Finding Freedom: An Exploration of Growth, Meaning, and the Mind
Order and Chaos
My favorite quote is “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”. It resonates with me, and it has for most of the people I have shared it with. I think this is because it speaks to a fundamental truth about human nature. Humans are a bundle of massive psychic energy. When turned inward on itself, or torn between too many options, the energy without direction can be experienced as anxiety. Imagine an introspective spiral of worry, or that feeling when you are overwhelmed with options and cannot make a decision. That same energy, when turned outward, when focused on one thing, can also result in great experiences. It could be the creation of art, a feeling of awe at the wonder of the universe, the implementation of tangible change in the world, or any of a trillion things that human consciousness can accomplish.
What determines which pathway this energy will take? What motivates us to do anything? What causes us to take on the personality and behaviors that develop throughout our lifetime? The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker is a fascinating Pulitzer-prize winning book on psychophilosphy that discusses the psychoanalytic view of human development at length. The thesis of the book is that being alive is overwhelming, no part more so than the fact that we will eventually die. To adapt, we naturally develop ways to change the chaos and terror of existence into order and sanity. While growing up the world is an overwhelming onslaught of experience. There is light, sound, temperature, language, interactions with giant creatures called parents, and sensations coming from our ever-changing body that we cannot understand. These are all new and unique experiences, completely without context, and this experience is overwhelming and traumatic. For the psyche to cope, we develop personality. Personality is the sum of the defense mechanisms, habits, and interpretations of the world which are all utilized to make this traumatic and overwhelming experience more bearable. This process is chaos (the unknown, the dangerous) turning into order (the known, the safe). It is impossible for humans to solely experience the world in its raw form; with no filter, no defense mechanisms, no heuristics or mental shortcuts that help us ascribe some form of order to the massive sensory onslaught. The closest thought experiment I can fabricate for such an experience would be taking a very large dose of a psychedelic drug, which works in part by shutting down the sensory filters in our brain, and never coming down. Such a state would be incompatible with survival, and nearly synonymous with insanity. The outside world has to be tempered, ordered, and simplified so as to be compatible with life. As Becker says, “The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”¹
The way the formative interactions between the child and the environment play out will have great impact on the course of the child’s development from then on. Each interaction with chaos is shaping the mental patterns and defense mechanisms that will help create order. How the shape of the mind is formed will be a synthesis of genetic predisposition and environmental interaction throughout the lifespan, but will be most important in the first years of life. It is in these years that the majority of novel experiences will happen, and the patterns formed during this time will be solidified for years to come. This dynamic, this interaction of the unfiltered mind with the complexity of the world, is the original and most basic example of chaos into order.
Clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson writes extensively on the concepts of order and chaos: “So what mediates between the domains of order and chaos? Consciousness, as far as I can tell. It’s the hero, that’s one way of thinking about it”². According to Peterson it is consciousness that allows this transformation of chaos to order to occur. However, I think he has a different definition of consciousness than I do. By my definition, consciousness is awareness. If a creature is conscious, it means that it is like something to be that creature, to use philosopher Thomas Nagel’s definition.³ A dog is not a human, but there is probably something it is like to be a dog. I could describe the different colors, sounds, smells, and sensations that they might feel, and we can imagine some idea of what it would be like to be a dog. It is likely that the dog has awareness, consciousness, that allows it to experience the world. This is opposed to a rock, where I can try to imagine being a rock and all I can imagine is nothingness. By this definition, the rock is almost certainly not conscious. To me, this definition of consciousness is very different from a term that is often used synonymously: the self.
The Illusion of the Self
The self is a construct of the mind that we take for granted as a fact of reality. The self is actually just another defense mechanism that arises in the necessary process of simplifying the chaos of the world. The self is an adaptation that is useful. It is a constructed narrative of continuity for the body that is housing a consciousness. It is the thought pattern that lets you use the words “I” and “Me” and separate experience from “You” and “Them”. It is an anchor for us to understand experiences and how they affect our body and mind. Without the construct of the self your consciousness would see thoughts arising and would not be able to string them together into anything useful. They would have no reference point. Thoughts would just float across your mind and disappear. Feelings of hunger and pain would lack ownership, merely transitory notifications from various stimuli feeding into the brain.
The self creates a narrative of control and ownership between consciousness and the body. It gives us an I for us to plan for and protect the interests of. It mediates our attachment to our physical body and mind, and engenders the desire to perpetuate our “self”. The self survives, in a sense, via producing progeny and spreading our genes, establishing a legacy so our name can live on after we die. The self is the first adaptation of the mind to chaos, the first order to arise.
