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The Anxiety of Inner Lack

We feel compelled to matter. This isn’t something we ‘learn’. Nor is it something we can ‘turn off’. Having the desire to matter in the world, to others—to have an existence that means something, as a ‘real’ thing whose will/presence has some weight—is a given.


What the self finds most troubling is that its reality—i.e., the extent to which it ‘matters’ and its existence/will has some weight—depends on the recognition of other people. To ‘matter’ in the real world means mattering to other people, and this means that the extent to which the self ‘matters’ depends on others and not on itself. It could never be ‘self-sufficient’ or ‘self-existing’; it could never establish its own substance, and it cannot control who/what others choose to recognize. Its experience of its own sense of self rests on something it doesn’t possess.


And so it attempts to attain what it has learned will add some weight/reality to its own existence (e.g., fame, money, status, power, etc.). The self, in other words, uses these things to command others to acknowledge the weight of its existence. And the more it feels compelled to ‘matter’—that is, the more it needs the recognition of others—the more others become a tool for or a threat to its own mattering.



But the self cannot solve this problem by acquiring things that demand recognition because no amount of recognition will be enough to solve the problem. The self’s anxiety of inner lack is not caused by inner lack itself, but rather by the self’s craving for self-existence, by its craving to be self-existing—to be something/someone that doesn’t depend on forces beyond its control, including others and their will—by its refusal to tolerate its own (permanent and non-optional) lack of self-existence.


Instead of being able to sit with the dis-ease at its core, it runs from itself as it looks to make itself matter more, become ‘more real’. As a result of this running from itself, it continues to deal with the suffering that accompanies its continued failure at filling itself up in/through the world. It becomes overprotective of itself, avoiding whatever reminds it of its vulnerabilities—people, places, situations, feelings, thoughts. It, in other words, becomes mired in self-preoccupation, trying to solidify its own ground, to accumulate a sense of wholeness for itself in order to eliminate the precariousness of its own existence.


 

Related Posts:

Prakṛti & Puruṣa: Phenomenological Reflections further discusses our (inextricably “entangled”) existential situation, and Self-Awareness & Other People focuses specifically on how we are inextricably entangled with other people. Yoga & The Meaning of (Your) Life discusses what it a “meaningful” life might look like from a yogic perspective. The Yoga of Yoga discusses yoga’s general solution to this problem.

Further Reading:

For those looking to further explore the theme of “ontological security” (i.e., our desire to feel more “real”), see R.D. Liang’s 1960 classic, The Divided Self. For more on this theme in the context of Yoga, see the work of philosopher and Zen teacher, David R. Loy. His book, Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution (2008, Wisdom Publications) is an excellent introduction to both Loy’s thinking and Yoga in general.

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