Beyond Fulfilment

Satisfaction, meaning and purpose are not enough

Photo by Vlad Bunu on Unsplash

This post follows directly on from my last piece about Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and what it means to be happy.

OK, so as I was saying….oh great, it’s Doubting Fred. Just when you think you’ve seen the last of someone.

‘This stuff about peak experiences is all very well, but your life can’t all be peaks. At the end of the day we’re physical beings that need to make our way in the world, and that’s why we’re programmed to find satisfaction in achievement and getting ahead. The reason mental health professionals recommend an active, balanced lifestyle is that they’re talking about how to live a happy *life*, not just enjoy a beautiful moment here and there. And even if you could get away with spending your days studying your own trousers instead of interacting with your friends or planning your next book, would you really want to? Isn’t there something noble about effort, struggle and doing important work side by side with your fellow human beings? Surely it’s a little disturbing that the mescalinised Huxley found people, passions and projects equally uninteresting?’

Thanks as ever for your input Fred. You can go away now.

I agree that man does not live by the spirit alone, but also needs bread. Whenever we’re not high on mescalin, we’re suffering meat sacks with material concerns and hardships, and most of our energy goes into preserving our precarious existence on this planet. As such, our linguistic and symbolic frames of reference are built around survival. Survival conditions almost everything we do, express, think about, or can think about. Our emotions reward us for furthering it. We invented logic to get better at it. Our five senses screen out anything that doesn’t serve it.

This ties in with Huxley’s theory about the operation of mescalin, which is that it inhibits the parts of the brain responsible for sorting and interpreting sensory data in pragmatically useful ways — the “doors of perception”. When the doors are thrown open, we’re free to experience things less as they relate to our personal survival and more as they are in themselves. After Huxley plugged himself into what he called ‘Mind at Large’, he saw the world not as something to be manipulated for his own gain, but as something that had infinite value on its own terms. This opened him up to whole realms of beauty that his brain usually filtered out.

According to Huxley’s theory, transcendence isn’t something beyond physical reality, but inherent to it. (Panentheists unite!) The trouble is that navigating this kind of transcendent bliss isn’t one of the problems that language evolved to solve. I’d imagine that the minute you slip into language and logic you’ve diluted the experience, because language is about dividing things up into parts and analysing them, whereas bliss is about taking everything in as an undifferentiated whole. No wonder mystical experiences are impossible to describe. There’s a reason the best yogis don’t talk much.

I think the things-as-they-relate-to-survival vs. things-as-they-are-in-themselves dynamic is the best way of explaining the tripped-out Huxley’s indifference to everything that usually mattered to him. On the transcendent level, nothing’s better or worse than anything else — after all, most value judgements relate to survival (‘poisonous = bad, not poisonous = good’). Individuals aren’t that interesting, not even the ones you’re close to — when everything’s interrelated, no one person or thing has a particular claim on your affections. Art that scales the heights and depths of human passion isn’t that interesting either — passion has to do with the goals and frustrations of the individual, rather than surrendering oneself to what is. And there’s nothing to be achieved because everything is already perfect — so there’s no particular motivation to do anything.

Looks like if our “doors of perception” were always open, civilisation would collapse overnight.

So which form of happiness is better? The bliss that comes from taking the God’s-eye view of the universe, or the hard-earned satisfaction that comes from leading a well-balanced, productive life? We’re into the old conflict between being and doing, Mary and Martha, here. But I think we’re also talking about the difference between a journey and a destination.

For now we’re animals with biological imperatives, and we have to honour those while we’re here. If we do, we’ll be well compensated by our brain’s reward mechanisms, and will get a reasonable amount of fulfilment out of life. The trouble is that these imperatives and rewards are so compelling that it’s easy to forget there’s anything more to existence than pursuing them. That’s what peak experiences — mescalin-induced or otherwise — are for. They’re a foretaste of the perfect rest, the being-and-nothing-but, that we’re all ultimately aiming for. In reminding us how good that state of awareness, that ‘Mind at Large’, is, they keep us on track.

