Excerpt from Opening the Heart of Compassion: Transform Suffering Through Buddhist Psychology and Practice by Martin Lowenthal and Lar Short (pgs. 101-107, 112-113)
Beyond Struggle and the Quest for Power: From Titan Realm to Skillful Means
“Sure winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” – “Red” Sanders
“Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.” – George Santayana, Life of Reason, Volume 1
“Only where love and need are one – And the work is play for mortal stakes – Is the deed ever really done – For Heaven and the future’s sakes.” – Robert Frost, “Two Tramps in Mud Time”
The Titans, dressed in full armor, are beings inflamed by jealousy. They see everything in terms of struggle, feel attacked by the gods, and seek the power to become gods. A giant tree grows on the border between the titan realm and the god realm and bears wish-granting fruit. While the tree grows in the territory of the titans, the fruit falls in the land of the gods. The gods, oblivious of where the blessings come from, eat the fruit and toss the pits over the wall between the two realms, which the titans take to be arrows of assault. They fire arrows and spears toward the gods, which magically turn to blossoms as they descend into their neighbor’s realm.
Avalokiteshvara appears to the titans as the Spiritual Father Amogasiddhi, realizer of the aim and of all-accomplishing wisdom, and as the Divine Mother Tara, the All-Merciful. Amogasiddhi is an impeccably skilled warrior who remains cool and fearless in the face of attacks by all the titans, and who radiates a luminous green light. Unable to defeat him, the titans attempt to learn his skill. As they learn to separate their actions from their emotions, and to develop the qualities of skillful means — stillness and quietude, freshness of being, cool unfettered mind, productive activity, harmony with both comrades and opponents, precision, and selfless volition — their original desire to conquer the kingdom of the gods is undermined by their realization that there is nothing to be gained by the struggle.
Tara, as a “savior”, invites the titans, particularly the female titans, to look into the pool of tears they have shed for their husbands, brothers, and sons lost in battle. They reflect on the suffering that flows from their sense of entitlement, their tendency to be aggressive, and their orientation towards struggle. From this reflection comes a pause, a realization of the dangers of fixation, and a sense of grace and gratitude.
When we live in the titan realm, we want to prove that we deserve to be respected, to be honored, to be loved, to be secure, and to be treated justly. We furiously engage in one activity after another, and often in many activities simultaneously, in an effort to show the world that we are worthy. We strive to avoid being criticized or attacked for some failure. We have an enormous fear of failure because it would leave us vulnerable to those who would destroy us with criticism and shame.
In our struggle to prove our worth and prevent failures, we feel compelled toward greater accomplishments and ever grander goals. If only we could control situations, we could use our intelligence, our energy, and our hard work to make things turn out as they should.
Shame and the Fear of Violation
As titans, we feel shame, envy, and fear of attack. All are rooted in the feeling that our basic integrity — who we are and what we feel — can and will be violated. We fear what others think of us, and we are convinced that they think we are not good enough. Shame is specifically this feeling of being unworthy and inadequate as human beings.
Robert Bly points out that, when our inner sovereignty is not respected by our parents, our teachers, or our society, we not only develop shame, but also become confused about boundaries. When we live as titans, we live with paranoia. We think our boss is setting us up to fail. We are sure that the driver passing us on the right is defeating us in an imaginary race. Or we sense that our lover is holding back from acknowledging our achievements out of jealousy.
As titans we are haunted by the feeling that our friends, bosses, lovers, and powerful people are competing with us. They attack us, seeking to destroy our sense of worth and to steal what we have. Those who have more than we have are shaming us by example; they are revealing our failings. Those who help us must have ulterior motives such as domination and dependency. Those who do not help us are selfish and untrustworthy. Those who desire our friendship want the riches we have to offer. Those who give us gifts expect more in return. We know that we work hard and diligently, yet the fruits of our labor seem to benefit others more than ourselves.
So we frequently feel that we are being cheated, that others are reaping the rewards of our efforts. We become protective of our accomplishments. Rather than sharing the joy of our victories, we erect protective walls to secure our gains. This realm is characterized by the illusion of scarcity, the conviction that there is not enough to go around. Therefore, we must fight not only for our fair share now but also for control, so that we can get ours in the future.