The self is useful, but it is an illusion. It is just a feedback loop of stimuli being observed and needing something to relate to. Stimuli need something to give them context and order, and this need creates this self. This self is an adaptation that we often view as inherent but is really just the strongest and most ingrained of our mental defense mechanisms. The self, or ego, is then able to mediate between order and chaos, which I believe is what Peterson means when he uses the term “consciousness”.
To recap: Consciousness is awareness. You are conscious because you are experiencing anything at all. The self is a construct, an illusion. It is a perspective that shapes the way you see the world. It creates a focal point, a sense of “I” that lets you relate to the events going on around you. Without it, you would be unable to make any sense of the chaotic world outside. The self is an adaptive mechanism that helps you turn chaos into order.
The self, aka the ego, is fragile. Our personality is largely composed of ego-defense mechanisms, to use Freud’s terminology, because this self, this creator of order from chaos, cannot function wholly in chaos. The self will find ways of creating order that can be beneficial, neutral, or harmful to us. Each of these defense mechanisms is meant to protect us from the chaos and insanity, to help us survive in the world. The mechanisms are not meant to make us happy, or to make us better people, or to help us treat others with respect and compassion. It is important to appreciate the disconnect between our historical ultimate goal –survival– and the numerous values we hold now. This helps us to understand the wide range of human behaviors that are often counterproductive to our stated values. We are still being directed by evolutionary forces; by the primary goal of preservation and perpetuating the self.
Peterson elaborates on the role of the self (what he calls consciousness) by borrowing from psychologist Carl Jung to describe archetypes. Archetypes are recurring symbols or motifs that appear throughout human history. Most notably he describes the archetype of the Hero, and ties it in with the discussion of order and chaos. The Hero is the individual who has one foot in Order and one in Chaos, one foot in the known and one in the unknown. The hero is able to adventure out into the unknown (chaos) in order to take back something new or valuable for himself and his community (order). The Hero is directly analogous to the role of the self in converted chaos into order. It is argued that the Hero is an archetype because the necessity of having a balance between order and chaos is a fundamental part of human nature. This is very important, and I will return to this idea soon. But first, let’s relate it back to fundamental human experience: the interplay between chaos and order within one consciousness. I think this intimately relates to the concept of freedom, and to the role that has been suggested for meditation to free one’s mind.
The Role of Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is the practice of simply sitting with the contents of consciousness and experiencing them without judgement. Focusing on your breathing, the sounds in the room, the sensations of pressure in your legs, etc. Noticing when a thought comes into your mind, and watching that thought go away. In doing this, simply paying attention, you cultivate the ability to be in the moment. Studies have shown that people are happiest when they are focused on what they are doing. When they are mindful, present. Even when people are doing something they hate, they will report they are less miserable if they are being mindful while doing it. For some reason, being in the moment is a positive experience, and meditation is a practice that helps one cultivate that ability. In addition to this valuable benefit, it has a unique role in allowing us to travel farther into the realm of chaos. By sitting with things the way they are, you are accepting the chaotic reality without trying to simplify it. Remember, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom. Freedom is another way of describing chaos. They are both similar experiences of the dissolution of order, like when you are overwhelmed with sensation, or facing a multitude of choices. However, our perception of chaos colors whether the experience will have a positive connotation (freedom) or a negative one (anxiety). Meditation is a way of inoculating us to the “dizziness” of freedom, allowing us to bypass the perception of anxiety that often comes when experiencing chaos.
Mindfulness meditation is largely a practice of observing stimuli dispassionately and accepting that they are impermanent. The key concept is that attachment is the root of all suffering. If you are attached to a certain state of consciousness, you will suffer when that state changes. Since everything is impermanent, suffering is nearly unavoidable. However, by not attaching the labels of negative or positive to stimuli –thoughts, sounds, emotions, sensations– but instead merely observing them, you inoculate yourself from the automatic responses (suffering, anxiety) that will activate when those experiences change. You experience freedom instead of chaos. You become able to go with the flow of experience instead of being stuck in one place, experiencing the blur of impermanence as dizzying chaos.
Imagine yourself floating in the ocean. When you are free, not attached to anything, not trying to stay the same in an ever-changing world, then you are able to rise up with the waves and come back down. You flow with the forces around you instead of being battered by them. In contrast, if you are anchored to one place, fixed and immovable, that wave will crash right over you, overwhelming and terrifying.