I should also add that the being/doing question isn’t necessarily an either/or. My own experiences of peak states haven’t always been like Huxley’s. Granted, I’ve never taken strong psychedelics and haven’t had any mystical experiences in the sense he has. But I tend to return from my own wanderings around the foothills of Mind at Large with a sense that the mundane survival-oriented concerns of my life are more worthwhile, more exciting, not less.

In other words, my motivation’s increased, not decreased. I’ve often come out of meditation more energised than before, more ready to cheerfully take things on that I’d previously found overwhelming to even think about. So as far as I’m concerned getting the “being” side of things straight is as likely to complement the “doing” side of life as to undermine it: ‘But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’ (Matt. 6:33).

Still, I think the happiness of the journey and the happiness of the destination aren’t the same thing, and shouldn’t be referred to with the same word.

Most of us draw a distinction between the ephemeral pleasure that comes from satisfying our personal desires, and the deeper sense of fulfilment that comes from transcending ourselves somehow: working to better our local community, sacrificing ourselves for a cause, creating a work of art that will outlive us. I’m not an evolutionary biologist, but it seems to me that pleasure often corresponds to things that keep you or your genes going — food, sex and so on — while deeper satisfaction often corresponds to things that maintain the physical and mental health of the species as a whole — giving to charity, providing housing, counselling people, etc.

On the level of self-interest, when things go our way we’re happy, and when they don’t we’re sad. On the interpersonal/species level, when our actions make a difference we’re fulfilled, and when they don’t we’re frustrated. And just as fulfilment is more existentially satisfying and motivating than mere pleasure, frustration cuts deeper than mere sadness. Someone who aims for pleasure and doesn’t get it feels temporarily put out, but someone who wants to make a difference but can’t feels deeply, permanently stuck.

Notice the temporal dimension to this. The species extends beyond the individual in time as well as space, so satisfaction not only reaches deeper than pleasure but lasts longer. Pleasure is necessarily fleeting, whereas fulfilment can sustain you through a lifetime of unpleasant grind.

Here’s the thing, though: the experience Huxley describes in Doors takes place at a level beyond not just pleasure, but fulfilment too. Fulfilment may belong to a higher plane than pleasure, but it still has to do with the ego: we wouldn’t use the term “satisfaction” unless there was something there getting satisfied. If we indulge in pleasure because we want to feel good, we indulge in self-sacrifice because we want to feel good about ourselves.

But mystical encounters have nothing to do with the experiencer’s wants and needs at all. The experiences aren’t even necessarily positive: many of them are downright unpleasant, a phenomenon Huxley discusses at length in Perception’s companion piece Heaven and Hell. The mystic engages with a world that isn’t designed to pleasure or satisfy them, one that exists completely on its own terms. The proper word for the feeling this inspires is awe, something that might involve terror or rapture, but never anything as banal as “happiness” or even “fulfilment”.

‘Is it agreeable?’ someone asks Huxley as he studies a vase of flowers, which reveal to him ‘what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation — the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence’. He replies: ‘Neither agreeable nor disagreeable…it just is.’

Crucially, awe isn’t something you can create in yourself. It has to happen to you. (Huxley quotes the Catholic term “gratuitous grace”.) [1] Wonder, stillness and a profound sense of significance aren’t capable of being produced by the mind — in fact, they tend to push the chattering mind into the background. And they can descend on anyone at any time, even people who couldn’t seem less ready to receive them. The fact that satisfaction has to be earned is what makes it so satisfying. The fact that awe can’t be earned is what makes it awe-inspiring.