Envy and Entitlement
In this realm we are preoccupied with our desire for what other people have. Our territory is extended beyond simply what we own to include those things that we deserve. If we are unable to obtain what we want, we experience not only frustration, but the pain of undeserved loss. We justify what we want as entitlement, and feel that we have a rightful claim not only to what we have but to what we think we need.
This sense of righteous entitlement shapes our attitude toward others: those who support our activities are friends, and all others are enemies. For the titan, even friends and allies are regarded with suspicion because they might shift positions, becoming enemies. This means that we are continually gauging relative positions, not only with foes, but also with friends. We cannot afford to let our friends become too good, too famous, too successful. Instead of rejoicing in their triumphs we feel alienated from them. We feel envy and shame at not having accomplished all that they have accomplished.
This frame of suspicion and threat means that we mistrust information from other people and cut ourselves off from learning from them. We think that only we can judge what is useful and true. We are preoccupied with the way information is manipulated for competitive ends. We think that one of the few things that we can control is the information that we give other people, and we not only use this to advance our own position but assume that others are doing the same. In fact, we believe that everyone is the same, with the same desires and motives and combative spirit. To us people act out of self-interest and are motivated by the desire for accomplishment, acquisition, status, and power. We distrust protestations to the contrary and demonstrations of alternative motives.
Torn by Desire and Distrust
We are torn between our desire for approval and our distrust of others and their motives. We seek peaceful relationships and secure sense of belonging, but feel constant distrust and competition. We want to relax and are often exhausted by our constant struggles; yet we fear the consequences of lowering our guard.
We long to fit into the world, but we are convinced that we have to fight for our place and defend it. This means perpetual alienation from other people. We often decide to settle for their respect rather than seeking their love, as this appears safer in the world of competition.
Competing for Esteem
Competition, as such, is neither good nor bad. Competition can support us by giving feedback on our performance, by providing examples of what is possible, by engendering appreciation for the abilities of others, and by creating side-by-side intimacy through fellowship with our competitors. If, however, it is viewed simply in terms of winning and losing and of proving self-worth, it cuts us off from our aliveness. Our competitive urge drives us to be better, smarter and richer than other people. Even religious leaders and spiritual seekers work to become greater, more devout, more skilled and even more humble than anyone else. Yet, when we are concerned with surpassing others, we cut ourselves off from our own best qualities and energies.
This type of competition distances us from other people, making it easy to ignore the feelings and situations of those around us. The desire to win leads us to concentrate on weaknesses of others so that we will look better. We point out their failings as part of our campaign to appear superior. One paradox of competition is that we want to validate our inherent self-worth beyond all comparison by using comparison with others.
The preoccupation with winning distorts our natural inclination for meaningful action. We search for our arena, our field of competitive advantage. Then we specialize, narrowing the ground of competition to increase our chance of winning. We share less and less with others and lose interest in things outside our sphere of endeavor. Win/lose competitiveness not only alienates us from others but also from our own openness.
To make a virtue of our struggle, we elevate winning to an ideal, excellence to the greatest expression of human nature, and competitiveness to an innate human quality. […] The pressure to succeed, however, breeds the fear of failure and shame, which undermines our self-confidence and keeps us trapped in issues of self-esteem.
We use our continual comparisons with others and with our ideals to judge our progress and to map out strategies for the competitive struggle. The success of others is not an indication of our impoverishment, as in the preta realm, but a basis for shame and a target for achievement. We do not want to be less than others, and so we struggle to be superior to them. Comparisons spur us into action. Whereas in the preta realm we internalize the sense of comparison and evaluation, in the realm of the titans we externalize it and try to change our position. We often treat others as obstacles to be moved out of the way, or as data to be manipulated.
We feel shamed by the accomplishments of other people, as though they succeeded in order to spite us. We try to dismiss their sharing as “showing off” — another insult added to the injury of our relative failure.