The feeling of being anchored instead of flowing is the experience of feeling like a “self” that we discussed earlier.
Remember, consciousness is just awareness; neutral, the mystery of being alive. The self is the adaptation that helps us survive, a thought pattern that tells us we are the same person day after day even though our interests, body, thoughts, and experiences are all changing. In reality, we are not a product but a perpetual chemical reaction. Our body and mind are interacting with the environment and changing every second. You ingest and expel food and bacteria, you shed skin cells and sweat, you listen to the ideas of others, you spread your own ideas to the people around you. Physically and mentally, you are part of a vast interaction with everything else. The separation we feel from the rest of the world is largely arbitrary. It is just another adaptation to help us survive in a complicated world.
If you sit down with your eyes closed and search your mind for the area with a little guy in the control box telling you what to think and do, AKA the self, you cannot find it. All you will see are the contents of consciousness, whatever sounds, sensations, and thoughts happen to be coming through. Again, this loss of control is chaos, which can be felt as anxiety or freedom, depending on your mindset. The anxiety makes sense: if you don’t know what configuration “you” will be in tomorrow, you cannot make decisions, plan for the future, or understand how anything relates to “you”. The self converts this chaos into order. It creates a focal point for us to interpret the world around, and it tells us (dishonestly) that we are the same person day after day. This is a very useful adaptation, but it has serious flaws. The self is fragile, and fears Chaos. It preaches permanence in a world that is nothing but impermanence. When the world is viewed through the lens of having a self, we feel the need to anchor everything we see to how it relates to us. That anchoring is attachment, and is the opposite of being able to go with the flow. Not only does this cause us suffering, but it forces us to adapt to try to escape this suffering and chaos. When experiences overwhelm us, when the world outside becomes too chaotic, we need some way to form it into order. The self does this by creating ego-defense mechanisms.
As discussed above, basically all personality, habits, heuristics, and routines are really defense mechanisms. These defense mechanisms have the purpose of protecting us by shaping the chaotic world into a more ordered one, but they do this at a cost. They are inherently simplifying the world, which means there is a loss of data. When a simplifying defense mechanism is being used, you are not seeing the world clearly. For example, social interactions are one of the most complex and possibly dangerous and unpredictable experiences we can have. You see a stranger walking toward you on a street, and the reality of the situation is that you know nothing about them. They are absolute chaos to your otherwise ordered world. In come a multitude of defense mechanisms to rescue you: stereotypes about the person’s gender and race, associations you have with the clothes they are wearing, their level of beauty, etc. Most of these defenses will be occurring unconsciously, instantly, and will inform your experience of whether you feel safe or frightened. While the evolutionary purpose of this is clear, to try to inform your actions and keep you safe, the problem arises because we mistake our perceptions for reality. The sum of our associations and biases will evoke a verdict that we will use because it provides order. It makes us feel comfortable interacting with the other person and the rest of the world, and it gives us an illusion of knowledge and control. The reality, in that case and every other, is that the person walking toward you is a complex human being, just as complicated and multifaceted as you. They are an absolute mystery to you.
Again, the problem with these simplifications is that we are apt to mistake them for reality. Not only do these defenses obscure reality, but in many ways, they are completely maladaptive to anyone who wants to be happy, or form meaningful relationships with other people. Think about how these defenses form: at any point in your life (but mostly in your childhood) a stressful situation occurs and your “self” feels overwhelmed and creates a new pathway. In response to anxiety, the self forms a habit, a mental routine or simplification, that mitigates that anxiety. It gives an escape from having to make a tough decision, do something uncomfortable, or accept a difficult truth. Clearly the products of this process are not always going to be healthy and useful. Many adaptations that provide us with order due so at the cost of imagining other people complexly, of accurately appreciating the complexity of situations, of reality. Many shortcuts lead us to places of selfishness and fear, because at their root these are evolutionary adaptations. Evolution only cares about reproducing the genome, and nothing else.
Think of the experience of a pathological liar. As a child they only knew to tell the truth. Sometimes, telling the truth leads to negative consequences from parents: punishment, guilt, and shame. To avoid these negative outcomes, a new neural pathway lit up: lying. We are just psychic energy flowing through pathways. Once the pathway for lying became available, this child helplessly flowed through it. How would they not? They are faced with the immediate consequences of the disappointment and potential wrath of their parents. If this child had abusive parents, lying might actually be an indispensable survival mechanism. Once this child lies and successfully avoids the negative consequences they feared, that pathway is reinforced. When a pathway is formed at such a young age, and is reinforced over and over, it can become entrenched deeply into one’s personality.