Of course, Doubting Fred is right that awe isn’t a state we can exist in all the time — at least not the industrial-strength version of it brought on by heavy psychedelics. But I do think we can exist in a perpetual state of what religious folk used to call “joy”. To me, old-fashioned terms like joy and peace connote a state of being that digs deeper and extends wider than either happiness or fulfilment. And while this state of being may be less overwhelmingly extreme than the awe of a peak experience, for this very reason it’s more compatible with living a useful, meaningful life. [2]

Happiness focuses on what you want and fulfilment focuses on what you do, but joy takes the focus off both your personality and your actions. Pleasure takes care of your own needs, fulfilment takes care of other people’s, but joy doesn’t exist for anyone in particular. If pleasure is about keeping yourself alive and fulfilment is about keeping the species alive, joy is about being alive. There’s nothing to gain, nothing to achieve, nothing to prove. You’re just there, part of an interconnected web of being.

Again, there’s a temporal dimension to this. Pleasure focuses on the short term and fulfilment takes account of the long term, but joy exists outside of time altogether. Pleasure is about living for the moment, but there’s always a sense that the future is breathing down your neck. You know the moment’s going to pass and things are going to get worse again — maybe as a direct result of the fun you’re having now—which introduces a note of desperation to all the thrill-seeking. (This is part of what the Buddha meant when he talked about the inescapability of suffering.) Fulfilment works the other way around: Yes, the present moment sometimes sucks, it says, but it’s all worth it because of the future I’m building for my community. That vision will keep me going through all this hardship.

Like pleasure, joy sets its sights on the here and now. But unlike with pleasure, this is a sort of timeless, eternal present, a single focal point that contains past, present and future within it. Joy isn’t compromised by anxiety about the future, because it knows that by the time “then” arrives it’ll be “now” anyway, so what is there to worry about? So while pleasure essentially uses the present to stave off thoughts of the future, and fulfilment uses thoughts of the future to make the present more bearable, joy doesn’t acknowledge the existence of a linear timeline at all: you just are, moment to moment, and whatever’s in front of you is what’s in front of you. It’s the simplest perspective in the world. And the hardest to actually achieve.

As I said before, I don’t think joy and peace are incompatible with motivation: after all, joyful people don’t get discouraged, and what’s more demotivating than discouragement? The way I think of it is that, just like fulfilment provides a deeper, richer context in which the pleasures of the moment can do their here-and-then-gone thing, joy provides an even deeper, richer foundation that can sustain you even when your work and relationships aren’t particularly fulfilling.

So the ideal life is surely one where all three layers work in tandem: joy powering things from deep down in the core, above that the desire to pursue meaningful goals, and above that a willingness to receive whatever pleasure comes down the pike. But I do think joy, and not purpose, is the foundation. If joy’s focused on serving some useful end, then it isn’t joy. Things that have functions and uses are designed to further our existence. But the reason we exist is to experience joy. It’s utterly pointless because it’s the point of everything.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash


[1] M. Scott Peck also talks about the importance of grace (external, unearned) in The Road Less Traveled. Throw in Jung’s idea of a nonrational “transcendent function” and the fact that Maslow eventually wanted to put self-transcendence above self-actualization at the top of his hierarchy of needs, and it’s clear that Huxley’s ideas don’t fly in the face of all Western psychology. I think all four thinkers would agree that you can’t skip straight to the joys of the “higher” realms of experience without getting the basics right in the lower realms — that is, you can’t be a mystic and a selfish pleasure-fiend at the same time. Ah well, you can dream, eh?

[2] A pattern I’ve noticed with spiritual teachers is that they often start out by experiencing an overwhelming sense of connection with the divine, and may need to withdraw from the world for a while to process the extremity of what they’ve been exposed to. After this heavily concentrated, world-transcending feeling subsides a little, they’re able to “climb down from the mountain” and work with their fellow human beings again. All-encompassing awe, which has no room for the mundane in it, gives way to a quieter sense of peace that embraces everyone and everything around it, the mundane included.



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Wabi Sabi

Wabi Sabi


Writer, composer and filmmaker, into soul music and Chinese philosophy. Editor @ The Small Dark Light