In our titan frame of mind, we may come to feel that we must be the best at almost any cost. If we cannot exceed everyone else, then we will diminish their successes. If we cannot be taller naturally, we can at least lop off the heads of those around us.
Conceits of Superiority, Inferiority, and Equality
When we inhabit this realm we are prone to three conceits: superiority, inferiority, and equality. The superiority conceit argues, “I am better than you,” or “You are worse than me.” The inferiority conceit says, “I am worse than you,” or “You are better than me.” The equality conceits suggests that “I am as good as you,” or “I am as bad as you are.”
This last conceit can be the most insidious because it seems virtuous. As titans, we are trying to make everyone at least as bad as we are. If we are angry with our partners and they are calm, we will try to make them upset to show that they are no different and certainly no better than we are. If we confess our failings, we want everyone else to confess theirs to demonstrate that they are no better than us. We want to bring them down to a common level where we can feel equal and can thereby validate ourselves. We enlist the political virtue of equality in the cause of proving that everyone is the same as we are.
Appealing to the Public
In our drive for respect and approval, we may be seduced by superficial judgments. People will encourage us to show only our most appealing behaviors and to say what they want to hear. We pander to an audience and take public attention as validation, even though it is dependent on outward appearances and manipulated impressions.
This habit of superficiality minimizes the threat to our constructed identity and therefore feels comfortable. We befriend people who are engaged in the same game because there is an implicit agreement that “I won’t call you on your game, if you won’t reveal mine.” With most people we attempt to manipulate their feelings, saying what will maintain their esteem for us and prevent their honest feedback. This further obscures both our feelings and our capacity for insight into our own habits.
When we equate manipulation with success, genuine honesty appears naive and unproductive. Our lives seem to be functioning in high gear, our work resulting in material rewards and fame. Yet underneath this superficial progress, we sense that our integrity has been violated, thus aggravating our insecurity and agitation.
Our dissatisfaction and striving prevents us from finding any natural balance in the world and experiencing harmony within ourselves. Our heart posture of struggle also prevents us from greeting new situations freshly. We become jaded in relating to ourselves and other people. Everything appears to be the same old thing, as we cloak our innate freshness with habitual perceptions and unconscious assumptions.
Spiritual Masquerade of the Warrior
As titans we may enter the spiritual path to improve our personal power and to enhance our self-image and public image. We become warriors in our struggle for perfection. We want to mobilize the energy body in our pursuit of success and excellence. We are preoccupied with the psychic powers and impeccability of the warrior, and view other spiritual aspirants — and even our own teachers — as competitors. We also sense the power of harmony, spontaneity, and authenticity and want these for ourselves to serve our titan goals.
(with 120 mg [of MDMA]) “I feel absolutely clean inside, and there is nothing but pure euphoria. I have never felt so great, or believed this to be possible. The cleanliness, clarity, and marvelous feeling of solid inner strength continued throughout the rest of the day, and evening, and through the next day. I am overcome by the profundity of the experience, and how much more powerful it was than previous experiences, for no apparent reason, other than a continually improving state of being. All the next day I felt like ‘a citizen of the universe’ rather than a citizen of the planet, completely disconnecting time and flowing easily from one activity to the next.” – PIHKAL entry on MDMA
The abolitionist project, i.e. the goal of preventing all future suffering, is tremendously ambitious and grandiose. It is not surprising, then, that one would assume that the demographic that it will tend to attract consists of people who inhabit the titan realm first and foremost. Likewise, when we talk about ending suffering, the grandiosity of this aspiration can likely trigger in the listener precisely the defense mechanisms of the titan realm. How many of the counterarguments against ending suffering are really coming from a place of equanimity and balance, and how many of them are just habitual titan realm reactions to a perceived threat to one’s status in the hierarchies we are invested in?
One may say: “I had to suffer to be great! To be meaningful, to be useful, to be respected, all of that has cost me a sea of sweat and tears. Without great sacrifice there is no great reward! Do you want to take that away from me?”