The problem is clear: the world is chaotic, but we have an adaptation called the Self that makes us view it as ordered, and it does so through a multitude of defense mechanisms that we normally do not even realize we are using. This seems like a bleak and deterministic outlook, but it is the way our minds work. So, what can we do about it?
Meditation is one method of freeing us from the traps of these automatic processes. Meditation allows us to experience the world with less attachment, with less positive or negative associations broadcast onto the raw data coming through our five senses. This allows us to experience freedom instead of anxiety. When there is no anxiety to activate our defense mechanisms, we can see through and unravel those defenses, and the other norms we use to shield ourselves from the complex and overwhelming nature of the real world. We can experience that raw chaos more fully, with less of a filter obscuring reality. We see things closer to the way they are, within the limits of our adapted senses. Seeing reality can be both terrifying and exhilarating. I see it like this:
Chaos = freedom = anxiety or euphoria
Order = imprisonment = habit, ritual, norms, personality traits, defense mechanisms
Meditation is a method for uprooting the trappings of order. The patterns of thinking, habits, personality traits and defense mechanisms that are automatically triggered by stimuli. Meditation utilizes attention and nonattachment to make you aware of when automatic patterns are activating and avoid them. To refrain from confusing a simplifying heuristic with reality. It lets you deconstruct the barriers that have been built since childhood between you and the chaotic world outside; to journey without anxiety deeper in to the world of chaos. It is a pathway to freedom, to choosing how you want to respond instead of automatically reacting.
Now there will always be certain layers to this that cannot be dissolved except in certain peak experiences; times in which consciousness is in a radically different state than normal. Comprehending reality fully is incompatible with life. You will always need heuristics to reduce the cognitive load to a manageable level so you can interact with the environment. You will always need the unconscious to form light, color, and shapes into objects. You need the ideas of objects to keep you from having to build up the concept of a table from scratch every time you see it. You eventually need concepts like family and society and enemy to keep you from being paralyzed with indecision when faced with the complexity of human interaction. You need some order imposed, or else the chaos is overwhelming. However, the role of meditation is letting you move farther into the chaos, to see things the way they are, and to break down unhelpful patterns within the mind. To fix bugs in the system. To stop using adaptations that were useful in the past but are now harmful.
Think back to the Hero archetype: in one way, meditation is a weapon for the hero to wield. With meditation, the hero is able to venture further into the unknown, into chaos. The hero travels to states of consciousness that are more chaotic, and in doing so he brings lessons and insight back to the more ordered, resting state of consciousness. That is the ability to venture outside of your defense mechanisms and eventually unravel them. That is growth, the path toward seeing the world clearly.
In another way, meditation is the process of dissolving the construct of the hero; the concept of the self. With no self to create the arbitrary distinctions of what is ordered and what is chaos, there is no conflict. The hero does not need to go on a dangerous journey to find lessons and insight, they are simply there to be discovered. This is an even better way to describe growth, and possibly the closest we can get to seeing the world the way it really is.
The Necessity of Growth
When describing this concept of growth –of striking the balance between order and chaos– Peterson uses the term meaningful. I want to plant a flag on that use of the word meaningful. I think Peterson is providing a great description of flow states, which fits into a larger definition of meaning that I will introduce soon. For now, let it suffice that we are hardwired to enjoy flow states because they are the mechanism of growth and improvement which our brain craves.
Peterson explains: “It’s this harmonious balancing of multiple layers of Being simultaneously, and that’s a Darwinian reality, I would say. Your brain is actually attuned to tell you when you are doing that. And the way it tells you is that it reveals that what you’re doing is meaningful. That’s the sign. Your nervous system is adapted to do this. It’s adapted to exist on the edge between order and chaos. Chaos is where things are so complex that you can’t handle it, and order is where things are so rigid that it’s too restrictive. In between that, there’s a place. It’s a place that’s meaningful. It’s where you’re partly stabilized, and partly curious. You’re operating in a manner that increases your scope of knowledge, so you’re inquiring and growing, and at the same time you’re stabilizing and renewing you, your family, society, nature; now, next week, next month, and next year. When you have an intimation of meaning, then you know you’re there.”²
Evolution has shaped our brain to crave growth, to tell us when we are at the right balance of order and chaos. Why does this matter? Because it helps to answer a big question that comes up when someone is exploring meditation: If meditation teaches us that every moment can be accepted and pleasant under any circumstances, where is the purpose? What drives me to do anything?
