the problem with lifebelts

Practically everyone who lives in the world has something that they hang on to for dear life, their life-belt.

Your life-belt is often a person, or a set of people, on whom you depend to make you feel good. You go there automatically when you need a boost, and you use the boosts to keep you going.

It is as if you are a car without an alternator. Without an alternator, you need a boost from another car to get you going, and then you can drive a little distance, but not very far, before your battery runs low and you need another boost from another car. You have no way of charging your own batteries.

Some people have the sort of lifebelt which is more obvious in society – their lifebelt is a drug to which they are addicted, or alcohol, or something that, when it is there, life feels wonderful and complete, and when it is not available; life becomes difficult to bear. Some people are Workaholics for whom work is their lifebelt.

Yet in a more subtle way, your lifebelt can be your group of friends, or the people at work, or at your school. You unconsciously surround yourself with them. They make you feel good when you talk to them, and when you laugh together; and always when they are with you, their attention and approval gives you the sense that your life has meaning, that you and your life are important.

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As an example of how we can depend on another person and hang onto them for dear life, and of how unhelpful it is, I will tell you how it was with me. For me, my mother was my lifebelt.  I remember being quite shocked when I realised this: always I had believed I loved her more than anyone else, and I thought she was perfect.

At some point in the first few months I was living here, I began to see how difficult it was for me to accept any criticism – rather than taking it as something to learn from, and using it as an occasion to improve, always I would see it as a complete and utter catastrophe, I would become riddled with anxiety, self-loathing and despair (not very useful when I was trying to work on myself and do better.) I realised that all throughout my time of growing up,  I had never learned to correct myself, to accept criticism, or to deal well with my own emotions.

I knew that no matter what happened, no matter what I did, no matter how bad I felt, I knew that my mother would be there to reassure me, and that she would tell me I was good, that she would make me feel loved and lovable. Whenever I suffered from insecurity, guilt or a sense of unworthiness, she would bring me up.

The problem with this kind of relationship is that my mother did not tell me the truth about myself,  nor did she help me correct myself. She just made me feel better when I was with her, recharging my batteries in the short term.

I realised that in giving me always this easy access to love and attention, she had helped me to cheat myself into the belief that all the wrong which even I saw in myself was not there, or not a problem. Getting a quick boost from my life-belt was much easier than doing the work of correcting myself, but finally I kept on repeating the same mistakes, and I kept being dependent on her.

Having believed all my life that I loved her more than anyone else, it was quite disturbing to see that what I felt for her was not really love: I simply liked how she would always make me feel – loved, important, good. I loved not her, but what I got from her. My ‘love’ was finally just a kind of selfishness. She was my lifebelt and I needed her.

There is this story about a beggar living nearby the sea. The beggar squats on the side of the road and waits for the fisherman to come back from fishing, and every day he reaches out his hand, and sometimes the fisherman tosses a fish to him. And so the beggar is fed, but never learns to fish for himself, and if one day the fisherman does not come, he is left miserable and hungry. So I saw that I was like this beggar.

One day you are sure to lose your lifebelt, whatever it is. This event is as unpreventable as death, as inevitable as the flow of a river towards the sea.

Then when this happens, life will become intolerable, because you will be suddenly faced with all the problems that you were avoiding, all the time you were hanging on to your lifebelt. All those things that you avoided don’t go away, they stack up over the years, and what will you do when suddenly you are left alone with all of them at once, and have to face them all alone?

Now you will drown in the ocean because you never learned how to swim.

All the time I was using my mother as a lifebelt, I never learned how to properly deal with my insecurity, my fear, my self-doubt. What will I do when she is not there any more?

This is why you need to be an island to yourself, to work on yourself constantly, to face yourself, to correct what is wrong inside yourself. Eventually when you really learn to do this, you will need no more boosts of confidence or reassurance from outside. It is like learning how to fish for yourself, building a good alternator for your car, or learning how to swim in the ocean. This for me is the main work of meditation.

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