The Bingo of responses to the Hedonistic Imperative
Compare such pained responses to the mindset that MDMA instills in us. Because on MDMA one often experiences one’s sense of self-worth as inherent rather than conditional, one is able to see our motivations with complete self-honesty. More so, one does not get entangled in the status competitions of others, as the unshakable sense of inner worth is not diminished by one’s relative position in these consensus realities.
One may surely worry that our natural low self-worth is perhaps necessary to achieve great things. That if we could actually emotionally get by with feeling better than well — in a state of compassion, bliss, and wholesomeness — we would have evolved to be that way already. Alas, evolution does not care about our wellbeing; only the inclusive fitness of our genes. And it surely was the case that back in the African Savannah being driven by titan realm energies was highly adaptive. But today, I suspect, we will gain a lot of value by examining all the ways in which titan realm energies, in fact, get in the way of great achievements. Indeed, the very meaning of greatness as seen from the point of view of the titan realm is highly impoverished, narrow, and one-sided. For greatness of an even higher kind is to be found in the wonder and majesty of working towards a world of beautiful feelings for everyone.
It is surely the case that a lot of human accomplishments come straight out of the titan realm. However, I would like to challenge the notion that titan realm feelings are necessary, desirable, or perhaps inevitable in high-achievers. In particular, we should recall that group selection has limits: while every cell of your liver is indeed “in it to win it” with you, this is not quite true for each “cell” of a human group. The reason is simple: we are not all genetic twins, so human colonies are generally bound to be unstable, filled with internal competition, and sabotage. I would posit that one can indeed work towards ambitious and beautiful goals without invoking titan realm energies. In particular, we should be frank about all the ways in which titan motivations are in fact detrimental to our very goals. The low mood and self-loathing caused by internalized low-status is undoubtedly a huge cause of low productivity (see: rank theory of depression); office politics a massive waste of internal resources; and the paranoia overhead of the realm a derailment of effective and coherent group action. Thus, while MDMA-like states of consciousness may not have been the optimally adaptive mindsets from the point of view of our selfish genes, I think that a strong case can be made that they might in fact be extremely adaptive at the group level in modern times. This can be empirically tested. Looking ahead, this maybe is especially so post-reproductive revolution, as we will get to decide the gene distribution of our offspring in anticipation of their expected benefits at the individual and group level.
Much has been said about how we are, by nature, status-seeking monkeys. But an important thing to point out here is that the objective of our actions can be disentangled from the way in which their underlying motivations are implemented. We are not utility maximizers as much as we are adaptation executors. Sure we may nominally act in a way that maximizes our inclusive fitness, but the way we do so is by executing adaptations rather than having a “gene copying maximizing brain module” or anything of the sort. More so, that such adaptations result in the maximization of our genetic inclusive fitness is only guaranteed to be the case in our ancestral environment of adaptiveness. The connection between the (largely male-dominated) titan realm temperament and constant warfare is undeniable in communities largely untouched by modern civilization like Yanomami tribes in South America. And I would argue, it also explains inter- and intra-group aggression in modern times. Today in modern society a lot of (most?) groups indeed run on the fumes of the titan realm. And the fact that this causes huge misery inside these groups is only one reason to want to change it. Even more importantly, the titan realm paranoia, attachment to group identity, and its desire to win at all costs are especially dangerous in an era of drones and nuclear weapons. The maintenance of group pride no matter the consequences is threatening the survival of our species. But modern environments can in principle be designed so that this temperament becomes thoroughly maladaptive.
Thankfully, there is a sliver of a chance that we will soon find ways to motivate large groups of people by entirely wholesome energies. How far-fetched is this? Well, research into MDMA is just starting. We are at the foot of a hockey stick figure of “studies per year” of MDMA and related empathogenic/entactogenic drugs and interventions. This research has the potential to bootstrap a new modus operandi for human groups in a way that is sustainable and adaptive at the personal and group level, such that it effectively makes everyone in them happy, wholesome, and productive. If we manage to do this, we may in fact experience a complete overhaul of the old world energies of pride and domination, in lieu of an adaptive sense that “I love the world and the world loves me”.
Featured image: source.