more significant than working some corporate job or becoming a lawyer. Defending freedom, living up to warrior values, and getting rid of evil in the world (by shooting it in the face) were super appealing. Trying to sell widgets for some company was trivial by comparison.

But when I abandoned that ambition, there wasn’t much left to fill the gap. However, I didn’t diagnose the problem as a lack of higher purpose, I diagnosed it as a lack of money, time, freedom, career, travel, etc.

So when I pursued those things and got those things, I expected to become happy.

I wasn’t.

There is a great scene in the film The Reluctant Fundamentalist, where the main character Changez (who is a hot-shot consultant), is having a conversation with his client, a Turkish publisher.

The publisher, who is clearly not a fan of the consulting industry, tells Changez:

“Young men don’t make good mercenaries, they need a cause to fight.”

Changez was growing increasingly unhappy with his life. He had a high-paying and glamorous job that he was good at, but he became increasingly alienated from American culture and its values.

The publisher, in one sentence, pointed out that Changez was not living for anything substantive, nothing greater than superficial and meaningless worldly goals (money and prestige).

However, the publisher was not only correct about Changez, he was right about me as well.

I wrote about the concept of Jihad in a previous post, and while Jihad can refer to an actual, physical war, the more significant war or struggle is the internal one. The internal struggle is far more difficult, as you have to fight against your broken nature, the temptation to give into your lesser self.

What we also struggle with is, what I now believe to be a separation from God, or the spiritual, or a higher purpose of living.

There are millions of self-help bloggers who correctly identify symptoms of our struggle (feeling trapped, depressed, stagnant, etc.), but they misdiagnose the root problems. They believe the problem is your job, your (lack of) money, or your “evil” boss.

These may or may not be problems on some level. If you don’t have enough money, that does cause some real world problems.

But the deeper problem is actually an existential and spiritual one.

Once you have your basic, physical needs met, you will naturally transition into the stage called “the accusing self” where you ask the big questions of existence.

And this is where most people are led astray. Instead of looking for spiritual answers, we look for worldly ones. What is the right job for me? How can I build a passive-income business? How can I be more productive so I can get more work done?

The right questions to ask are, “Why are we here? Am I living a good life? How can I be better as a person?”

Our unhappiness stems from not asking these questions or if we are asking these questions, not knowing how to answer them.

And sometimes we get glimpses of what “the answer” is (it’s not 42).

When I went camping this weekend, I had a very mystical experience after my morning prayer. I could feel something greater than myself, feel myself being subsumed into, for lack of better words, God.

I want that experience again, because everything felt right in those few moments.

When I went back to work, I felt separated from that experience, separated from God.

Islam, and all religions really, try to teach people how to breach that separation. They teach you to pray, to fast, to reflect, and to study. They teach you how behave in a just and righteous way, a way that will feel right and will make you feel close to God.

So what I learned this week is that for many of us, our problem is fundamentally, a separation from God.

Instead of looking to self-help bloggers,  we have a better shot of finding what we’re looking for in religion.

  • Duncan

    Great post, again. I’m really looking forward to your dive into Buddhism, this post already has hints of it; unknowingly. Be sure to supplement your research with some Alan Watts!

    • Debbie

      I agree with Duncan! Still really enjoying reading your thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks Duncan and Debbie.

      Duncan, just finished up “The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Really Are” by Watts. Definitely mind-bending.

      • Duncan

        Excellent! I can highly recommend the Essential Lectures audio series, or the audio for the much shorter ‘Do You Do It or Does It Do You’. Mainly because his laughter and joy is infectious, which is somewhat absent from his written material.

        I will admit that I am definitely biased towards his work. Always a good night’s sleep if I drift off to his voice.

        • Cool. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll have to check it out at some point.

          Have you been able to apply his philosophy to your own life?

          • Duncan

            I wouldn’t say that I have actively attempted to incorporate the ideas into my life, yet from time to time I certainly notice its influence on my reactions and perceptions. Perhaps more mellowed, accepting, less anxious, less desirous of change outside my control. The philosophy has made a huge impact on my contentment at least.

            It’s reassuring (pleasing? relaxing?) to feel a greater connection to the universe, that it is part and parcel with my existence, rather than something external, ‘other’, or considered something to be contended with.

            I think he had a certain knack for interpreting and explaining facets of Buddhism that many people may miss out on if they attempt to go directly to the source first. He demystifies seemingly vague tenets, explains the techniques of gurus and zen masters and why they are appear to be so enigmatic; he unravels the method behind the magic so to speak.

            It’s not life-changing in a flash of fireworks and fanfare. I’m sure many have become lost down the path of Buddhism seeking something they don’t require (and unfortunately likely won’t find). That is precisely his point in many ways though.

            You already have it, you don’t need to seek it elsewhere. Enjoy the sound of rain on your window, experience the pain rather than fighting it, ride the waves, delight in the laughter. It seems pithy, trite, and cliched; like empty advice.

            And yet, adversity is less worrisome, and life has more wonder, because of it.

          • I like your point: “It’s not life-changing in a flash of fireworks and fanfare.”

            This has been my experience so far with my experiments. Change is often subtle, and comes as a result of putting in the work.

            Glad to see his philosophy has rubbed off on you though, I think it’s far healthier than the individualist and ego-driven approach to life embraced by modernity.

  • KW

    Thank you for sharing your experiences — the before and those along the way. For me, I share these before feelings (though not an earnest unhappiness, but a sense of missingness, a place unfulfilled, incompleteness). Being able to experience this feeling, albeit ephemerally, indicates that you can achieve it again. Such an exciting time. I wonder if it is the culmination of your Openness to experience things in general that is allowing you this, rahter than any one experience per se. Just a thought.

    • Hm, good question. It’s somewhat a personality thing I imagine (openness to experience) but I imagine with training anyone can achieve though transcendent feelings.