The answer is that our minds are hardwired for growth, and just like we have to succumb to the urges of hunger, thirst, and sleep, we also have to recognize this requirement for growth when we are figuring out how to structure our lives. It may be true that deep meditative practice over many years could detach someone from stimuli so completely that they are freed even from the most basic of human urges. Someone could be mindful enough to see every single impulse and stimulus coming from the body as a neutral, impermanent, and inconsequential occurrence. However, that is not even close to the experience the vast majority of the population will ever have, and even someone in that state would succumb to their physiology eventually. Consciousness is stuck in this meat suit, and it has to live there with the Self, with the urges of the human body, with the neurologic hardwiring of evolution. We have to work with what we have.
The human mind needs growth, a balance between order and chaos. Sometimes we can identify that type of experience by flow states, as Peterson explained in the quote above. Flow describes when you are secure enough with what you know (order) but you are at the frontier of your abilities and having to be creative and adapt to keep up (chaos). Flow is often used in the context of professions, like when a writer is inspired while working and does not realize three hours have passed, or when an athlete is “in the zone”. I think this flow state is also there in many mundane, positive experiences. When exploring a new city, skydiving, reading a new book, learning a new skill that you have a knack for, struggling with a new idea. These are all examples of growth, even if the activities don’t necessarily connect with what we often think of as “personal growth”. This is because we have to introduce the idea of novelty into the equation.
Our mind is craving a balance between order and chaos, and novelty is chaos. A new experience, whether it be going to a new city or trying to learn guitar, is mysterious and unknown and lights up the brain in a new way. The mind does not have a single preconceived notion of personal growth that you have to fulfill, you just have to be outside of order enough for your mind to recognize it. Novelty is another form of growth; it is the hero venturing into the unknown, gaining knowledge and improving. You will have a hard time finding peace and happiness if you ignore your natural requirements for food, water, and sleep. You will also fail if you ignore the requirement for growth.
To take this concept back to the psychoanalytic level, growth is challenging your intuition. Like I described in my essay on reason, intuition is the structure that your mind is currently in. When you follow an intuition, you are saying “this makes sense to my mind, this fits”. When you experience something new, you are giving the mind new data, new inputs, and letting the processes of reason incorporate this data into a new intuition, a new resting state. This is changing the structure of your mind.
Meditation works in a similar way as a mechanism for growth. If you break down the entrenched patterns of your mind –the defense mechanisms that make you avoid hard truths and discomfort and simplify the world into a more ordered state– you begin to see the world more clearly. Your mind suddenly has more data, and that data is less tainted by your expectations, biases and simplifications. Logic incorporates that data into your worldview and your intuition has changed.
You could also call this process the formation of a new self, yet another way of exposing the illusory nature of the construct of a stable self.
The Search for Meaning
Growth gives us purpose. Growth allows us to see the world more clearly and become more effective at whatever it is you want to do. But what is it you want to do? We are close, but we are still missing one important component of the human experience: meaning. We all need a framework of meaning in our lives. Something that guides our actions and informs our morality. I don’t think there is some universal answer to the question of meaning. But with the facts of our reality right now, we can figure out what is meaningful through reason. Personally, after quite a long search, I have found reducing the suffering of conscious beings to be a rock-steady foundation for meaning that cannot lead me wrong. Neuroscientist Sam Harris describes the position like this:
“I am claiming that consciousness is the only context in which we can talk about morality and human values. Why is consciousness not an arbitrary starting point? Well, what’s the alternative? Just imagine someone coming forward claiming to have some other source of value that has nothing to do with the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. Whatever this is, it must be something that cannot affect the experience of anything in the universe, in this life or in any other. If you put this imagined source of value in a box, I think what you would have in that box would be — by definition — the least interesting thing in the universe.”4
My anchor to meaning is the idea that it is valuable to decrease the suffering of conscious creatures. Put another way, it is valuable to promote their flourishing. That means decreasing my own suffering, and the suffering of any other consciousness. It is simple, but it holds up to scrutiny and informs action in every area of interaction with conscious beings. Nihilism would have us discount the reality of consciousness; of awareness. That is illogical, because our own consciousness is the only thing that each of us can actually be certain of. Even if all of this is a simulation, and everyone else is merely an illusion, I am still experiencing something within that simulation. My experience is a reality. The fact that I care if my conscious experience is more positive than negative makes that distinction meaningful.
This interpretation of meaning is not axiomatic. It is conditional on the state of the universe at this time. Thousands of years in the future, maybe suffering will be transcended and we will have to find a new source of meaning. Additionally, it is a pragmatic and subjective view of meaning. There can be no objective meaning. In this framework, objective meaning would mean that whatever action actually reduces suffering is meaningful. How could we determine if an action reduced suffering? We would have to see far into the future, when the last conscious organism dies. We would have to look at an action and determine how it changed the lives of every conscious being throughout the rest of time. Then we would have to calculate whether an action caused less suffering on average than if the action had not been performed. If it did, it would be objectively meaningful.
That process is implausible and has absolutely no bearing on the lives of anyone living right now. For all intents and purposes, objectively reducing suffering is an irrelevant concept. That is why I instead argue for the pragmatic, practical view of meaning. That which subjectively feels like it reduces suffering is meaningful. If you console a crying child after they fall on the playground, it sure seems like you reduced suffering in the world. Maybe that single action will lead to the deaths of millions sometime in the distant future. There is no way for us to know that, and so it is illogical to consider. Again, we have to work within our constraints. This is why I heavily emphasize the importance of seeing the world clearly. We are not able to see how our actions affect the world many years from now, but if we are paying attention and using the process of reason, we can predict with good certainty how our actions will affect the world today, tomorrow, or even next year. If we can see the world in its complexity –without blinding ourselves with false order– we can make the world a better place. We can reduce suffering.
While this definition of meaning is not permanent, there is enough suffering in the world and in each of us that it works for now. This view of meaning synergizes with the concept of flow states discussed earlier. A flow state, when you are totally in the moment, is reducing your own suffering. There is no self, no avoidance, no attachment. You are experiencing and doing naturally; you are flowing. Your brain is rewarding you for satisfying its evolutionary need, and you are free from the burden of the ego, that primary source of suffering. A flow state is inherently meaningful. Reducing your own suffering is part of a healthy balance that lets you reduce the suffering of others. Whether you realize it or not, when you suffer, you spread that to other people. Whether that is just people who care about you and have empathy for your pain, or in the way suffering predisposes you to be selfish and reactionary. We are all interconnected, so while it may seem selfish to spend energy working on yourself, it is an imperative part of the formula for helping others.
Let us tie it all together now. We need to grow because 1. Growth is a physiological requirement and 2. So we can better reduce suffering in ourselves and others. Meditation helps us by breaking down the layers of the psyche that have been built up involuntarily since we were born, allowing us to see the world more clearly. That will help us decrease the suffering of others, and of ourselves. Many of the unconscious adaptations we are burdened with cause immense suffering. The self and all of its defenses are actually the main, possibly the only source of suffering for conscious beings. We suffer when we want the world to be different than it is. We are at peace when we let the world be as it is. Evolution has hardwired our brain to promote behaviors that make us likely to survive and pass on our genes, the only activities the process of evolution is able to select for. This process does not care about happiness or fulfillment.
Meditation is a way to transcend these internal constraints, to break down the adaptive layers of the psyche. To see these patterns objectively without the compulsion to act on them. When you break down these cognitive traps like anxiety and self-consciousness, you are freeing up energy to spend in other ways. You can decrease your own suffering, or decrease the suffering of others. Mindfulness meditation is an incredibly simple process, merely paying attention, that actually checks off all of our goals for reducing suffering. Additionally, it uniquely answers our innate requirement of growth as well. Trying to be more mindful is a lifelong goal, a practice, a skill that I do not believe can feasibly be mastered within a lifetime. Yet, it is something that can continually be improved at a reasonably steady rate.
I am not trying to say I have all the answers, just that the way I see the world at this point in time, one path to living a happy and meaningful life seems relatively clear. Purpose found in perpetual self-growth, perhaps best attained through a practice of meditation and a lifestyle that values novel experiences. Meaning found in the goal to reduce suffering. What could be more fulfilling?
¹Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press, 1973. Print.
³Nagel, Thomas. What is it like to be a bat? _Philosophical Review_ 83 (October):435–50. 1974.
⁴Harris, Sam. Thinking about Good and Evil. https://samharris.org/thinking-about-go/